Friday, February 16, 2018

On staring at the wall

I am in Minneapolis, home to my home zendo, Dharma Field Zen Center in the somewhat bougie neighborhood of Edina in Southwest Minneapolis, near Lake Harriet if you know the area.  How a boy from Texas who now lives in Manhattan ended up in a zen center in Minneapolis (a place I have never lived or worked) is a topic for another post.

I often tell people when they ask what brought me to zen practice that no one sits and stares at a wall for six hours a day because things are going well in their life.  When we gather in the zendo this evening each of us will have a different tale of woe that brought us here, some are pretty glamorous, some are tragic, most are variations on the theme of life not making sense at some point and not knowing where else to turn.

To save you from hours of staring at a wall, let me tell you the secret.  There is no secret.  Life will never make sense, it can't.  The philosophies we construct to flail against the mystery may make sense inside their own context and offer the balm of temporary salvation, but at some point they all will walk into the same trap.  The best one can do is learn to live in a world that doesn't make sense.

Buddhism is the religion that offers you nothing...and delivers!

I cracked myself up this morning when I was in my apartment in Manhattan packing for this trip.  I stopped and thought, what does one need to bring to sesshin? (Sesshin is another Japanese term we borrow, one helpful translation is "collecting the mind."  In general it refers to this variety of zen meditation retreats).

Nothing!  Once it starts, concerns about the body, dress and clothing drop away.  In these short sesshins I do not bathe aside from washing my hands and caring for my teeth.  I will be wearing the same clothes when I finish the almost 48 hours of continuous silent zen practice.

That's the point.  Everything about sesshin is organized to make it possible for a group of people to spend all day with the meditative mind.  We rehearse and practice highly ritualized ways of moving about the zendo, eating, working, and resting.  This kind of intense practice is exhausting, so I'll be asleep before my head hits the pillow at night, and will sleep soundly until someone rings a bell to get everyone up at some ass-early o'clock in the dark of morning. 

So, essentially I stay in meditation for almost 48 hours straight.  I do not wear a watch, and none are in view during sesshin.  The zen center has clocks of course, but they cover them with a cloth during sesshin.  We organize ourselves time-wise through signals created by someone pounding a block of wood (which generally means "get up") or ringing a bell (which generally means "sit down").

"Oryoki" is the Japanese term we borrow for eating meditation, it is complicated and I mess it up every time, but it does allow for 30 people to be fed and clean up after themselves in a quick, quiet, and efficient manner with barely any need for communicating with others. 

Everything from preparing one's eating utensils and bowls for receiving food, to eating itself, to cleaning up everything afterwards happens in a tightly defined and practiced ritualized sequence. Even though we are all silent we all know what to expect of everyone else at every single step. 

There's a video on the bottom right of this page if you want to see how its done (and perhaps if you find that you need to lull yourself to sleep and this post hasn't done the trick).

Oryoki is really just a more complex version of kinhin, walking meditation, and the basic point is it allows everyone to eat and not arouse the operative mind, that endless judgy chatter of "do this, don't do that, like that person, hate that idiot" which most people confuse for reality as they go through the day.  Trying to get it right, that is to do everything in the right order and as fast as everyone else, makes me anxious as hell, but that's my work to do.  I can work with that and not bother anyone else.  That's the wisdom of the way this works.

I had been considering the fact as this sesshin approached that I was in a pretty good place in my life, unlike most of the other times I've prepared for sesshin.  Things are okay, I'm pretty comfortable with how things don't make sense at the moment.  I wondered if that would affect the quality of my practice.  Would I slack off a bit?

Then I got off the plane, read a email, and immediately started crying.  Well, all that aside, at least I don't have to worry about coming to this practice empty-handed emotionally.

If you've never been in some kind of silent practice with a group of people let me tell you some things that might surprise you.  Keep in mind that I only visit this zen center for sesshin so I don't know, as in REALLY don't know, the people I practice with aside from the teachers and a couple of others, none of whom I know all that well.

Yet, in the 48 hours that we're together in the same room all day I will grow to intensely despise some of them and develop crushes (or bromances in the case of men) on some of the others.  Now, there genuinely is a way that one really gets to know another person by sitting next to them in silence for hours that is unlike other forms of intimacy, that's real.  Im talking about something else.

There's also the process that unfolds as your mind works to make sense of your relationships with these other people without the benefit of conversation or even looking them in the eye (we avoid direct eye contact during silent practice).  It hilarious to watch your mind do this as long as you don't take it seriously, which I don't.

At the end, we break silence and stand around to chat for a few minutes (some people do just get the hell out of there, my teacher runs home to order a pizza delivery, for example), I can't tell you how many times my intense infatuation or hatred has been pierced forever by a single phrase uttered by this person I've spent the last two days constructing ideas about.  This is perhaps one of the most valuable things I learn about myself here.  My mind is funny, it's a mixture of wise insight and truly ridiculous extrapolations.  I can't always tell which is which.

But, I do find out who can sit still, and that's a quality I like in others regardless of their other charms, quirks, or rough edges.

I can sit still.  It tooks years of training, and still requires effort, but I can do it.  I like that about myself.  Sesshin is a chance to show it off.