Last weekend I returned from a 7-day sesshin, an intense meditation retreat in the Zen Buddhist tradition. As a fellow-practitioner recently said, you are either in the Zendo or on your way to the Zendo for 7 days straight. You are sitting in meditation (zazen), eating meals (oryoki) or listening to the teacher give a lecture (teisho) for 13 to 14 hours each day. If you go to sleep immediately after the final sitting period ends you may sleep from 10 pm until 3:30am when the wake-up bell rings, although many practitioners choose to sit yaza which is open-sitting into the evening. To give you an idea of how much sitting this is, if you meditated every day for 20 minutes, it would take you nearly 300 days to sit as much as one does during a sesshin. Clearly this is quite a radical practice. What exactly are you doing sitting there on a cushion for 14 hours a day?
The intensity of the schedule is intended to take away choice. Without choice, we can begin to develop a sense being preferenceless, becoming disinterested or non-attached from the world and the results of our work. This may sound sort of pessimistic or nihilistic, but in reality it is great freedom. According the Buddha’s teachings, whenever we are interested in something, prefer something over something else, we will eventually lose the object of our interest, experiencing dukkha, often translated as suffering but more realistically translated as un satisfactoriness. Apparently dukkha literally translates to a wheel out of kilter (picture a 4-wheel cart with one flat tire rolling down the street).
This was my second sesshin, and probably the second hardest thing I’ve ever done (the first one being the most difficult)! It was very different this time. I have an established practice, the novelty of the forms and rituals have worn off and I have the ability to actually sit without moving for long stretches of time, really allowing me to delve into the more subtle aspects of myself. It’s quite incredible how relatively quickly thought is exhausted. When the sesshin began, I was carrying in a few large items that I thought might derail my meditation, but truly after a day or two of sitting with them; you simply exhaust all angles and manners of thinking about them. You begin to look at things from a non-self-referential perspective and watch as these things simply dissolve. It’s in this dissolution that you see how such thinking can come to dominate our minds, to define us and to consume us at times. Yet when given careful attention, these thoughts truly are just a small wave in the ocean covering up something so much greater.
Writing about practice is interesting, first I’m not really qualified, and second there is something utterly personal about it that can mislead and confuse others. So I guess I will stop for now- what I can write about is more of my personal experience, the difficulty since returning home I’ve had, feeling vulnerable, a little lost and quite sensitive to the world. I’m taking the recommended advice, avoiding stimulation, social situations, continuing to sit frequently. Nurturing myself and what I need right now. My body, my mind, simply feel different. Something within me has shifted; it’s not something clearly recognizable by me or others. I feel myself slowly drifting towards a life of contemplation, losing interest in my more worldly activities, generally holding this desire for truth and awareness higher than all others. A week removed now, I sense the pull back towards the world and its many tantalizing aspects, its long fingers wrapping around me. I think that is part of the sensitivity I feel – slipping back into states of lesser-awareness…
I guess all I can do is take the advice my teacher once gave me:
“Sit with others regularly. When the bell rings, just get up.”