This past weekend, I went on a personal retreat at the New Camaldoli Hermitage, a monastery south of Big Sur on the pacific coast of California. As the name “hermitage” suggests, it’s a place for retreating into silent prayer, meditation and contemplation. Aside from taking a walk together, there isn’t any common area for people to congregate and visit with each other. Signs of preserving silence are everywhere. Meals are picked up from a small kitchen and eaten alone in retreaters’ rooms.
Outside of my work life and a small network of friends and local family members, I pretty much live like a hermit already. However, I’ve been feeling for quite some time a strong yearning to go deeper within than what my daily spiritual practice provides. Recently, this yearning also came in the form of wanting to get away from it all and being in an environment that’s conducive to being in quiet solitude without phones, the internet, TV, etc.
Live with a Monastic Heart
While I was at the hermitage, there was a preached retreat going on. One of the monks, who’s a licensed clinical psychologist, spoke about being conscious of being vs. doing. I crashed one of the sessions (with permission from the priest) when he talked about, among other things, what it meant to live with a monastic heart. As part of that topic, he encouraged us to find the simple in the complicated in how we live.
What I took away from that lecture is to become conscious of the ways in which I complicate life unnecessarily, which keeps me from the simplicity of living in grace every day. Clearly, this isn’t a simple concept—not punt intended—but here’s the beginning of a list to contemplate:
- Detach from the form and method in and through which a wish/desire must manifest. When I become hung up on how something I want must be fulfilled and who/what it must be, I risk developing blinders and missing what’s right in front of me. It may meet my wish, perhaps even better than I had hoped, but I don’t recognize it, because it doesn’t fit my very specific preconceptions.
- Know and remember the difference between circumstantial delight/satisfaction and true happiness. I’m not above enjoying material comforts, nor is it wrong to have desires. After all, they’re all part of this human experience. However, no external condition can bring lasting joy, because conditions can—and often do—change. If I forget that and keep looking to the next job, the next relationship, etc., to be happy, I forget the simple truth that joy is my unconditional true nature and instead take on the complication of trying to make things happen.
- Pay attention to and trust simple guidance from my inner wisdom, instead of following the fear-based prescriptions of ego. The perfect example of this point happened at the start of this retreat—let me tell you the story.
Last Friday, I completely trusted the Google Maps app on my iPhone to get me from work to the hermitage. After hours on the road, when my phone announced that I had reached my destination, I found myself at a state park, not the hermitage. I tried to call, but my phone had no signal. I quickly found myself leaving Big Sur, where the hermitage was supposed to be located.
I began to panic, as it was starting to get late. I tried to remain calm and access my inner wisdom, pleading, “What do I do? Please help me get there.” In response, I heard the familiar soundless voice of my inner wisdom saying, “Keep going.” I drove for several miles longer, but, seeing no sign of anything other than the mountain to my left and the ocean to my right, I doubted the validity of “Keep going.” So, I turned around and started driving back north.
I pulled into another retreat center in Big Sur in the hopes of finding a phone or an internet connection to get directions. Didn’t get either, but, upon asking (a somewhat surly woman who didn’t really want to be bothered), I was told that the hermitage was still another half hour south. I got back into my car, and headed south—again. Some 20 minutes, not half an hour, later I saw the sign for the hermitage. Phew!
As I made the two-mile scenic steep climb up the mountain to this hermitage, I realized that my own inner voice was correct after all when it told me to keep going. But my fearful ego took over and overruled my innate wisdom. Not trusting the simple wisdom of “keep going” unnecessarily added at least an extra half hour to my trip. I couldn’t help but wonder: How many times in my life had I done that, i.e., ignored my inner wisdom and chosen to listen to ego’s fear-based counsel to give up and turn around prematurely, or to choose another safer alternative that didn’t get me to my desired destination, so as to avoid continuing into the unknown?
Aside from the above lesson of seeing simplicity in the complicated, I also realized how much I had been living in my head of late and neglecting my heart—no wonder I had been yearning to get away. That became quite apparent the first morning I was at the hermitage, sitting on a bench overlooking the majestic Pacific Ocean, feeling the insignificance of everything that occupied my mind day in and day out.
As soon as I began contemplating what I hoped to get out of the weekend, a question of the heart immediately surfaced, as if my heart wanted to say, “Remember me? I’ve been patiently waiting for you to stop your striving and ego need to prove yourself at work to remember to tend to me.” With that realization, I changed my plan to read over the weekend, but instead just allowed myself to be in my heart space for the rest of the retreat.
Over to you: What do you think about living with a monastic heart and seeing the simplicity in the complicated? Do you tend to live more in your head than your heart? Would love for you to share your reflections below.
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