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what for a silent retreat

Updated: Sep 28, 2023

Our one week silent Zen retreat at Karuna Center in Monchique, Portugal, is four weeks away.

Is a silent retreat an event? The word event can be misleading for nothing really happens during these days of immersion in silence and stillness. An intensive period of contemplative practice is more of a non-event than a relatable one of the kind we are used to. It’s an unhappening rather than an happening with the unhappening being what allows for an undoing to unfold. What is undone is what is unlearnt and what is unlearnt opens us to the vastness of unknowing.

Also a non-event in the sense that the happening here is in some way about being present with each moment as it arises. We call the ability to be in and with the moment as it appears practice. Noticing we cannot abide with what presents itself in the moment, feeling the pull of resistances to that is another moment of practice. Understanding that abiding is nowhere as the moment is ungraspable is yet another dimension of practice. The generosity and openness of practice are what guide us in not knowing and this guidance is based on a trust no one confers to and no one can withdraw from us.

When we come close to and practice out of the moment we experience immediacy. Immediacy defies the mind's penchant to create events and narratives with which it then identifies and gets attached to. This attachment to narratives and self-identities and the sense of entrapment that comes with it is what suffering or dhukka is about. In a silent retreat we become more aware of this process and as we are not invited to do anything with this awareness we allow for awareness to simply unfold without engaging in a conversation with it. Awareness is most intimate with silence where it finds its deepest source.

Moment after moment, as an open expression of presence. Presence is what cannot be scripted into a story. Deep meditation practice makes us realize that all mind created events have no intrinsic reality and are nothing but a bubble, at times a beautiful iridescent bubble. They have no substance and reality of their own as they are empty by nature. Within a bubble we float, rising from the dreams of the river, within a bubble we awaken, falling back into the flow we never leave. We are stream returners who have never left the stream. The flow of awakening ceaselessly unfolds: merging with the river one steps into while never entering, never departs from.

When we see through mind-created bubbles and detach and loosen the hold of our stories we begin to see reality as it is. That which is without the overlay of narration is called thathata in Buddhism: suchness. Such, is the way of things as they are and such is the person who sees things as they.

Sustained meditation practice offers moments of seeing things in their true light. Nothing special, things just as they are. It's in that sense that the ordinary is what is truly freeing and looking for special experiences can become an impediment to liberation. When we open up to things as they are and let go of the desire to control and change them, then perhaps we may begin to enjoy the ordinariness of life. Nothing special is needed, yet that no-thing is where we find the expression of a freedom we have always longed for, at times to the point of hurting. Is this what Master Dogen meant when he said practice as if saving your head from fire?

This is what Zen practice teaches us: living out of just this moment. This moment is the unknown and it calls in a silent way for us to become intimate with the sacredness of the everyday. Another word for that is simplicity; walking empty handed extending ourselves to whatever we meet.

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