Thursday, May 10, 2012

5 day zen retreat


All right friends this is the ONE and ONLY time I will post out of chronological order. No "almost a year ago" this time, this is the retreat I just finished last week. (April-May 2012)

Tetsugyuji Zazen Sesshin (a zen retreat in Tetsugyuji temple in the mountains)

Day one

On seeing this randomly online (while looking for bars in Oita, funnily enough), Adam and I were curious but apprehensive. On the one hand, it’d be something we’d never thought of doing, never expected we’d do in our lives. On the other, the schedule was right in front of us. 4am starts, no food or speaking, eight hours of meditation a day. With a bit of back and forth, we decide to give it a go. As we drive up there, on Sunday morning, I am paralysingly anxious. Have we made the right decision? Will we be glad we did it? Will it be embarrassing if we leave? Should I have gone to Vietnam? Are we going to be late? Should we just go to the winery in Tsuno instead? We arrive pretty much perfectly on time, and see Paul, the monk, standing in the parking lot. I’m nervous to meet him. What if he can tell I’m shallow? That I was complaining the entire way up and just stuffed myself full of hormone filled chicken and rice in preparation for the fasting we’re about to begin? WHAT IF HE CAN READ MY MIND

So we meet Paul, and I’m shocked to hear an American accent come out of his mouth. I knew he was American, but I guess I expected all monks to speak in measured gravelly Japanese tones. We shake hands and make small talk. He drives a little car like Adam’s. The idea of a monk in a car is ludicrous to me. I obviously live in a dream world where monks float across the earth.

We meet the other participants, and I’m shocked to find there are only six of us. I was expecting at least twenty. They are all very nice and we give Lindi a ride to the retreat. On the way we talk as fast and hard as we can, knowing it won’t last and we only have one hour to get to know each other.

Upon arriving, we walk into a big tatami room with a shrine at one end of it. Along the sides are the hallways leading to the futon rooms and bathrooms. Off to one side is the kitchen. Outside is the vege garden. We sit down and listen to Paul. He tells us that if we want to leave midway through, we should tell him, not just walk away. I am surprised. Who would leave? And why would they just get up and walk out? Two hours later I know. Me. I would.

Orientation over, Paul sums up with a “well I guess we can start our first sitting.” We collect our cushions, bow to the room, bow to our cushions, and sit down. Our only instructions are 1. Breathe in. 2. Breathe out. 3. Count. This seems marvellously easy. Unfortunately these are the ONLY things we can do. Any thought that is not a number or a breath is not allowed. I quickly realise that this is the hardest thing I will ever do. I spend my first sitting staring at the plants outside. I stare at them so long they become 2d and I think I’m getting somewhere. When it comes time to stand for walking meditation, my left leg is numb. I spend the rest of the sitting thinking about deep vein thrombosis and discreetly squirming.

Introduction to sitting over, we go to the onsen. Because the sesshin has begun, we cannot talk. We have to be silent to the onsen lady and all the pleasant men outside who are asking where we are from, but suddenly one says “ah! Students!” and points up the mountain. Thank goodness. We finish our last bodily contact with water for 5 days and head back to the retreat. We eat soup, read, and go to sleep.

Day two

4am. A bell is rung noisily up and down the corridor. We are all asleep in the main shrine room. It feels like being wakened by a poltergeist. We get up, blearily smile at each other, and go almost directly into our first sitting. We sit from 4.15 until 5.45am, in almost total darkness. Eventually light begins to make things clearer and by the time we finish the sun is up. Who knew.

Today I and Kelsey are on making juice. We happily quarter our lemons and oranges and plough them through the machine. When we are finished the juice is thick and bright. Paul tastes it. Then he says in his non-judgemental monk voice, “It’s a little bitter. Next time maybe we should take the rinds off?” The juice is awful. We all choke down a bowl each and sit there trying not to vomit. Paul thankfully allows us to tip the rest out. Goodbye, entire box of fruit. I’m sorry.

Off we go to our next sitting. This one is from 7.30 to 10.30am. I know these are just numbers on a screen to you (as they were to me, when I read the schedule) but man this is THREE HOURS of sitting with only yourself for company. More than this, you’re not even supposed to have yourself for company. You have breaths and numbers for company. I can’t tell you a lot about this first sitting, because it was a lot of endurance.

We do some light cleaning, and have a big break in the middle of the day. We spend a lot of time sharing books, doing yoga, and pointing at things. We become so good at mime that by the last day Lindi and I manage to have an entire conversation about Adam’s heritage via facial expressions and imaginary maps. As for today, it already feels like the evening. For lunch we have carrot juice. Paul delivers a lecture on Buddhism. It is fascinating. He seems to know exactly what to say to interest and inspire us. I came into this knowing nothing, and instead of a boring ground up history, he has selected basically everything that I didn’t even know that I wanted to know, but am amazed by, to talk about.

Two more hours of sitting. (2.30-4.30pm). After this we have silent Q&A (we write on cards, he answers.) My first question is “will I get deep vein thrombosis?” He tells us essentially what I already knew, which is that I am being ridiculous. Another interesting point he brings up is what your mind will do when you start to ignore it. I thought I had pretty good control, but the fact that I spent most of today thinking about the veins in my legs rather than counting means that my brain has found a thread I’ll listen to and run amok with it. See also: Anxiety. Thought is a disease!

The final sitting for the day (5.30-7.30) ends with the light slowly fading (reminding us poignantly of the light slowly growing this morning) and me thinking I am meditating. Set at war with my brain, I glare determinedly at the wall in order to pound out thoughts as they try to arise. Before long I have a headache, I feel dizzy, and there are blue clouds pulsing at the edges of my vision. I’m meditating! I’m doing it!!

Soup for dinner.

Day three

Up at 4am. No first-day-at-camp-excitement for me today. Bleary smiles are replaced instead by grimaces and me spending the entire first sitting fuming about the fact that I was awaken and everything hurts (seriously this is so hard on your legs) and Adam used my toothbrush. By the next sitting I am aware of the fact that this is again my brain trying to push things into my head to concentrate on, rather than being ignored. Spend the first three sittings making myself dizzy and congratulating myself.

We also start “dokusan” today, which are private interviews with Paul. There is a huge ritual of bowing and bells for each conference, serving to make us completely nervous. We’re supposed to start each conversation, otherwise the sensei will ignore us. I begin my first with: “Um, hello?” We talk about breathing and sitting in general. It’s a short conversation but reassuring.

Next lecture, zazen. Again, wholly inspiring. This is designed for people who have no idea and it’s perfect. I feel like I can really get into this.

Next Q&A I ask, is my vision supposed to be going blurry/2D? Paul says, um, no. You’re not supposed to stare hard enough to give yourself vertigo and headaches. I am crushed. I haven’t been meditating; I've been starving my brain of oxygen. Despite this I’m surprisingly excited to try the next sitting. After glaring for a day and a half, I’m quite glad to have the chance to gaze relaxedly. As Paul says - everyone takes a different path to enlightenment.

Day four

Last full day of meditation. I am calm. Paul warns us of the dangers of being calm, of relaxing and imagining what we’ll be doing this time tomorrow. I hastily stop being calm. The epic battle continues.

Dokusan starts getting more intense. I feel like I get it, but am afraid to throw myself into it with conviction. My heart pounds so hard I can feel it in the back of my neck. It’s nice to have something else on my mind except counting. My highest so far has been 5, but most times I barely make it to 2. Every time I say “1” my brain jumps in with “whoa 2 is coming next!” Sigh. My imagination is throwing me less curveballs though (in the beginning I was not above imagining being stabbed while sitting and stored in the futon room). “Mu” is something that I can think of without a beat, not allowing anything else in. It’s good. Even after we sit, I’ve been walking around outside looking at things quietly. Everything seems far more beautiful after staring at a wall/inwards. Starving your brain of stimuli really makes you appreciate things. Science! When Paul speaks I hang on every word, because his is the only voice we hear. Everything he says has weight.

Starting to feel a real shift, a noticeable difference in the way I think and how unnecessarily busy it can get. 

Day five

Up at 4am again. We complete our morning sittings, and final dokusans. I leave mine feeling good. I feel light and clean, like I’ve been squeezed through a tube mentally and physically.

Today everyone has the shits. Because we’ve been sharing the exact same diet, they hit everyone at roughly the same time (midway through the second sitting, by my count). Despite our silence we have bonded enough that it is perfectly acceptable. In a house of silence it’s not uncommon to embark on a meditative journey to the tune of the tummy gurgles, burps, and farts from cushions around you that are ordinarily sucked up by the sounds of the world. Never an image I associated with zen but one I will continue to now for the rest of my life.

Paul had made us a huge table of delicious vegan food. I have never smelt anything so good in my life and probably never will again. We all lingered over the table like kids holding a pass the parcel present, and finally the silence was lifted. As we ate, I found it hard to find my place in the conversation. After being silent for so long, my brain had started to sort out the important from the unimportant, and I was wary of making “ear rubbish”. Obviously, this wore off. Cue blog.

After final cleaning, we go out to the onsen. It was really amazing to talk to the girls and realise that we were all feeling similar things, all shifted uncomfortably, some of us wanted to punch the wall, and we were all on the point of leaving at some point or another but ended up glad we hadn’t. The fact that we made it through was something we could share and truly celebrate.

Sesshin finished. We met Paul later, eating an ice cream in a parking lot. I was struck by his laptop (obviously we all communicate with our minds now) but not by his facebook inexperience. Move over Sensei, let US teach YOU.

We did other things over the weekend, saw monkeys, went to a bar against orders not to ruin our newly cleansed digestive systems, travelled back to Miyazaki with Lindi, went to the beach, day drank, sat on statues, saw Tiki heads glorious in their lameness, rolled down hills, got caught in traffic countless times, ate good food, paid for eating good food, etc etc. But what I really wanted to get down was this experience, because it was something I feel truly blessed to have done and am so glad for the people and sense it gave me. Yay zen! Yay everything! (And nothing) 0_0 

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