Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Retreats, Acting School, and Right View

Challenges and barriers.

Great undertakings tend to involve confronting those.

So it is with retreats. The discussion of Zen retreats, and their importance, continues over at the Tricycle magazine blog. In this post , "How important are meditation retreats" there is a short quotation from what was posted here at the Burning House.

One of the commenters wrote,

No one is doubting the spiritual value of retreat. But I will say the point in the Dharma Talk when the teacher inevitably references the value of a long retreat is the point which I am most uncomfortable -- not only because of my natural aversion to organized religious activities (this is the moment to me that feels the most like proselytization), but also because there is an air of naivete about what people can and afford to commit to their practice.

This had a ring of familiarity to it. It reminded me of another occupation of mine.

By the age of seven, for some weird reason, I knew that I would be spending most of my life as an actor. It was not a choice, it was like gravity. This is not to say I had much talent; in fact, more than one teacher pointed out to me that I was not impressively talented and it would take an awful lot of training and practice to be proficient in a rehearsal room or on stage. (One memorable quote from someone I respected in New York: "You're cute but you're not a good actor." Zowie.)

No one asked me to be an actor, but for some weird reason -- the woo explanation might be ancient karmic bonds -- I had to do it, and this meant finding a way to train. There are lots of ways to do this but they involve spending time and money. One can take acting classes on some ongoing basis, in addition to auditioning and working as much as possible. If the cost is too high, there may be other options: a lot of studios will let people work for discounts or scholarships.

One can enter a full-time acting school, but this involves enormous sacrifice unless one is wealthy. I entered a three-year conservatory knowing I could not afford it. I borrowed heavily to pay for it and some of my living expenses. The demands of the conservatory did not permit me to hold down a steady job. It was a difficult life, and 15 years later I'm still paying the loans.

But it's not just loan payments -- the conservatory took up so much space and personal cost that the entire shape of my life has been, and is, different. I've joked that it "ruined my life," but what I really mean is that it changed me in ways that are permanent, such that I have had to reconsider my basic notions about "success," "abundance," and "meaningful work."

If going to the conservatory can be likened to a monastic commitment for a moment, the question arises: is the conservatory actor somehow "better" or "more committed" than the actor who includes acting classes and/or doing plays with job and family life?

Well, no. Even if the conservatory is very good, there is no guarantee that the actors graduating from that school are any better than a hard-working actor who takes lessons and acts in plays when she has time. The conservatory is a very good way to train, but that does not dismiss the practice and effort of actors who don't go.

At Providence Zen Center, there used to be several Vinaya-following monks living side by side with lay people. I observed some people, with hair and without, who created an ignorant division in their minds. I heard some people remark that the monks weren't living a "real life" because their situation was so protected and exalted; I heard monastics utter sentiments that people tied down to jobs and families were not able to "really practice."

These are familiar expressions but they are not Right View. A monk has a different life than I do, but we are both working with our lives and confronting what we have made up about the world. A monk's experience will always be different than mine, and the reverse is true. Both are valid.

It is the same with other ignorant divisions we make up among ourselves: parents / non-parents, veterans / non-veterans, young people / old people , religious people / secular people, and so on. A combat veteran has seen things I likely will never see, but that doesn't make my life less valid. Maybe there are things I can learn from that person; nothing wrong with that.

So let's return to retreats. It is hard to make the commitment to do a long retreat, even if one really desires to do so, in an economy where we must compete against other workers and devote a great deal of time and energy to earning cash. There is nothing inherently superior about those who find ways (usually entailing sacrifice) to do retreats. They wanted to do the retreats and they found ways to do it, bully for them.

If going off and doing a retreat at a temple is not possible, there are other ways. People do lots of things to make a space, unplug the phone, hang a "not right now" sign on their door, and spend a few hours or a day or a weekend on silence, just practicing hard. The experience will be different than sitting a retreat at a Zen center with a teacher, but so what. Personally, I've done a lot of apartment retreats and even tent retreats when I could not get to a retreat center for reasons of time or money or distance or whatever. Why did I do that? It had to be done, that's all.

If you want validation for this kind of solution, I'll give it to you and it is sincere. Thank you for doing such a wonderful thing and making a retreat situation so you could commit to some intensive practice. You don't have to depend on a Zen center and buy your way into a retreat. You can set something up and do it yourself.

Just one caveat: Sitting with a community and working with a teacher or an older student is a very good, healthy thing. So keep looking for ways to do that, please, even if it means asking for work exchange or something.

Challenges and barriers. The old saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention. The roots reach for water. If you need to do it, find a way. If you don't need to do it, what's the problem?

Returning to that commenter above, I don't know what teachers he or she has been listening to, and the commenter could be right. Yet I am wondering what those teachers actually said, and what the actual sentiment was. Perhaps they were not being "naive" about the costs -- maybe they are well aware of the cost and urging their students to find a way to do it.


Nathan said...

It's interesting that the commenter at Tricycle used the word "uncomfortable" when retreats came up. I spent a long time feeling just that during such conversations, knowing how unorthodox my practice often looks. Sitting with that sense, and expressing it directly, and repeatedly, to the very people in my sangha whose "good view of me" seemed to matter most actually helped break through the discomfort. To the point where, when the same issue came up in a discussion with our lay training group the other day, I just spoke of what my practice has been lately without the need to defend and without feeling uncomfortable.

So, perhaps people who are struggling with this issue might consider sitting with that discomfort and seeing what comes up. And then maybe share it with another practitioner or two.

Because even though I share plenty of the same reservations about cost, attachment to specific forms, etc. - I also know a part of the issue was with clinging to an image of "the good Zen student."

Algernon said...

Bingo! That image of "the good Zen student" is a problem, and it is likely a mutual creation. Teachers might be contributing to it, internal pressure certainly contributes, and peer reinforcement also contributes.

How wonderful to identify it and let it go, and to do that openly before the sangha.

We are touching what Soen Roshi called "the stink of Zen." Smash the box, and things get really interesting.

Gary Potvin said...

Could you speak to the history and usefulness of solo retreats, especially outdoors or wilderness retreats. As you are aware, I went on a 5 day fasting vision quest years ago. Is there a history of this type of retreat in zen? Thanks, teacher.