In the 90's, rockstar Leonard Cohen was ordained as a Zen Priest under Joshu Sasaki Roshi.
The platform he's sitting on in that photo looks familiar to me. I spent the weekend sitting just like that (well, sort of) about 10 yards from that exact spot. It's the beautiful Mt. Baldy Zen Center. It's an old boy scout camp, at something like 6000 or 7000 feet elevation in the mountains of Southern California.
I was aware of this particular retreat because it was lead by Brad Warner, who is the author of a couple of books that I really like. If you're looking for an intro to Zen, his book Hardcore Zen -- Punk Rock, Monster Movies, and the Truth About Reality is a great place to start. He's a fellow Northeast Ohio native, which for me adds an extra dollop of relatability to his writing.
What's a Zen Retreat? Is there relaxing music and hot tubs?
Not. a. fucking. chance.
If you're used to the New Age-y usage of the word 'Retreat', this is about as far from that as you can get. A Zen Retreat is a weekend of self torture that you're really glad you did after it's over.
I'll tell you the details of my personal experience a bit further down, but the basic format works like this:
You go somewhere remote with a group of people. There are no TVs, internet, and no electronic device usage (except to tell the time). There is no nonessential speaking. This means that you only talk during the defined discussion periods and when you have to say something like, "I saw a scorpion crawl into your hoodie". Then, you spend all day sitting in a room together just like Leonard Cohen. While you hold that pose, you stare directly into a wall that's about 8 inches from your face. There are breaks, but in total you spend between three and five hours a day doing nothing but that.
This retreat was a bit different from the one-day sitting I did at the San Francisco Zen Center (Cit Center). This weekend, we ate our meals in a ritualistic manner called Ōryōki, but is was much less strictly defined then what I learned at SFZC (and what's in the picture below)
Nina Snow was there teaching Yoga, which I think is very unorthodox for a Zen retreat. I'm glad she was though. Her sessions where specifically tailored to help us survive the intense physical strain that comes from holding the Zazen posture for so many hours. I needed it.
Lectures where given by Brad and Kevin Bortolin. Both were great and were done in a more open and conversational style then what I'd seen at SFZC.
K, how'd it go?
I'll start by saying thing there was a lot of moments where I thought I was going to have to scream, jump up from the cushion, tear the little wooden shelf off of the wall, and use it to stab the guy with the bell, who was obviously fucking with us by refusing to ring it and end the session.
(Fyi, it turned out that all of the sessions were timed correctly, but it sure didn't feel like it!)
Keep in mind, I do this practice at home almost daily. The app that I use as a timer says that I've done it over 200 times in the last year. But, I do it for 20 minutes, once a day. When I go to the Nashville Zen Center, we do two 30 min sessions. At the retreat we did a mixture of 30 and 45 minute sessions as many as six times per day.
Turning up my enthusiasm!
In Zen, we don't say that we know something until we've experienced it. Understanding something intellectually means that you're less than half way there. During and after this retreat, a few things crossed the line from intellectual-only understanding to real understanding. Almost everything I've ever learned through Zen causes a specific feeling that I rarely feel in any other context. It feels like you just figured something out, but it also feels like it's always been that way, and that you've always known it.
Brad Warner says that we somehow manage to look at things at such an angle that we just slightly miss the truth. He says that all Zen really does is very slightly shift where you're looking, and that reveals everything.
I think Brad uses that bit when he's talking about larger realizations than the one I had this weekend, but it fits how I feel today as well.
For me, the pain gets pretty intense when sitting in that difficult posture for hours. But, that pain is not what causes me to need to move. The pain is not what causes me to want scream and fall on the floor and cry. There is a separate feeling (set of feelings) that comes up in both my body and mind in response to the pain. It's that feeling that makes it unbearable. I witnessed the two separate pieces very clearly this weekend.
I've seen that part before though. Anxiety also works that way. For some time, I've known that practicing looking directly at the core stimulus lessens my secondary reaction and makes life more real. It also lessens my anxiety and makes me more sane. However, I only succeed in applying that to my day-to-day life a portion of the time. I didn't know how to reliably turn it on and keep it on. And, more importantly, sometimes turning it on doesn't seem to help.
My Zen training up until this point has mostly taught me how to turn down the extra noise in my head. Which is great. That's what has made it possible for me to truly learn anything about myself. I've had many intense experiences caused from turning down that mental noise dial. But this weekend I learned about another dial.
When I pushed myself to the extreme point we went to at Mt. Baldy, there was so much real pain coming through that turning down the noise wasn't effective. Turning down the noise creates space in your experience. But the real pain was so great that any empty space in the moment was instantly filled by reaction to the pain.
The second dial feels a little like enthusiasm. It's like diving into the moment. It's pushing yourself out of your head and into what's happening.
Here is how found it:
I was in a difficult place during the last sitting session of Saturday night. I was in so much pain that observing the distinction between the pain and my reaction to the pain did very little to make the reaction quiet down. Then, I hit a breaking point. I was on the verge of freaking out and something different happened. I slammed full force into the pain. It felt aggressive, competitive, powerful....and get this...it felt fun. It was important. The pain was still there, but my reaction to the pain faded away. My back straightened like it hadn't been since the first Zazen period of the retreat. I smiled, big. Things didn't stay like that without effort. I spent the rest of the session trying to hold onto that balance. I could not hold it perfectly, but I had moments when I hit it square, and moments when I fell out.
Words will always fall short on these matters, but I want to try and explain what I mean by these dials. It's very subtle. It's a combination of a physical sensation, a thought, and an attitude. It's different from something that you learn in a book or a therapist tells you. It's undeniable. There is no space for it to be bullshit, because it's an experience that fills all there is to fill. That's what we are trying to find, through Zen, in all of our experiences. Turning either of these dials means consciously making a simultaneous change in your mind, in your body, and in your action. It sounds crazy, but when you experience it, it's very clear.
Then, I couldn't even believe it when it happened, I heard the end bell ring and I thought, "It's over already?"