Describing my longer retreats always presents me with a challenge and an opportunity. The intention behind them is audacious and subtle, and communicating exactly what it is sometimes feels overwhelming. At the same time these retreats are the place where everything I teach comes together in the most comprehensive and intensive way so articulating them is a chance to express everything that my life is dedicated to. It has become my habit to prepare for each longer retreat by writing a series of essays that explain what happens on retreat and why it is designed the way it is.
This is the first in a series of seven essays.
My longer retreats combine meditation practice and philosophical inquiry to liberate us from the perceptual constraints of the current paradigm and create the space for novel possibilities to emerge between us.
The journey is simultaneously a retreat from everything we think we know and an exploration of new ways of being that we can barely imagine.
The meditative aspect of the retreat is a journey into the unknowable. The practice of sitting and being perfectly free, unattached and nonreactive allows all of the concepts of our mind to fall away.
You see, we live in a largely conceptual reality. The vast majority of what we experience are concepts – ideas that take on perceptual form through habit and familiarity.
The conceptual reality we live in is constantly reinforced through our use of language.
I am looking at something sitting here on the table in front of me. I habitually call it a coffee cup. But of course it is not a coffee cup. A coffee cup is just an idea, but I perceive this thing in front of me as a coffee cup.
The coffee cup is really an object, but an object is also an idea.
The coffee cup is actually a collection of sensations. Smoothness, hardness, curvedness, solidness, etc. But wait, these are also concepts.
If we let go of all conceptualization we enter into an experience of pure undifferentiated perception. It is a unity of experience that knows no difference. This is what is often referred to as non-dual experience in eastern traditions.
We will be tempted to think of this as oneness, but oneness is a concept. The experience that I’m speaking about is not an experience of oneness. It is an experience of not-knowing. It would be more accurate to call it emptiness rather than Oneness, but emptiness is also a concept.
To enter into a true non-conceptual relationship to the world we have to be willing to sustain a prolonged experience of not-knowing. In the face of the insecurity of not knowing there will always be a part of us that demands resolution.
That part of us will touch into the unknown for a second or two but will immediately demand to know what it is experiencing.
One great opportunity that we have on retreat is to learn how to rest in the unresolved, unknowable space of non-conceptual awareness.
When we sit in meditation we have the profound opportunity to radically de-conceptualize our sense of self.
You see, not only are all the objects around you conceptualized perceptions, but you are also a a conceptualized perception to yourself.
In meditation it is not the idea of a coffee cup that we are letting go of. We are letting go of the perception of being the person that we think we are who is doing something we call meditating.
As we let go more and more, we see how our sense of self is constructed in each moment from an amalgamated arrangement of sensations, memories, emotions and ideas. All of these are constantly being shaped into an experience of being the person that we think are.
As we let go even more we even lose the sense of separate sensations and fall into an experience of pure awareness.
We no longer exist as a recognizable self. We are there but not in any way that can be experienced. We are consciousness. We are awareness. But we are not an entity that is aware. There is no entity separate from awareness. There is just awareness. There just is.
In this sacred space we can only be. We cannot know anything or do anything. We simply are.
Knocking just on the other side of an invisible door there will always be our familiar mind begging for resolution. “Let me in!” It demands. “Let me see what’s going on in there.”
You will be tempted to open the door and allow the mind to find resolution by conceptualizing the mystery of being in an effort to satisfy its incessant need to know.
If you open the door you will inadvertently initiate a process that inevitably leads back to the conceptual world you just left behind.
On retreat we will spend extended periods of time resting in the unknowable realm of pure awareness. We will get increasingly comfortable with being unresolved about what is there and we will begin to feel the magic that always exists beyond the mind's ability to know.
The work of meditation clears our existential palette and prepares us to co-create an entirely new experience of reality.