An appreciation of idleness came to me recently when holed up on retreat for a few days in my cave above an unvisited cwm (narrow valley) of my native Wales. It came to me as I basked on a huge rock covered with springy heather:
black heather twigs—
But aren’t I supposed to be an Engaged Buddhist? Surely Engaged Buddhists must be twice as busy as other Buddhists or people who are engaged exclusively in social and environmental betterment? Highlighted in purple on my year planner are the explicitly Engaged Buddhist activities, such as running an inner/outer workshop for activists next week or talking about Buddhism and ecology at Carmarthen College next month. Then there’s the purely Buddhist bit (highlighted in saffron on my year planner), such as the upcoming week retreat which I had booked. On top of all this, serious idling becomes quite important.
It takes only an hour or so to walk from the road across the ridge to the valley where I do my retreat, but a day or more for most of me to catch up. At first, despite past experience, I am inclined to make this time in my valley into another standard Buddhist meditation retreat. Are we not always trying to make something, even out of Buddhism or out of nothing? And there is plenty to do on conventional retreats, like doing things with your breath, asking yourself silly questions, getting enlightened or just waiting for the next bit of the schedule.
After several visits into the landscape, sitting long hours with eyes down, in the approved posture, begins to feel a somehow like a comic contrivance. There are times when it does indeed feel good to sit formally, watching the inside landscape, watching nothing dissolve into nothing. But that is not what I do most of the time on such a retreat.
Most of us look forward to time off to enjoy the feeling of idleness. But faced with a comparatively large block of “empty” time, a few lines from a Zen poem strongly come to mind:
Stop action in order to get rest
and rest itself becomes restless;
Linger over either extreme
and oneness is forever lost.
It is indeed instructive to observe this “restlessness”: a sense of panic, a void of purpose. It is a psychological commonplace that, whilst we complain of endless things which we believe we have to do, at heart we may experience a strong need to do them and may even invent a still greater burden to keep the fear of “nothing to do” securely at bay. I can still recall my shock when I first tumbled into this. My garden has been rather unkempt ever since. . . .
It was on the second day on my heather-covered rock that the cwm reminded me yet again that I did not have to add anything to it or obscure it with my own “purpose” or “meaning.” Huge relief! And, as always, this learning passes over into the life where purpose and doing are necessary, lightening them of much self-need. It is a lesson that has to be learned over and over again.
This valley awaits me as lover and can bring tears to my eyes each time I top the ridge and see her familiar outlines. For years I have backpacked through other ever-changing landscapes. But with this landscape the invisible wall of curiosity, action and achievement is thinned by the intimacy of her familiar contours. In joy she draws me to her.
I climb to seventeen hundred feet, where, for the most part, I practice the Dharma of Just Hanging Out, with countless rocks and perches to mark the ever-changing situation of sun, moon, wind and rain. There attention rests gently on what lies before me, be it the crouching lion of great Cader Idris, umpteen miles away, or
This old stone
mosses and lichens.
Mind is free to wander, as it will, but never far. Rather it homes into the steep slopes of so many shades of green, grey screes and cliffs, mists creeping along the ridges, the bark of ravens, the call of sheep, and the little stonechats.
the mountain stream
Of course, even hermits have their little work routines. Down from the cave to the stream and back to draw water is a steep haul. Some places have a stronger presence than others, and these I honour with stones and cairns reflecting their energy patterns. The blaen, or valley head stream, manifests the green goddess, with her baize-lined waterfalls and the broad skirts of underwater moss flaring in the rock pools. A tiny green Kwan Yin, goddess of compassion, is the focus of a natural oratory. And there are the blood-red lichens which line the coffin bed of Encul Brwynion, Cell of the Rushes, my lower level winter hermitage. Such shamanic stuff prompts reflection on how closely the “pure” dharma has traditionally also been a dharma of the earth, of nature, and so-called “popular belief.” But perhaps the closest presence comes at twilight, washing in the stream, when the mountain’s breathing is almost still.
So much for THIS; what about THAT—the bad news—like the clouds of biting midges that rise from the bogs on mild damp evenings?
Idleness Practice rests on the pillars of awareness and acceptance: gently to bring attention back to the valley, and gently to keep the body there until the time originally planned for departure. The mountain is, in fact, mainly bad weather, when idleness is discomfited into a frustration which has to be worked through so that I can simply be there. The cave I use for shelter is little more than an overhang, under which I may be holed up for long periods of time. A few inches from my nose are the beautiful multicolored lichens which decorate my ceiling, springing more and more leaks as the rainy day and night wear on. The outside view may be mists of differing densities and curtains of windblown rain of peculiarly Welsh penetration. Soon, outside my sleeping bag cover and two large plastic bags, everything is wet; the watery element creeps everywhere. I can still get quite sorry for myself. So there’s a ringside seat for the inscape drama, which is just as well since there’s nothing to read, candles blow out, and the torch always grows feeble at such times. It’s not like basking on the boulder, but the eventual sense of relief and release is the same. A mile across the valley there is forked lightning over Prince Arwystli’s Grave. Idleness Practice can be quite dramatic.
by mind by landscape