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!


Anonymous said...

Controlled insanity? Oh yeah!! The retreats I've been on (none of them Zen retreats) were really strenuous. The spa from hell, in other words. On retreats, I am the queen of "multiple hindrance attacks," as Sharon Salzburg describes it.

I salute your will power, endurance and strength. Bravo!!

And ... so GLAD you're back! I really missed checking in with you here.

Anonymous said...

I cannot imagine doing that Steve, but I sure admire you for doing it.

I'm with Reya, I miss my daily visit with you.

Anonymous said...

It sounds like a very productive retreat for you! That is wonderful - though, indeed, they are a lot of work. As the noted author Parker Palmer gets at when talking about finding authentic self - it requires "going all the way down", and NOTHING can be more frightening to us than confronting our inner darkness. Doing such things is THE definition of courage. It is much easier to deal with other people and their issues than with our own. If we can handle ourselves, the rest, as they say, is child's play.

Anonymous said...

i'm with Merle, i admire you.

Anonymous said...

Gee, it's nice to be missed! You guys made my day! :)

JDZS: You hit the nail right on the head.

Anonymous said...

ha ha! 'am i going to die here?'
you are funny
welcome back grumpo