“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven..” John Milton
A reader of this blog wrote to me recently, to express her feeling that my description of a retreat sounded, to her, more like hell than heaven.
And, Heather, it set me to thinking . . .
Why, exactly, do I go on retreat? Why is it not hell?
Heather is probably in the majority, and may wonder how I could actually enjoy being off-grid with no electronic devices, not much chit-chat, no meat, no alcohol, and not over-much sleep.
Put as bleakly as this, she would have a point.
But I suspect it is not just we ‘Zenners’ who feel that a degree of apparent hardship and isolation more than pays for itself in the form of deep satisfaction and understanding. There is a great beauty in it.
Mountaineers and climbers feel it, long-distance runners feel it, monks and mystics feel it. Explorers of all kinds feel it, whether they explore the physical or the inner world.
So I’m not on my own, and there must be something in it that goes beyond pain, and I’d be interested to hear the thoughts of others.
For me – and I can only speak with authority for me – first of all, I suppose, comes the physical and mental challenge, and the satisfaction one gets from achieving it. This is the obvious one, but still begs the question, why not do something easier and more obviously useful? I can catch myself thinking this when I watch the Tour de France.
There is the sense of inner health that comes with the ascetic lifestyle. However, this smugness falls to pieces when I get home and weigh myself, and find that all that inactive meditation has resulted in me putting on 3 pounds.
Retreats and other extreme sports are not free of physical danger. Climbers fall and get killed, runners destroy their knees, meditators put on weight!
Just as with climbing and running, meditators have to break through ‘the Wall’ that they all talk about. It is a very real obstacle, born of ego-resistance, laziness, tiredness and frustration, that makes the inner difficulty of the challenge. If you couldn’t break through it, it would make the activity pointless and disturbingly masochistic.
In retreat terms, this Wall famously comes in the second day. This is when you think it’s all stupid and painful and upsetting. If you were allowed a mobile phone you’d just call a taxi.
But, if I can hold my nerve and push through it, I can reach within sight of the summit, or at least a stunning viewpoint, just as the climber does. And this gives me the motivation and pleasure to continue.
Up here, in the mountains, or when you get your second wind, or when the mind slows right down, the world’s beauty can overwhelm you, and the tue insignificance of my ego becomes apparent. It is an epiphany, a state of peace and clarity.
To those who do it, those who climb or run or sail or cycle or explore the body and mind, it is addictive and humbling.
The mind can, indeed, make a heaven of hell.
Thanks, Heather, for providing the spark for these musings.