I have recently found myself reflecting quite a lot on aspects of research into the brain which seem to show that we frequently make decisions in a relatively primitive part of our brain some time before our conscious reasoning part of the brain comes up with our explicit reasoned and rational account of the decision. It seems that somehow the decision is made before we are aware of having decided it. Many aspects of our spiritual training seem to follow this model too. Specifically, things often seem to change or shift in us some time before we have any real understanding of what is happening.
For the last two weeks of January and the first week of February, Julie and I went on holiday. This is not a particularly common event. It is certainly the case that this is a good time of year for us to take a holiday – there is generally less to do on the farm in the depth of winter. Having said this, leaving for any length of time is never easy. We have to arrange for a farm sitter who can come to look after everything, we need to ensure there is enough fuel, food for the animals, clear instructions and plans for all foreseeable contingencies. This year, in addition to everything else, we had an aged greyhound with severe heart failure to leave; and the weather has been the worst winter for at least 15 years. So, the emotional challenge of leaving the farm was astonishingly difficult.
And we did it, we went, and we had a wonderful time in Costa Rica; which was probably the most beautiful place I have ever visited. I have a particular affection for trees and woodland – and the Monteverde cloud forests were deeply and inexpressibly moving.
So now we are back and it is strange how different the farm looks – the familiar seems somehow strange. Our lives, or at least those parts of them that occupy most of our time, are presenting themselves to us almost as though they were someone else’s. We have not been away that long and yet things seem very different.
This has been reminding me a lot of the effect of going on retreat. After spending time at the monastery or a temple for a week or more, returning to ‘everyday life’ and family can be strange. It is almost like seeing familiar things afresh, as though for the first time – strange and yet completely familiar. The first few times this happened I found myself wanting, quite deeply, to hold on to what I had found while on retreat, almost in fear of losing it. Subsequently I came to realise that, although they may fade from consciousness, those things found on retreat are not lost. It isn’t that we can hold onto them even if we want to. Rather they effect a change; things are not the same after; a shift takes place – and sometimes we think we can notice what has changed, but usually not.
And so, this time at least, and against all expectation, it seems that a holiday on the other side of the ocean next to which we live has changed something; shifted things along. Things seem different even three weeks after being back. Everything on the farm is OK, even the greyhound is still hanging on somehow, and yet something has changed. And as yet it isn’t clear what it is that has changed, and that’s just fine.