The other day when I was meeting with my Kalyana Mitta group (basically a Buddhist support group and book club), one of my sangha mates said. “I have to confess I was naughty and brought a book with me on retreat.” I looked around the room to see the reaction to his revelation. For the most part, everyone looked understanding and sympathetic to his disclosure. On the other hand, I probably looked fairly puzzled. Doesn’t everyone bring books with them on retreat? Oh god, am I the only one?
Of course, I have read and heard teachers advise against reading or writing during retreats. It breaks the continuity of mindfulness. The oft-used analogy is if you put a kettle of water on the stove and then take it off, then put it back on and take it off, the water is never going to boil. Same thing with our mindfulness. If we keep losing it by getting lost in words (written or being written), it breaks the continuity of the mindfulness and we’re never going to get the full benefit of the extended practice period. OK, yeah, I get it. But, honestly now, are people actually holding to that?
Apparently, people do.
Tomorrow I’m off on retreat again – five days up at Spirit Rock at a silent retreat co-lead by my golf club wielding teacher. When I met with him yesterday, I wanted to get some clarity on the reading thing. He confirmed what I had heard before and whipped out the ol’ kettle analogy. I get it, but what I can’t understand is what people do in their rooms after the last sitting and before they fall asleep. We have no access to electronic media – there is no cell or WiFi signal out there. And certainly no TV. Do people simply sit in their rooms staring mindfully at the walls?
My teacher looked at me rather gently as he told me the obvious: after the last sitting, people simply go to sleep. Oh right. Sleep. At 9:30 at night. Sleep. With no need to wind down, no transition. What a concept.
I have often marveled at how many of the dorm windows are dark when I come out of the last session at 10 or so. I’m usually one of the last to leave the sitting, so I know all my fellow yogis aren’t in the hall. Maybe they’re down in the dining hall enjoying a nice rice cracker and a cup of tea. Doubtful. So the only other option is that they are already in bed. At 10 o’clock. Does not compute.
As you may have surmised, I’m a night owl. I tend to go to bed between midnight and 1 am. Trust me, I’ve tried to go to bed earlier, but it doesn’t work. I even diagnosed myself with a mild case of Delayed Sleep Phase Disorder. I’m fortunate, it doesn’t impact my life that much since I tend to stay away from jobs where I have to be at work early or where my boss is a stickler about tardiness.
I’m also one of those people who cannot simply hop into bed and fall asleep no matter how tired I am. I need time to wind down. Even if I get home really late, I watch a little TV to let the mind know it’s time to stop thinking. So, on retreats with no access to mind-numbing TV, I will spend some time journalling and then take a dharma book with me to bed and try to read myself to sleep. And even that doesn’t always work, especially when I’m struck with anxiety or energy surges from a long day of meditation. As much as I love Spirit Rock and being on retreat, I’ve had plenty long dark nights of the soul there when I’ve found myself battling anxiety and sleeplessness.
Since this is a short retreat and with my teacher co-leading, I’ve decided to push myself a bit. I’m giving up the written word for the duration of the retreat. No reading, no writing. I’m going to keep my kettle on the stove. If that means I’m still in the hall meditating at 2am, so be it. Basically, I’m going to meditate until I’m exhausted and can hopefully fall asleep without my routines. (Though, don’t expect me at the 6:30 am sit.)
It sounds a bit extreme, I realize. But, worry not, I’ll still have a book tucked away in my suitcase if my plan doesn’t work out.