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The Beauty and The Terror

By Cindy Lee

If the purpose of retreat is to turn the mind inward, is the outer location
of your retreat important?

Our outer world and our inner world are, of course, intricately connected. It is therefore necessary for us to put some deep thought into where we do retreat. Which country, which state, which block of land, which house? 

Different places have a different resonance for us personally. Why were we born in a particular country? And why are we drawn to others? How does the view out the window of your country hermitage or your city apartment inspire you? What midnight noises comfort or cajole you?

Moving back to Australia and into the countryside has heightened these questions for me. Australia is one gigantic island. It is a vast and empty landscape. It is at the far end of the Earth. Since returning, I have found myself reciting the Nation’s most famous poem
by Dorothea Mackellar:

I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains.
I love her far horizons,
I love her jewel-sea,
Her beauty and her terror -
This wide brown land for me!

The “beauty and the terror” is the resonance of Australia that I feel. And the beauty and the terror is the interior resonance many of us experience as we work with our inner world in retreat. We face the terror of our disturbing emotions and negative inner narrative, but also the beauty of the sweeter meditations that connect us to the love within.

In regards to choosing a retreat place, it is helpful to remember the teaching in yogic philosophy that our inner world and outer world are interconnected. The ways in which we experience our outer environment directly relates to what is happening with our thoughts and inner energies. In fact, the word yoga means, “to join” and one of the ways we can understand this is to become more connected to how the state of our heart and mind affects our perception of our world.

Many spiritual texts outline aspects to consider when deciding where to do retreat, and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika is a great go-to guide for suggestions.

Master Svatmarama, the author of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, counsels us to find a place that is modest but comfortable and not cluttered with things. Clutter inside our retreat cabin can of course inspire a cluttered and busy mind. 

The text also wonderfully suggests that we find a place that has grounds that are “pretty and nice,” with a small, shaded porch.

Here, in my hermitage, the view from the porch invites me to experience the beauty of the outer world as a method for igniting inner peace. I enjoy the playfulness that the gorgeous green-quilted hills inspire, the perspective that the misty far horizon offers, and the spaciousness and peace that suffuses the mind as I gaze at the never-ending cobalt blue of the sky.

Yet I can be simultaneously haunted by the terror of the land’s wild weather (we’ve had floods, fires and ferocious winds), its unforgiving terrain, and its other inhabitants. Since moving here, I’ve recognized the insanity of our culture’s assumption that humans are the superior beings on this planet. Mice can outsmart us, and ants can bring whole structures toppling to the ground. 

Master Svatmarama does suggest that we find a place that is safe from dangers such as wild animals or crime. But as much as we search for the perfect outer location to fit these criteria, if the inner conditions are not in place we cannot control our perceptions of danger, disaster and distraction. If you are experiencing harsh and unpleasant sounds in your city apartment, no matter how far away you travel, the experience of harsh sounds travel with you. Instead of police sirens, cockatoos will screech like monstrous “terrordactyls!”

The Hatha Yoga Pradipika also counsels us to find a place where we feel supported by the local authorities. This could refer to a country’s government, the local council or feeling some kind of deeper support.

In our Tibetan Buddhist retreats, we acknowledge the (seen or unseen) beings that govern the land we are staying on. Whether we have “purchased” the land or not, we don’t assume that we truly own it, and quickly discover that we can’t always control it. 

Although it may sound peasant-like and superstitious, “unseen beings” might be more easily understood as a personification of one’s own karma. 

We are urged to make offerings to the local protectors - ones that you can see and cannot see - and request their blessings for a harmonious and safe retreat. In this way, we also significantly empower the harmony between the inner and the outer retreat landscapes.

Look for your perfect retreat cabin, but then begin to think about how to prepare the fields of your inner world to complement the experience of your outer environment. The beauty and the terror of the inner world manifest strongly in retreat when the distractions of daily life have dissipated. 

Calm, pacify and make peaceful your body, speech and mind, so that the body of land will cradle you with kindness, the whispers of the mountain breeze will comfort you and you feel as though the environment itself supports the clear focus and
laser-like attention of your mind. 

Intentionally spreading beauty and kindness with our body, speech and mind will result in feeling more free from the terrors of the unknown. And we will be more open to connect to the more unknown aspects of ourselves, the very purpose of retreat.

Then, really, it doesn’t matter if you do retreat in the countryside or in your apartment. The conditions will be there, wherever and whenever, for peace, insight and truth.

Cindy Lee teaches Tibetan Buddhism, meditation and yoga philosophy with Lama Marut in retreat settings throughout the U.S and abroad. For more information, please visit: