Why Staying Underground for a Week Helps Us

I spent the Chinese new year holidays underground. It was a Buddhist retreat, but instead of staying high up on a mountain or out there on a beach, we spent nearly a whole week inside a facility.

What do we do in a retreat? It's not like we collectively sit in the dark, hoping for an epiphany to arrive. (We already do that in our cubicles during daytime, don't we?) We remain active: We read sutras, recite mantras, and meditate on a set schedule. In other words, we repeat our usual workday—using our holidays.

Therefore initially I took the retreat as a great opportunity…to push my patience beyond limits. Result: By the end of the retreat I was daydreaming about…continuing the retreat for a month or even longer. I wanted more of it, with pleasure. Had I totally gone "in my head"?


Maybe. Or not. What I experienced toward the end of the retreat, the result that motivated me to push further, was the joy of doing without expecting. Before the retreat, I thought I loved doing things. I was known (still I am) to be effective, completing one task after another in 30-minute chunks. Indeed, I love the rhythm and the sense of accomplishment.

But that wasn’t “doing.” That was “completing.” The moment I finished one task (or even before completing it), my attention shifted to the next task, as if I were in a rush to keep the momentum while the sense of victory lasted. Most of the time I barely remembered what the previous task was about.

To be fair, I kept the same old attitude until halfway into the retreat, scoring numbers and measuring time. But after the initial excitement got wiped out, I had to cope with the never-endingness of the retreat, such as meditating every day, which by definition had no goal. At one point I thought work life feels better; at least I have different sets of assignments each day.

To cheer me up, I decided to relax. Not “try” to relax – just decided that I was already relaxing and enjoying the retreat. So I put the goals and numbers aside, and just allowed myself to do what I was doing without thinking about the outcome.

And then I finally started enjoying what I did. During tai-qi, I could feel a tingling sensation running up my whole body and then receding like a tide. When reading classical books, what used to be a string of Chinese sentences in isolation started to form a coherent story. And I could finally see that my task-completion mentality left little room for embracing what I really do in the moment.

I wondered how I could have missed the joy of doing without the completion pressure before; I should have enjoyed that sensation during the Sunday afternoon doodling. The truth is, I was still carrying the task-oriented attitude during my free time. I might wake up at 1pm on a Sunday afternoon and order pizza while watching a video and then take a nap and wake up and go to 7-11 and munch banana-chocolate ice cream while watching another video and then sleep, and I would still be counting the number of accomplishments. I would agonize if I do not meet the two movies/scoop of ice creams/hours of sleep “quotas.”

These revelations might not have occurred if it weren’t for the mindful repetitiveness I had endured. Conclusion? Being in the retreat works at all stages. The initial activities kick your body into active mode; later stages help you question your motivations and (if you endure them) reward you with insights you weren’t aware of before.

P.S. What a coincidence 😉 EWCP, the group I am in, is holding a retreat event in Taipei from April 29–May1. It is a 3-day retreat—how short—but will be done out in the sun, in the beautiful Yao-Ming Shan.