what happens on retreat

October 11th, 2017

Someday, I told myself, I was going to sit a long retreat. I signed up for ten days, but by the second day I wanted out. Midway through the sleepy dawn sitting, I slunk out of the meditation hall into what I thought would be the invisibility of my dorm room. I didn’t plan to stay away long. I would just take a short break from the aching effort of staying awake. I was a beginner, you know, doing my best, and I thought I deserved a little me time. It would be a while before I began to realize that, no matter what I’m doing, it’s all me time. A few minutes into my escape, the door opened and two staff members came in and convened an impromptu meeting right next to me as I lay mortified on my foam mattress, staring up at the ceiling. That woke me up! I couldn’t wait to get out of my getting out.

At no time during the next twenty years of practice have I ever fled a sitting period, although I’ve wanted to. Of course, there are many ways to flee discomfort and difficulty, and I’ve explored just about all of them unsuccessfully. The best place to practice is a place you don’t want to be, using the time you don’t think you have.

That morning I learned that resolving the great matter of life and death starts with the little matter of showing up. I showed up to the zendo every morning, every afternoon, and every evening. I showed up to sit in one spot, upright, and watched the light rise and fall overhead. I surrendered; I settled; I entered samadhi, which means I stopped running around in my head. As much. The time that followed wasn’t fast or slow. It wasn’t long or short. It didn’t come or go. When the retreat was over, I went home happy and excited, babbling about the discovery I had made.

“I know what a day is!” I said to my roommate at the time. He suspected I’d been off chasing unicorns and rainbows. “It is daylight, followed by darkness, followed by daylight!” He looked at me funny. Maybe these retreats weren’t such a good idea. I was trying to describe what I’d seen: a day has no beginning and no end. It goes on forever. Conditions change, that’s for sure. The light shifts and the breeze moves; the temperature goes up and down; people are born and they die; the pages on a calendar flip; the second hand sweeps; toenails grow and hair falls out; but time itself stands still. There is no greater joy than seeing through time, because then you’ve touched the leaf tip of eternity, which looks exactly like your backyard right now, overgrown with time.

Where else could it be but right here now?


Excerpted from Paradise in Plain Sight ©2014 by Karen Maezen Miller. Printed with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA.

Photos by Rick McCleary.


  1. I spent one summer in high school helping out on an organic farm. One day I had to weed out a field of carrots, by hand, alone. The rows were soooo long I think one row took me at least an hour (I lost track of time). In the middle of the row I could not see the beginning nor the end of it. But I did gain a vivid understanding of a day within those abstract surreal surroundings. The shift in light, the movement of the sun, the way colours change during the day, the fading of the light, no thoughts except for the weeds in front of me.
    Thank you for reminding me of that. It was a glorious day. And they payed me for that experience, can you believe that?

    Comment by Sim — October 11, 2017 @ 3:53 pm

  2. Thank you for this, Karen. Especially this: “The best place to practice is a place you don’t want to be, using the time you don’t think you have.” For all my practice, reading, and alleged understanding of the Dharma, I still make a distinction between my practice and some of the messier aspects of life (in my case, dating after a difficult divorce five years ago.) I find myself clinging to notions of what’s holy and sacred, and all the inconvenient, painful, and messy aspects of life that only seem to “get in the way.” I’m grateful for your writing; the email reminding me of your new post was, as Thich Nhat Hanh says, a bell reminding me to return to my true home of mindfulness.

    Comment by Stephen Pradarelli — October 12, 2017 @ 2:45 am

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