Notes on “on retreat”


I bristle at this word because it projects two worlds. It suggests backing away from something pernicious, onerous, oppressive into some promise of a space free of that.  It connects with other problematic terms: the world, as in going out into the world, or worse, into the real world; or Dogen’s formulation of zazen meditation as a “backwards step” – why back, not forward, or simply wherever one already is?   I don’t like to think that I have to retract, draw back, that the world is something to withdraw from, that there’s somewhere you can go that is not the world.

Why would I want to go anywhere that is not the world?

And yet I know the word is pointing to something useful, a way of interrupting a habit, or of establishing a boundary, a line of intention demarcating a space dedicated to a certain quality of attention, the notion of a haven, a refuge. I just would like that space to still be framed as part of the world.  I don’t want to leave the world.

Instead of retreat, how about rest?

[wondering about French: rester “to stay”]

Come to rest

Come to


Musical rest:  it’s not that the music has stopped, it’s that the music includes the silence.

The world includes rest. As in, sometimes one engages in one kind of activity and then another kind of activity at another time.  

The need for rest can also imply something has gone very very wrong.  As if to need rest is to be suspect, to have failed in some way.  

She needs some rest.

She just needs some rest.

Yes she does.

I noticed in a state of chronic tiredness that I had come to think this overextended person was “myself.”  And I developed strategies of cheer that sustained themselves on very little energy, high frequency helloes that mimic a rested state, a state ready to spring into action but really it was saying, oh no not one more thing.



Translation:  “I’m exhausted!!!”  But come in anyway and I will do my best to cheer us all up !!!  xxxooo

The oh no not one more thing I mistook to be my native response when in fact I was simply tired.

I simply needed some rest.



resting state
resting pulse
resting heart rate
resting heart
rest home
heart rest
arm rest
arm wrestle
at rest
come to rest
come to wrest
bed wrest
She’s on bed rest

Pelvic rest: what my mother was on after having her uterus – what had seemed to me to be a nothing, an open space – removed.  Something could be removed from it, me, for example, but what happened when it was removed?  What then occupied its place?

Robert Thurman’s definition of sunyata: womb of emptiness.

The world includes rest.  So there is no going in and out of it.

We should not figure rest as an exceptional state.

This place, this putative retreat is is figured as existing in some pocket of not of this world.

When one is going to work, you go in, start working, then you leave.  When does the retreat start?  When does it end?  Where is the line?  How to avoid the bends as you ascend the water column?

My mom would take a long nap and then come downstairs astonished, “I was really out!” As if it surprised her that she should need some rest.  As if she really had to go somewhere else without expecting to in order to care for herself. I must have needed it she would say. What if we could actually be aware that we need rest, and just actively, intentionally do the radical act of lying down, instead of having to be knocked out?

Maybe we resist napping because it’s like dying.

Coming in and out of consciousness

She’s in and out.

“I’m going out into the world now”

she is not “of this world”
to “be in the world but not ‘of’ it”
this world, that world
I just came in from the other world.  (B after seeing L when he was dying)

Olga spoke of feeling jet lag after being with the dying.

Retreat seems steeped in post-industrial mind that posits another world as golden, a vacation world.  A la Sir Philip Sidney:  The Golden World, i.e. the world without death.  Jason’s friend’s Rabbinic studies on purity:  “Purity isn’t about removing sex.  It’s about removing death.”  Break the bedpost of the bed where the person died.  So the bed can be restored to its predeath state.  Break it to restore it.  Break it to interrupt death.  Break it so death will forget where it left off.  Break it to burn from the sheets the tinge of death.

There are ants who carry ants to the graveyard have the smell of the grave on them.  Then they get hauled off to the cemetery themselves, still alive. Their proximity to death leaves them indistinguishable from the dead.

But what use is a pure state if the “pure” state doesn’t include death?  Life cancels death just as much as death cancels life. Each carries the other forward.   It becomes impossible to tell where one ends and one begins. But these fine gradations are of little comfort when our friend is dying.

How is she?

She is at rest

He’s resting comfortably
A body at rest
Coming, little death
the second coming to

A refractory period

coming and going
Dogen:  inside the gate there are grasses
outside the gate there are grasses

Someone in Shohaku’s Dogen class, someone in a brown robe asked, about the grasses, one of Dogen’s conventional placeholders for delusion: “but if the grasses are on both sides what’s the point?”  And why does this kind of question, how it misses the point, always make me furious?  Because it plucks me out of the world and it steals the world from me, steals me from the world.  Steal away.

I become stolen.

I have been robbed from the world when the world is figured as something to retreat from.

Kurosawa’s Burglar’s entrance:  when nothing can be stolen from you.

Rest looks like nothing is happening so it looks like you can just take it out.  Stitch together the place where it was so where it was meets where it now isn’t.

Pass your needle back through nothing into something through nothing again.

hysteros.  restectomy.

Since nothing is happening when you’re resting why not skip it?  Doing nothing is not passive.

It took skill and attention not to go to the lecture last night.  To actually be on vacation.  Doing nothing does (doing nothing).   Zazen sits zazen.

My sheets are white and they do something


The important difference between patience and waiting.
Patience is an active posture of curiosity.  You don’t leave the world.
Waiting can feel like suspension, like leaving the world, waiting for the world to begin.

In patience, the world has always begun; it is showing itself to you slowly, at its pace, which only sometimes matches my pace.

When the world’s pace matches my pace, I call that happiness.

What if I could call happiness the times when time doesn’t match what I want?

All those times I think I have left the world or the world has left me.

 active rest
active arrest
under arrest
under rest
under house arrest
home rest
rest home


“You need to stop.”
“No, you do”

Which brings us to stop
Which brings us to rest
Full stop.
Hello. Full stop.
It came to rest here.
Rest in peace.
Rest. Stop


[a frame from Fear and Loathing we watched at Butter while waiting for the Hubba Hubba Review]

When I travel I like to make good time so I detest pausing at Rest Stops though I like that they are named after poets.  A poem can be a rest stop and then you start up again.  But where have you been?  On retreat?

Sleeping into the exhaustion.  Sleep the exhaustion into an ordinary tiredness.  Sleep until you open your eyes.

Hi!  Where have you been?

At Rest.

The body is no place for the faint of heart.

The body needs rest.  But not retreat.



One Thought on “Notes on “on retreat”

  1. “The body needs rest. But not retreat.”

    According to the Pali Canon, the historical buddha would encourage “there are trees and roots of trees– go calm yourself under them and study the mind in solitude.” Something about this type of activity was conducive to Awakening. Yet there are also plenty of examples of people waking up in other ways: studying a koan, nursing a baby, and even a nun about to hang herself.
    Perhaps what they all have in common is time alone with one’s own mind/body, somehow in a sincere way. It is less distracting and more calm to do that in a “retreat” environment– easier to be reminded of an intention to contemplate, and less opportunities to loose one’s cool and lash out in all manner of ways.
    But real virtue is impervious, always finding itself. The peace the buddha pointed to was “unshakeable” in a world that is inherently unstable. A radical letting go of conditions is the only reliable refuge, and indeed, often it is unchecked fear that drives people “away from their lives”/to “retreat”. In the dhammapada, it says something like “people threatened by fear will go to many refuges, but none is a secure refuge from death. Only nirvana is this escape.”
    To live a fearless life, to enter in to one’s own life without this kind of basic avoidance or denial, yes– then there is just the question of care. What is my body’s need now, engagement, or rest? Not priveleging one over another, and allowing the natural phases of the body– whatever it is– to work…

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