Zen… Retreat! Retreat!

by stephancox

I got interested in Zen Buddhism the way most fellas do when they’re young and impressionable: through books. First it was Salinger’s Glass family and their professed love of the Diamond Sutra, and then, more significantly, it was Jack Kerouac and “The Dharma Bums,” along with assorted other rambling screeds. Kerouac made the whole Zen thing seem hip, which is odd, because Zen is not in any way hip. Or maybe it is. Who knows?

Anyway, about 20 years ago, I started studying Zen, taking up the sitting meditation and all that. And, not to put too fine a point on it, I sucked at it. Seriously. I have one of those brains that won’t shut up. Never. It’s like it’s stuck in freaking hyperdrive, and I’ve somehow learned to live with it. (I’m sure if I were a kid right now, I’d be diagnosed ADHD they’d be medicating me into next week.) As I’ve learned over the years, the whole point of meditation is to focus your mind and be present. Or that’s one of several points. Or it’s part of an integrated whole. Or… well, there aren’t really any straight answers in Zen.

Part of the reason I put a Zen retreat on the Shit That Scares Me list is because even after my 20 year, on-again-off-again, relationship with Zen (mostly off, if I’m honest), I still feel like I haven’t made any progress at all. And I thought that maybe if I attended an immersive program like a weekend Zen retreat, I’d finally have to force myself to quiet down and focus and be present. Not to get too heavy, but I tend to live my internal life in this idealized future state. And in that ideal future state, my life is exactly the way I want it and nothing bothers me and I can finally relax and my brain can shut the f**k up and I can have some peace. Therefore, I’m rarely ever mentally in the one place where life takes place, which is right now. Because of that, I’m afraid that one day I’m going to wake up and find that I’m officially old and have spent my entire life projecting into a future that didn’t happen instead of being present for what was actually occurring. Does that make sense? Probably not, but I’m going to press on anyway.

So off I went last Friday afternoon to the Zen Mountain Monastery, a four-story cabin nestled into the Catskills. It’s a beautiful, peaceful, idyllic setting, and knew when I arrived that if I was ever going to have any sort of breakthrough, this would be the place where it happens. So I check in, eat dinner in the main hall, meet some of my other retreaters (retreatants?), and then we all get a tour of the place. And as they take us around to where we’ll be sleeping, I realize my sleeping space is… a dorm room. With bunkbeds. Six bunkbeds, to be exact. Like we’re at some sort of Zen summer camp. But I try to be game, drop my stuff on a bed, and get ready for the first meditation session.

We all head upstairs to the zendo (the meditation hall) and listens to the head prelate, the sensei (everything in Zen has a Japanese name, which is a little precious and hard to take at first, but you get used to it), who instructs us on how to meditate. And here’s how it goes. You sit on the floor on a mat with a cushion on it called a zafu (more Japanese names) either cross-legged or kneeling with the cushion between your legs, and you straighten your posture. Then, with your eyes open and looking downward, you count your breaths. Inhale, one; exhale, two; inhale, three; exhale four, and so on until you get to ten. And then you start over. For a half an hour. Then you get up and do what’s called walking meditation, which is just what it sounds like. Then another half-hour of sitting.

There are other practices, like doing koans (‘What’s the sound of one hand clapping,’ etc.), but that’s basically the long and the short of it. Because I’d done it before, I knew what to expect going in, but what I had conveniently forgotten is that if you haven’t formally meditated in a while, which I hadn’t, sitting on that cushion in those postures hurts like hell. During the second session, I tried using one of those little benches that have for kneeling on (presumably for Zen wimps like me), but that hurt even more. It was an intermittent hour of agony, because once the meditation starts, you’re not supposed to move. Not a muscle. It’s simply not done. If you do move, to try to find a more comfortable sitting position, or scratch your nose or whatever, they yell at you. In a Zen kind of way.

After the meditation, everybody starts getting ready for bed, because it’s lights out at 9:30, and the people who run the place are going to wake you up at 4:20, so you can start meditating again at 5 AM.

Four-twenty. In the morning. Four-twenty may be a totally wicked awesome time in the afternoon, broheim, but as most of us know from experience, 4:20 is decidedly not awesome in the morning. But I knew this was the schedule going in, so I brushed my teeth, hopped up onto my bunk, and I prayed that, even though it was only 9:30, I’d somehow be the first to fall asleep because if I didn’t… sure enough, three of the five guys in my room started to snore. Loudly. I was wearing earplugs, but still it sounded like a sawmill in there. I pictured myself as a walking zombie, not only for the next day, but for the rest of the weekend, sleep-deprived and all crankypants. Then, in very un-Zen-like fashion, I started getting pissed. Really pissed. Pissed at the snoring guys, pissed that I paid good money to have to get up at 4:20 in the morning on a freaking Saturday. But mostly I was pissed at myself, for getting into this. After stewing for a while, I decided I was going to leave. Screw it, I thought. I made it here. I did two agonizing meditation sessions. I’ll write a blog telling everyone I failed, or I’ll give myself a D or whatever, and that will be that. So I packed up all my shit and headed outside where…

It was snowing. Hard. Like, harder than I’ve seen all season. Nonetheless, I made my way to the car and headed down the hill. I got about a mile and thought, You know what? This is stupid. First of all, the roads are covered in snow and ice. But more importantly, you committed yourself, you paid your money. So turn your Zen ass around and go back.

And I did. I turned around. I went back and parked in the lot and slept in the car. It was cold. Really freaking cold. I didn’t sleep all that well, but I got more sleep there than I would have if I had stayed in the room with the snoring crew.

The next morning’s meditation went a little better. First off, I saw some woman, wearing an actual official Zen robe and all, using a stool to meditate. A stool! So I grabbed one of those babies, and boy, was that a world of relief. No shame in my game, bitches. I just got bad knees from all that running, yo. Don’t mean I can’t get my proper meditation swerve on. Or something.

But I need to tell you something else about the morning meditation, and this was true for the remainder of the sessions: There were a shitload of distractions. First off, the sensei guy was not there with us in the hall, which apparently meant that he was back in one of the rooms reserved for interviews (I’m sure there’s another Japanese word for that, but it’s escaping me). The interviews, I later learned, are for students of the monastery, who were interspersed throughout the zendo, identified by their grey robes. The sensei apparently sits in the back room, and he rings this bell, which you can absolutely hear in the main hall where you’re trying to meditate, indicating he’s ready for an interview. Then one of the students goes noisily scurrying off to the room to meet with him. I couldn’t see them, because I was facing the wall, but every time the bell would go off, I’d hear this rustle of a scurrying robe, and then a rapid-fire pad-pad-padding off to the back room to talk about whatever you talk to the sensei about.

And then—and this is kind of awesome in a weird way—there was one of the caretakers (again, another Japanese word I can’t remember) who would wander the rows of the meditating people with a long stick called a (insert Japanese word here) and, get this: she would hit people with it. Like some sort of Zen beadle. You had to ask for it; they didn’t just go around whacking people at random. But you’d see her walking by in the shadow of the wall with this long stick, looking like, I don’t know, a sinister gondolier or something. And then what you’d do is bow to her to indicate you want the stick, she bows back to you, and then you expose one side of your shoulder flank, and she hits it with a WHACK! And then you expose the other side, and she hits that side with another WHACK!

It doesn’t really hurt. It stings for a second, but that’s about it. Apparently you do it because it’s supposed to trigger some meridian to enlightenment or some such, but I actually did it for two reasons: A) I had always wanted to try it ever since I learned about the practice years ago, to see if it triggered anything in me (it didn’t); and B) I don’t drink coffee, so at 5 in the morning, I needed something to keep me awake. I was hoping that a couple smacks with a stick would do the trick (it did).

But anyway, as I’m sitting there at five in the morning, meditating, focusing, trying to count my breaths, all I can hear is: Ring-ring-ring! Followed by: Scurry-scurry-scurry! And on top of that, the Zen beadle is wandering around hitting people with this giant stick: WHACK! WHACK! How the hell are you supposed to meditate through all this? The answer, of course, is that you’re supposed to be present with the whole thing. Which, yeah, blah, blah, blah, I was as much as I could be. Let’s say this: it certainly wasn’t boring. In fact, I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

From here, let me fast forward through the rest of the activities of the day. We had breakfast right after (and, as a side note, they only served vegan food the whole weekend, which completely agreed with me. Hmmm…), and then we did something called “work practice,” which was where you’re supposed to be completely present while you do some sort of work task maintaining the monastery (shoveling snow, chopping wood, cleaning, etc.), and while I appreciated the spirit of the exercise, I couldn’t escape the notion that they were essentially getting free labor from people who had already paid for the experience of being there, but whatever.

After that, we went through a series of seminars and meetings in which we again sat in a group and talked with the sensei (I’m sorry for continuing to use that word, but he actually was a very cool, unpretentious guy who I later ate lunch with, and who dropped some serious science on my unenlightened ass). Then we did some physical exercises very much like yoga. Then—and this was awesome—we tried our hand at Zen calligraphy. Or, if I’m honest, they gave us a bunch of paper and some ink and brushes and had us paint lines and impressions of sound, which was not as hippie-woo as you’d imagine (see the photo above). Then there was lunch, followed by more seminars about Zen liturgy (decidedly not interesting to a religion-averse type like me), then, a roundtable discussion about how to integrate Zen into your life.

Now, this part did interest me, given what I’ve already said about how I have a near-pathological aversion to living in the present. In a nutshell, they talked about integrating a sitting practice into your life, which, yeah, I’m going to go ahead and give that one more shot. But they also talked about how to bring Zen into your walking, breathing, every day life. Your work, your exercise, and, most saliently for me, your creative life. Essentially, while creating, you allow yourself to stay completely still and present, avoiding distractions like Facebook and email and Twitter and making phone calls and getting up every five minutes because did you notice that shelf is totally dusty and I should get a rag and just run it across that and a cup of tea would really help right now and I’ll sit back down and write after I vacuum because, man, does this place need it. No! You will stay present with your creative process and write because it is a practice. A Zen practice. You will be still. Or you will get the stick.

And then, on the second night of my three-day retreat, it was time for dinner. And here I will make a confession. Even though the retreat was supposed to last until Sunday at 12:30, and even though they ask you to commit to staying the whole time, and even though it was only Saturday night, I had already made up my mind that I was going to leave after the meditation session after dinner. What’re you gonna do? I had put in my time, I had gone through the bulk of the program, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to sleep in a freezing-ass car again. At 9:30 PM. When it’s “lights out.” Ugh. Just hearing that expression, as a full-grown adult, makes me want to throw a Zen tantrum. Just lie on the floor and kick and bang my fists and be, like, Screw you, Zen Dad! I’m staying up as late as I Zen want! With the lights on! I’m going to watch TV, too! Try and Zen stop me!

Clearly, I have some baggage.

Anyway, after a wonderful meditation session, during which I witnessed a beautiful ceremony with two new students taking their vows to study with the zendo (I know! Zendo, zendo, zendo! Sensei, sensei, sensei!), I just somehow knew my button had popped. I had gotten a lot from the experience—in fact, I’d gotten an incredible amount—but it was time to go. So I fudged some excuse about Lori sending me frantic texts, something about the dog, and then I excused myself and drove down the hill, feeling liberated, but more importantly, renewed.

See, as it turns out, I think the thing I needed to push my way through was not my fear but my willingness to just accept. To be engaged. Like right now. And right now. And now. I’m here, typing these words, completely here. Not drifting mentally to somewhere else. And you know what? It feels good.

Yes, yes, I know I didn’t complete the full assignment, and for that, I’m going to give myself a B. But this assignment was much harder than I thought it would be. It was a hard-earned B. But I’ll take it. Here and now.