Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Pleasure of Practice

Yesterday I was talking with someone who is leaving for a retreat today. She commented "I really need a retreat." As I reflected on this it reminded me of the many times I have thought the same thing. What is it about retreat practice that we would look forward to it? From the outside it certainly doesn't seem like a very pleasant experience, spending days not speaking to anyone, spending hours sitting in the same position hardly moving at all or walking very very slowly, sometimes being confronted by painful memories. My first retreat was extremely painful physically. Yet I and many others are drawn to return to retreats again and again.

This also brought to mind the memory of my early years of meditating. I had minimal instruction in how to practice, was practicing mostly by myself and certainly, in retrospect, didn't seem to experience any significant insights. Yet I was drawn to spending 20-30 minutes of my very limited "free" time sitting silently with attention turned inward day after day. What kept me going during this time?

I think the truth is that spending some time with a concentrated mind is actually a pleasant experience. In a practice that has "insight" in its name, we may get the message that insight or wisdom is all that matters. Yet it is this quality of serenity that comes from concentration that often sustains us and draws us deeper and deeper into the practice. In the Dhammapada, v. 372, the Buddha pointed to the complementary role of wisdom and concentration:
There is no concentration without wisdom,
No wisdom without concentration.
One who has both wisdom and concentration
Is close to peace and freedom.

This experience of serenity is what is called a spiritually pleasant experience, something more refined than the sense pleasures of everyday life. Because it is more refined, it offers a satisfaction that everyday pleasures do not, so it's refreshing. Of course it's important to understand that this serenity associated with a concentrated mind isn't the end of the path. But it's also important to acknowledge how valuable it is, how it nurtures and supports us through the ups and downs of this human life. It may not be the ultimate refuge of peace and freedom that the Buddha pointed to, but it certainly is a comforting refuge nevertheless.