The very next day after returning from Mexico I headed to Crestone, Colorado to spend a week at the Zen Mountain Center participating in a Buddhist Sesshin, a silent meditation retreat. Sesshin literally translates to “gathering the mind”, which is exactly why I went. I’m undergoing a major transition in life and before I move forward into the next phase I want to ensure I am centered and acting from a place of truth and self awareness.
This retreat was the most difficult thing I have every done psychologically, probably the second most difficult physically (hiking the 500 mile Colorado trail in 2005 was #1). The schedule each day consisted of waking at 3:30am, sitting zazen (meditation) for 10-12 hours, walking meditation, work and lectures interspersed throughout the day. I didn’t get to sleep until 10 each night and the breaks were designed to not give you enough time for a nap! We ate all meals in the Zendo Oryoki style, meaning “just enough”, which synchronizes the mind in body by bringing mindfulness to how we eat. On the first evening the head Monk told us all: “give yourself over to the schedule”, meaning do not let your ego drive your thinking about what you do or don’t want to do. I likened it to the practice of choiceless awareness which is characterized by being aware of whatever is present without choice or preference. There was no bathing or distractions such as books, television, food or exercise. You simply had to be where you were. “No other location” is how Roshi Richard Baker spun the original expression, “be here now”.
This was an extremely personal experience for me, many things I do not feel comfortable sharing on a blog, but too simplify (if I may take the liberty!), the week was an exercise in remaining present. It took about 2-3 days for me to get past the physical pain and mental chatter to a place where I could be deeply contemplative and aware. You would gasho (bow) to everyone you passed, walk slowly, when working focus directly on the task at hand. When eating, just eat. When sleeping, sleep. When walking, walk. You get the picture.
In addition to the Roshi’s afternoon teisho (lecture) and evening koans, we had the opportunity to meet privately with him in a formal interview called dokusan, where one could ask questions and seek guidance. I found this very helpful as sometimes the mind would get stuck in a ‘loop’ and having the insight of a teacher to change my perspective or focus allowed me to deepen my practice. I could go on and on about the details of the week, but will spare those that aren’t interested… I’d be more than happy to talk in much greater detail for anyone truly interested!
I am now back in Boulder, attempting to find my posture, something the Roshi told me to focus on when I asked him for practical advice about returning home to a world that will be exactly the same yet vastly different after such an experience. Finding one’s posture is a powerful metaphor as it translates to both my daily living and my sitting practice. We are always squirming, feeling uncomfortable and before one can truly deepen in practice, whether in mediation or daily living, one has to sit like a mountain, finding that posture. If you see some guy trying to be a mountain, say hi. 🙂