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)


Barbara said...

It seems like you've fallen out of love with Zen and into love with Dave. I vote for Dave, although Zen served you well for many years. My suggestion is to write off the Zen retreat (or get a refund if at all possible, especially since you have been a paying silent customer for so long) AND you and Dave go away for at least a romantic long weekend. You can find a cute little B & B in a beautiful place in the mountains and the two of you can escape for a few days of bliss. Sounds much better than silence eating brown rice to me!

Steve Reed said...

Well, it's really not about choosing between Zen and Dave. As I said, I've long struggled with these retreats, since before I met Dave. He just adds another level of complexity to the situation.

This is more about finding the right balance (that word again!) in practice and life. I think it's reasonable to expect that balance to change from time to time.

Reya Mellicker said...

You are SO not a monk. What I see is that your rhythms and life have changed dramatically since last summer, including (but not only because of) Dave.

One of the things I love about you is your thoughtfulness. It's so right to give this a lot of careful consideration. I know you'll make the right decision about the retreat (whatever that means).

I wonder what you'll decide to do.

Unknown said...

Makes sense to me! You're making a well-informed decision. I LOVE YOU! --Dave

Lorianne said...

It's been years since I've sat a week-long retreat, for unavoidable (i.e. work-related) reasons. In my school, it's fairly strange to have a Senior Dharma Teacher who "retreats" as seldom as I do...but life, too, is its own kind of practice, and I firmly believe that Zen is about "practicing how you can, not how you can't." Zen isn't supposed to be a competitive sport; it's about finding your true self in your present situation, WHEREVER that is.

If retreating isn't an option, find another way to practice. Retreats are often held up as being a kind of Ultimate Experience, but Zen literature is full of laymen and -women who attained full enlightenment without the "luxury" of a retreat. At the end of the day, I think "everyday practice" is far more important than retreats: everyday practice is where the "rubber hits the road." What good is sitting a week of retreat if the rest of your life is out of balance?

Lastly, I've found that occasional one day retreats can be very helpful "even though" they don't sound as macho or impressive as longer retreats. Again, when did Zen become a competitive practice, with everyone one-upping one another in terms of how LONG and HARD we practice?

Barbara said...

This post has given me a lot to think about today in terms of how we choose to do things in our busy lives. In the last few years, I seem to have adopted an attitude that if activities, food, or even interactions don't make me feel better about life, then I don't want to take them on simply out of a feeling of obligation (as I often did for most of my life). I have to make an exception for things like my PT exercises and swimming that are necessary for my health. Life is all about balance and choices and the mix is constantly changing; in fact, so are we!

Lorianne sounds like a wonderful senior dharma teacher, who is infinitely wise in her advice to you.

I did wonder after reading your post whether Dave has a mindfulness practice. I was also trying to picture how it might work for you to go on a Zen retreat together. Then again, that might just be too much of a distraction for either one of you to experience the awakening that such a retreat can offer.

Best of luck in making your decision, but you can rest assured there will always be another retreat to attend if you choose to skip this one.

I'm assuming your commenter David is actually your DAVE!

Steve Reed said...

Barbara: Yep, that's him. He's sneaky that way. :)

Lorianne's words are indeed wise. This whole exchange has given me a lot to think about, which is exactly what I wanted/needed. Sometimes it helps to get feedback, you know?

mouse (aka kimy) said...

sometimes you feel like a monk, sometimes you don't!

don't worry none of us with drop the dime on you and let the zen hierarchy know you are sharing your journey......

you are one of the most reflective people I've ever had pleasure of meeting, the fact that you state you have never enjoyed the retreat itself, makes me think perhaps this particular retreat center isn't a good fit or that you just aren't a retreat type practitioner! there isn't a rule is there that one must go one retreats, is there?

now I'm not adverse to suffering, but really steve, spending a week in a place that one 'never has enjoyed' well....

suffering happens....but I don't think it should be something one out to seek out.

hugs. as reya said you will make the correct choice

lettuce said...

it makes perfect sense to me Steve, we all have to find our own balance don't we?
and seems to me life is for living, in our own way...