The Longest Retreat: Ryan Lee Wong on the Intersection of Writing, Meditating, and Community
“The novel is simply an offering, a chant recited for others.”
I moved to Ancestral Heart Zen Temple in January 2020 to live a Buddhist monastic life of meditation, work, silence, and community. Most of my friends and family placed this decision somewhere between eccentric and foolish. A few were upset with me for leaving, for doing something so different from what they’d known and expected and even invested in me to do.
Two months later, most of the world was forced into makeshift monasteries—the Greek ‘monos’ means alone, and isolation would come to define the next two years. Friends and family began congratulating me on my good timing and insight. They asked what it was like to have a large pod, to give and receive hugs still, to go outside and into the woods without fear of contracting this strange new virus.
I was working on a novel when I moved to the temple. Or, as often happens with long projects and especially first novels, I was not working on it. I finished my MFA in Fiction in 2019 and had written a novella-length draft as my thesis. I’d spent the summer after revising it and asked my dear friend to read it. They offered brilliant insights about the main character and his journey around activism and his family’s histories that made me realize how long I had to go.
I was daunted by another draft, and all my energy went into adjusting to temple life, so I paused the novel. A loud bell woke us each morning at 5am, launching the day into scheduled into blocks: meditation, temple cleaning, breakfast, silent study (dharma books only, no fiction), work, meditation, lunch, work, service, dinner, meditation, sleep. We had an afternoon break of two hours, but by the time that rolled around, I would feel the need to nap, take a shower, or go hiking for some alone time.
Writing didn’t enter my mind, and that, in part, was the point of the schedule: to leave no room for anything except what was happening in that moment.
A word common to both meditators and writers is “retreat.” The Latin root means “to pull back”: we pull back from our habitual lives and social circles to let a different kind of activity happen.
Part of becoming a writer has meant researching and applying to the dozens of writer’s retreats around the country. They are, for me and my city-dwelling writer friends, invaluable places of rest, reflection and, most importantly, unstructured time. They replicate and somewhat democratize what used to be a requirement of becoming a novelist or poet: having enough wealth to afford a country home in which to write.
I’ve inherited a fantasy from centuries of that archetype: a cozy cabin lined with books and furnished with vintage-but-not-stuffy furniture where I can go any time and produce the most amazing and easeful writing of my life.
I have a similar fantasy with my Zen practice. My mind and body settled into the schedule after a few months, and I began to experience a kind of peace I’d never felt before. I began to see the schedule not as a constraint but as a rhythm in which I could rest, to see all of the habits and projects I’d given up not as a sacrifice but as a relief. It was the first time I’d felt there was nothing else to do, no better place to be.A word common to both meditators and writers is “retreat.” The Latin root means “to pull back”: we pull back from our habitual lives and social circles to let a different kind of activity happen.
As I prepared to leave the temple earlier this year, I feared I would lose that ease and stillness. I asked my teacher how I could maintain that feeling in the bubbling social life of Brooklyn. He replied that I couldn’t. He said that to think we can transplant our insight or spiritual practice from one context to another, without being changed by the context, is a colonial fantasy.
Several of those retreat centers you can apply to are called “colonies,” and the overlap with imperialism is not an accident. Part of the colonial fantasy is to drop into and occupy a space at will, to bring your religion, customs, agriculture, or social system somewhere else without any loyalty to that place.
It turned out my little writer’s fantasy was a colonial one: when I envisioned that cabin, I was not thinking of my neighbors who lived there for generations, I was not thinking of the Indigenous people who cared for that land generations before that, I was not thinking about my relationship to the community, or my food supply chain, or my debt to the land. I envisioned a place where I was housed, cared for, and otherwise left alone. It was a relationship of extraction: I wasn’t asking what I could do for the cabin and the people around me, only how they might support my project.
Something turned as I lived at the temple: the practice became less about my having a certain experience and more about what I could offer. I started to take great joy, for example, in replacing the dryer belt, or calling up community members asking for year-end donations, or pulling up invasive vines, or making tea for my teachers. I saw how my newfound ease came from this tradition and wanted to do anything I could to care for it in turn, and that these little acts were no less important to the tradition than reading dharma books or meditating. I saw how my ego could turn even spiritual insights into things to collect, and that the only way to be free was to stop focusing on what I was “getting” from the temple.
This is a common pattern in Zen practice. I started meditation for self-centered reasons—to lessen anxiety, to quiet my mind, to practice “self-care.” I eventually shifted to doing it for others—to be a more dependable friend, to learn to care for others, to live for the liberation of all.I stopped writing not just because of the intense schedule, but because I didn’t know what it would mean to write for the benefit of others.
I began writing for similar reasons I began meditating: I wanted to put language to that dance between the inner life and the social and historical forces shaping it, I wanted a release for all the intense thoughts and emotions churning through me. Then I arrived at the temple and realized that was not enough of a reason. I stopped writing not just because of the intense schedule, but because I didn’t know what it would mean to write for the benefit of others. The great teacher Thich Nhat Hanh said about writing, “We do not have the right just to express our own suffering if it brings suffering to others.”
The answer to this standstill came, of course, not from within me, but from the outside. That summer, the country erupted in protest over the killing of George Floyd and the long histories of police violence and white supremacy it encapsulated. I watched with deep ambivalence from the temple: I’d committed to living there, yet a large part of me wanted to leave and join my friends and communities in the streets.
I reconnected with the reason I started this novel about policing and justice and caring for oneself amid violence. I knew that if I could capture some version of the turn I’d taken, from acting for myself to acting for others, from extracting to caring, I could offer something that might alleviate suffering. Fiction is one of the great vehicles we have for that kind of shift: you can guide a reader through internal change, you can model an awakening.
I suddenly had the energy to write during that afternoon break. I’d go swimming in the quarry next door and gaze up at the sky planning my writing for the day, then sit in a chair and type it out. It was one of those rare and blissful stretches where the writing is effortless, where fears and anxieties get out of the way so the sentences can flow. I was the one typing, but it felt as if the quarry and sky, the other residents, the ritual and meditation, the people in the streets were doing the work with me, fueling the project to finish.
At the beginning of every Zen retreat, the head of the meditation hall announces: “Meditation retreat is a rare opportunity to look inward at the mind’s true nature. Don’t waste this life.” I feel a shiver each time I hear those last four words. The paradox of living in busyness and nonstop activity is that it makes it impossible to ask what is truly important. We pull back to give ourselves that perspective, we go inward so we’re ready to go out into the world.
Writing is similar work: to sit still with the page and let what is important come forth. It’s the only way it makes sense to retreat for those hours and hours of isolation and refine words—to look inward at what’s true and hew away what isn’t, to pull back enough to know you need to say about your life, and to show, by putting it down, that you haven’t wasted it.
Each morning at dawn we held service: we chanted sutras and incantations and the names of the ancestors who handed down our lineage. There’s a very precise ritual form of offering incense and ringing bells and moving as a communal body that we learn mostly by watching and imitating. The first few months were consumed in worrying about whether I was “doing it right”—bowing at the right times, chanting at the right pitch and volume, memorizing the words in the sutras. All this happened right after meditation and before breakfast. My body was often stiff from sleep, and I found it hard to concentrate on the precise forms and dense texts we chanted. On some days, this was infuriating, and I wanted it to be over so I could eat my oatmeal; other days, I got a little egoic rush at remembering what to do and would judge others for forgetting.
One day, my teacher pointed out that those concerns, all our internal thoughts about doing service “right” or not, are entirely beside the point. All that work of bowing and chanting is just to generate merit we then offer away—to the ancestors, to the benefit of those who are suffering, to all beings.
I now feel a similar aspiration in my writing. All my usual neuroses about whether the novel is good or not, how it will be received, what it says about me—in short, the greater share of what I worried about when I began writing it—are beside the point. The novel is simply an offering, a chant recited for others. May it be of benefit.
Which Side Are You On by Ryan Lee Wong is available from Catapult