In praise of idleness: Lessons from my daredevil retreat

squirrel_2I AM JUST NOW emerging out of a long period of retreat where I spent much of my time in solitude — reading, reflecting, experimenting with various forms of prayer, and just sitting. The last three months of this period I spent in a simple guest house on a relatively quiet lane in Ubud, Bali, where I was given a bed, a place to hang my clothes, a chair on a terrace and a simple breakfast each morning. I took my second meal of the day at an off hour in a cafe down the street, and generally skipped the third. There were few distractions and few interactions.

In a world of 24-hour connectedness and frenzied activity, this sort of retreat is profoundly counter-cultural, particularly since I didn’t use the time to master fancy yoga techniques or other spiritual technologies such that I would emerge with a new skill and credential — another line item for my cosmic resume. Rather, I spent this time attempting to shake all of that off and find the naked truth of what was underneath the cultural and social conditioning I have been subject to that insists on constant new experience, constant striving for improvement of myself and the world, and constant productivity.

In the slowed down world of my retreat room, my deepest teachings came not from the books I was reading, but from the tiny world I inhabited, where each breeze and rainstorm, each cluck of a chicken, each visit of an insect, was amplified and nuanced into an event that bordered on magic. I spent much time gazing out at the same group of trees, a little slice of jungle still preserved from encroaching development. Since I was on the second floor, I sat eye level with the squirrel who dined regularly on a coconut that hung in a cluster resting on the branch of a palm. He gnawed a circular hole through the smooth golden shell, making it larger day by day as needed to reach in and retrieve the meat, until all that stayed outside of the coconut were his hind legs and tail. An hour of that gnawing each morning, and the rest of his day was spent in communion with the trees, flying in dramatic splashes from one branch to another and chasing his companion up and down the trunks in sporting play.

Watching that squirrel, I couldn’t help wondering at the obsession with work that pervades my home culture of America and much of Western Europe. What is it that makes us focus so incessantly on what we do that puts food on our table to the point of ecological disaster? What makes us elevate the mastery of a skill and constant productivity with such religious zeal? Even if the squirrel is good at and enjoys gnawing a hole in the coconut, he knows not to spend 12 hours a day at it. And if he did? There’d be a pile of rotten coconuts, uneaten, littering the ground beneath the trees. An obsession with productivity not only puts an individual life out of balance, it has repercussions for the whole.

In the quiet of this retreat, the echo of my thoughts were magnified, and I noticed a constant thrumming of rebellion against this overly productive, overly consuming world. My reaction was a bit extreme: it made me want to stop altogether my productivity to test this assumption pervading the American way, and I did. I stopped writing for publication. I slowed work to the absolute minimum. I watched my bank account dwindle and my survival instinct ignite. I wanted to find out just where the line is for me between making a healthy contribution of work and obsessively stockpiling a bunch of wasteful, open coconuts. Some deep place in me sensed that knowing this line is essential at this time, as the forests and rivers are threatened by our appetites for comfort and convenience born of our disappearing skills at finding satisfaction in the myriad gifts showered on us daily by existence — cloud formations, dappled sunlight, the smell of wet soil and flowers, the crooked smile of a stranger, a plain but healthy breakfast, the sound of children laughing. The quieter I got, the more clear it became that the mundane and the overlooked is where the real magic lives — far more of it than in the virtual human inventions, indulgences and projects that have come to usurp these simple pleasures.

If the recovery of a sensitivity that allows great satisfaction from things so small makes you want to try such a retreat, think again.
This is not for the faint of heart. It takes an upside-down kind of mind to enter the inner landscape and investigate the fundamental basis for how we live. You have to be curious enough to invite in a great deal of discomfort, confusion and disorientation. At least I did, because the lack of distraction brought not only a taste of the magic of how little it really takes to give life a sense of wonder, but with it, a deeper understanding of what keeps us from living there. Rabid dogs guard the gates to this temple. I met them in this extended empty space: all those things in shadow that busyness and distraction had cushioned me against — the painful thoughts, instinctual fears, unacknowledged traumas, and especially the clear seeing of all the ways I had betrayed my soul and my values throughout my life. Not fun.

It seems to me that the main function of meditation is to witness and thereby release the thick layers of half-truths most humans hold in the mind, such that the brilliance at our center can be revealed and lived. The closer I got to that center, the more encrusted and unpleasant the thoughts and feelings, and the harder my mind grasped to distract me with anything at all. At times it felt as though I were circling around the reality of my soul like a feral cat in the cold, afraid to enter the open door where a welcoming hearth burns. I found it both unnerving and bizarre, to see the genuine fright I had at meeting my own light. My mind gripped onto old, painful thoughts as though they were precious jewels.

Going into this reckoning retreat, free of crutches, goals and props, I sensed this would be where it would take me. And living through this experience left me with a profound compassion for all of us — for the way we distract and run from what we hold most precious. Facing the shadow was hard, but facing how I betrayed my own light and that of others has meant experiencing a sorrow that at times felt unbearable, and so I don’t blame myself for avoiding this for so long, and I certainly don’t blame anyone else, either. There’s a reason we normally need to be forced into this kind of reckoning by a shock from the outside — a diagnosis, a disaster or a financial loss. Going there willingly feels like a kind of madness.

But I am a little mad, and just as some people have a daredevil attitude toward climbing rocks and jumping from airplanes, I have something similar operating in terms of inner landscapes. I go to extremes in the search for wisdom — a contemplative form of thrill seeking getting mixed up with my own neurotic patterns. But inside of that mix is also something pure, and in this retreat, I got a clear enough glimpse of that purity to justify the whole tangle: I saw the depth of my commitment to helping birth a human freedom that I can only begin to imagine but that seems to be at the center of why we are here at all. I saw that this freedom is born from the purity and intensity of the love at my center, as well as the profound yearning I have for manifesting that love — and I saw the truth that this intensity and yearning exists in all of us, however obscured.

And so I leave this retreat shaken, disoriented, in a sort of culture shock for all of human life — even a bit imbalanced. I feel more sure than ever of my humble, human limits — and of the glory of the light at my center and at the center of life itself. Still, my conditioned mind sees this as a failure: I didn’t come out looking good with a halo of enlightenment around me, with all of my confusion resolved and perfect clarity on what I can best do to serve the whole. Instead, I came out seeing the extent of my brokenness, understanding now that the only clarity available is the one that allows me to accept mystery and ambiguity, stop calling it confusion, and instead of trying so hard to heal it, treasure the crack in my heart that will never go away and use it as a source of pure empathy. All of this, I see, is what connects me in darkness with every other being, just as my joy in creation connects me with every other being in the light.

And somehow, for this unlikely inner daredevil, this seems enough of a treasure to make the whole messy undertaking worthwhile.

A deep bow to Hunter Reynolds for his love, patience and support as I retreated; to my scattered sangha of fellow experimenters who via Skype reminded me that what I am attempting has value; and to Tesa Silvestre for a second gift from her Aya’s Rivers flow fund in support of this retreat, which reassured me that this sort of contemplative activity has a place on the frontiers of American culture, such that I could keep my internalized judgments far enough at bay to dive in deeper than I ever have.

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13 comments to In praise of idleness: Lessons from my daredevil retreat

  • Ana Sachs

    I’ve been looking for your next essay Jane. This is worth the wait. I appreciate how generous you are in describing your journey so that new seeds can be germinating in our hearts.

    I’ve friends who extricated themselves from the work-a-day world in order to go on years-long retreats, in fact they continue in retreat now after 5 plus years. The changes in them are beyond telling, and while I think they ARE going after the golden halo, there appears to be some contagion of consciousness and awareness that spreads to us, the inner circle. All of my friends, most of whom have strong meditation practices, are each finding their own way to live a meditative life of some consequence.

    The years are moving by and I too must take decisive action in order to live in a way that supports what I value the most: the result of deep meditation is a purified consciousness. Which is the only thing we can take with us when we go, and the only true solace in the storms of life. Many thinks Jane for this visceral reminder of what really matters.

  • Thank you, Ana, for taking this in as you did, and for highlighting the truth that there are fellow sojourners all around, quietly diving into these waters, each in their own way, supporting all of us with the field they are creating.

    When you refer to “purified consciousness,” I think of Meister Eckhart saying, “The soul grows through subtraction.” Still, I’m relieved we don’t have to wait for purity and the golden halo–we can embrace the light that’s there now, junk and all. What a relief.

  • Michael

    One feeling that came up for me reading this was that it can be easier and safer for me to glean insights from those souls, like you, called to go so deeply inside. While i may think of my self as spiritual, i have mostly been ‘reading about’ insights from inspirational and eloquently-tongued speaker of the truth like you vs. take action to set my own rose-colored glasses on the shelf to see self and oneness as they truly are. This has been an inspirational for me to look deep inside, though if i cannot see so clearly when i jump in the murky sea, i will always be grateful for your gift of articulating what you have seen and so viscerally felt.

    Phrases you wrote that i need to explore more:
    What is the root cause of the fear as i too watch my bank account dwindle…how will my survival skills instinct ignite to avoid annihilation?
    -At the end of our time on earth is someone standing there with a prize for being so productive? Surely it’s not a new car.
    -As our productivity devours the natural resources and water on the planet are humans any different from termites who stand agape after devouring a delicious wooden house?
    -Why has my culture taught me to avoid the luminescence in the mundane existence of a simple, non-craving, lifestyle?
    -What was I getting by obsessively stockpiling a bunch of wasteful, opened coconuts (house, car)? Why does my self esteem plunge if my pile of coconuts is smaller than his?
    -How have i betrayed my own light throughout my life? Ways that are too numerable to mention, but it’s time to turn the pilot light on again that’s for sure.
    Thank you Jane

  • Michael, I can see the depth of your spirituality in the honesty and transparency of your note. After all, we are all attached to our rose-colored glasses! And your questions are so evocative. Thank you for them–good for me to reflect another layer on them as well.

  • Sarah Stone

    Thank you for this beautiful essay, Jane, and for bringing together so much, taking us into that little slice of jungle to sit with you and watch the squirrel and consider all the “wasteful, open coconuts” we spend our time gnawing. I’ve been wondering recently about how the idea of “goals” and “accomplishments” seems to drop away in the face of strong daily practices, including finding some kind of balance between art, activism and human life, and also watching the seasons change, listening to the crows warn each other of invisible dangers. We’ve done so much harm that it’s tempting to spend all of our time sad and angry. Or we can face it and move on, as you are doing.

  • Cat


    This article deeply resonated. I often feel this inner tug-a-war between the conditioned, productive self that wants to achieve and strive in the societal world … and another, softer truth. This summer, I spent a 3.5 months in Tassajara — disconnected, in practice — and I was introduced to the depths of myself for the first the time. I saw both the rawness of the pain I hid with productivity, as well as the pure joy I also hid by not allowing for more space in my life.

    What arose for me, after reading your essay, is that which I uncovered this summer — the depths of beauty, pain, fear, and human aliveness — and that which can be easily concealed by a habit energy of do, do, do, plan, plan, plan.

    Thank you for this beautiful reminder of holding space, both in my outer life and in caring for my inner life.

  • Thank you, Sarah and Cat, for your thoughtful comments. It seems that we are all grappling with the same question of balance -– between outer and inner, active and still -– as well as the sometimes painful truth of our limitations, especially in the face of all the attention the world needs. I’ve noticed letting go of my resistance to these unsolvable questions and just letting them be there has released a tremendous store of energy and my non-doing is starting to get -– dare I say it -– productive!

  • Jane,

    Thank you for the gifts of your courage, spirit, tenacity and lucid writing. Your account of your daredevil retreat provided me with a vicarious thrill, touching the longing I have felt on various vipassina retreats and replenishing the day-to-day courage I need to face the unsatisfactory nature of life in 21st Century California.

    I think I will go off and eat a coconut – very slowly…

  • Marsha

    Dear Jane et All,
    Thank you for your BEAUTIFUL writing. I read with great interest with a coffee in one hand & this iPhone in the other, this complete post from beginning to end w/out even taking a sip! When I finished reading Jane’s “diary” and all the replies, I had the feelings of THIS IS WHAT I HAVE BEEN SEARCHING FOR – for all my 57 years it feels. You have all so beautifully & eloquently been able to express it in ink. Thank you for your time & for the my validation. I have a sense of family with you & now little less loneliness.
    Wishing you all peace & happiness & sending much love, marsha. xox

  • Welcome to the family, Marsha! We are definitely all in this boat together. Having just landed back in America for a visit, I have to say, I am feeling immense empathy for everyone here. So hard to stay with my own pace when the entire culture is tugging me to sprint.

  • Thank you Jane,
    I have been deeply touched by your “words”, language and eloquent writing, which seem able to convey to us your experience of life as you have lived it in various ways and places, with many teachers and learning along the way. What you have had the courage to do is to go beyond thoughts, theories, methods and techniques and stay with your self in order to experience your depths, not only for a short retreat now and again, but over the past years for long periods of time. I witness tremendous commitment within you to life, love, truth and holiness coupled with the deep desire to share those riches with others.
    Well, my words don’t really seem to me to convey what I fully experienced in reading your story and your intentions and ways of offering your gifts on your website. You are courageous and thank you for being you. Carolyn

  • Thank you, Carolyn, for your kind words. They are especially appreciated as I have spent my summer in the USA and being in this culture continually challenges me to stay in touch with what I have most deeply committed to. I think we are all so permeable and adaptable–it’s difficult to keep from taking on something of the social field we are living in. At least this is true for me!

  • Thanks for your courageous sharing, Jane. Your story resonates with me.

    I look forward to following your posts.