January 19, 2007

Of Pizza Hut and Enlightenment

Andrew Merz

A truly spectacular benefit of working here at Trike is having the opportunity to take time off for extended retreats. I just returned from a month in the desert, and can't thank my colleagues enough for allowing me to disappear as we were closing the Spring issue and shouldering the extra burden while I was gone. Without going into detail, I'll just say that all sorts of interesting work was done, and I only hope that it will turn out to be for the benefit of all sentient beings, as they say, my coworkers included.

That said, I am still struggling to reenter normal life and the old nine-to-five after twelve hours in the shrine room every day for four weeks. As I imagine almost any retreatant will tell you, even the shortest weekend retreats can cast the modern world in any number of new lights, from the horribly jarring to overwhelmingly beautiful. The most common after-effect, I suspect, is the most obvious, especially after retreats with any amount of time spent in silence: our world can be really loud and fast. Even if you live by yourself in a quiet leafy burb, just turn on the tv... "HEY YOU!...YOUR LIFE STINKS!...ONLY PIZZA WITH CHEESE IN THE CRUST CAN FIX YOU!...BLAHBLAHBLAH!" and so forth. (Aren't television commercials perfect little compressed expressions of the worst of modern culture?)

My point is, most of us live in the midst of a constant sensory barrage, and much of it boils down to little more than a crust full of greasy cheese. We have almost no choice but to be dulled down by it all in day-to-day life, just for the sake of self-preservation. Thankfully, it only takes a few days in mindful repose to sharpen up the old senses and drop to deeper levels of ourselves than Pizza Hut and Madison Avenue can get at.

Naturally, once we're back in cheesy-crust land, re-adjustment can be an unpleasant process. Most retreats pay some kind of lip-service to this fact, at the very least giving seekers a few strong words of warning. Some concerned retreat organizers have gone further, developing and experimenting with various practice exercises designed to transition the hyper-mindful retreatant into a more-mindful-than-usual private citizen, un-traumatized by the transition. James Baraz and Charles T. Tart call them mindfulness extension exercises, and describe them at length in their paper available online here.

The exercises themselves and the participant reactions are of particular interest. While these were designed for people who'd been in silence for three months, I'm sure they could benefit the weekend-warrior as well. I've definitely found myself caught up in the hurrying exercise. It seems that for some reason I really, really need to be the first one up the subway steps in the morning. I just do! Go figure. That and cheesy crust, both very important. T'was clearly a month well spent.

Andrew Merz, Associate Editor

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