A Way of Freedom

Hope is the one quality left in Pandora’s box and it is not clear whether it is a blessing or a curse. Eliot, in Four Quartets, writes:

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.

Wait without hope? The prospect seemed unimaginable. A chill crept down my spine and I found myself slipping into hope’s counterpart, fear. Was I going to sit on the side of this mountain and have nothing to show for it? A consistent theme in the many texts I had read and translated was “no hope, no fear.” I had never thought of applying that instruction to my concern about achievement.

For most of us, the demands of each day keep us busy. Hope and fear come as reactions to specific situations —rumors about possible promotions or layoffs, our child’s first competition or performance, illness in a parent, etc. The deeper hopes and fears remain, untended, forgotten perhaps, but there all the same. Again, from Four Quartets:

And the ragged rock in the restless waters,
Waves wash over it, fogs conceal it;
On a halcyon day it is merely a monument,
In navigable weather it is always a seamark
To lay a course by: but in the sombre season
Or the sudden fury, is what it always was.

One of my ragged rocks was hope for achievement. I feared an acute disappointment if, at the end of the retreat, all I had done was sit on a mountain and contemplated my navel. Slowly, I realized that to do nothing meant I had to let go of deeply cherished beliefs that I was just beginning to sense, the belief, for instance, that I had to achieve something.

Most of us are quite happy to do nothing for a few minutes, perhaps an hour or two, or, if we have had a particularly demanding stretch, for a day or two, a few days at the most. But to do nothing, to produce nothing, to achieve nothing for a month, a year, six years or more, is quite a different kettle of fish.

I thought of my own teacher who had spent years in mountain retreats in Tibet. As he had told me himself, he would quite happily have stayed in the mountains but his teacher had demanded (in the strongest terms possible) he return to the monastery and teach training retreats. What was it like, I wondered, to be at peace with doing nothing day after day, month after month, year after year?

Then I thought about Longchenpa, the 14th century teacher, whose text was the basis for this retreat. He had spent fourteen years in a cave near Lhasa. What had it been like for him to sit day after day doing nothing?

The depth to which these teachers, and many others like them, had let go of any concern with success or failure was like a knife in my heart. Here was I, practicing for a mere three weeks, worrying about whether I was going to achieve anything. Only now did I appreciate what letting go of hope, ambition or achievement meant, and I found myself feeling a quite different kind of respect and appreciation for these teachers.

The classical texts have relatively little to say about the emotional turmoil that intensive practice often uncovers. Again, these lines from Eliot apply, even though he was writing about old age:

…the rending pain of re-enactment
    Of all that you have done, and been; the shame
    Of motives late revealed, and the awareness
Of things ill done and done to others’ harm
    Which once you took for exercise of virtue.
    Then fools’ approval stings, and honour stains.
From wrong to wrong the exasperated spirit
    Proceeds, unless restored by that refining fire
    Where you must move in measure, like a dancer.

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