I was on retreat this weekend, an at home virtual retreat with the Open Heart Project that ended this morning. Susan always schedules our time allowing space for creativity and rest, along with dharma talks, meditation, and discussion. Every retreat for me, no matter the type — writing, meditation, creativity, etc. — always brings into stark focus whatever I am currently working with. What I saw on this retreat is that I suck at rest, that I am trying too hard.
How strange that the thing I struggle with the most is ease, that the most difficult part of this retreat was rest, the time we were given to relax. My pattern, my current preference is effort, pushing and striving, when the truth is I need to practice relaxing, sinking, settling, letting go, being rather than doing. And even as I know this, I still strive to get “there.” I think I have to keep moving, that if I stop, even for a second, everything will fall apart.
It’s as if I’m swimming the river, moving as if I’m in a race or being chased by a school of hungry piranhas. I spend so much time and money and effort learning new ways to move through the water. I practice all the different competitive strokes — freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke and butterfly — read books about swimming technique, buy all the latest performance gear, watch videos of the greats talking about their practice, hire a coach, join a team, take private lessons, dig a pool in my backyard, get up early to swim laps… All to learn the exact wrong way to move. From time to time when I get too exhausted to go any further, I cling to the side to rest, grasping at roots and dirt, gulping air, wondering what I am doing wrong, what trick I’m missing.
I need to learn to float, to lean back, stretch out my arms, relax my legs, sink until the water catches and holds me, my ears just under the surface where it’s quiet, my eyes looking towards the sky, my breath even.
Instead I continue to struggle, to act out my confusion, my path this particular suffering. I used to be depressed and sad, stuck, paralyzed, and would beat myself up for being lazy, worthless. Then I woke up, started to work, to try, to give, to offer — and here I am still smashing myself to bits for not being enough.
The first thing we often do when we meditate together in the Open Heart Project is to make an offering. This offering can be something literal, like a flower or an orange or incense, anything that would be pleasing to the senses, but the offering can also simply be your current state, like maybe you are confused or tired or hungry or sad, and you offer that. When we meditated together the first time this weekend, my offering was how hard I try. Just thinking about it made me start crying. When I can’t even think about or say something without crying, I know it’s a tender spot, a truth worth being curious about.
Later we practiced loving-kindness, “metta” meditation together. The simplest way to describe the practice is you offer loving-kindness first to yourself, then a loved one, then a neutral person or stranger, then an enemy, and finally all beings. When Susan instructed us to start, to begin to focus on our self, the first thing she said was, “I know how hard you try.” More tears. This is the truth for me right now, I am trying so hard, and I am so tired, and still I am being so hard on myself, and it doesn’t have to be like this.
“The way you do anything is the way you do everything.” I don’t know who to attribute that phrase to, but I’ve heard it applied to each of my practices, (except maybe dog, but it’s true there too). Practice is never just about what’s happening on the mat, the cushion, the page, or the walk, it’s about everything. I am coming out of this retreat carrying a deep knowing, clear about a fundamental truth — I need to balance my effort with ease.
This came to me today during our creativity session,
Rest in your longing, as the mountains do.
Keep your heart open and wait, like the sky does for morning.
Listen to songs that put you in touch with your breathing.
Hold your love in the stillness of your soft animal body.
I don’t really know how to end this post, maybe because I’m in the particular fog that is post retreat, maybe because I am still living it — but maybe I could say that about everything I write, anything I post here. What I am learning is something I’m still working out. So, for now, I’m going to hit publish and go walk my dog. May you have a day filled with rest, kind and gentle reader.