How is a Retreat Like Rock Music?
Retreats are like the best rock music.
Please allow me to explain.
Tonight I spent the evening reliving the music of my husband’s youth at the local arena. My husband is a big fan of the British rock band Pink Floyd. To be honest, prior to tonight I knew next to nothing about Pink Floyd; I do have one faint memory of a moment of rebellion around grade three or four, when my co-conspirators and I hid among the winter coats in the back of the classroom and sang “We Don’t Need No Education” rather loudly to a flustered but good-hearted teacher. Nothing else.
I extend sincere apologies for my ignorance of Pink Floyd to those with a deep love and admiration for the artists, and to all those who may have a much more comprehensive rock music education than my own.
After an evening of soaking in the band’s iconoclastic sound, I came away convinced that the legendary rock music of Pink Floyd, is the perfect metaphor for the processes of transformation at work in the human psyche on a meditation retreat. If you are considering making an extended retreat part of your practice, consider the following and then, as my first zen teacher used to say “believe nothing I tell you; go, and find out for yourself”.
Ten Ways in Which Going on Retreat is not only like Rock Music, but like the Musical Genius Rock Music of Pink Floyd:
1. It explores what is underneath.
Going on retreat challenges our tendency to perceive and respond to the world in our habitual ways, just like listening deeply to the music of Pink Floyd begins to shake up our habitual modes of existence. We can no longer tune out; we have to enter into our experience in the five senses and ask hard questions about the way our world is in the moment. In a retreat, we begin to wake up our senses and inquire into our experience; we appreciate the questions that are resonating below the surface. In a retreat, just as when we first listen to Pink Floyd, we may feel a little disoriented when we first let ourselves open to the experience of the moment, but we may also begin to see creative opportunities.
2. It helps us hear the music in every day life.
Many of Pink Floyd’s songs begin with the sounds of everyday life: a clock tower ringing, a cash register clicking, the noise of conversation, or a plane flying overhead. These everyday sounds become enveloped in music when we listen closely. This is exactly what I have noticed happens on long retreats. Rather than disconnecting from our experience, we may begin to see the beauty and creative potential in everyday moments as we give ourselves extended contact with silence and temporarily take a break from our daily routines. In helping us hear the music in what is always there, we begin to experience each moment as unique and maybe even sacred.
3. It is a long composition, so sit down and listen.
I am not sure Pink Floyd would be such a massive hit today as when they were at their peak in the 1970s. Some of their pieces don’t even have a narrative; they seem to take the time to explore the possibilities within each instrument, meandering from the original melody and discovering the range and textures possible for each sound. This takes a long time.
We do not play rock music on silent retreats, but we do sit down and pay attention, allowing ourselves the same directionless, narrative-free, exploration of possibility in the present moment. Not only do we sit for extended periods, allowing ourselves to develop the attentional capacity to deeply explore creatively, we also walk for extended periods, rest for extended periods, and generally allow our attention to settle in for deep play.
4. It challenges the status quo.
Even a student in elementary school could see the immense benefit of questioning received narratives by singing “All in all I’m just another brick in the wall”. Going on retreat is an immense challenge to our status quo. We are not all inspired to live the life of a monastic, but we can gain valuable perspective on our lives by taking on the challenge of stepping out of the center of the action, and coming into loving and intimate contact with ourselves as human beings rather than as generators of productivity. We begin to value ourselves and our lives not for what we do or what we give out, but simply for existing. This embrace of being is the foundation of wisdom and skillful action. I think you can see the many ways in which the simple yet radical action of taking retreat could challenge the status quo in your life, work, and relationships.
5. It contacts and questions numbness.
is the opening for Pink Floyd’s piece titled “Comfortably Numb.” I do not know about you, but in daily life there are many experiences that reinforce a pattern of numbing: just listening to evening news, or sitting in traffic, or working and caring for others as part of an average human life can cause our senses to numb, both to the external world and to that still small voice of our own vitality. On retreat we need to start where we are, and sometimes when we first go on retreat we may find we are deeply tired, or stressed, or maybe even agitated by what we are discovering within. This is the point of retreat: to know how things are, and to generously offer ourselves the opportunity to reconnect to ourselves and refuel so that we are re-sensitized and able to make kind, intimate contact with both internal and external worlds.
6. It reminds us of the full range of our common humanity.
Pink Floyd sings of the incredible vulnerability we all feel at times: “And if I show you my dark side/Will you still hold me tonight?/And if I open my heart to you/And show you my weak side/What would you do?”. Pink Floyd’s work also implies the incredible strength and resistance we may contact when we face the intense challenges to our integrity that the world offers to us. As Roger Waters, one of Pink Floyd’s original members said recently “There is no ‘us’ and ‘them’; it’s an illusion. We are all human beings and we all have a responsibility to support one another…” (Grow, K. in Rolling Stone magazine, February, 2017). Going on retreat, and practicing mindfulness and compassion in the supportive community of others who share our intentions to strengthen these qualities within, is a marvelous reminder that we are not alone. In practicing in community, without the obligations and complications of social interaction, we fully experience both our own unique humanity and a deeper connection with others. There is no “us” and “them”.
7. We need to experience it live.
Keeping your inner work, mindful self compassion and meditation practice to online meetings and smartphone apps is to a mindful self compassion retreat as listening to recorded songs on your phone is to immersing yourself in a live concert. Need I say more?
8. We need to soak in it to get the full benefit.
I noticed that my husband was very moved by Pink Floyd songs although I could barely understand the words. Many of the images and the lights which were layered over the songs in concert had symbolism to him that completely escaped me, the Pink Floyd neophyte. I think the difference in our experience came from the hundreds of hours my husband had spent soaking in the music in his youth: when he heard the music he knew what it intended and what his own responses and associations were with the songs. Like music, mindful self compassion and any other meditation practice requires deep immersion and soaking to notice all the nuances and to fully comprehend their transformative potential.
9. We all belong.
There are people from every walk of life who love Pink Floyd. I saw fathers and daughters, oldsters and hipsters, people of every gender, race and class, singing their hearts out in tenderness and in resistance tonight. This is also what a meditation retreat provides: the connection we have with one another at a retreat is not with the identities we hold outside of the practice, it is with the process of what is being experienced, what is alive. Together in practice we share the experience of being alive, being human, held in the safety and kindness of the container of the retreat, and that is how we belong. There are so many dividing lines that separate us; music and meditation practice are experiences that bridge divides, experiences where everyone belongs.
10. It will come back to you when you need it.
When my clients ask me if I have any tricks or tips for staying motivated for daily practice, I simply tell them “deep immersions”. Just like my husband spent hundreds of hours listening to, connecting with, singing along to, imagining he was playing in the band with, Pink Floyd, retreat practice allows us to spend extended time receiving mindful self compassion teachings, connecting those teachings with our lived experience, resonating with them, experimenting and playing with how they might express themselves in our lives. After extended time soaking in the music of Pink Floyd, my husband, and the thousand other people alongside him, could sing every word of the Pink Floyd songs without a second thought; in the same way extended immersion in mindfulness and self compassion practice through retreats can allow mindful self compassion to become immediately accessible, the new first response, the song sung without hesitation or thought. To me, these ten reasons are among the many reasons that make every MSC retreat participant a rock star.
We hope that we will see you at one of our upcoming MSC retreats!