In the depths of February, I spent a week at a Buddhist retreat center in the wilds of Massachusetts. For a week, I practiced solitude in the company of others. For a week, I was a nun. I vowed to be silent and practice the gentle act of renunciation that is mindfulness. Withdrawing from the world of grasping, I gave my attention to the present moment, receiving what is given without judgment or fear. This was not the solitude of Jesus in the desert or in the garden on the night before he died. This was not the solitude of the Buddha sitting under tree on the night before his enlightenment. In different ways, both of those beings were seeking something new, something unknown by other humans. I practiced the solitude of childhood.
In Pali, the language of the earliest Buddhist texts, “sati” or mindfulness literally means to remember. I went on retreat to remember. For months before I went away, on the train or on the phone or on the laptop, I longed for something I longed to away somewhere where I could remember something I had forgotten. During the first meditation, I realized I didn’t really want to be elsewhere, but here, really here. In the stillness of the meditation hall I remembered suddenly and with great force that the kingdom of heaven was within.
I went on retreat because I wanted to remember what it was like to be inside myself as well as without, to have my life be my life. I went away to sink down under the layers of my conditioning, my rusty, clanking armor, and touch the unconditioned. I was glad not to speak because it suddenly seemed to me that most , no all, of the words I spoke were lies, all tethered to memories and images, bits of things I saw and read, all of it in the past, none of it connected to life. On retreat, I had the kinds of impression that kids take in all the time–the impressions that bubble up from the depths of stillness.
Here is a fragment of a letter Rilke wrote to a young poet, urging him not to try to be a busy, successful adult:
“And when you realize that their activities are shabby, that their vocations are petrified and no longer connected with life, why not then continue to look upon it all as a child would, as if you were looking at something unfamiliar, out of the depths of your own solitude, which is itself work and status and vocation? Why should you want to give up a child’s wise not-understanding in exchange for defensiveness and scorn….”
Jesus taught his followers to be like children. The Buddha built his enlightenment on a memory from childhood. Separated from his fellow ascetics, the Buddha lay alone near a river, broken and despairing, too weak to stand from years his fasting and self mortification. Like any ordinary human, he took in the dismal facts of his situation and declared himself a failure. He gave up utterly. An in that magic clearing that can appear when we give up all hope, all grasping, there appeared a memory from childhood. He remembered being a young child, sitting alone under a tree, watching a plowing festival. As the legend goes, his nannies (he was a prince so he probably had several) thought he was asleep so they went off a little ways to watch the festivities.
Realizing he was alone, the little Buddha sat up. He was in seclusion in the liberating way that children can be in seclusion. Do you remember? I remember being a spy in deep and secret communion with animals and with the whole of life. According to some versions of the legend, the child who would awaken saw some insects whose homes were being torn up by the plowing. He felt a burst of compassion, secluded yet connected to life, limited, particular yet unlimited, unbound by the need to plow the fields or pay the mortgage or put food on the table. This is solitude of retreat. This is the platform or attitude—present yet withdrawn, attention inside and outside at the same time—the Buddha used to reach full awakening. It wasn’t a peaceful night, heaven knows–he had to fend off the armies of Mara—he was a warrior. But he didn’t suit up in armor and zap Mara with weapons of mass destruction or withering cynicism or educated scorn. But he defeated the devil of temptation and fear grounded (he literally touched the earth) in childlike solitude.
I remember being a child on a Good Friday many years ago. It was a beautiful spring day, and I was lying outside in the grass, near a stand of lilac bushes (children like to stay grounded). Who knows why, but I was singing “Thumbelina,” a big hit of the time. My mother called me to come in the house and be still because it a very solemn time and I shouldn’t be outside singing. Reluctantly, I went in and sat on the couch, not at all sure what I was supposed to be doing. My mother wasn’t much for explanations, and I realize now that can be a blessing. I had to practice a child’s not-knowing, wondering what was going on thousands of years ago that was supposed to be so dramatic and special and grave. Dimly, I remember what it was like to aware of being small and facing the unknown.
Now I realize that Jesus was in the most profound solitude, facing the darkness of the unknown. I wonder if helped him, remembering what is was like to be a child.