There are times when the only way to advance is to back up. It seems fitting that I am considering such a proposition while we spend a few days at this quiet retreat with its famous houses and the ghosts of world-famous visitors. I can hear the discussions of many seekers echoing through the acres of orange groves;  a nice place to stop for a time and take a retreat.

art_retreat1Retreat. For some people even the word has a negative connotation. Yet there are times when we must move in a direction that seems the opposite of progress. The trick is to try to overcome our conditioned response to the idea of retreat as some kind of failure. For instance, one of the most difficult and counter-intuitive exercises I ever did in the martial arts was originally from JKD. It consisted of standing with my weight 70% on the front leg, body leaning forward, committed to instant advancement. Then, without shifting weight back, I needed to execute a shuffle step backward while keeping my eyes focused forward, in ready position, my guards up and — worst of all—my center of gravity still committed to the front. This reverse logic was meant to counteract the habit that people going into retreat mode also surrender their center of gravity to the rear. Even if some advantage is gained by the act of retreating, they cannot crystallize this advantage in time because they have overextended in the wrong direction, unable to reverse into attack mode at the crucial moment.

But there was more. There exists a deeper psychological effect, as though retreating makes you automatically feel weak and helpless. This effect recalls the harassment of political prisoners during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Guards would slap, punch or gun whip them if they lifted their gaze from the ground for any reason, at any hour of the day. Heads constantly bowed forward, many of them reported developing a strong sense of guilt from months of this treatment, the physical posture eventually engendering the psychological state.

art_retreat3The motive of retreating must be clear and definite. As in the exercise above, we must retreat with a strong belief in why we are retreating. And having a special yin/yang relationship all its own, the act of retreating must have enough forward concentration that you stay alert and halt the retreat the moment an advantage is gained.

How can retreating help in daily practice? Have a problem with that form you are working on? Shift to sparring for a while. The change will enliven the possibly forgotten energy and meaning of the form. Feeling stale working your combat skills? Take a break. Work on another area  of your art.  Sometimes the intensity of training can lock your brain into a series of programmed responses you only need to release for a short rest in order to discover a brilliant solution, a hugely more efficient method.

In the fuller areas of life, what should we retreat from? I can only speak from my own experience but first and foremost is that web of conditioning we are required to follow where retreat means loss. Despite our momentary doubts, many times we are only retreating from all those false signs of progress we have been taught to believe.

art_retreat2I gaze at a quiet patch of lawn where brilliant minds gathered for many years with no more binding need than a search for truth. What could be a better example, especially for the martial artist, of a brave soul who understood the restrictions of conditioning, as Krishnamurti himself. Every corner of this Retreat House at the Krishnamurti Foundation recalls his generous spirit and untiring pursuit of human freedom. There is so much chatter about not being locked into this or that style; people are unaware of the huge influence on Bruce Lee’s thought and so many others’ thoughts too, that Krishnamurti exerted. At the very least, I can only hope everyone gets a time to retreat, to step outside the pressure and to remember how renewing retreat can be.


The Peppertree Retreat

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