Practice and Retreat: What is enough?

If you’re around Buddhists, it’s highly likely that you’ll hear the words “practice” and “retreat” on a regular basis. So much so, that I find it challenging not to compare, evaluate, and attempt to measure up to some illusionary standard of behavior regarding those words. In spite of the enrichment, support, and enjoyment of participating in a Sangha (a Pali word for Buddhist community), I still actively question: Am I doing enough? If I’m not participating in long official retreats on a regular basis, am I really a Buddhist? What do practice and retreat mean to me?

I know it’s silly, and I do laugh at myself. But seriously, how much is enough? Especially, when one is fully committed to a lifestyle that embodies balance between growth and joy? I find myself wondering: How can I be serious and lighthearted at the same time?

The Middle Path
Image by Alice Popkorn (off/on)

I do understand and appreciate that there are guidelines to assist and support us on our way. And, even though I’m still new to the teachings, I’m confident that the intention of the Dhamma (teachings or Dharma in Sanskrit) is not to provide a stick to measure ourselves by. The generosity, graciousness, patience, empathy, and compassion of the monastics are a wonderful testimony to the ability to manifest the teachings as reality. In my experience, they’re an inspiration to be patient and kind to ourselves. They’re not trying to get lay people to live up to the 227 precepts that they have committed to. Hence, there are only five – and on occasion eight – precepts lay people are asked to abide by. Even when there is a misstep, we are encouraged to simply begin again without remorse.

Growth does require a commitment to facing ourselves and the challenges that our lives and inner state of being present. Yet, I think an aspect of being kind to ourselves includes an acknowledgment that sometimes we just need a time out. We need time to play, lighten up, and not impose or enforce pressure on ourselves to live up to a hoped for ideal that we have yet to achieve.

That said, I do think it’s possible to take something seriously and still be lighthearted. Maybe a more appropriate word would be focus. We can maintain focus on what we are experiencing and still lighten up. It’s our judgment that turns focus into severity. It’s our egos continual need to evaluate and compare ourselves to one another or some standard that can weigh us down. We create the heaviness, so we can lighten our load.

When I expand my awareness, I am lighter. I am able to allow for fun, play, and practice to co-exist.  I am not burdened by stress which in turn propels me to desire time out. It’s when I’m reacting – as opposed to being present – that births stress. Then, the delusion is that I need a break from practice.

What does practice mean to me? That I am willing to attempt to pay attention to what I am experiencing regardless of what emotion is presenting. Practice is the doing. Meditation, reading and listening to Dhamma, and all the other tools and resources that I utilize for growth and expanded awareness are all part of practice. There is no measuring stick for what is enough. We are enough, but until we are awake, fully aware, and free of suffering or Dukkha, we can always do more to be lighter, happier, and peaceful. This brings me to another sticky concept: Retreat.

According to About.com: “Retreats are a great way to initiate a personal exploration of Buddhism, and of yourself.” The author goes on further to say that “a spiritual retreat is a personal adventure….. It’s a space in which to shut out the noise and distractions and come face-to-face with yourself.”

As with practice, my ego can trick me into believing that I’m not doing enough. Again, I have to laugh at myself. My lifestyle, commitment to self-discovery, and encouragement of personal adventure have manifested in my being unemployed for much of my adult life. I have often spoken of the challenges of getting up each day and facing myself. In many ways, my lifestyle embodies “retreat” as a daily practice. In the past, I even referred to my not be employed as “being on spiritual sabbatical.” Yet, because – once again – my lifestyle is outside a “normal” or mainstream approach, I question and doubt my choices.

Here is my challenge: To lighten up….. again! I can do so by remembering that practice can be joyful, all life experience is of value, and I am enough even when I know I can do more.

© Sallie Odenthal 2012

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