Sunday, March 1, 2009

Why do retreat?

So... for some time now, since The Rev created this blog, I've been invited to contribute and till now I've managed to put it off.

I'm not an adept at retreats - you could say I'm just a beginner. I've done couple of 10 day retreats and couple of weekend family retreat and one "householder style" 14 days.

My first 10 day retreat was about 4-5 years ago... I remember little about it except that it had deepened my inquisitiveness to spirituality. I do recall not sleeping much, being afraid of the dark, jumping at slight noises, being quite cold all the time, and also being served most delicious food by a small group of practitioners who as I recall followed Sufism. A vivid memory from that retreat was how I appeared to touch some of the other mens hearts (it was a mens only retreat).

My next 10 day was at Diamond Mountain with about 100 other practitioners - it was wild, beautiful, wonderful and magical. Anything i could put down in words would not do it justice - so I simply won't.

The Rev. has already talked about our first family retreat experiment - so there is not much for me to add except... I do recall having a headache most of the time. So I "cured" it by doing yoga asanas - Yes! by yoga and not taking Aspirin (sorry Pharma companies).

So why do I do retreats? I'll try to answer that through what I found had changed for me by doing retreats.

As a profession, I write software (yes I'm Indian!). And so does my brother Shekar (yes He's Indian too!). And both of us have been cutting code for over 24 years - him more than I. Most often when we talk, we end up talking "shop". One such time, Shekar and I ended up discussing how our minds have changed over the years.

It used to be the case, very early on in our software career, that we could hold thousands of lines of code "in memory" - in the sense that we could follow the logic of what the code did and how they various functions were interconnected, in what way/manner etc. And how changing one particular part could affect another in this way and so on... Those days, learning new languages, systems, applications was a breeze - we could become masters very quickly and develop complete working solutions rapidly.

Over time I guess it began to change - not that I noticed it till just a few years ago. My ability to learn new languages, new application environments quickly lessened. You could say that the environments, systems got more complicated, bloated - all that is generally true. And I notice that I cannot hold thousands of lines of code in my mind as I used to. Neither of us are slouches - especially Shekar. He has a very keen intellect and can keep track of long chain of logical philosophical arguments... and even he confessed that he noticed a marked difference.

What does this have to do with retreat?

The goal of retreat is to train the mind; the goal of a spiritual retreat such as the ones we did as a family is to habituate the mind to penetrate the true nature of reality.

What does this have to do with holding thousands of lines of code?

As a family man, its "becomes" difficult to take say a month off to train the mind to gain and hold realizations on how reality works. So... I ended up doing a form of retreat where the retreatant does prayer and certain meditation practices 4 times during a 24 hour period. And I did this while fulfilling my "obligations" at my job and as father, husband. Sometimes such a retreat can be called "householder style" (householder implying one who is "sole" bread winner in the family)

One day, while doing this householder style retreat, I was at my desk and *all of a sudden* I could hold "thousands of lines" of code in my head, again!. Somehow I'd regained this ability.

And the "sad" :-) part is that couple of weeks after this homeowner style retreat, I "lost" this ability again.

Therefore, it seems to me that retreats, especially those that are focused on prayer and meditation, do sharpen the mind, they do increase the mind's ability to focus, its ability to hold a single object for long periods. And this ability can be very practical! In my case, I was able to identify the nature of a particularly vexing bug and rectify it. If you know software, it had to do with multiple threads and timing; if you don't then just know that such bugs are *hard* to diagnose let alone solve.

One could argue that doing a daily meditations also achieves a state of mind that is able to focus single pointedly. That is of course true. And there is a certain power to retreat - perhaps it comes from turning away from the seemingly normal routine, carving out a time that is specific, concentrated and dedicated to silent practice; perhaps it comes from following a proscribed schedule of prayers and meditation - one that jives with the rhythm of our inner body (whats that? perhaps some yogi can write on that here). I don't particularly know. Here I'm simply commenting on one tangible result I got from doing retreat - your mind gets this ability to focus, QUICKLY! And this anyone can use !

And it seems to me that if your goal is to truly understand the nature of reality, how things work/appear to work, then silent meditation retreats, are a must.

Then you might say - "well, you got it and then lost it again. Whats the use of that?" Here, I believe that all spiritual paths would say - do it for others! Serve others! There appears to be some kind of connection between serving w/love & compassion and that helps changing our minds permanently. My heart is not fully open yet, so I cannot provide an anecdote on this...