Starting A Long Retreat, by Guy Armstrong:


About Guy Armstrong:

What has always engaged me is working with practitioners who are deepening their commitment to the Dharma and then seeing them take a quantum leap in their understanding. My contribution to this commitment is working towards conveying a Theravadan practice with a Mahayana spirit.


So, I hope you had a kind and pleasant day today. In terms of ordinary start of retreat, was this a little more pleasant? You got a few extra things to do, talking to each other, getting to know some people, picking apples. I think we’re going to be eating apples now for the rest of the three months. So you did a great job.

But it is a special time starting a retreat like this where do you, here, for six weeks or three months. It’s a big undertaking. And tonight, I want to talk about kind of this approach of starting a long retreat, because it’s like nothing else in our lives and nothing else in the world. I think we all believe that it’s one of the greatest things the human being can do. Near many cultures, throughout history, who have revered this in that spirit.

When you practice in Thailand, or Burma, or other parts of Asia, you practice in a culture where this long has been understood as one of the greatest undertakings that a person can make, and meditators undertake it are really respected more highly than government officials or well-paid generals or politicians. It’s very unusual when we practice in a culture where the meditator is kind of in the pinnacle of status. Because it’s not as you know, it’s not like that in our culture, rather the opposite. Our culture doesn’t really have any frame of reference for what we’re doing, so if you look from the outside, there’s sort of modern, western eyes, this looks pretty strange. And the only thing I could really compare it to, to get any respect in this culture is like an extreme sport when you’re doing the most extreme things you could possibly do.

A few years ago, I went to Burma and ordained for about six weeks and practiced with a very wonderful meditation master named ___. The conditions were difficult. I lost about an average of half a pound a day while I was there, eating just one meal, not a lot of protein, rainy season. And so, I came back after six weeks and met some people that I’ve known for a lot of years, and one of the people that I spent some time with is a friend, not a close friend, but he is a friend, he’s an ex-navy seal. And for those of you who aren’t from this country, the navy seals a very elite part of a fighting force. They’re the kind of guys who get dropped off in submarines in a kind of a James Bond style of operation, and climb up on a shore, and then do battle in foreign lands, they’re trained to do that kind of work. Their training is very intense. Physically demanding. Sometimes, people die in the training.

So, I came back, I lost a lot of weight, my head was still pretty shaved. You know, I looked pretty bedraggled, to tell you the truth. And the monastery didn’t impress him, you know, Buddhism didn’t impress him, meditation didn’t particularly impress him, but what he was really impressed by was that I sat still for eight hours a day. Because he knew that was not an easy thing to do. And it’s not an easy thing to do, as you all well know.

So there is this kind of combination of extreme effort that’s required in doing this practice fully with the wholehearted commitment, but you also know the incredible that comes out of it. I don’t know any other path to get to his range of benefits so directly and have them be developed so strongly and so reliably. We heard a number of them this morning as you were stating your intentions, the development of peace, of compassion and love, of wisdom, of coming towards the end of suffering, of healing, of equanimity, of spaciousness, of inner strength and balance.

The benefits, when you stop to think about it, are really unmatched, but the effort is also kind of unmatched. We are fortunate enough to know that it’s worth it. You know, a lot of people don’t, but I want to appreciate again the kind of challenge that you’re all undertaking, and also the possibilities, which are really tremendous here.

So I want to talk about given this very unique and fruitful situation, I know it’s going to be fruitful and a wonderful experience for everyone, because that’s just been our experience through so many of these. I want to talk about how to approach, both into the very practical terms, what to do with the body. And kind of heart terms, what to do with attitude, and our kind of motivation in it. And also just some information, just conceptually, some things about undertaking a long retreat. Those are the three areas I want to talk about this evening.

And I want to start by touching on two things that Carol mentioned last night—inspiration is an aspiration. The first one, inspiration, is a very important element of why we’re here. So I was curious what the dictionary had to say about it and when I looked it up, I found this many of you know, it’s from the Latin word ___, which means to breathe. And this word ___ is also the root of the word spirit. So inspiration and spiritual are linked in their root meanings and it’s linked the breath. And you’ll find this connection between breath and spirit in a number of cultures, that’s an English, Western culture of course, in Hawaii, the Hawaiian language, the word “Aloha,” means the breath of life, and it also means love or affection. So it has a lot of meaning. So when someone in Hawaii says “aloha” to you, they may be saying “hello as a greeting,” or “goodbye as a greeting,” but they’re also saying love, affection, and life in that word.

In Pali, the language of the old ___, the ___ about breathing is called the ___.

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