Last week I was at a meditation retreat at a Zen monastery. For six days we kept complete silence – not even making eye contact with one another – and sat in meditation for about 7 hours a day. We followed a schedule from 4am until 10pm, trying to stay in the present moment as we ate, worked, and rested.
I turned my cell phone off for the duration, and didn’t read or write. Part of me worried about what kind of crazy shit might happen in the world while I was off-line, but I also knew this was the best possible thing I could be doing with my time in order to be strong, resourceful, skillful, and resilient in my usual work in the world. Because I want to be of benefit in the world, I dedicated a week of my life to reconnecting to the Ineffable, to what can’t be destroyed.
In Zen, we say there are two aspects of reality: Relative, and absolute. The relative aspect of reality is the one we’re usually aware of – where the world is made of up countless individuals with complicated relationships, where cause and effect operates, where there is right and wrong, helpful and harmful, beautiful and horrible, life and death. The absolute aspect of reality is always true but subtle and easily missed, where only right-here-and-now is real, where everything is a miraculous manifestation just exactly as it is.
In the relative sense, there’s our climate and ecological crisis, which every day I come to believe is much more real, dire, and immediate than any of us can comprehend. We’re up against huge odds in our efforts to make any kind of changes even to mitigate the destruction, let alone turn this process around.
In the absolute sense, things are just as they are. No one ever gave us a promise this world would work out. Viewed entirely free from any expectations, a crazy confluence of causes and conditions led to This, and here we are. No matter how it turns out, in an deep sense it’s miraculous and amazing any of this exists at all.
All of this may sound crazy, as if “the absolute” is just some cruel rationalization we construct to make ourselves feel better. If it sounds crazy, it’s because the absolute isn’t something we can grasp with our minds or convey using language. It’s something we experience. You catch a glimpse of the absolute when your spirits are raised by awesome music, or a big smile appears on your face because of the completely innocent and earnest actions of a child, or when you stand transfixed by the mist rising from a forest.
The absolute doesn’t conflict with the relative; both are true at exactly the same time, just like your finger is an independent entity and part of a hand at the same time. So our planet is burning and if we have any compassion at all our hearts will be breaking, and everything is precious just as it is.
I attend silent meditation retreats in order to allow the absolute aspect of life to come to the fore. Without denying anything, I enter a largely timeless zone where how I meet the next moment is a matter of life and death. Am I awake to this life? Am I present in my body? Am I actually paying attention to what’s going on around me? In the silence and stillness, boundaries and distinctions dissolve, and the universe is no different from my self. We – me and the universe – breathe and pulse and hope and endure. In the natural quest for truth, fears are uncovered and released, assumptions are recognized as being merely assumptions, and I have to admit I have no way of knowing what happens next.
Continually deepening my awareness of the absolute aspect of reality is what sustains me. Facing incomprehensible destruction and suffering, I ground myself in a larger perspective – one that includes our struggles and pain as part of an epic unfolding drama. It’s like I’m a protagonist in a novel or a movie, and when I only perceive the relative aspect of reality I’m caught up in the drama. When I’m able to include the absolute aspect of reality in my perception, I can appreciate the arc of the story, and how even the awful parts of it, in a sense, belong, and actually lead to the growth, triumph, or tragedy at the end.
Photo: Silent Meditation Retreat at Great Vow Zen Monastery