The first thing about spiritual practice is that, for it to work, we have to do it. An obvious truth. The second thing about spiritual practice is that we need to do it regularly—mostly daily, if we can. Again, a no-brainer. The third thing isn’t as obvious. For our spiritual practice to really kick in, it helps to put some energetic effort into it—sort of like that extra oomph we use to open a stuck jar of peanut butter. Without this third component, our practice can get stuck in the land of calm. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with this; it’s just that there is much more to be gained from the practice if we help it to flower.
Long retreats are all about this third component, energetic effort. Whenever I settle in for a ninety-day ango, or practice period, such effort is reflected in longer meditation periods, chanting, and daily sutra study. Because I know that the retreat will be worth it, but also hard to do—at least in the beginning—I inevitably find myself turning to one of South Korea’s great teachers of the twentieth century, Zen Master Kusan Sunim, for words of encouragement. I know from hard-won experience that ninety days doesn’t seem like a long time until you start watching your mind like a hawk, knowing that the only breaks for three months will be for manual labor, walking the dog, and an occasional sneak peek at the Internet.
Kusan Sunim has never let me down. “Sit like a hen hatching her eggs,” he tells me. “She is always aware of what is happening and knows when it is time to turn each egg just a little bit. Or like a cat watching a mouse hole, be constantly alert, knowing that one glance elsewhere could mean the loss of the mouse. Don’t give up. Never give up. You aren’t doing this for yourself, after all. You are doing it to save all beings!”
Okay! I say to myself. I can do this. It’s hard not to break into some kind of battle cry or anthem like La Marseillaise when I read this man’s encouragements.
But Sunim was never one to stop with simple admonitions. He also had a way of telling stories that always hover around in my head for when I need them. My favorite is about a man who spends his time trying to scoop all the water out of the ocean to find a lost jewel. He goes down to the ocean every day for years to scoop away—until finally the god of the ocean can’t stand it anymore and asks him what he is doing. He responds that he is emptying the ocean to find his jewel. The god makes fun of him but the man is undeterred. The ocean is finite, after all, and he has plenty of time if he adds up all of his future lives. He’ll get that jewel sooner or later. The god of the ocean thinks about this and finally decides that the fellow may actually pull this off, so he finds the jewel himself and hands it over.
Maybe something like this could never happen. But maybe it could. How will I ever know if I don’t practice with energetic alertness? That’s what angos are for—scraping everything else away until all that is left is a world where anything is possible.
Coming out of intense practice periods always feels just like coming home after a long trip away. There is a freshness to every little thing. It is hard not to weep with gratitude, be you male or female, at every aspect of our lives, warts and all. Melodrama has softened or disappeared. Troubles have often completely resolved themselves without any input from us. We have more energy and our creative sides tend to go a little bat-shit crazy. In other words, the retreat is always worth our effort. I’m happy for company.
How to do a 90-day ango home retreat
- Pick the dates.
- Clear out your agenda as much as you can. These retreats work best if you stay close to home.
- Tell family and friends that you won’t be as available as usual, e.g., that you are planning to “just say no” to texting.
- Pick a spiritual topic to study—the Bible, a sutra, the writings of a spiritual figure you admire.
- Gather all the retreat supplies you’ll need.
- Decide what your daily schedule will be and write it down. It is okay to include some days off. Here’s mine:
A.M. Five o’clock: wake-up, stretches, prostrations, formal sitting(s) of 25 minutes each, chanting, walking meditation.
P.M. Sutra study, household chores, more walking meditation. (I’ve given up trying to sit at night because I just fall asleep—a side effect of aging. You might have better luck.)
This is all much easier than it looks. After a week of getting used to it, angos feel a little like a four-dimensional comfort blanket.
Geri Larkin spent this fall studying the Lankavatara Sutra when she wasn’t meditating, cooking, or taking care of the hermitage.