Well, a number of folks have been asking “how’d it go?” with regards to my first “mini” seshin @ GVZM, I’m going to take the weak tack and post it all here to facilitate central access, and help me to avoid having to type variations on a theme (thank you to the many friends who have already said “a blog post will be enough”.)

Preface I: Before leaving (literally about an hour before hand) I’d happened upon an interesting listing on Craigslist regarding a housing option down in West Linn. A buddhist lady offering a studio attached to her home for a very reasonable price, with the caveat that she wanted someone who would respect her environment and her practice. Rent deduction if you took care of her cat when she was gone. I fired off a quick inquiry about it.

Preface II: For those not “in the know” (read: not sangha members), a bit of a brief description of things. Our Buddhist sangha holds retreats multiple times every month on a variety of different things, from art to eating and other helpful pursuits. Once a month, there is also a longer seshin (5 to 10 day intensive) retreat, often done in noble silence. Retreat practice is an essential part of our sangha. Even a short one can be very emotionally, intellectually, spiritually and physically intense.

Having said that...

I caught a ride with a sangha member/friend as well as two other people up to the monastery. Nice chatting as we went up. I took it upon myself to ask if everyone had an idea what we were “in for”. A bit of a discussion was had regarding the specifics, as best as I could provide them. I was at least able to give a bit of context as to why this would be done in silence, and why we would be eating this way (Ōryōki), but I was keenly aware that this would be very different from any retreat I myself had ever done in the past. I’ve spent weeks in silence, but that was long ago. I was effectively a very different person from who I am now. Feeling a bit of worry and apprehension over that, I calmed myself by dropping into the internal process that I have developed to start opening myself up to something new, and reminded myself--yet again--that preconceived notions are one of the greatest poisons to practice.

We arrived in a rather timely manner (considering we’d gotten a bit of a late start due to the collection of our cohort of riders, then the typical Friday afternoon I-5 northbound rush). The driver and I had a slightly special need to speak to the registrar above and beyond the signing in and balance payments, so we took care of our practicalities, stuck our bags in the dorm, and got back to the office to talk with Kojun about our Precepts paperwork and wagesa kits. An informal dinner was had, with everyone in good spirits. Hogen made a brief and late appearance, saying hello and welcoming me as I finished plating my dinner. I told him I was happy to finally be doing this retreat, having had three false starts in the last two years. The food was great, as always. I had an opportunity to start practicing hard-core mindfulness right away as they set out the cheese plate. A brief tour was had that I went on (again), mostly to enjoy a touch of conversation with all the strangers before everything went silent. As far as I could tell, there were only four PDX-ZCO members in attendance, so the rest of the attendees were all relatively new to both ZCO and GVZM, as well as Zen specifically, and for a few, Buddhism in general. That meant that at least twenty people were in for a much “newer” experience than even I was. I tried to be mindful of that.

We met in the meditation hall, found our assigned places, and were greeted by Hogen-sensei as the opening ceremony officially kicked the retreat off. A few groans and gasps were heard when DT read the schedule. I was a bit surprised by this: who on earth didn’t read the schedule before they singed up for something like this? We received initial instructions on zazen, focusing on pranayama and posture. Everything was essentially boilerplate. We performed the evening ceremony, and headed off to our respective beds.

Sleep for most of us was fitful to say the least. For me, it was nearly absent. I--like most--always have a hard time sleeping in a new space the first night; doubly so because it’s a dorm environment. I haven’t slept in a dorm set-up since I last slept in a hostel in 1990, so it had really been a while. The accommodations, however sparsely appointed, weren’t the issue at all. It was a combination of my mind and my body. I was truly thankful that I’d thought (at the very last minute) to bring my beat-up old sleep mask. If I hadn’t, I’m rather certain I’d not have slept at all. As it stands, I think I got about two hours of actual sleep before the waking bell sounded at Dark O’Clock. About two dozen extraordinarily tired people sat in the meditation hall. The exhaustion was nearly palpable. I blew out a bit of metta for us all, knowing that at that very moment, we were all standing at the bottom of the hill, looking up, with over ten hours of zazen to come. I made sure to keep in mind that I needed that metta, too. This was going to be hard.

To keep this from turning into a needless writing exercise, I’m going to cut to the important bits and skip the blow-by-blow.

The physical toll on me was pretty extensive. For many people, not so, but because I have allowed myself to gain weight these past months, combined with my disability, it was far worse than I anticipated; the exhaustion, of course, making this so much worse. I may have actually started experiencing angina again because of my blood-pressure, which I imagine was back up to “terrible”. The chest pain may also have been muscle problems (pecs) due to holding my hands in mudra for so long (and to all friends, please know that I’m watching the chest-pain issue with due seriousness, so don’t fret). It also may have been exacerbated by a bit of RSI from breaking down ten pounds of broccoli during work practice. After lunch, my BP was probably up to dangerous levels. I had a massive, throbbing headache, was shorter of breath than I normally am, and was--in general--abjectly miserable. I started doing what many folks do at this point in the game: think about bailing out. This bothered me because I wasn’t phased by the zazen per se. I was being hammered by own body due almost entirely to my own negligence. I considered shooting a TXT off to my house partner to see if she’d be willing to come get me. I thought about telling Hogen about my physical state. I thought about telling my driver. Finally, during the rest period, I just told myself what was most obvious: Dude, you’re way out of shape again, you’re exhausted, everything’s all amped up and set to “11”. Just relax into it. You’ll actually sleep tonight, if only due to exhaustion, and it’ll be better tomorrow. That was of course exactly the case.

Everyone had a better Sunday. We sat for only one period of zazen before morning service. After that, and a final ōryōki breakfast, we gathered in the guest area for closing circle. Everyone was expected to discuss their experiences. I tried to keep my comments brief; still half-submerged in the noble silence of the 24-or-so hours prior. When it came my “turn”, I said what was on my mind. It was hard. Very hard. I had made it that way. I was stunned at how much I talk to myself, internally and externally. I had come to understand a number of things about my life during the retreat that I was having trouble putting to words, and admitted that I may not ever find the words. Nothing as lofty as kensho, but at the same time, nothing merely as banal as “You need to lose weight, fat ass”. When I had said “realization”, Hogen asked me to name one of the most notable realizations I’d had, and I said “That I shouldn’t do a residency right now...” Both he and Kojun gave me slightly surprised looks (as surprised as they get, I suppose).

About halfway through the 2nd evening period zazen on Saturday, it just occurred to me that even if the circumstances of my life (mariage/housing/finances/etc) make residency attractive, I was just simply not feeling it. It made absolute, perfect sense to me in my head, but in my "heart" it was still lacking the fire that made me feel like it was the right thing for me right now. I realized that there are still so many things that I want to get straightened out in my life, and while yes, I could do them at the monastery, it may not be the best place to do so. I think I would actually feel like I was short-changing the monastic experience, and frankly short-changing myself and my sangha in the process. No joy there.

Also, I feel like I will serve both myself and my sangha better in a very practical sense if I stay here in PDX metro. I want very much to be active in the establishment of Heart of Wisdom Zen Temple, and living up at the monastery will really make that tricky. I am not unaware that some of this may possibly be selfish, but I’m allowing for that. I want to see HoWZEN succeed, and I want to be a part of that. I suddenly realized just how important that has become for me. To ignore that would be--essentially--lying to myself. I’m really trying to be done with that in my life.

The physical aspect of residency and monastic living, while not the main motivator of my choice, cannot go unmentioned. In short: this would have been a lot easier 40 pounds ago. But this experience has brought up a number of serious questions in me regarding physical limitations and abilities as they pertain to not only residency, but seshin participation, the offering of jukai, and our desire as a sangha to facilitate people’s dharma lives, meet an uphold our statement of inclusitivity while at the same time preserving the strong foundation of our Zen tradition and upholding the traditions of our lineage. In short: I think we’ll need to examine disability as a concept in our sangha and how we chose to work with it, and sooner rather than later.

In closing, while this Beginner's Mind retreat was at times very difficult for me (and for others), I am extraordinarily glad that I did it, and that I had the experience(s) I had. I think were it not to have gone down the way it did, I would not be in the clear space that I’m in now.

I’ll have more reflections on a few specifics as time rolls on.

Thank you to all my friends who asked after me and were concerned with how it went. I’m sure we’ll all get to talk more about it together soon.




Laura said...

Well done, and well communicated. I have found Beginner's Mind retreats to be tougher than Sesshin. Some people really groove on them, but for me, the first three days are the very hardest... the mind can fight so hard.

My very first weekend retreat was a Vipassana one, and we got to journal if we wanted to. I am really glad I was able to document how HARD it was for me. It helps me remember, and gives me so much empathy for others who have difficulty with meditation, retreat, physical limitations, etc.

Thank you for your teaching,

Laura said...

P.S. On a more selfish note, I would be glad to have you around Portland with the rest of us who vow to found Heart of Wisdom too.