I faciliated a Day Silent Retreat this weekend which was really a lovely gentle experience. It passed so quickly and all participants expressed a deep contentment with the day and the time they had spent silently sitting or walking. It really confirmed for me how finding some time for quiet in our lives is not a luxury but rather is essential for protecting our health.
Retreat days and reflection aims to develop our capacity to drop into our lives as they actually are. However, sometimes, they can feed into our ever-present need to change or fix ourselves. If this happens, our awareness of self can become a full-time preoccupation and take away some of the naturalness of life. It is good that we try to change in ways that allow us become more healthy and happy, but sometimes we can feel pressure to change because of an unconscious sense that we are not good enough or we are unacceptable as we are. Some of the self-help culture visible today feeds into this unhappiness with how we actually are, by continually encouraging us to take on one self-improvement after another. And even noble self-improvement projects, such as “I want to be more calm“, or “I want to be more happy“, can simply substitute one type of discontent with ourselves with another. The reason they do this is that they actually strengthen our premise that we are broken and need fixing.
Even sometimes the reason we come to meditation is precisely because we want to change something inside us. We wish to be calmer, better, more spiritual, more together, more integrated. And if we examine deep enough under that wish we will find that it arisies from a belief that there is something wrong with us as we are. We look to put order on the parts of ourselves that frighten us.
But real life is not necessarily ordered; it is immediate, messy, incomplete. We are in danger of taking things too seriously and not allowing enough room for our chaotic and playful side. Part of the joy and spice of life comes from seeing that our mistakes and wrong turns, our compulsions to do too much, or our tendency to veg out, all add up to our unique personality. The end goal of all our work is not to become some ideal version of ourselves, based on ideas passed on by others or in books. We are to become ourselves fully, with all our quirks and exaggerations. Our natural selves, unaffected; not the one where we pass the time continually checking in on how are doing.
The only way out of this struggle is to leave our mind alone, to fully accept the mind that we have, anger, dualisms and all. And when we no longer judge ourselves or try to emotionally neuter ourselves, the internal conflicts and tensions gradually begin to quiet down. We might say this is the most basic psychological insight: I cannot escape myself, so I have to come to terms with the mind that I have.
Barry Magid, Ending the Pursuit of Happiness