Many of my friends think it is nutty enough to just voluntarily go to Minnesota in December. They are completely confounded by the notion that I am going out there to make it possible to sit and stare at a blank wall most of the day. However, in the most real and concrete sense, that is exactly what I did, and that's exactly why I did it.
When I arrived there was snow on the ground, maybe six inches worth, but it was no big deal, and everything was well-plowed and well-shoveled. The cold and the whiteness does settle the mind a bit, which is helpful for zen practice, so I was happy to see it. My anticipated activities were all indoors, so beyond physically getting to where I needed to be (which, due to a kind and generous friend was absolutely no problem) I really didn't think much about the snow. It was there, not out of place in a Minnesota December, but it was the first snow I had seen this winter. I was happy to see it.
During sesshin you really don't get much in the way of news from the world outside. You aren't reading newspapers, listening to the radio or watching television. Interaction with the outside world is not part of the plan, so it was a startling surprise in the middle of day 2 when the practice director for the sesshin announced that he had some news for us. Really? Who died?
"There's a storm coming, it looks like we're going to have a snow emergency, so we need to deal with the cars" he said in a calm voice also imbued with urgency.
I was both from out of town and without responsibility for a car, so I neither knew the implications of a snow emergency, whatever that was, nor did I much care. However, i did notice that people around me, already settled into two days of zazen practice, slumped a bit on their cushions. I immediately got the sense in the room that this was going to be something of a drama for them.
For me, since I was staying in the building next door, and it was plenty warm, and the zendo was plenty warm, I was rather looking forward to seeing some fresh snow, and it sounded like a lot of it was coming. All I ever had to do was walk about 30 feet outdoors and I didn't imagine that this snow emergency was going to be a problem for me no matter what happened.
This was a five day sesshin, it was nearing the end of the second day, but my zen center allows people to only participate in the last three days if that's what they want, so we were about to double in size from roughly ten to twenty people that evening. The snow would arrive soon after the three-day participants.
One of the most universal experiences of sesshin is the desire to leave early. Sesshin is difficult mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually. Anyone who tells you that they like it without also mentioning that they also don't like it is not being honest, or has never been to one. Sitting still can be comfortable, sitting motionless is not. What is normally regarded as "sitting still" actually involves almost constant motion, one just doesn't notice it.
Sitting motionless is something else. I'm sure this experience is different for everyone, but it is the same in some ways too. For me, it involves my knees aching, my legs falling asleep, and a dull ache in the back. I can sit motionless for about 5 minutes comfortably if I have oriented myself optimally physically. It doesn't take long before I am thinking I really want to be doing something else. That's only natural.
So, when my mind gets caught by the notion that I'm going to be feeling this way for days and days I naturally start negotiating with myself how I am going to quit. Can I claim I am Ill? Injured? Have an emergency back home? Decided that zen is bullshit? How do I exit gracefully? This rumination goes on for a while, particularly early in the sesshin.
The actual procedure would involve a discussion with the teacher (unless one just gets up and leaves without making any announcement, which also happens) and a good zen teacher is going to tell you that while you are free to leave, you should know that there's no where to go. What he or she means is that you can't escape your own life, and that is really your fundamental problem, not your back/knees/boredom/whatever.
With the snow, there was literally another layer on this notion that one can't really go anywhere. That is, for a while, one really couldn't go anywhere, literally, but I'm getting to that.
Friday night when we went to bed it wasn't snowing just yet. I woke up at about two in the morning to use the bathroom and I looked outside. There was a nice new layer of snow on the ground. I thought "well, there's probably going to be some shoveling to do in the morning, but I don't see what all the hubbub is about." I went back to sleep and set my alarm for 4:15, 30 minutes before everyone was supposed to arise.
At 4:15 I woke up to the sound of someone shoveling snow outside. I got up, got dressed, and went to the zendo. There was a good coat of snow on the ground, but it wasn't bad, maybe six inches. The practice director was already shoveling in back of the zendo and I asked him if there was other shoveling that needed to be done. He indicated that the front steps of the zendo needed attention so I walked around front, found a snow shovel and started to work.
It was quiet, the snow was absolutely pristine, and I simply shoveled a walking path from the front door of the zendo to the street. While I was doing this, the scene around me was exquisitely beautiful, beyond words. The only sound was my shovel and the faint crackle of heavy dry snow hitting my body.
I didn't know what the temperature was, which was probably a good thing, because I was told later it was about 20-30 degrees below zero at that time. I was just wearing my meditation jacket, actually just wearing what I wore inside throughout the sesshin, but I didn't start to get uncomfortable until right as I finished. It didn't take long, I was probably out there about ten minutes.
Just as I finished the work leader appeared at the door, all bundled up, obviously anticipating doing some shoveling himself. "I just cleared a path out to the street. It is still snowing, so there will be more snow practice" I said to him.
He nodded and said "that's probably good enough for right now" and we both went inside. I felt as though I sensed a little disappointment in him that the work was done, which I understood. I had really enjoyed it. Not only was I living our teacher's common admonition to just attend to this present moment, but I got to see the snow in a way no one else would. It was now shoveled, human intention had manifested, and that simple unbroken coating of white peacefulness was now interrupted by a human hand, never to return. There was no more an un-shoveled scene out front of the zendo. Only I had been privileged enough to see and live it before I ended it's existence.
But, my hands were cold. It was time to go inside. It was time for me to move on from my personal snow practice.
It wasn't much later in the day that the peacefulness I had so enjoyed outside also moved on. As the sun came up, the wind kicked up with it. The snow that was once carefully everywhere descending now was whipped sideways by a fierce wind. Flakes that had once drifted lazily to the earth were now forming white streaks painted across the canvas of the views out the zendo windows. During kinhin I would steal a glance outside every once in a while. At one point I couldn't really make out what was across the street. This was a full-on blizzard.
By the middle of the afternoon, when it was time for work practice, the snow emergency had been declared and it was time to both dig out the cars and dig out a place to move them on the other designated side of the street. There was something like two feet of snow on the ground, drifts were more than four feet high.
Minneapolis is well-organized when it comes to snow-plowing. There was a plan, the only printed material evident to students at the sesshin was the snow plowing plan. On one day you parked on one side of the street so they could plow the other side. The next day, the instructions were reversed. This was impressive. It worked well.
A team was organized to do the shoveling. The work leader asked me if I had my boots. I don't have snow boots. I have never owned a pair. I am from Texas, I am not sure you can even buy snow boots in Texas. I now live in New York City, but honestly I would only use snow boots a few days of the year there, so I don't have any. I told the work leader I would be happy to shovel anyway, I wanted to, but he said "I'll think about it," which I knew meant no.
Instead I was no part of the snow shoveling team beyond my first foray out early that morning. I missed out on all the rest of the shoveling, working instead inside on cleaning the zendo. That was fine, I like cleaning the zendo, and I realized my desire to shovel snow was more about an opportunity to gain something for myself rather than practice, so I returned to what there was to do and cleaned the zendo.
What occurred to me in the midst of all this was that we were sort of snowed-in. We were actually in a rather urban setting, if someone wanted to leave they physically could, but it would be more difficult than on a sunny spring day. For example, one couldn't really just pack bags and walk away unless one had prepared, as in having the gear, for being out walking during a blizzard. I wondered if anyone felt trapped by the snow. I imagined that if we had been in a more rural setting we certainly would have been snow-bound.
I realized that earlier in my practice, in my life, I would have constructed some notion that this was the work of God, or Buddha maybe, in order to "force" people to stay at sesshin, particularly those who just showed up for the last three days. I wondered if any of them had constructed such a notion for themselves. There was no way for me to find out. This was silent practice, we only spoke to each other when logistically necessary.
I was happy now that I harbored no such delusions, but it was sort of fun to think about, and it was neat the way it worked out--the three-day participants showed up and the blizzard showed up right behind them. It certainly had the appearance of some grand plan, and I actually no more knew that there wasn't a plan than I knew that there was one. I just didn't believe there was.
On subsequent days there was still shoveling to do even though the skies cleared to a brilliant blue. Now it was time to prepare the zendo grounds for this snow being around until the spring thaw. Paths had to be cleared, drifts obscuring windows had to be moved, and the life-long Minnesotans who made up the bulk of the sesshin participants quietly went about the work. They know what to do after the first major snowfall every year. This quiet activity was also beautiful to witness.
The snow was shoveled as carefully and as beautifully as any ritual performed during sesshin. I realized I was privileged to witness something special, something I had never known or seen as a Texan or even a New York City resident. These people knew snow. They knew what to do, they knew how it should be done. Snow manifested in this moment and the students cared for it as one cares for their next breath while sitting zazen. I was very moved.
The snow did sort of stop the world for a while, just as I had stopped my life, in order to be here now. There was less traffic outside, less activity on the streets, things seem a little quieter everywhere. I found out later that there had only been four snow storms in recorded weather history in Minneapolis that were worse than this one. This was a doozy. This was a Great Snow.