Thursday, July 23, 2009
I am scheduled to go on retreat again this summer, for one week in August. As usual, it will be a silent retreat, with ceremonial meals in small portions and lots of meditating. Early to rise, early to bed, no air conditioning and all that.
Longtime readers will remember that I usually approach these retreats with some trepidation. They're long and hard and uncomfortable. Despite the images that the words "Zen Retreat" may conjure up, thanks to our misunderstanding culture, they are not the equivalent of a spa getaway.
So this year, I'm struggling with a question: Should I go?
Part of me thinks I should. I've already paid for it, for one thing, and I have no doubt it would help my practice. It's not entirely unpleasant -- the walks in the hills around our retreat center are wonderful and I enjoy the scenery and most of the people.
But I never enjoy the retreat itself. I'm always so relieved when it's over. And this year, my heart just isn't in it.
Zen is supposed to be about facing yourself, really experiencing what's going on in your life and in the moment, and not deluding yourself with everyday distractions. But I must admit I suspect that some people hide in practice, using it to avoid questions and issues in their own lives, in direct opposition to its purpose. Perhaps I suspect that of myself.
I'm not jettisoning my practice entirely -- that's not what I'm saying. But I want a less intensive practice than a weeklong retreat will offer. If that makes me a lightweight, so be it. I'd rather walk the streets of New York City and visit Dave and my friends and experience my life in all its richness, without giving up a week to sit on a cushion.
I have long wrestled with the amount of time involved in Zen practice. In recent weeks and months I haven't even been able to get to the Zendo -- partly because I've been busy, but also, truth be told, because I've been in a period of silent rebellion.
I've been facing a lot of questions about what my practice should be. (I'm not really supposed to discuss this with anyone but my teacher, but here goes.) For one thing, I've been working on koans, which are Zen riddles that are meant to lead to greater enlightenment. I just HATE them. I don't really have much aptitude for the teachings of the old Zen masters, and I dread being pressed into service during liturgy. It's the sitting I enjoy, and that only in limited quantities.
Of course, "enjoyment" isn't really the point. Zen is not about doing what you enjoy. But why shouldn't I spend my valuable and finite time on this planet doing what I enjoy, as long as it's not harmful to me or others?
I understand that devoting time to the practice is the essence of practice -- the need to remove yourself from the hustle and bustle of daily life. But here's the thing: I like the hustle and bustle. I'm enjoying my life. I don't think I'm woefully deluded or in need of balance and equanimity. I'm pretty balanced already.
I think I'm going to write my teacher and tell her I don't intend to come up this summer. I'll continue to go to the Zendo and practice here in the city, and try to find a comfort zone that allows me to maintain my practice while devoting more time to just living, pursuing my hobbies, friendships and relationship.
I'm not a monk. I don't want to be a monk.
Does that make sense?
(Photo: E. 29th Street, July 2009)