Monday, August 6, 2007
Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York, July 2006
Well, I’ve returned from my retreat, a few pounds lighter and somewhat light-headed. It was, in a word, interesting. Challenging. Definitely not fun.
People often think going on a Zen retreat is like going to a spa. They think you ought to come back all refreshed and glowing, having done lots of yoga and restful contemplation.
It’s nothing like that. A fellow retreat-goer described it yesterday as “controlled insanity,” and that’s about as apt a description as I could come up with. For me, it was about meeting my own mind in its darkest places, seeing my desires, my thought patterns, the ways I try to fake myself out. It was sometimes downright grueling.
We got up at 4:20 every morning and basically sat zazen all day, interspersed with services and ritual meals served traditional oriyoki style - “just enough” food in three small bowls. (Delicious food, by the way.) We were in bed by 9:30 every night. We also had an exercise period, a work period and time for a midday nap.
No reading. No TV, movies, telephones, computers. No escape, in other words. We had a couple of musicians in the group who played for us during a few rare periods of zazen. But mostly, it was just me and myself, facing off across a divide of silence broken only by birdsong and the white-noise sound of the blowing fans.
It was interesting to watch my own practice through the week. When the retreat started, I was all into it, enjoying the quiet, the order and the mindfulness. I could watch the sun on the grass and hear the wind in the trees and really delve into those experiences. My cushion was near an open window, and I often saw wildlife outside the meditation hall: deer, a family of turkeys, a hummingbird, rabbits, a lightning-fast chipmunk.
But extensive meditation is not all pretty. After about six days, I was struggling to retain focus and rebelling inwardly against the same order I’d loved just a few days earlier. My mind was screaming to be released, to pursue its little distractions and habits. It was sending me all sorts of alarm signals: “You’re not getting enough food! You’re going to die here! These people are all crazy! You have to get OUT!”
I also got increasingly irritable. Giving up control, or the illusion of control, was hard and I was grumbly from time to time. (Thankfully it was a silent retreat, so my grumbling was internal!)
And then, of course, the retreat ended and I learned that others were dealing with those same feelings -- the frustration, the annoyances, the challenges of meeting your darkest self. “Controlled insanity,” indeed.
This was the first full 10-day retreat I've done. Would I do it again? If you’d asked me on Friday, I would have said, “Heck no!” But now, from a position of safety in my normal daily routines, I see that all my mind’s empty threats and fears were for naught. I could imagine going again. I certainly learned from it.
Still, it’s good to be home!
I did not take my camera on retreat, so these photos are from the same retreat period last year. I’ve been so attached to the camera in recent months that I thought it was important to get away from it for a while!