In human life, if you feel that you have made a mistake, you don’t try to undo the past or the present, but you just accept where you are and work from there. Tremendous openness as to where you are is necessary. This also applies to the practice of meditation, for instance. A person should learn to meditate on the spot, in the given moment, rather than thinking, “. . . When I reach pension age, I’m going to retire and receive a pension, and I’m going to build my house in Hawaii or the middle of India, or maybe the Gobi Desert, and THEN I’m going to enjoy myself. I’ll live a life of solitude and then I’ll really meditate.” Things never happen that way.
—Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Transcending Madness
As a dharma practitioner with a career as well as commitments to care for others, I felt for years that there was seldom time to do solitary retreat. This was something that was continuously on my short list of the most important things to do. Frustrated, I became determined to find a way. Then, when I lived at Gampo Abbey, a Shambhala Buddhist monastery in Nova Scotia, I experienced both practice and work within the same day, every day. This was our way of life there. So here was an answer! I don’t have to wait until life gets quiet, or until I’m retired with nothing else to do. Nor do I have to become a nun before I start doing retreat. That’s how I began doing “working retreats,” and I decided to share the idea with my sangha in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Word got out to other sangha friends in other places, and one friend who is a journalist said that I needed to share this more widely. So here it is.
My hope is that this way of doing retreat will take the resistance out of establishing a retreat habit for those who thirst to do retreat but can’t seem to find the time. The working retreat is not intended to take the place of solitary retreat. It is simply a way to overcome your hesitation to do retreat because you have a job, a business, or other ongoing responsibilities to attend to.
One key to a successful retreat is setting your intentions. If your intentions are clear and focused, the work that you do while on your retreat will become another aspect of your meditation rather than a distraction. When doing a week or more of this type of retreat, try to plan that you have two days off from work, just like in the real world. That way you will end up with two full days of solitary retreat per week.
The Buddha taught us to bring patience, generosity, and kindness into everything that we do. Observing such virtues during your work period will strengthen good habits and character, whether you are on or off the cushion, in or out of retreat. Setting our intention to do “retreat” creates a mindset of awareness and purpose in our daily activities and eliminates our daily excuses for why we can’t practice, showing us a way to a more settled mind as we go through our daily routines.
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