or, My Communal Retreat

I've done it the other way.  You know, the vacation where you lie on the beach day after day drinking things with cute toppings and then return to the city accompanied by the deep dread that is only relieved by the agony of actual work beginning.

But now I've turned that whole thing around.  I spend a week practicing Zen meditation and ritual with my community--sweating, greeting demons, and working hard, and then return to what now seems like an incredibly luxurious life.  

Many people have the idea that a zen retreat is a relaxing experience.  Usually, not so much. The day begins quite early with meditation, then service, then a ritualized meal, then work practice, then meditation and a dharma talk, more meditation, another service and a meal. That's just the morning, and that's the easy part because it's entertaining.  The afternoon is when the meditation kicks into high gear until about 9pm, so if there is anything you are avoiding, it will show up with bells on.  There is no escape, and everyone there is doing the same thing without being able to talk about it.  

It's brilliant, really. Like working in a cafe or library, or exercising in a gym, the company of others strengthens resolve, which is helpful when your mind wants to go off in its gazillion little fantasies that seem preferable to real life.  Here are some of the practices and benefits that accrue:

  • You get to give up control.  The schedule and assignments are in control.  You are given a job and you do it, whether you know how to do it or not, and whether you like it or not.  No decisions!  The executive function and the worker function of the brain get to take a break from each other, making it possible to really focus on what you are doing.
  • You get to survive a lot of mistakes. My main job was Doan, which means that I tried to play three kinds bells at the right times during a variety of rituals which were alike in some ways and just a weensy bit different in other ways.  So, any slip of attention was immediately revealed both to myself and to the entire assembly!  I almost ran away, but I didn't, so all of that is now included in who I accept myself to be, partly because the mistakes were accepted by the others.  No success or failure.  The moment is gone.  
  • You get to realize that you can do without things you thought you needed.  Bathroom breaks and sleep are in short supply; food preferences are largely irrelevant; and necessities such as the internet and other intoxicants, chatting, and even eye contact are strongly discouraged. Do you remember the experience of life without jumping up and checking something every 5 minutes?  
  • Because there is NOTHING else going on, you become acutely aware of tiny variations in lived experience.  A bead of sweat rolls down the neck, tickles a little, and then the fan whooshes by and cools it.  A hot flash comes and goes. A thought about performance runs its course, from humiliation to rage to hilarity.  yah, ok, some variations are not so tiny, and so we get to learn that we can bear them without doing anything about them.  

How does this all benefit everyday life?  in 10,000 ways.  Here are some of the cool things that upon re-entry suddenly seem so easy:

  • Switching attention completely, letting go.  
  • Seeing people as they are.  
  • Being clear about spheres of influence.
  • Enjoying the taste of food.
  • Making decisions.

I expect there will be more on all that by and by.  But for now, life is good.  Life is good, no matter what.  

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