Retreat & Resilience

I was asked to look at these two terms as a simple request without any elaboration.

This is an interesting way to enter into a form of dialogue. For the one asking it does not limit the answer to any preconceptions they might otherwise bring. For the one answering there is the wide open space around a collision of two words to look at without any reflexive influence to challenge or agree with any possible assumptions attached by the one asking.

Typing the word collision, I just realized it also appears to share a root with collage, to return momentarily to a recent preoccupation. We tend to see a collision as a violent action that causes things to break apart – its actual root being to “com- + laedere, to injure by striking” – but it can also be a way to join things together. As with a collage, in which things are thrown together, they collide and form new contexts, or at least illuminate the emptiness of their original context, there are other sorts of collisions that cause things to adhere and then possibly cohere.

Is that what’s happening with these two terms, retreat and resilience? We’ll see.

As with collision and collage, retreat and resilience share a prefix. While colla has to do with gluing together, re has to do with doing again.

Retreat’s origins are in the Latin re-trahere, to re-draw, to withdraw. Interesting that we are back in art! We are in a world of palimpsest. A retreat may not successfully or completely erase an original mark-making, but it is an act that seeks to contradict, to say against, to un-say, a previous action.

Resilience, interestingly, could also be seen as coming from art, this time dance perhaps. Its root is re-salire, to jump back.

Right off the bat we see that both terms have to do with responding, reacting, adjusting to a dynamic situation that has put some thing, some one, in an untenable position. It’s no wonder these are both terms we hear used frequently today when so much is proving to be overdrawn and unable to bounce back.

Of course, both terms are surrounded by assumptions – as are all the words we use. A retreat is seen as a sign of defeat. It may be preferable to a rout or a massacre in place, but it does assume that the force and drive of one’s will has been thwarted. Resilience has an automatic assumption of its being a good thing. After all, that which is resilient does not break easily. Both these assumptions tend to be useful within a self-world-view that has traction in the world as it is. When that self-world-view has become dysfunctional these assumptions tend to hold us trapped in old habits. At a time like the present we need to be wary of accepting them without looking at them more closely.

Retreat is not simply to withdraw, it is to re-draw. Inherent in it is the realization that the previous sally – that word stems from the same root salire as resilience! – has not been effective. It has within it the implication that we will sally-forth again.

With our oversensitivity to “chaos” whenever we confront complexity and respond with the impatience of thinking it is merely complication, we tend to want to avoid palimpsest. We want a clean sheet with a strong unequivocal line marking force and direction. That this is a violence upon the truth, no such condition actually exists, everything is complex beyond the possibility of complete understanding and therefore all we can aspire to is a series of sallies that create a field of possibilities. In this we find that we have created palimpsest and in so doing we approach the truth within a world in which probability and entanglement are always at work. In this way retreat is not a defeat at all. It is an engagement with what is at a higher level than our customary wish for simple and direct.

Now if we treat our situation as something we strive to maintain in stasis, and if we see each retreat as a defeat, then we are increasingly more brittle. The opposite habit, of accepting and even relishing the drawing and redrawing, the sally followed by another sally, in another direction, or with a slightly different twist; we grow more flexible, we become more resilient.

But this is only one aspect of our situation illuminated by these terms. Resilience is not always beneficial, even when we take a rather narrow view of what is good or useful. This is another aspect of our current situation that makes it dangerous. While so much around us is proving to be ultimately untenable, these forces, institutions, modes of thought and ways of being are proving to be remarkably resilient in the short term! Without this resilience we do not reach overshoot.

When something is just resilient enough, it breaks as it becomes dysfunctional. This removes its destructive force or influence before there is the chance for further, and possibly, irreparable harm. But this is not the situation we find ourselves in! The colossus clashing all around us are quite resilient, remarkably so. They do not appear ready to “go quietly into the night.”

Within my own being, I’ve been lucky to have lacked the resilience to be a two-pack-a-day smoker, or a quart-a-day “functioning” alcoholic, or capable of maintaining any sort of addiction at a level where it would consume me and eventually kill me. My lack of those sorts of resilience meant that I had to retreat from those behaviors well before they would have taken me past a point of no return.

So, resilience is useful, but by no means absolutely so!

This realization can inflect how we look at retreat. What separates a retreat from a rout or a massacre is the willingness to accept its necessity before one’s resilience has been totally consumed. Those who wait and continue to rely on their resilience too long do not have the luxury of retreat. They are simply destroyed by the forces arrayed against them.

An aspect of resilience, at a deeper level, is this sense of bending more than might appear necessary to counter an existing force. This bending further may appear to be weakness, but if it leaves open the possibility for retreat as opposed to continued resistance ensuring destruction, then this sign of weakness is actually an intelligent use of one’s strengths.

The death of a thousand cuts. Situations that call for retreat are often chaotic in appearance. They involve lots of small blows seemingly coming from everywhere. No one is enough to destroy us by itself, but taken together we are harried. Retreat in these circumstances is not a result of reacting to a single overwhelming force but responding to an untenable situation by drawing-again, by re-drawing, retreat. Removing one’s self from the source of irritation and confusion allows us to regroup. It also demonstrates Bohm’s “diligence.” We are “taking pains” to sort out our situation and we are not being inattentive – inattention being another way of looking at the state of confusion brought on by our “thousand cuts.” Remember, it’s not “them” who are “making” us angry or confused or inattentive. We do these things to ourselves. And since this is true, the most direct field of action is to do what is in our power to change this. We remove ourselves from the conditions that lead to our inattention and restore our attention.

Let’s follow this from another perspective. David Bohm likened our overall predicament to a situation in which a stream is polluted. If we remain reactant we continue to look for ways to “clean” the water downstream from the point at which it is being polluted. Such efforts are futile. This is plainly clear. We are in Shakespearean territory here! “Out Out Damn Spot!” No amount of scrubbing will do anything but smear the stain around.

Yet this is what we do continually. We ignore anything that calls attention to the futility of this course. “That’s pessimistic!” “I need hope!” “Don’t disillusion me!” We strive to maintain whatever scope we can fool ourselves into thinking we have because to do anything else would be to retreat! Would be to loose our resilience.

Yet, any such effort can only end in destruction. We know that. Remaining within dysfunctional illusions out of desperation only enforce our continued degradation. This is the ultimate force driving corruption. Remember that before corruption was “the-way-of-the-world, quid-pro-quo with a-wink-and-a-nod,” it was rotting, disintegration. It still is that, and this is how it works.

Bohm suggests that if the original source of the pollution we strive to clean up is in how we misinterpret thought and are taken in by the illusion of a self, and then, all the divisions and conflicts that arise out of this original error, this pollution of the stream: Why don’t we remove this source directly?

To do so is demonstrably not a futile action. By recognizing and acting on the insights regarding our emotional proprioception, that we “do” these things to our selves; and by seeing that unlike the projections outward onto the other that keep distracting us and dividing our attention into ever smaller scraps, ever greater levels of inattention/confusion; this is something we can actually affect.

Does removing a source of pollution immediately eradicate all of its effects? No, of course not. So, the evidence of continued outcomes that continue to flow through the system will inevitably continue to present themselves well after their origin has been shut-off. But while our Ego cries out for us to maintain the illusion of its existence and efficacy using all these examples as its “evidence;” it cannot offer us anything but a continuation of the present conditions and their ultimate worsening to the point of general and complete destruction.

Removing the source does have an immediate effect. Lifting the weight of futility off our shoulders and opening us to sources of strength that Ego’s striving keep out of our reach, does put our attention squarely on what is at issue and on an arena in which we do have agency. Letting go of striving, retreating, and looking at the complexity of issues of resilience; all work to strengthen our attention and remove sources of inattention.

What more can we ask for?

What more do we need?

Published by Antonio Dias

My work is centered on attending to the intersection of perception and creativity. Complexity cannot be reduced to any given certainty. Learning is Central: Sharing our gifts, Working together, Teaching and learning in reciprocity. Entering into shared Inquiry, Maintaining these practices as a way of life. Let’s work together to build practices, strengthen dialogue, and discover and develop community. Let me know how we might work together.

5 thoughts on “Retreat & Resilience

  1. Tony,

    So, maybe retreat IS an example of resilience, and resilience IS necessary for a planned and successful retreat. Retreating shows flexibility of thought and the good sense in re-grouping, pulling back, and changing strategies.

    Sometimes, we can feint a retreat, just to draw the”opponent ” in. If the “opponent” persist and pursues, we can fill and flank back around it and close in from the rear. Isolating an element of an opposing force allows for dissemination of the whole.

    Some problems can’t be dealt with head on. They must be engulfed and digested a piece at a time, OR, infiltrated and penetrated from within.

    Penetration and eating the “opposition” from within would be another kind of resilience, another adaptation. Adaptation and resilience are mutual ‘combinants’.

    Can the “enormity” be tackled in these ways? Are these useful stratagems
    out side the realm of militarism ?



    1. John,

      I never mentioned opponents or militarism. These are obvious assumptions attached to retreat, at least. But, as I was writing I sought a way to discuss retreat and resilience outside this narrow context.

      As soon as we insist on opponents we are mired in conflict. As long as we make those distinctions we have no way out of futility. Is it “easy” to find another way? No, but it is futile to remain in the old way.

      Militarism is futility to the nth degree. So long as we were fighting here and there and there was no impact on the whole of our world we could get away with sometimes gaining a temporary advantage through military means, but now? Once a bad habit’s ill-effects encompass an entire system they can no longer be escaped within that system. Now that this is true for the entire world there is nothing more futile than continuing to chase after military “solutions.”

      This all ties back into that illusion of security. We keep sliding right past that one! There is no security. But in the name of wishing for security we destroy everything.

      Fighting enemies does not ensure security. Sometimes we might win a battle, and yes, get to breathe and live another day. But that does not happen without a cost.

      Is this assumption of security and the related assumption that “winning” is everything – even taken to its farthest consequences, Mutually Assured Destruction being one example. – Is this really the best way to continue?

      Enormity is Enormity because it is inextricably tied to us. It is not an enemy. It cannot be stopped, destroyed, conquered. All we can do with Enormity is change what we can change and that comes down to changing how we operate by changing how we deal with our conditioning; how we take diligence in rejecting our conditioning; and opening our selves to the implications of how we order our perceptions: how we think and how we come to action.

      To parse your question in this light, we cannot tackle Enormity. It is. Strategies are always means to arrive at preconceived ends and therefore futile and distracting. Militarism is a tragic joke we play on ourselves as we insist that we can be secure.



  2. Tony,

    I Did slide into that hole, How embarrassing. I really don’t think in tactical terms. But I do fall into a habit of methodology.

    In 1969, I was living in Carpinteria CA. when the blowout happened on Platform A. in the Santa Barbara Channel. This was the worst oil spill since the Tory Canyon disaster. At the beach where I volunteered we wrestled an onslaught of oil. Not just a sheen but waves of thick crude many inches deep. The oil was so thick that it changed the sound of the surf! We retreated from the onslaught , and backed off to protect the estuary opening. We went to where it was not futile, and to where we could be the most effective. We saved the estuary from any permanent harm. We lost the beach, for the time being. The beaches of Santa Barbara, Carpinteria and Summerland took two years to clean up.

    I retreat all the time, to places in my mind, to find the resilience needed to endure, and live. I go sailing to retreat from the chaos and disorder of a busy life. I find re-assurance where I can in the balance of wind,waves and motion and the order of a sailboat making it’s way.

    I retreat to woodwork and the subtlety of working a sharp blade through wood fiber.

    I retreat to my garden, I put my nose in the dirt and cultivate a garden that humbles me. I learn lessons from the weeds that persist against all odds and keep sprouting . I watch the disorder that grapples with my attempts at orderliness, straight rows and furrows.

    I, at sixty years old, no longer respond to impulse like I did as a youth, and I seldom react as impulsively as I did then. I weather the storm by falling into the habit of protecting my own resilience and using retreat as a toll for daily living.

    I don’t embrace futility as an acceptable end though. I keep thinking that by way of good stewardship and witness I can nudge a bit of the “Human Biomass” from the” Enormity.”

    Can we retreat from our destructiveness? Can we find the resilience to change our path without” forcing”. I can put my mind to rest, I can feel the world go by, and I can live enchanted and bemused. I can create a durable bubble around me but I am still part of the problem. I still leave a perceptible footprint . Is vision, and foresight and creativity for naught?
    My only opponent in this world is me, I struggle with myself , and if I scrutinize my own reflection I treat myself badly. If I have the audacity to point a finger. I stick it in my own eye!



  3. Enormity: I like that expression. The beast one can’t take one’s eyes off. The one that seems to be intent on devouring us.

    And yet, what really devours me has, so far, never been the enormity. It has always been huggable size. And the main source of real insight too: insight into one’s resilient parts, ways to become resourceful, ways to shed unnecessary burdens. Always the important lesson – and I always the reluctant student, always trying to skip lessons, insisting this is too much to ask.

    That allure of the beast seen as enormity has always been a gultily enjoyed entertainment for me. As a teenager I liked Poe and Lovecraft and such stories – the object of fear was always something unknown, unseen. Standing at the edge of the screeching void – always safely this side, but knowing, intimately knowing the other side exists.

    For me, the core of safety is knowing and recognising that the other side is there: chaos is there, it is possible. All those who insist that there is something that can invalidate the abyss, cover it up for good, these strike me with fear and produce an automatic response of retreat. My idea of safety is being ready, as ready as I can, to face the chaos. A sort of warrior stance. We tend to see violence as the warriors’ response. That assumes chaos has form and can be controlled. Intelligent response is, for me, to look at what is coming at me now. It always comes in the size I can deal with. Sometimes it is disaster, sometimes it is bliss.

    But there’s that desire to watch the beast as enormity, and theorizing about it, making strategies. It is entertainment. Obscure sort of entertainment, I admit. But that is how it is for me. I visited a place called Agamemnons grave in Greece when I was a teenager. The place was never used as a grave, but it was a large chamber that was absolutely dark. Inside, I did not know if my eyes were open or closed. It was the safest place I have ever felt. Absolute darkness.


    1. Kristiina,


      Facing the darkness for what it is, unknowable, but free of the projections we insist on forcing on it, is a replacement for all that striving after security and salvation. It is where peace resides.

      These are reflections of a joyful disillusionment.


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