Saturday, January 16, 2010
Reflections: Sesshin report and some basics
A few people, including family, have asked about my recent sesshin (retreat) experience. The experience is difficult to describe, but here’s a quick attempt.
Zazen: This sesshin was a zazen (sitting meditation) intensive experience. Beginning at 4 in the morning, we sat for 14 50 min stretches per day separated by 10 min stretches of kinhin (walking meditation). There also were short breaks for meals. Compared to other participants, I was a novice to this intensive type of practice. I was relieved to hear before coming that, in contrast to the Center where I meditate regularly, mindful changes in posture were allowed during the 50 min rounds. Still, sitting for this length of time was a physically trying experience. I made the mistake of stubbornly (pridefully?) not changing my posture at all during the first 15 or so periods, and I probably paid for that during later days of the sesshin. There was some discomfort. But there were positive aspects as well. First, I was surprised that my right leg never once fell asleep, because I’ve had trouble with that in the past. Second, much of my past meditation experience has been with Sanghas (groups) where the practice is to keep your eyes closed during meditation. The Sangha I practice with now stresses keeping your eyes open. Even after almost a year, keeping the eyes open seems to be less rewarding for me. As consequence of the physical discomfort I felt, I finally learned to appreciate keeping my eyes open and “making friends” with the white wall I was facing. (We sit facing the wall, not the interior of the room.) That extra sensory stimulus helped mute the discomfort I was feeling. Third, there were stretches of time when the discomfort went away. It either disappeared (for example, when your nose itches, if you don’t scratch it, the itch eventually disappears) or was distanced by a sense of equanimity. Note: equanimity* can be defined as “the ability to see without being caught by what we see” and “the ease that comes from seeing a bigger picture” adapted from a talk by Gil Fronsdal, May 29th, 2004: http://www.insightmeditationcenter.org/books-articles/articles/equanimity/
*Another description of equanimity I enjoyed reading: http://www.serve.com/cmtan/buddhism/equanimity.html
The purpose of all this zazen?: One is just to sit. To empty one’s mind of thought and experience what still there: emptiness and a sense of pervading peacefulness. The other is to be able to take the lessons learned during this practice, if we’ve learned them well enough, into our day-to-day living. During the sesshin, I had times when I experienced emptiness and times when I was swamped with thoughts, even more than usual. I guess that might be expected from such an intense experience.
Kinhin: Kinhin is walking meditation, which can be described as mindfulness of each step and the changes in the body and environment that occur with each step. At the Zen Center where I practice regularly, kinhin occurs at a regular walking pace. The Soto style kinhin is much slower. As anticipated, it did not provide the same relief between sitting periods, but proved much more rewarding as a meditation practice, for me at least. I have to admit, though, that I had to fight to suppress the occasional giggle, at least until I was more used to the experience.
Meals: Wow. The food was amazing. And my thanks to the cooks that prepared it for us. But the main event for me (and perhaps the other steady participants) was that this was my first experience using oryoki bowls. I arrived later than expected for sesshin and because of a promised training session on using the bowls, I had not taken it upon myself to inform myself about their use. A bit of a lack of responsible behavior on my part I realized already a night before I left. My mother called and knew more about their use than I did! (That in itself was a lesson in awareness and responsibility.) Training was brief, I was tired from the drive, and so, during sesshin, the other participants (all ordained) had to patiently and/or with humor watch my face turn shades of red and deeper red as I acquired this skill. Then they had to suffer through my delight when a few meals in (3?) I mastered it. (A couple of the other participants mentioned they found the scenario humorous and actually so did I, so I guess its okay. Thank you again!)
Work Assignments: As is typical during a sesshin, other than the head teacher, every participant had an assigned bit of work to perform during sesshin to keep things running smoothly. I was happy to find that I had been assigned breakfast dishes and kitchen cleanup. Unfortunately, there really was hardly anything to wash other than the serving dishes because of the use of the oryoki bowls. So other than my own shortcomings in preparation and physical endurance, this was my only real disappointment during this sesshin. (I think I can get used to not doing so many dishes, so don’t change anything on my account!)
Sangha: It might amaze some people, since there is no speaking
during sesshin and we spend most of the time facing a wall that a feeling of closeness develops. It does! I am really grateful to have met new friends in the Dharma and to have had the opportunity to participate in this sesshin. It was a memorable experience, not only because it was my first sesshin of this nature, but also because of events surrounding it.
Would I do it again?: Definitely yes! The sesshin was what it was, but I learned a lot from it. No doubt these lessons will be helpful as I say yes to life in all its aspects. And especially helpful for those occasions when life says no, because our greatest learning often comes from when life says no, as painful as those experiences might be. Without doubt, I am extremely grateful to have the practice to guide me and, hopefully, help me live a life that is of benefit to myself and those around me.