Zen Again

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.”

Zen Again

My teacher (did I really say that? more on this later), Zentatsu Baker-Roshi, is in Boulder this weekend giving a seminar on the Evolution of Zen at the Chautauqua Community House. Spring rain and Winter’s final touch are mixing together and providing an excellent weekend to be indoors contemplating the human existence and meaning of self!

This seminar is much more casual than the Sesshin I attended several weeks ago – no robes, no chanting or prostrations, plenty of breaks and conversation. Roshi generally sets the context for our discussion then responds to questions, all the while trying to frame the theme, the Evolution of Zen.

We have been working extensively with the differences between “Evolution” and “Development”. Development is more static – moving within the field of the known, using that known to separate something else out, or ‘develop it’.  Evolution can be likened to an unrolling, a boundless process that is new in every moment. Something I am exploring personally is how do I create the conditions necessary to make my practice more likely to evolve?  Our Sangha (group practicing together including the teacher) has been looking deeply into trust, and how it, along with acceptance, are an integral part of evolving ones own practice. Another way to look at this is ‘being secure in vulnerability’, something I try to remain aware of, rather than close off and go within my own walls. We also explored the differences between Faith and Trust, two closely linked words, that are in Roshi’s words “part of the same experiential groove”. The subtle difference is that Faith walks a fine line with belief, which can be limited. Belief to me is static, based in the known and discounts the unknowable. As soon as you believe something, you are no longer open to the unknown, because you “believe this is the way it is”. Its security and safety and easier that way. I think I like Trust better as a word to describe opening myself to that unknown, as Trust is rooted more in experience, of which every moment is new and potentially boundless. At some level you even trust that you don’t trust.  There’s some Zen for you. 🙂  I’m out of time but will write more on my thoughts about what it means to have a teacher and practice with a group.

Zen Sesshin

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 IMG_0790in 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.IMG_0812

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. 🙂