I just returned from sesshin yesterday. Sesshin is a practice of intensive meditation, the tradition coming from Zen monastic practices. I am not going to describe sesshins in general here,but talk about my experience with sesshin and this sesshin.
First of all sesshins go on for a week. You sit many hours a day. I have never been able to take a week off of work to attend. This is the case for a lot of people, hence I have noticed that sesshins in general are pretty poorly attended by working people. This means that when I arrive, the sesshin is in full swing and practioners are already many days into deepening their practices. The energies are not congruent and I notice I feel more like I am observing than participating. On shorter 3 days sesshins, I have been able to attend and therefore have felt more in tune. I joined in and filled in the work practice schedule. I was there Friday to Sunday, but to make that happen worked till 3am on Friday morning and drove right over.
It was a great, perfect sesshin for me, perhaps my favorite.
My legs really hurt; I think I may have injured my knee; my lower back gave out quickly; I was unable to sleep one nights one and three; I involuntarily jerked in and out of sleep through most of the meditation periods and took to long periods of kinhin ("walking meditation") my myself to keep awake; the food was mainly tomato based, so I was often hungry and/or in gastronomic pain; there were no sheets on my bed; I had to work during the rest periods after my work practice; I got three kitchen clean ups in a row (lunch, dinner and breakfast in a short period); I had to work until after midnight on a client proposal; I was exhausted and felt a low level rage at all times. It was awesome.
I turned into the rage. And turned into it again. And saw in stark silhouette my expectations on how meditation could be or should be, and what I want and how I move when I dont get it. I saw that anger sometimes softens with attention, sometimes disappears, but sometimes hardens and remains and that this is not failure, but perfect.
Turning inward toward perceived failure, it turns out, is like a knife cutting off delusion. I noticed that the pits of my disappointment were really no different than the highs of silent mind and open channels of loving. There was a kindness there, offered involuntarily, like a father caring for a sick child. There was a naked moment of appreciating the expectations on how meditation goes, and what elnightenment might look like. There is the freedom that pain and confusion will not kill you, and in fact, hosts many small packets of contentment. There is realizing that your participation may not be necessary in moving toward the light. It might be moving toward you.
I was a live wire, distracted and sleeping, but the koans kept working and the practice kept practicing. I saw layers like onions, of consciousness, my consciousness, and felt the warm centerlessness of practice. I saw the grey carpet, and felt knees hurt and they all made it into the inbox. It was all so not what I wanted, and yet, the work got done anyway. I had to spend me hours in attention not to bliss or connectedness, but hour upon hour of frusutration and isolation. There was lpeace, only short periods of stillness. Your reward for noticing your breath? Oh, more pain. More hallucinating images. More dreams. More anxiety. Sometimes thats how it is. Believing that attention to our breath, our selves, our lives, our sitting, will bring peace and contentment is another fantasy, like believing that if we are good zen students, we will not be afraid when we die. It might happen, but its a fantasy. What is sure is that you will die, will be scared, will hurt, will be mad. What does that look like?
Besides all that happy crappy, if you still want to keep with something after all this, you know you really want it. Its not Huike cutting off his arm to study with Bodidharma, but its teeth.
I left, then went home, surfed, ate, talked, slept, awoke, worked and boom, it dropped. It felt like the space between work, sleep and practice just reduced. The lines of delineation greyer and blurrier. I am noticing that I can feel now the connection between drafting and surfing and making park ribs and sitting. It all got a little closer and less separate. I have noticed lately that I am finding it harder and harder to discern when I am sitting and not. Today I am noticing that more, but also, noticing how I can feel one while I do the other. How sitting IS surfing and cutting my toenails IS deposing a witness. And how they differ.
File to the whoever cares department: I notice after sesshin I often forget to write the letter "I", and to refer to I. Interesting. Obviously, for this blog, I am making that effort.
I close this post with an ill-advised poem about the experience:
In darkness more darkness
so the light might be better able to find me.
Yes. That's it. Fuck off if you don't like it.
“A Course on Koans” is the delusion-riddled work of Chris Kufu (“Wind in the Void”) Wilson, who began practicing Zen in 1967. He regards Taizan Maezumi, Robert Aitken, and David Weinstein as his root teachers. Each of them pecked at his shell until he “completed” the never-ending koan curriculum of the Harada-Yasutani lineage.
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