THIS IS A REPRINT OF A BLOG BY DAOIST PRACTITIONER CRAIG MALLETT and could interest all those who meditate. Craig writes some great blogs, and this is one of them. A link to his website is below. Enjoy the read.
The Daoist tradition I train and teach has a very specific approach to cultivation. Being a clan or family lineage, we have kept strongly to the notion that it is not a reclusive practice. This means that the tradition and all the practices are designed to be done in life, alongside the difficulties of family, social life, work and so on. This is part of the balance quality we strive for, treating yin and yang as equally important as each other. In this case, the yin and yang pair would be mundane life (yin) vs spiritual life (yang). Many traditions don’t follow this notion – you have plenty of temple traditions where the idea is to leave the mundane world and live in a temple where the mundane difficulties are mostly non-existent. This has its benefits, as you can get some serious spiritual work done, but it also poses a risk if you plan on returning to the mundane world, as it can be a harsh reality check.
I know a stack of people who tried the temple thing for a short or long term, some staying for decades in the temple. With universal predictability, they all returned to the mundane world and started indulging in the pleasures denied them for that period and within a short period, they were up to all the usual shenanigans that the rest of us get up to – junk food, Netflix binges, drinking and smoking, etc. A friend of mine recently told me a similar story; his friend returning from a long period in a temple, busting through the door, still in full monk garb, throws down his bag and immediately downs a neat whisky and gets stuck into the weed.
The point is not to deny the usefulness of the temple traditions; it’s just to see that they are built for temple life and are mostly not super appropriate for the mundane world. If you stay in temple life, it can be incredible, and some people are drawn to this naturally. We call these people the ‘spiritual battery’ of the world; it’s an important task. But if we want to engage with the mundane, we need a practice grounded in day-to-day life, finding time for our practice in amongst all the other things happening. We don’t want the ‘golden prison’ where we use our practice to escape our mundane difficulties, rather the mundane is the pressure cooker where the rubber hits the road, and we get to see where our practice is at.
Retreats fashioned around this idea of engaging with the mundane world can be incredibly useful. Once we have a daily practice established and working well, taking some time (short or long) to get away for a bit and really push our practice to new depth is incredibly useful. Here the idea isn’t to escape but rather to focus and discover the new and bring these discoveries back into our daily life afterwards. This last part is super important, for if we do the retreat without the grounding of daily practice, it will be nice for a bit, but the effects will soon wear off, and we will be back to where we were prior to the retreat within a few months. To integrate and keep the discoveries of the retreat, we must have a daily practice that works in the mundane world. It’s not meant to be a merry-go-round of “retreat, come back to daily life until it’s broken again, retreat to recover, and repeat”. This isn’t our way, and this process can and does go on for years and years without progress for many. Rather, the retreat is there to take the daily practice to a new depth so that we can continue on in that depth, furthering it and integrating it with our lives.
Practice should evolve. Just as stagnant as the repetitive ‘cleansing’ from retreats mentioned above is having a daily practice fall into a dull routine, business as usual. If we are discovering the new and the practice is evolving, it should not be business as usual. We should perpetually be on the frontier of discovering and integrating our most recent discoveries. Retreats and workshops (which are small retreats) can be a great way to enliven a stagnant practice again, not as a replacement for practice, but as a supercharger to make things even more interesting than they already should be (if your practice isn’t interesting something is going very, very wrong).