Long ago, there was a Tibetan Yogi who had spent so many years contemplating the illuminated snows that his eyes were burnt.
He could no longer see but blurry shadows, yet he would meditate all day, in the silence of his cave up in the mountains.
Being an ascetic meditator, he had renounced worldly pleasures and lived isolated from the rest of the planet. He only indulged in playing an imaginary flute, sometimes. There were not notes to hear and he was on his own, facing the sky.
One day the Yogi’s master came to his cave to give him meditation instructions, as the master crossed the threshold the Yogi asked: “Who’s there?”
“I’m your spiritual guide”, the master replied.
But since the blind Yogi couldn’t see his master’s face, he thought he was a Demon and kicked him out.
Rather pathetic ending, isn’t it? It’s a true Tibetan retreat story, I didn’t make it up.
What the hell is this tale supposed to mean?
One possible interpretation is that the disciple couldn’t recognize the opportunity that was right before his eyes in the form of his teacher. Remaining in the solitude of his retreat did not really get him anywhere.
I’m receiving an increasing number of emails from readers who’d like to abandon everything and live like true ascetic so I’d like to clarify my current position about the temptation to give up on society. I used to live in Buddhist centers where meditation retreats are quite common.
If you have ever considered giving your laptop to charity and go live in a Buddhist Monastery, I have a few thoughts to share with you.
Humans beings are a pain, let’s get outta here
While most of us enjoy spending the night with a partner, hearing the neighbor engage in the same type of activities is a lot less rewarding.
The neighbor is a pain, and more generally the others are a pain, and it to apply in most cases: if it wasn’t for people you wouldn’t have to queue up for a sandwich, or get a job, go to war or even say “Hi!” in the elevator to a bunch of unfriendly faces.
You’d just be enjoying time on your own, right?
That’s one of the reasons why many people consider renouncing the world: to stop dealing with people.
And generally, it doesn’t work.
I engaged in several short term meditative retreats. Although these retreats were solitary, my fellow human beings never left me alone: they haunted my mind. While meditating, I’d get side-tracked and I’d engage in imaginary discussions with the people I liked, I’d also mentally take revenge on my enemies and make love with more women than I ever did in the real world. You could think that it’s weird, but it’s true for almost all people that have done meditation retreats.
We’re social animals, our human brain is designed to interact, we need others’ input to function. There’s no real point in trying to avoid others because they’re precisely the ones we need. They confirm and sometimes oppose us, they provide the gauge that we need to know where we’re at. Without others bothering you, how would you know how patient you actually are? Without people that need help, how can you assess if you’re a kind person? Your sanity itself is hard to protect when you live alone.
We need feedback from our peers in order to evolve, they’re frustrating but they’re the only mirrors we have. And even if we manage to avoid their physical presence, they will still manifest in our heads.
Boxed minds/Weird minds
An other commonly accepted idea is that long meditation retreats are the quickest path to spiritual accomplishment. Maybe that’s true for some but there’s no guarantee it’ll be true for you.
Quite a few times, I’ve been warned that some people turn strange in seclusion. A famous Tibetan master even decided to stop guiding solitary retreats because after a few months, western meditators would become delusional.
I personally met people who completely blew a fuse during a three years retreat, that was definitely a turn off for me.
People gone nuts are an extreme example, but it’s far more common to see retreatants develop a weird mindset.
What are the reasons?
Maybe the boundaries of their world become too limited? They have a little room with a little shrine in it, every once in a while they write a letter to friends and family. It seems that after a few years, they drift away in some form of personal little world of their own, which can be nice, or scary. Depending.
Anyway I saw quite a few alarming samples of retreat casualties in a few years, that led me to cancel my plan for a three years retreat.
Rage Quit: Throwing the poker chips, flipping the Monopoly board, unplugging the Nintendo, taking your ball and going home. (the urban dictionary)
Rage quitting is the first personal reaction I had to society. I was 26, I had done dozens of odd jobs, a few serious ones and came to see the regular lifestyle as a total scam, so I quit and became a monk. That was a punk move, an act of insurrection.
I came back to a more conventional life 10 years later, only to discover that there are many young people drawn to this article because they’re about to do just the same thing I did a while ago.
The underlying mindset that pushes someone to become a monk or go to a solitary retreat is often an angry message sent to society: “so far you didn’t manage to make me happy, so I’m outta here!”.
Yep, shaving your head and going for a saffron robe can be a way to tell the system to go fuck itself and I can totally relate to that.
That’s also what I sense in many of the messages I receive, but I think that it’s not always necessary to go through that rejection step.
I’m not here to ruin everyone’s inspiration toward asceticism, but I believe in the “Garbage In/Garbage Out” law: your initial motivation will determine the nature of your outcome. Renouncing because of an adolescent crisis generally gets you nowhere.
In fact, you’re better off studying first, then gradually move on to more radical forms of practice.
Instead of enumerating how my generation screwed up, I’ll share a few tips so you can get started on a safer ground:
Don’t be seduced by mystic glamour:
going across the globe to a beautiful monastery sounds new and exciting, but the fascination for novelty usually fades quickly away. Tibetans, Thais or Japanese are just as screwed up as westerners, their societies are in no way better than any other. When it comes to the the chanting and ceremonies, after a while, their appeal will wear off and you’ll run out of inspiration. If you’re about leave everything behind for a postcard version of Eastern countries, please consider revisiting your motivation.
Don’t rush it:
You’d like to suddenly leave everything behind and go to Tibet to live the real meaningful life? Don’t do it yet. Hold on. Sudden bursts of ascetic inspiration are short lived, you don’t want to take action on those. If the wish to have a religious life persists, give it a try. If not, you just saved yourself a humiliating flop by staying in the city.
Don’t burn bridges:
Keep alive the connections with your friends. Even if they don’t follow you in your mystic trip. You’ll need them later, no matter what choice you make.
There’s enough books, conferences and online resources to seriously start digging in your spirituality of choice without rushing to Kathmandu. Gone are the pioneers days when you had to go to the Far-East to listen to Buddhist teachings. Studying is important, and it secures your steps toward spiritual accomplishment, that’s what I should have understood long ago :(
Go one step at a time:
If you’re already interested in a particular tradition or monastery, start by approaching them and spend weekends or more to see how you feel there. Try the local Buddhist centers in your area. Many of them offer options for a short stay/retreat. Just don’t commit yet, approach these places slowly, they’re not all healthy, you’ll have to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Don’t wait to be a Monk to practice:
Don’t postpone your meditation practice just because you’re not a monk practicing in a Tibetan cave. Start right now, living in the city is no excuse not to meditate, don’t wait for the perfect circumstances to practice. Do it now, and circumstances will follow.
And please don’t let this article turn you off
If you spent time reading this page, it’s safe to assume that you’re pretty darn inspired by spirituality. It’s awesome and extremely rare to find individuals with that type of mindset and I’m glad we’re somehow connected.
I didn’t write these three lines of advice to make you fear asceticism and hardcore retreats. In fact, a part of me’s still completely fascinated by beautiful examples like Milarepa, the Tibetan master.
This was just an attempt at helping anyone avoid some of the mistakes I made…Along with hundreds of other wannabee Buddhas. And BTW, I’d love to know about your own mystical trials, so if you find the time, share them with everyone in the comments below :)
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