Zen Retreat Redux: Sit. Stay.  
Thursday, January 15, 2015 at 1:44PM
Elena Taurke in Crip People, Disability, Feelings, PsychoZen Meets Life, Zen

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.

Article originally appeared on PsychoZen (http://www.psychozen.org/).
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