The Agony Of Sitting Around Doing Nothing
Robert Wright has once again gone off on a week-long Buddhist silent meditation retreat, and scheduled this post to go up before he left. Excerpt:
Since that first retreat, in 2003, I’ve been on two more, not counting this latest one. And the pattern is fairly general: Tough first few days, followed by something much better–and, at its best, much, much, much better.
If you’re curious about what I mean by “better,” you can read the account that the passage above is taken from. But, as I re-read that account now, it strikes me as not doing a great job of capturing why a meditation retreat can be worth the early days of frustration.
I mean, the warm, fuzzy feelings I describe in that account are genuine–they were definitely part of the payoff. What I failed to convey is the sense in which these feelings, though warm and fuzzy, are the product of a sharp, even cold, clarity; I failed to really explain why there’s such good reason to believe that the state of consciousness a meditation retreat can induce, though off-kilter by comparison with what we think of as normal consciousness, may actually bring a more trenchant, truthful apprehension of the world than normal consciousness affords.
I’ve never been on a retreat like this, though they do exist in the Christian tradition. Reading Bob’s piece brought to mind a conversation I had the other day with my confessor. As you may recall, we are about to start an Orthodox mission church here in town — first services will be Russian Nativity, on Jan. 7 — and that means getting to know a new priest. I was telling Fr. Matthew the other day how much I struggle with contemplative prayer. My mind is always, always racing. I told him (as I have said on this blog many times) that my common fault in the spiritual life is believing that I will grow closer to God by reading the right books. Though spiritual reading is important, one also grows closer to God by action, and, even more important, there is prayer.
This is where I struggle. Here is my contemplative prayer life, in a nutshell. In the past, when I’ve been able to overcome my own “Squirrel!” tendencies, and give myself over to the meditative Jesus Prayer, I have made serious spiritual progress. I find the presence of God far easier to discern. I find talking to Him throughout the day more natural and fluid. And I find that I am a calmer person. But this is hard for me to maintain, because it goes against my natural tendencies.
I used to think I was spiritually lazy, but I don’t think that’s it at all. I think about the life of the spirit, and spiritual topics, often. What it is, rather, is a lack of discipline, and an inability to rein in my mind and to focus. Bob Wright writes, of his silent retreat:
You’d be surprised how unpleasant sitting around doing nothing can be.
I get that. Boy, do I get that. I hate being alone with my thoughts. But as Bob notes in an earlier post about the retreat, to have your mind freed from attachment and distraction is not something easily won, but it is invaluable. Of course what someone going on a Buddhist retreat is after is something different from what a contemplative, meditative Christian is after. But not so different. I hope Bob will go on a silent retreat at a Catholic or an Orthodox monastery, and write about the comparative experience.
Anyway, I know from my own experience that expecting to become spiritually deeper and to achieve greater union with God through reading is about like expecting to become physically stronger by reading books about exercising. This is my problem.