These are the journal entries I made before and after my first Zen Sesshin (retreat) back in April 2017. I had been regularly meditating for a number of years before this Sesshin and had attended a couple of other meditation retreats and workshops in the past but this was my first one in the Zen tradition. I tried to include lots of details as well as my feelings toward them so that I could share this experience with others who might be interested. I didn’t make these entries as a way of promoting the tradition of Zen, I wrote them as a sort of investigation. I wanted to understand the process and to experience it for myself so that I could see if it was useful and relevant to my life. I think you will understand what I discovered through these entries…
This is the day before the start of Sesshin.
I am at the center and settling in, but we haven’t officially begun yet. We are having a little rest period before the next meal and the formal introduction ceremony. I just took a long walk around the property. It’s a lovely place that is tucked away in the mountains outside of Asheville. The view off the back deck is stunning and the trails that surround the main house are short but beautiful. Walking in nature always helps to clear my head and keep me present. We have only done one round of sitting (about 30 minutes) so far along with a couple of hours of house cleaning and preparation but the real formal sittings start tonight. There is a lot of formality and ritual in Zen and it takes some getting used to. I think if I had gotten into this particular lineage a few years ago, I probably would have been put off by it, but at this point in my life I am really enjoying it. Everything we do here is an extension of the practice and its all designed to keep you in the present moment, without any unnecessary thoughts or conversation. I am excited to go deeper!
What is there to say…
Journaling was frowned upon during Sesshin because it provokes mental rumination that can be distracting when attempting to quite the mind and turn the gaze inward. So I held off writing about my time in Sesshin until now. It’s hard to even imagine trying to sum up my experience in words. So much happened in such an internal space that its really difficult to describe~ but I’ll try.
First of all, I gained an immense respect for the very elaborate and deliberate elements of Zen rituals. Everything, absolutely everything that happens in Sesshin is designed to facilitate and enhance the practice. From chanting to prostrating (bowing) to working to eating to walking and even taking a piss, each activity is used as an opportunity to go deeper into silence, stillness and reflection.
It was somewhat difficult to understand this at first. It all kinda seemed like religious formality when I saw it from the outside but on the inside, after surrendering to flow of everything, I got totally lost in it. I became so grateful to be able to take part in such an absorbing, mindfulness-based environment.
The practice itself was pretty intense. It was a strain on the body as well as the mind. Sitting still, internally as well as externally, can be a lot more exhausting than some might think. Each morning we got up at 4:50am and after a quick Qui Gong exercise we started sitting. There was at least nine hours of formal sitting practice everyday (not including late night sitting,) plus Teisho (dharma talks), chanting services, work practice and a quick yoga session. There was also Kinhin (walking meditation) between each round of sitting.
In the afternoon and early evening we were offered Dokusan, which is a one-on-one, extremely formal, meeting with the Teacher. Here you can discuss the finer elements of the practice as well as whatever experiences you might be having or obstacles you might be facing. I can’t even describe how helpful these meetings were for me.
There were two teachers you could choose to meet with but I chose to meet with the same one every time. I already felt very connected to her because of the couple months of practice I had been doing at the center before the retreat, so I decided to follow that connection. Since the moment we met I knew she was going to be my teacher. I was so drawn in by her energy and her vitality that it felt like I had know her for years (or maybe lifetimes). She is so awake, so alive. Both of the teachers are. It’s so refreshing to be in the presence of truly committed and refined spiritual beings.
I really don’t feel like I can go into every detail of my experience right now, there is just too much and it is still too fresh. I do; however, feel that I need to mention the fact that something most definitely shifted in me…or maybe it opened. This happened most dramatically when I was given a Koan (A sort of riddle with no real answer that is designed to exhaust the thinking mind and open us to the essence of the moment).
I was given the Koan, “Mu”. After it was given to me everything changed. I think the Koan changed things, not only because of the fact that it is incredibly powerful but also because I was ready for it. It had been calling to me.
After a day and night of diving into mu and holding it with extreme focus, something happened that revealed the truth of this practice to me. It was like I opened a pair of eyes that I never knew I had. They had a vision that saw in a totally different way than my normal eyes and they were seeing through the space of my belly (my Hara). It was only a little opening, kind of like a flower bud as it splits apart and starts to show its true color, but despite its infant state, I could feel its depth and power. It was almost like a homecoming; like a welcome back celebration from my higher self. This new vision felt so familiar and natural. It was almost like I was remembering it instead of discovering it.
As this new set of eyes began to open I found that I could feel the birds and the trees and the sunrise in the pit of my stomach and it felt like I was intimately connected to it all. The essence of my being, which inhabits this body, seemed to be connected to its surroundings like the song of the Cardinal is connected to the breeze. It was beautiful (and still is).
When I talked to Roshi about this in Dokusan she seemed genuinely happy for me but not at all surprised or confused (which I had expected). She knew exactly what was going on and told me it was just the tip of the iceberg. I was so overwhelmingly grateful for having been guided into this experience that I wept like a child as I tried to explain my feelings. I have been looking for this (whatever it is) for as long as I can remember so getting a taste of it through this practice was like receiving a long awaited gift. I have touched this space through other experiences like psychedelics and even music but I had never gotten to touch it in such a pure, self-initiated way before.
Possibly the most incredible realization of this whole weekend was understanding that people like my teachers live within this space day in and day out and have dedicated their entire lives to sharing it with others. Words cannot describe what this means to me. That level of dedication and commitment is truly remarkable and just being in their presence, under such powerful circumstances has left me lighter and more open than I have felt in a long time. I have been bubbling with joy and appreciation and reverence since I got home and the experiences have only gotten stronger as I continue with the practice… More on this later!