I am sheltered in place, in social isolation, in home arrest, or whatever you want to call our living situation right now. Before all this happened, I was prepared to travel and see my family, spend my birthday with them. After my initial plans went down the drain, I still wanted to enjoy my time off by doing something good: self-development.
I always wanted to go on a retreat and this would be the year to do it. Now I’m not so sure. Since I had time off booked anyway, I thought to myself “what if I bring the retreat experience to my home, do what people usually do at those places but where I am right now?”. I talked with a friend who had done a silent retreat and looked online to see how it usually works, looked at some resources that I could use and made my schedule for the next 3 days. I also messaged my friends explaining what was about to happen and that they shouldn’t be worried because I was going to disappear for the next few days.
What and how?
The primary focus of all of it is to develop myself. The past months were hard on me because of the whole world catastrophe and also because I am away from my dearest ones, living alone and having some hard work to do, relationships/friendships are not easy… Listening to the Dharma is something that I don’t usually find time in my schedule to do. If I had to book time off from my day-to-day life to do it, so be it. If I have to actively disconnect my phone so I can look inside myself, so be it.
I stopped doing exercises for a long time, so doing Yoga was also required in this experience. There is something in Zen and Yoga that make them compatible and connected in my life. I am happier when I have both. So, Yoga would be part of my experience.
One thing that retreats have that I couldn’t is people giving lectures or classes. I can’t have teachers coming to my house, so my way of doing it was to have resources available: books, Yoga classes, lectures, videos, audios… I chose 2 books to read while “retreated” (Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind and NLP (Neuro-linguistic programming) Workbook) that would satisfy the need for lectures. For real talks, I would search for Dharma talks on YouTube. For Yoga, there is a site where I can follow a teacher. For practicing Zazen I have a timer app. I couldn’t do all of that without internet so, while I was still disconnected from the outside world in the non-communication level, I would still go online to use those resources.
Rules for my in-house retreat
- leave phone offline (I could receive calls in case something really really bad happened)
- don’t interact with anyone (kind of a silent retreat)
- don’t search for news, articles or what is happening on the world (so this would feel like real disconnection)
- have a schedule, as retreats do
- have fun while doing it!
By the end of each day I tried to write down my experience on the day itself and what I learned while reading and watching the lectures.
Table of contents
- What and how?
- Rules for my in-house retreat
- Table of contents
- Day 1
- Day 2
- Day 3
- My final thoughts
- 8h30 - Wake up, wash up
- 9h - Breakfast
- 9h30 - Yoga
- 10h - Dharma lecture
- 11h - Meditation (30 min)
- 12h - Lunch (I had to cook from scratch)
- 14h - Reading (Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind)
- 15h - Break (and chores)
- 16h - Meditation (30 min)
- 17h - Reading (NLP workbook)
- 19h - Dinner and end of day (can do anything after that)
It’s crazy to think that the first activity was a random Yoga exercise that talked about setting the intention for the practice. I said to myself “I want to understand myself better” and… that is it. In a way, I set my intention for the whole experience and not only for that moment of exercise. Everything that I read or watch or do, is connecting with the next or the previous activity. A passage in a book might talk about something and then I would see that again in a lecture (through random searches). It can’t be just coincidence, I feel that my subconscious is steering me in some direction.
Yoga was difficult mainly because I cycled a lot over the weekend. Also, I drank cider yesterday and I noticed that I feel lazier today. Because Yoga took more time than expected, I was “late” for the first lecture. After that everything was stacking and an avalanche effect happened. Gladly I have 2h of lunch which will probably be enough to reset the activities. I won’t have the full hour of meditation because I want to start lunch at the correct time.
While reading I noticed that 2h is too much for me, I can only concentrate for up to 1h. After reading I took a break and did some chores around the house and trimmed my beard (tend to myself). It gives me time to think about what I just read, let teachings sink in and I need to do things around anyway.
I tried to meditate for 45 min but again the technology left me hanging, the timer didn’t work with the phone locked, since I need to keep the screen on. But even without the timer I meditated for almost 30 min straight. I hope to be able to meditate for 1h tomorrow. It’s getting easier.
Something about the NLP workbook is that I can take a more active approach while reading. It clicked for me that Kindle lets me add notes to the books. In that way I can highlight passages I find important and also add comments on things I might want to talk about later with someone (then I can go back and read my comments inline). Because of the more active approach, I could read for longer (2h) although a lot of times I stopped reading to make annotations or write messages that I’m going to send friends when I come back online.
After 19h I had dinner, watched a new video of Coen Roshi and then studied a bit of Romanian.
A crazy thing the whole day is that I still carried my phone around the house. Not just because I’m using it to read and take notes, but I am constantly looking at it in the “let’s see if I have a message” way. And then I think “oops, I’m offline”.
I can’t follow the schedule to the minute (and I don’t even want to). I changed it to have a broad view of times that I started things but some started a bit before or a bit after. So, my meditation at 16h actually started at 16h11 but that doesn’t matter in the bigger picture.
Technology is a big part of my life and I can’t really live without it. Even though this is a retreat, without the technology I wouldn’t be able to do any of this. How would I do Yoga, by remembering positions? I would do the Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation) over and over. And what about the lectures? Watching them on my big TV is perfect for the live feeling. So, I’m not ashamed of having used tech during the day at all.
Lectures and reading notes
I was using Notion to write down my thoughts and notes for things that I was learning. Unfortunately Notion is not a offline-first app and it crashed on me and made me lose all my notes on the lecture. It was during lunch and that made me angry for a moment (a few minutes?). Then I realised that it could happen and I should not be angry at an app. That is a learning, to try before jumping into it. To have backup plans. To not let a bad feeling ruin the good things that are happening. So, I changed my note taking to Google Docs and started writing again what I remembered.
Coen Roshi: Limpeza, Cuidado e Simplicidade
Watching a lecture with Coen Roshi made me realize how much I miss her and her teachings. Back when I started studying Zen, I went to her school in São Paulo and it was such a great experience. She is one of the most cute, humble and strict human beings.
The talk was about so many subjects, so random but at the same time so beautiful. It talks a bit about how some people want to be the “ferule of the world” and change the world with force. But there is a catch: you can’t change the world as a whole, you can only change yourself. When I change myself the world around me changes as well. “Be the change you want to see in the world”, Gandhi said. So, since I can’t control the world but I can control myself, I need to change how I respond to what the world throws at me.
Instead of trying to change how the world works, I should comprehend why it manifests in that way, what are the causes that have that output. Everything around me is the truth and it’s up to me to listen carefully and extract the teachings.
There is a passage where she talks about when she was in a monastery and some monks didn’t like her. “Why don’t these monks like me?” was the question that she posed to her master. And the answer was so simple, just an exercise of watching what you are doing to others instead of looking at your belly button. Sometimes you don’t realise that you are excluding, you think of yourself as better than others and you forget to be sensitive about it. Talk to others, understand what is that you are doing wrong and be part of the group. Understand what the group needs and do it. Be humble.
While doing something, be present. That is the Zazen way, of being in the now. That is the enlightened look that people talk so much about, but it’s nothing special. Be present and start noticing the smallest things of your ordinary activities: when you work, when you are washing the dishes, even your sexual relations. Notice the warmth of the water, the reaction of someone else, the texture of your keyboard.
“Nothing belongs to the being. Now it is with me, but where was it before? Where it will be after?” - Buddha
Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind
I read the first chapters of Beginner’s Mind and it’s a good book. It reiterates on teachings about how to practice Zazen but, as the book says, I need to approach them with a mind that wants to learn more. A mind that is ready to learn again, that approaches things with curiosity, not a mind that thinks it knows everything. Because everything is new anyway. And indeed I learned more about non-duality and received a new point of view on being present while doing something and how we are independent but dependent on others.
Did I slip today? (2 times)
The night before I started the retreat I set up a bot to do something for my company. During the morning I checked Slack to see if the bot was working correctly. That was a self-doubt moment and through it, I learned to be more trusting of myself. I didn’t talk to anyone or check messages that people posted.
I used email to check if the Coen Roshi Zen teaching of the day have arrived. Unfortunately I read some other emails (mostly spam). The one that had news in it I skipped on purpose so I didn’t know what was happening in the world around me. I feel I did a good job of keeping myself in the dark for that email. Didn’t feel like cheating to me.
I talked out loud with myself twice. After saying something I stopped and shut up. Actually I’m not sure if talking to yourself counts as cheating since there is no one to talk to. But in the spirit of real silence, I tried to keep my talking in my head (and I actually do that a lot anyway).
At night, after my whole schedule was done and after studying, I felt I had to do something for a personal app of mine. Something that was in the back of my mind for too long. I took the opportunity of being aware of it and with time so I worked on it. The day had too much focus on myself and I needed to think about something else. I feel this was cheating because I should not have been working, although it feels so good to tick off that task from my inner to-do list.
- 10h - Wake up, breakfast
- 10h30 - Dharma lecture
- 11h - Yoga
- 11h45 - Meditation (30 min)
- 12h30 - Walk and read (Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind)
- 13h - Lunch (just warm up) and lecture
- 14h30 - Sleep
- 15h30 - Reading (Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind)
- 17h - Meditation (50 min)
- 18h - Reading (NLP workbook)
- 20h - Dinner and end of day (can do anything after that)
I woke up very late and without much disposition to do the things I needed to do. I’m not sure whether I recovered well from the weekend (I cycled a lot) or if trying to keep a schedule drains my energy. I woke up at 7h, slept again until 8h, and slept again until 10h. I tried to understand (in an NLP way) what is happening for me to do this but I could’t. I was not well enough to do Yoga right after breakfast so I moved things around (changing the schedule as I knew I would).
During lunch I had to walk because I had a headache of staying in the house too much. It was a nice walk around the neighborhood, also stopped under a beautiful tree to read the Zen Mind and just listen to the nature around me.
Because I skipped a lecture in the morning, I listened to one during lunch. Not the best idea since I was doing 2 things at once, which meant that I was not fully present in one of them (in my case, lunch). That is ok I guess, since I only had to warm up what I had yesterday and eat while listening.
Not sure why but I felt very sleepy again after lunch. Maybe it is the weather, or I’m feeling lazy, or it’s the headache, but I had to sleep to have more energy. Even after waking up I still felt low-energy.
After dinner I studied languages for a bit again and by 22h I was ready to go to sleep but not wanting to. Reflecting on the day I could see how packed it was. We do so much every day but we don’t usually realize because we are lost in thought. When you write everything down and you are present in it, you can see that you actually do a lot more than you give yourself credit for. I can also see how much time I spend communicating with my friends. Without spending time messaging or waiting for messages, a lot more can be done. I wonder if there is a way of still talking to everyone but also doing all those amusing things (maybe talk every hour instead of answering as fast as possible?).
Lectures and reading notes
Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind
As I study and read more about Zen, I get a better grasp on how things are connected and the teachings are powerful. They seem cryptic sometimes but they are pure. I was reading today Zen Mind and something that the Thich Nhat Hanh lecture talked about was there: “Once you understand our innate power to purify ourselves and our surroundings, you can act properly, and you will learn from those around you, and you will become friendly with others.”
The NLP workbook took some time to get used to, that’s why it takes me 2h to complete each chapter and its exercises. Having a more active take on it means that I need to think more, to write more and debate some concepts with myself. Today there was a lot of outcome thinking and what do I want of my life. If I don’t know what I want, there is a high chance that somebody else will tell me what to do. Also setting goals is hard when you have no clear sight of the future. I had some goals broadly defined but having to sit down and think more about them, answer some questions, that is the type of exercise that I don’t usually do.
Thich Nhat Hanh: How can we let go of anger?
When I see that I am becoming angry, I can take one deep breath. And in this one mindful deep breath I can look at the other person and see that he is suffering and he is angry and how that feeling is not beautiful at all. I don’t want to be ugly, I want to be a flower. When I understand this, I can show compassion, I can understand the other person better and I can help the other person see things more clearly. That happened to me 2 weeks ago, when my neighbor started knocking on my window and shouting at me because my music was too loud. I didn’t know it was loud or that he could hear it. In that moment I didn’t let his angriness get to me. I breathed and apologized and turned down the music. Unfortunately he didn’t take my apologies or my calmness well, and instead became more and more angry. I only feel sorry for him and his suffering.
Thich Nhat Hanh: On loneliness
This was the most interesting lecture of the day, with many teachings about why I feel lonely sometimes. And I felt it some time before, I understood long before listening to this but I couldn’t put it in better words. I’m very happy that this lecture exists and I can share with people who are having the same problem.
Home is where I don’t feel lonely. If I am disconnected with myself, it doesn’t matter how many people I’m surrounded with, I will still feel lonely. That loneliness is a void that can’t be filled with someone else. I can try and find someone and say “this person completes me”, but the loneliness, the void, will persist. That space, that void is my disconnection with myself.
Zazen is a way of connecting with yourself, feeling your feelings and understanding what is going on with you. I am constantly doing this and that and never have time to myself. I don’t take care of myself, of my body, of my mind, of my home in this existence. It’s only natural that after a while this home will be a mess, I left it unattended for a long time. It’s ok. I need to accept that mess and with mindful breathing, with Zazen, with correct posture and correct practice, I can start cleaning my home again. I have fears, anxiety and all of that is topped with loneliness. When I sit, I smile to my fear, my anxiety and my loneliness. And then I embrace my feelings with tenderness, I take care of them. “My loneliness, I’m home, I’m going to take care of you now”.
The talk had more concepts about other things, but this first part was the one that I took in fully.
Did I slip today? (once but it was big)
I started talking more with myself, openly. When I have some idea or when something happens and I can’t share with others, I share it with myself. I laugh or cry with myself. Is that cheating?
At night at dinner I had a cider (boo, shouldn’t be drinking), watched Friends, watched a phone launch and then started working on another personal app of mine. Again, something was on my mind and I had to do it before I could sleep. I actually didn’t manage to finish it all which left me a bit frustrated. However, as I learned during the day I shouldn’t let this feeling take over me, so I went to sleep anyway. The work and drinking felt like cheating but watching Friends was actually a good mind-numbing feeling.
- 8h30 - Wake up, wash up
- 9h - Breakfast
- 9h30 - Yoga
- 10h30 - Reading (Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind)
- 11h30 - Meditation (15 min)
- 11h45 - Lunch (just warm up)
- 12h - Cleaning the house
- 13h30 - Dharma lecture
- 15h15 - Meditation (15 min)
- 15h30 - Walk
- 16h15 - Reading (NLP workbook)
- 18h30 - Dharma lecture
- 19h - Dinner and write experience
Woke up much more easily today, ready for the day’s activities. Maybe the schedule is starting to work for me?
Cleaning was a fun activity. As Zazen is to take care of myself and put order in my house, I approached cleaning the same way. I took care of my physical house and created some order that it was lacking. Cleaning gives me peace of mind, it is one of those activities that I learned when I was really young and I do from time to time as a way of relaxing.
This day felt much easier than the others, there was a flow from one activity to the next. I noticed that I didn’t try to force myself into the next activity as per the schedule. After I finished one thing I looked at my schedule and thought “what can I do next?”. Instead of following it blindly, I considered first the time I had, what would make more sense to do next, how long I would like the next activity to be and so on. What ended up happening was that I meditated for less time today than the other days, and my activities in general were shorter.
I did less meditation today than other days because I felt less need for it. I could do what I wanted and be present there. I didn’t need meditation to center myself again, I was already centered.
The dharma talks of today were less special than the others, maybe I didn’t search well enough today. Going back to what I said on how things are connected, the talks said more of what I had already heard the other days or in another medium (ie book vs video). In a different way, in a different light, but the teaching is the same.
Joan Roshi - Standing at the edge
What do you see when someone shows you a piece of paper? Yes, a piece of paper. But what if Thich Nhat Hanh said that he can see the earth, the soil, clouds, rain, a tree, loggers, a truck…? Yes, that is beautiful and that is something that changes the way you see and relate things in your mind. When you look at something with a non-dualistic mind, with an enlightened mind, you don’t see the fixed, permanent thing anymore. You see a succession of causes and effects that made that thing what it is. It’s beautiful.
Joan Roshi released a book about suffering but not only from the perspective of the people who are ill and dying, but from the perspective of those who attend to those people: nurses, caregivers, family members. I usually don’t remember that they suffer while giving treatment and their suffering is different but still painful.
Another view is how from the edges of places, from the suffering, new life can be born. Buddha said that freedom from suffering (nirvana) is not all, we ought to understand the suffering. We don’t need to seek it, it will come to us haha. And Thich Nhat Hanh said that to suffer is not enough, we need to learn and see how the muck in the swamp gives protein for the lotus to bloom. That’s something that I think of when in pain: that I need to feel it, that I need to be aware of what I’m going through and be in there, with the pain, and let it teach me. When I recognize the pain and be one with it, I can understand it and work on it.
Also something that I never thought is that some states of mind can become bad things. You never think about a quality being turned into some distress for you and others, right? But yes, they can become tools of suffering as well. For example, I see my empathy (usually a good thing) turned into empathic distress when instead of recognizing and understanding the other’s feeling, I suffer with that person; then they become better and I feel awful. Or too much engagement, when I can’t turn off from my activities because I love them so much. But doing them non-stop and carelessly provokes burnout.
The passage about charnel grounds is powerful and mind bending. It is quite an experience that she went through and something that I would fear a lot of doing. Yet, using it as a metaphor for working places and toxic homes was on point, and how we are all flesh and blood and bones anyway. Couldn’t be more clear.
Did I slip today? (yes)
I worked in the morning again since yesterday I couldn’t do what I wanted. But look at that: it took me way less time to fix the thing after sleeping and after coming back with a different view and a possible solution. So, it didn’t feel like cheating because I was trying to use the latest knowledge to fix a problem I had.
During a break while eating I watched a phone review. That was cheating a lot since that was something that connected me to the external world, had no value in my practice and grew my lust a bit (I want the phone now).
While walking on the street a woman with a baby and dog said hi to me. I said hi back. It was just too spontaneous and I couldn’t hold myself back. It was not a conversation, just a simple hi. And I know that a simple smile and kind words can go a long way for people in weird times.
My final thoughts
This experience was great. I probably could do one more day, I didn’t finish all I wanted in 3 days anyway, but I don’t see a point in extending it more. Self-development is a lifelong learning skill and I wouldn’t fix my life in 3 days. It certainly helped though.
Having made a conscious effort to put time aside to work on myself and tend to my “house”, as I learned in a lecture, is something that feels like a great step for me. Usually I don’t do this, I stop for half an hour during the weekends to jot something down, and end up with lots of incomplete thoughts and lists lying around (virtually). Having that time to myself and not being bothered by messages, by news, by anything that is happening outside of my vision was great.
Imagine that you are cleaning a garden, removing some rubble from it. While you remove some, there is someone from the other side of the fence throwing more as you go. Now imagine that you had paused, taken your time to remove more rubble from the garden, trimmed some flowers, increased the height of your fence, and had a lemonade. By the time time started again you would have a garden that was much cleaner than before and more robust to all this rubble-throwing from that someone. That is how it felt for me: I could clean my garden without interruption and try to build a better fence that could contain rubble that comes my way.
Unfortunately I more or less cheated every day and did one thing or another that I shouldn’t. I won’t let it feel like a failure because those were small fractures in what overall is a great building. Even working a bit or watching a video didn’t remove me from the experience and what I wanted to gain from everything: self-conscience and self-connection.
Not having to message people was both an issue and a solution. While I’m doing things, I want to share what I’m experiencing with my closest friends. But if I take time to share I can’t be fully present and appreciate what is unfolding in front of me (or in my mind). It’s a dichotomy. Right now I have a list of things that I wanted to tell people and every time a new thought pops up, if it is important enough for me to tell others, I put it on this list. Writing about the whole experience was complicated in the same sense. Either I fully immerse myself and risk forgetting things I did, or I write when I have a little time between the “sessions”.
I chose the latter and it was great. I couldn’t speak with anyone but having a place to put my thoughts and exercise what I learned during the day was huge. I would write it anyway because that’s how I study, by making notes, so I might as well write the whole experience and share it (minus the pretty personal stuff). That is one of my dearest values by the way, sharing.
Something that worked for me was having a schedule and following it broadly instead of being caught up in precise minutes. I understood more about why I like having a general set of rules but not having to follow them very strictly.
The experience was great and coming back to “reality” after it will be a bit difficult. It also left me wanting more: more time for myself, more time for self-development, more time with the ones I love and more teachings. Now what would be beneficial is going to a real retreat and comparing the experiences. Time to plan for it.
Thank you for taking your time to read all of this. 🙏🏻 Gasshō