Monday, March 03, 2008
Hardest Retreat Ever
A week after my restful, peaceful retreat in east Tennessee the previous weekend, this weekend was the much-anticipated March zazenkai at the Atlanta Soto Zen Center. Those familiar with this blog know by now that it was Brad Warner's first book Hardcore Zen that brought me back to Zen in the first place in 2004; this weekend was my second chance to sit with Brad over a weekend, the first being the infamous Empty Well retreat in 2006, which showcased my ineptitude at organizing a retreat, Brad's steadfast good humor, and the disintegration of the Nashville Zen Center. Not only that, it gave me a chance to experience a retreat with both Brad and my current Zen teacher, ASZC Abbot Michael Elliston, as well as my second trip to Atlanta with my friend Nat, current NZC president and new ASZC disciple-in-waiting, and Ana, my MTAC Zen co-host. It turned out to be the hardest retreat I've ever done, and in retrospect one of the best.
I've done at least of fifteen of these weekend Zen retreats, between Nashville and Atlanta. Optimally, I go in with my brain chemistry optimized, almost manic, and it take me a while to wear down; still by late afternoon on Saturday I'm usually exhausted. I knew I was in trouble when I almost fell off the bench backward before 7:30 a.m. this time. Look at this schedule. I'd been sick a couple of weeks before and never really gotten my full energy back; the Circle of Friends retreat was laid-back enough that I was fine; this was grueling.
Now, Brad was great, of course; I have more observations to make on the experience of sitting with him later, but Ana's insights in her latest blog are dead on. And Sensei Elliston was also great, as usual, despite being still fighting his own physical malaise. But I found myself at this long-awaited experience with no energy, wishing I was home in bed. I found myself entirely doubting the validity of the Zen process. But I came home last night, slept for about eleven hours and awoke to found that I had made a great discovery:
Once you start, it's all zazen. Every minute, every day. Good sitting, bad sitting, falling-off-the-bench sitting. Once you start, it doesn't stop. Because this led me to a deeper realization.
It's all OK, all the time. There's no doubt I'd been feeling a big improvement in my life since I started my practice, but despite knowing better, there were "on" times and "off " times. If I had a fallow period, didn't sit for a few days, did stuff I knew wasn't "Zen-like" and I regretted it, I felt like I had abandoned my practice and would feel better as soon as I got back to it. So there was a "good me" who was a good Zen Buddhist, and a "bad me" who was a remnant creature who would be left behind someday as I emerged into the true perfection of my self. The fact that I intellectually knew better than all this was no help.
But fighting through a weekend of "bad" zazen finally helped me realize; caffeine-perky and upright, or comatose lunging for the windowsill, it's all zazen, and all the absence of me. So I am what I am, and am stuck that way, even though I'm nothing at all but emptiness, so I better just sit with myself and stop trying to lunge away. This was the first weekend I've ever run off during a sitting period and took a nap; best thing I ever did. I kept telling myself, I can do it, and I can do it, and guess what, little train, sometime you roll back down the hill and kill the conductor.
And what else? Funny, I was frustrated this time as I often am, at the "silence" rule, which is not absolute but tends to manifest itself just when you want to say something. Not only that, but I never get a chance to talk to these people, who I am increasingly experiencing to be my true Sangha, and I can't talk to them? Then I read Ana's stuff about how when it came to talk they have nothing to say. Hmmm.
I suspect my recent experiences will generate a lot more stuff; this is what swims to the surface so far. Stay tuned.