Zen Retreat Redux: Sit. Stay.  

I didn't see it coming.  

Unlike the high drama and torture of last year, this zen retreat was relatively uneventful, which is to say it was a veritable cauldron of long-forgotten demons, physical pain, boredom, and large helpings of bliss.   Nothing special.  So, when I came home I was surprised to discover vast swaths of freedom in my life where previously there were tiny little congested closets.

I've heard it said that stuff comes up at retreats because they are structured that way on purpose.  I can imagine the old zen masters sitting around on their tatami mats, inserting exactly one more nitpicky detail about how the bell must be rung, devising work assignments, arranging the schedule just so.

What you do on retreat is sit still, a lot, even when you have a bunch of nasty feeling thoughts, then you get up when the bell rings, walk in a prescribed way, sit some more, participate in service--zen-singing is in monotone, which goes very nicely with the black robes.  You also get to eat and sleep according to schedule, and you can't talk, except about work when necessary.

So everyone is bound to stumble on some way in which their own special self resists the prescription.  That's the gate to freedom, but it sure doesn't feel like it.

For me, it came in the form of two little interactions that occurred in quick succession.  First, the practice leader took a moment during daily announcements to clarify the exact way to hold your hands for Gassho, an important gesture that is part of a bow.  What he said required about three things I can't do because of the deformities and surgeries in my hands.   A few minutes later in work practice, another student asked me to thread a needle.  This is something I'm actually quite good at, but it quickly became obvious that the hole was just too small for the thread.  I got him a different needle and threaded it while he seemed to tap his feet impatiently.  The next time his needle was empty, he went to a different person, a male, who couldn't do it without a threader, by the way, and they yukked it up about the challenge.  Guess who he went to the third time.  It wasn't me.

In ordinary life this sort of thing would fly by barely noticed but in the deep quiet of retreat, I got a good look at my particular demon, the image of myself as defective and rejected.  Sadness and fury washed over me.  I imagined things I would say or do, educating them about disability or much less civilized things, but because I couldn't do anything and because my job was to let go of thought, after a while the stuff faded away.  By the end of the retreat the whole incident seemed irrelevant.   

This, by the way, is the dirty secret about meditation.  If you consume new age propaganda, it's easy to get the idea that if you just sit down and breathe, the calm beneficence of the universe will envelop you.  Well, it does, but the feeling of calm is shallow and fragile until you face your own mind.  I think of it as a kind of behavior therapy--exposure and response prevention.  Instead of acting on your emotional thoughts the way you usually do--fixing things, arguing with people or yourself--you just sit.  It gets a little worse for just an instant as you enter into it, and then, if you stay, it gets much much better.

What's kind of funny is that this is pretty close to what happened last year, but I forgot, again.  Anyway, it's good to be home.  It was good to be home before I left.  I just didn't realize it.

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Reader Comments (2)

i don't know how it is in Zen, but in Theravada the needle-and-thread incident could be well interpreted as an opportunity to practice lovingkindness and compassion for the other student, and the arising of the unpleasant self-image an opportunity to practice them for oneself - as well as to recognize Mara the Deceiver at work and call him out.

Mara's like the cosmetic surgery industry, looking around for perfectly beautiful things to term "unsightly" in passing, as if it's understood, for no purpose other than to raise doubts in the mind of the hearer that might lead to his (Mara's) own gain. that's the method he's applying in this case, at least. he has many faces. but recognizing that he's playing his games and simply thinking, "i know you, Mara" i find very effective. usually sends him running with his tail between his legs. he'll be back soon - he's nothing if not determined - but he can't stand up to being seen for what he is.

helpful too would be remembering the principles of non-attachment, non-identification, and not-self. our culture places great emphasis on the physical (it could be somewhat the nature of this Earthly plane, too - the physical is very in-your-face here), but the truth is that form is not you, any more than are feeling, perception, mental formations, or consciousness. no one can see "you" because there is no "you" there to see. there's only an aggregation of aggregates. or, as Winnie-the-Pooh so astutely put it,

How sweet to be a cloud, floating in the blue...

"Anyway, it's good to be home. It was good to be home before I left. I just didn't realize it." wonderful. :)

February 24, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterIan

The way to transform this from lesson to practice is realizing the mind is by nature a reactive organ. Once this is understood the rest falls into place.

November 18, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterRandy

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