Can’t We Always Be on Retreat?

Ajahn Karuṇadhammo • April 2013

We’re still in the process of coming off our three-month retreat and adjusting to the different pace, level of energy, and engagement. I’ve been reflecting on some of the words I’ve heard from others and what I sometimes hear in my own head: Why can’t we always be on retreat? Why can’t we always live this particular way? Can’t we slow down and have more space and time for formal practice in the day? The logical answer is that there’s a monastery that needs maintaining. All the buildings we live in and the different things we need as requisites have to be looked after. That’s the logical reason. If we didn’t have Abhayagiri, we wouldn’t have any place for retreat. So we all need to pitch in and help.

We’re working on a greater perspective, a long-term goal in this practice, and our abilities to realize peace of mind need to be ones that aren’t dependent on specific circumstances. We need to be able to develop mindfulness, clarity, and ease of living in whatever situation we find ourselves, whether it’s retreat, engagement, work, or community. We’re developing an all-encompassing freedom that can be realized in any circumstance, whether in quietude or engagement. One of the qualities that’s so important in developing this is patience—not to expect big realizations or quick understanding. This is a gradual path and requires a tremendous amount of patience. It’s not the kind of patience where we grit our teeth and simply bear with it, but rather, it is a spacious, wide-open acceptance of the way things are.

I remember as a very junior monk, a time when I had some difficult interactions with another community member. I was trying to strategize how to better cope with it and more skillfully handle the situation because there was a lot of frustration and anger arising in me. I tried the usual antidote, developing loving-kindness, but it wasn’t working because there was a sense of resistance, strain, and aversion with trying to get rid of the particular circumstance. I realized that more important than directly responding with loving-kindness was cultivating a sense of patience—both for this other person and for myself—while I tried to develop the skills needed to handle and cope with the situation. Practicing with patience helped me see more clearly what my expectations were. It allowed me to be more open and I sensed, Okay, this is deeply ingrained in me and it’s going to take some time. It’s not always going to be pleasant, but I need to open myself up to the circumstances and be a bit more spacious with it.

That’s what the quality of patience is all about. It’s not a quality of gritting one’s teeth and bearing with the circumstance until things get better, or bearing through the next nine months until we get three more months of retreat. It’s about opening to one’s experience and developing a sense of clarity and understanding that this is a long-term process. The more we can be patient with ourselves and with the practice in our living situations, the more we can open to whatever it is that comes our way and use it as a tool for learning about ourselves.