“The only Zen you find on tops of mountains is the Zen you bring up there.”—Robert Pirsig
It was the first long weekend of the summer and I’d decided that the best thing I could do for myself was to spend some time at the ashram. Life had thrown me for a spin in the past few months and I’d been longing for the self-imposed routine of being on retreat, if even for a few days. Just for good measure, I registered for five hours of daily karma yoga to help get the ashram ready for the summer season. Weeding, planting, raking, painting—any work that was needed. Working meditation is perfect. Repetitive and simple, the practice can transport us fully into the present moment—right here, right now. Whether it’s washing the dishes, sweeping the floor or cleaning the toilets, there’s beauty to be found in the simple act of paying attention to what we are doing, right now.
Of course, I had these grand visions of chanting mantras and following my breath, staying present and fully connected to this moment for an entire five hours each day, not allowing my mind so much as a brief wander through the thoughts that had been plaguing me. This was it, I thought: I had done everything I could to set up the conditions for “enlightenment” to visit me, or at least inner stillness. Recalling a previous weekend during which my ashram stay had yielded a deep acceptance of what I had been struggling with at the time, I arrived on Friday night ready for peace to flood into my body. That evening, my meditation was restless. But that was OK, I reasoned, since I still had three days to go. And besides, I needed to let go and practice being patient. Things happen when they happen. We must simply accept and keep an open heart.
“We do not have to visit a madhouse to find disordered minds; our planet is the mental institution of the universe.“—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
I’d love for this story to end differently and tell you that I found deep inner peace. I’d love to tell you how I let go of my desire to control and things got easier. That would be ideal, but in reality things are rarely what we wish them to be. This is what happened: I breathed deeply, meditated and chanted mantras to keep my mind occupied. I spoke less and listened more. I really did. And then I periodically engaged in a “checking in” every hour or so: I’ve let things be. Where’s my peace? Where’s my serenity? I’d be addressing my brain and trying to reason with it: Look. I’ve given you mantras to distract you, repetitive work to keep you busy, silence to allow you to rest, deep breaths for oxygen, what’s your problem? Why haven’t you solved the issues I told you we were here to solve?
Yes, I had found a way to control the process even here, as if inner peace and understanding were things that could be arrived at through the careful application of a set formula. My mental clarity? Zero. The worst part was that I didn’t even catch on that this is what I’d been doing all weekend until it was Sunday night and I had come home a day earlier than originally planned. Yes, I was even on a schedule: things didn’t work according to my plan, so what was the point of sticking around?
In some ways, my self-imposed retreat was a colossal failure. I spent so much time trying to force the issue that I didn’t really stay present, and this lack of awareness is what sabotaged the experience for me in the end. Here’s the thing with meditation and acceptance: you can’t force it. No matter how much you may want to be on the fast track to peace and serenity, you have to be willing to get your hands dirty and do the actual work that you might not feel like doing. You have to drag those ugly monsters out of the closet and face them, with gentleness and consistency. Ignoring a problem won’t make it go away in the same way that simply wishing things were different won’t yield any tangible results. The only thing that yields results is correct action.
My weekend was not a complete waste, however. In the weeks that followed, I came to an important realization about just how deep my need for control can go. In my own way, I thought I could apply a formula for finding stillness. If I could create the external conditions for peace, I reasoned, there was no way that I could fail. I could accomplish peace by Monday afternoon, and then return home a much saner version of myself, checking this off my mental “to-do” list.
The desire for a quick fix is observable everywhere in our modern world. We’re continuously bombarded by this type of thinking from all sides. A quick stroll through your local bookstore’s self-help section will illustrate this point beautifully. There’s a book written for every conceivable problem, all boasting instant, miraculous change. Are you divorced, unhappy, child-less in your 30’s, stuck in a dead-end job, in a dead-end relationship, afraid to change? There’s a book (or ten) written just for people like you, who need guidance and help. You are not alone. You can change your life, and they will tell you how. What they don’t tell you is that it’ll take a lot of hard work and a lot of dedication and patience. Nobody reads a 200-page book and changes their life overnight. Sure, you might have a few revelations and “lightbulb” moments, but those moments are in themselves not enough to propel you forward. You need to take action, and it will be difficult, unpleasant, and discouraging at times. But it will also be rewarding, inspiring, and confidence-building.
Sometimes, we don’t realize how crazy a behaviour is until we take a few steps back and look at the big picture. Were my own expectations for my weekend unrealistic? Although it was entirely possible to relax for three days, the intention was misguided. Peace is not something that visits and stays. Rather, it’s something that we must work with and invite into our own lives on a daily basis. It’s not realistic to expect a quick fix. It takes patience, persistence, and gentleness. We all need to be willing to get in touch with ourselves and to learn that there’s no easy road to transformation. It’s a daily practice of love, and the greatest gift we can offer ourselves.