On my first Buddhist meditation retreat over Thanksgiving weekend, 1980, the teacher, a Buddhist monk, took away our car keys, watches, and jewelry at the beginning of the retreat. The idea was to keep us from running away, stop us from thinking about time, and make us let go of physical adornment.
I was reminded of this reading the article in the New York Times this Sunday about technology and mindfulness. It got me thinking about how my own retreat experience has evolved over the last three decades. For many years, unless I was on a long retreat (a month or more), I didn't communicate at all with the outside world. On long retreats I would write and receive a couple letters. Retreats were a true refuge from the world. In the fall of 1981, towards the end of a three-month retreat the teachers told us that Anwar Sadat had been assassinated. This was the first and only news we received from the outside world during that entire retreat.
Only after my daughter was born in 1998 did I begin to change this pattern. I would call home, usually once a day in the evening, from a landline that whatever retreat center I was attending had available, sometimes a pay phone and sometimes an office phone. As I tracked my meditation experience on these retreats, I didn't see much affect from these short calls. Officially I was breaking the container of the silent retreats, but I felt that with my extensive retreat experience, I could handle it.
By 2009 my daughter had her own cell phone, and I began to text from a retreat for the first time. I didn't like leaving her or my wife for extended periods, and so staying more closely in touch seemed like a good idea. On my daily after-lunch walks, I would call or text my wife. I did a lot of meditation in my own room, and once or twice a day exchanged texts with my daughter from there. None of this seemed terribly disruptive, although I recognized that a shift was happening in my commitment to practice.
For the past two decades I've gone on a retreat of between 10 days and a month each year. In 2010 and 2011, these were not wholehearted. One involved teacher training, and so I not only called and texted, but checked email as well. The other was an informal self-retreat where I also allowed in all the electronica. Again, I justified this behavior as that of an experienced meditator who could handle it.
In 2012, the wheels came off. I went on a three-week self-retreat at Vajrapani Institute in the Santa Cruz Mountains, where I had a private cabin, meals delivered, and a beautiful setting in which to practice. Being self-employed, I justified checking email each evening as a necessary business requirement. I called and texted wife and daughter. Half-way through the retreat a problem came up in my business, and not only did I have to make calls and send more emails, but my meditation started to slip badly.
I'd come into the retreat in something of a funk, a winter depression that I hoped the retreat would wipe away. Instead, I found myself wandering the ridgetop feeling sad, lonely, and restless. Finally, days from the end of the retreat, I got a text saying that a dear old friend of mine had died suddenly. I replied to the texter, my friend's son-in-law, and carried on an electronic conversation with him over days. My retreat was essentially over. Instead of finishing, I wound up breaking out and going for a day trip to Santa Cruz.
Despite all this, I'd done a lot of meditation over those three weeks, and I'd gotten pretty deep into concentration and inner stillness. I've been in those states many times, and after such a long retreat, that calm is usually sustained for weeks or even months afterward. The shock came when the first day after getting home I sat down to meditate and couldn't arouse the least bit of quiet in my mind. It was as though I'd never even gone on the retreat. Stunned and disappointed, I found that the depression as well had not been cleared out. As I dealt with these surprising aftereffects of the retreat, I had to face my own responsibility in what had happened. I knew that all the interaction with the outside world had completely disrupted the retreat experience. I also realized that after more than thirty years of going on retreats, I'd lost my juice. I decided that I was going to take a year off for the first time in decades and see how that felt. As that year winds down and I think about my next retreat, I feel as if I need to go back to basics.
I'm planning a short retreat early next year -- maybe a week at most. And I'm leaving my cell phone and tablet at home. My wife and daughter can deal. But I'm not giving my wedding ring to the teacher.
Kevin Griffin is the author of two books on Buddhism and the 12 Steps, One Breath at a Time and A Burning Desire. His music CD, Laughing Buddha, is an eclectic blend of Buddhist-themed rock tunes. Visit his website.