Letting Go of Everything on Silent Retreat
Over the Christmas holidays, I had the profound privilege of participating in the 10 day silent retreat here at Foxhollow, EnlightenNext’s international retreat center. This was my fourth time on a retreat of this sort and it was, as always, an amazing and deeply impacting experience. Unlike other retreats we offer, this retreat is self-directed, and the results are directly correlated to the amount of effort and intention you bring to the practice and to giving yourself unconditionally to the airtight structure of the retreat which Andrew Cohen has created.
Indeed, there are so many things to say about these retreats, and this one in particular, but in this blog I want to focus on the heart of the retreat and the power and practice of letting go of everything. I plan to write future blogs exploring topics like: the value of spiritual experience; are the mind and time the same thing?; the sacred culture that emerges on retreat; and discovering the buoyant power of silence and stillness.
So back to this retreat – We start early, at 430am, with chanting about surrender. Then, at 5am, we perform 600 prostrations, which takes about 75 minutes, chanting silently and inwardly 300 times in sync with each prostration, “to be free means to having nothing, to be free means to know nothing, to be free means to be nobody” and then for the next 300 chanting, “to be free means to face everything, to be free mean to avoid nothing.” Both of these silent and inward focused chants are designed to ensure that we maintain the posture of consciousness itself, free from any reference points, returning again and again and again to zero and to letting go. It’s a very physical practice in one sense, and the goal is for the prostrations to look beautiful. This aesthetic and focused contemplation in motion creates a most profound environment of inner solitude and starting the day with such a strong outward expression of intention is sort of like launching yourself from a metaphysical cannon into a long comtemplative arc of the next 15 hours of practice.
What follows is an ever-deepening rhythm of meditation and chanting, designed to facilitate one and only one thing: letting go of absolutely everything. Until we really engage with a practice and retreat of this type, it’s impossible to imagine beforehand. Mostly, you tend to think, “Well, I could never do that much practice!” But I don’t think it’s actually true. On this retreat, for the first time ever, practitioners were participating (students who are relatively newer to this practice) – and they all flowered and soared throughout. Even after doing a number of these retreats, you can’t really anticipate it in advance, you can only surrender your mind and embrace the practice and see what happens. If you give yourself to it fully, you find yourself suddenly on a track of infinitely increasing depth and discovery.
What is it exactly that we discover? Well, in letting go of everything, or assuming the position of no relationship, you discover and rediscover, the simple and absolute power of letting go of your mind. It does not matter how many times you do this, it doesn’t get old and it doesn’t cease to surprise. I remember once Andrew saying to me during one of these retreats, how many times do you think you let go of everything a day? And I said it must be hundreds if not thousands and he said…probably more! When you really start to let go in earnest, there is no end to it, and you start to realize how subtle the process of letting go actually is. The mind’s capacity to weave itself into your practice is astonishing. In one instant, you can be deeply in touch with the sheer and total freedom of letting go of the world, and literally in the next moment, you can be a million miles away and lost in your thoughts, and you don’t even know. The experience and/or process of letting go is absolutely distinct from the the mind and time…they are, as Andrew has said, two lines that never meet.
My experience of letting go is such that the more I do it, the more I long to recede from any external stimuli. Like a whirlpool, there is a downward pull into the depth of the Self, into the infinity of pure being, untouched by this world completely. You just want to continue to release yourself from everything – from any assumptions, conditions, impressions, conclusions, observations, illuminations, experiences, insights, delights, all of it! That’s the thing – contemplating nothing means really contemplating nothing at all! Even deep and profound moments of inspiration become another object to release from your needy paws. It’s amazing to consider what we find in this process and practice of no relationship. There is such a total conviction in the perfect rightness of assuming this position of letting go because one knows, at a level beyond conceptual knowing, that this is a position at once invincible and free, and simultaneously You as your most essential self. I think for the postmodern self, like all of us, this is an ultimately important discovery, because, aside from drug-induced experiences, our secular and superficial culture does not offer any indication that cultivating this dimension of Self is important or relevant. In fact, according to our culture, it’s very questionable that this spiritual ground even exists and that is exactly why we all need to storm the spiritual citadel so to speak, and bring back evidence, through the transformation of our own selves, that this dimension is the essence of all that is good, true, and beautiful.
In truth, ten days is really not enough. Many of the masters go on retreat to abide in this non-being for many years on end, all to deepen one’s conviction in the truth of this part of ourselves. Ten days gives you a powerful taste of the truth of the Self. When I write or speak about the retreat, the deep echo of the experience reverberates in my being, and I experience permeability between this world and that one. I think that is part of our job as practitioners of evolutionary enlightenment, to continue to deepen our capacity to be vessels for this dimension, to bring it more fully into this world through our own intention, commitment, and love for Spirit. I feel very fortunate that we are all together in this, committed to bringing about some sort of tidal wave of spiritual renaissance.