By Gijs Van den Broeck
Reflections on a Long Term Retreat in Plum Village
Knowing yourself is Enlightenment
When I was still a student, not so long ago, my university’s motto was: ‘Discover yourself. Begin with the world.’ I thought that, in order to grow, I needed to learn as much as possible about the world around me, that much even, that when I finished my studies I was not quite satisfied yet. I needed to discover more.
So I decided to go and discover a completely new world, and spend a couple of months on retreat in Plum Village, a Buddhist monastery of all places, without ever having been there, without even having been on a Buddhist retreat at all. What I learned there, however, was quite opposite of what my university had taught me.
If you really want to discover myself, the world can be more of an obstacle, because it provides plenty of opportunities to run away from yourself. No, if you really want do discover yourself, you should really look at yourself first.
It may sound like a cliché, but if one wants to get to know oneself, one has to come out of his comfort zone. I must say I might have taken that to its extreme. Try living three and a half months in a community, with eight people in one bedroom and virtually no privacy. Try just following a communal schedule (waking up at five in the morning!), without you deciding what your day is going to look like. Try three and a half months without any modern media, no TV, no cell phone, no Internet (only an occasional e-mail to let your parents know you are still alive). No sex, no drugs no rock ‘n roll. No distractions to run away from your issues.
You should. I mean, this may sound like a horror story to you, but you may learn a lot out of this. You will really get confronted with yourself at times, but in return, you will really get to know yourself. You will not be able to rely on habits, but in this way, you can really change. You will have to face your problems head on, but that will give you the opportunity to overcome them. You will lose yourself, but in losing yourself, you might just find yourself.
For me, this had a profound impact. It changed the way I think. It changed the way I look at myself. It changed the way I deal with my problems. When one is left on his own, with not much means to change what is around you, one learns a way to get out of the jam, without changing the situation. This way was not, to my surprise, through reason, through thinking things through. No, because in situations where you are left just with your own thoughts, it is your own thoughts, your own judgment of the situation that create (and sustain!) the very problem. As they say, the toughest prisons are the ones you make for yourself.
But what is the way out of this paradoxical prison then? It is like the answer to the Zen riddle about how to descend from a high pillar with no way down: just let go. Just observe your thoughts and let them come and go, because that is simply what they do if you do not cling on to them. They are only as permanent as you think them to be. Mind you, this is not letting go in the common sense of being indifferent or pushing problems away. It is in fact rather the opposite. It is facing and accepting them, truly feeling them for what they are and letting them be as they are.
Discover yourself. Begin with the world. Let me counter that with another proverb:self-knowledge is the beginning of wisdom. I discovered myself by looking at myself, by just observing thoughts and sensations coming and going, realizing that they are all impermanent and that trying to get hold of worries or negative emotions is like trying to hold back a river. You can better not get preoccupied with them but accept them and let them flow by. Than you begin to really look at yourself. Than you begin discovering yourself.