Why Meditate? My Lovely Zen Retreat


Photo: A. Jesse Jiryu Davis

I am dumbstruck again at the contrast between how I feel when I vow to do something and how I feel when I actually do the thing.  After a harrowing year, the idea of a Zen retreat in the deep of winter sounds like a great idea.  In the quiet companionship of many meditators, I can atone for what I have disavowed, make repairs to my parasympathetic nervous system, and obtain clarity of mind.  As I hit submit, I feel positive, hopeful, cheerful.  

Weeks pass.  Crises come and go.  I have my usual reaction to The Holidays, which is to desire sleep in equal proportion to the amount of required errands.  A migraine lurks in the background, which I medicate with caffeine and tylenol. The day approaches.  My cat pukes at 3am and I can’t get back to sleep.  I am exhausted, nauseous and woozy; I realize I’ve made a big, big mistake.  I pack.  I make it to Grand Central.  A big mistake.  Rest is what I need, not sitting six hours a day interspersed with painfully slow walking and a work break or two.  By then I already have my ticket, so I head to the train where I meet several other Zennies.  I announce how awful I feel, which makes me feel better, and then I nap and take more tylenol and caffeine, and feel even better.  

I fall asleep at 10pm as required, then wake at 2am, my body ready to meet the next emergency.  It continues like this, making sitting periods a torture until I decide to stop following my predictions about how terrible I will feel.  Actually, the visions before I nod off are enjoyable, the woozy wonky feeling is just that.  It’s hard to hold my back up, so it hurts.  So do my knees.  I hear the Dharma—no knees no pain, no sensation, a transient thing.  I try to let go of wanting it to be different.  First I accept that I want it to be different.  I am human; I have my preferences.  

What is the point of this?  We chant and study sutras that tell us there is no point at all.  No gain.  No gain and thus the Bodhisattva attains Nirvana, or something like that.   But I’m thinking that sleep would be Nirvana, if I could just get off this cushion.  Mostly I stay, noticing a gazillion urges come and go.  A gazillion thoughts fade away: the thought that I need sleep, that I need to run away, that I need to chat.  

We don’t chat at zen retreats.  We keep our eyes down, walking and serving food and eating in silence.  This is perhaps the strangest part.  You serve yourself and, maybe you spill or knock into something.  You want to say, “whoops,” and giggle the way you normally do when you feel incompetent, but you can’t so you lose your narrative.   Without a narrative, you just eat. 

So what is the point of just eating, just sitting on the cushion, not doing anything, for days and days?

It is now a week since my return and to my surprise, things are going smoothly.  I have the strength to tackle difficult stuff, the patience to wait, and a general sense of delight.  What a crazy and wonderful world we live in!   :) 

What is about sitting still that accounts for my emergent sunny outlook?  I think I know, actually.  It’s pretty basic, from a behavioral psychology perspective.  You know that dog whose mouth watered every time he heard a bell, cuz the bell was paired with food.  Over time, if you keep ringing the bell but stop bringing the food, the dog’s mouth will stop watering.  It’s called extinction, and people measure stuff like that—how long will it take such and such to extinguish.

So when you have urges and don’t act on them, they eventually fade.  We keep our dramas going by acting on them, talking about them, thinking about them, when all the while we are existing in this marvelous world of sights and sounds and so ons that we barely notice.  It takes time for the urges to diminish.  You certainly can’t think them out of existence.  And when they recede, you may or may not have one of those gigantic enlightenment experiences, but life just goes better because you meet reality where it is.  Neither Nirvana nor Hell in my experience, but a fascinating adventure.   Or maybe this is Nirvana.   

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Reader Comments (5)

yes, so strange the way it works; no, no, no, but then yes!

January 8, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterenkyo

Exactly, Roshi, if we get up at the 2nd 'no,' it doesn't turn. Thanks for your comment!

January 11, 2014 | Registered CommenterElena Taurke

In this morning's NY Times's Sunday Review section, there was a quite illuminating article about the way sleep cleans out our brain from the day's "waste," to allow us to function anew ( What I found startling was that the solutions for the chronically sleep deprived focused strictly on pharmaceuticals. I wonder if meditation might work in a similar way as sleep--your experience suggests that's so. And if so, here would be an entirely different and much more healthful solution to the problem.

January 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMarina Romani

Somehow I stumbled across your blog - luck must be with me. Very helpful and inspiring words Ms. Elena. Thank you.


January 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCharlie

Loved it!!!!
You are so good at accuratley expressing what most of us feel all the time ;)
Good job
Thank you for writing

December 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSmriti

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