A week ago, I participated in my first Zen retreat (see what I did there with the title? See, cuz “retreat” in the context of combat and the Monty Python reference …)
It was my first retreat since high school where I think the last retreat I went on (or at least the last one I remember) was a writing retreat. If memory serves, one of the adolescents on the retreat with me at the time was the same guy whose house I burned down. Same guy I went to a College World Series game with couple weeks back. First guy I got drunk with at the age of 15; same guy who welcomed me into the Program with open arms. The cords of friendship are often bungee. I don’t remember anything about that retreat except that if I wasn’t a “writer” before, I was no more a “writer” after. Unless of course you are not of the persuasion to believe that there’s some sort of mystical rite of passage or membership card or week-long hazing you must endure in order to call yourself a “writer.” I am decidedly not of the persuasion.
Same guy I went to a College World Series game with couple weeks back. First guy I got drunk with at the age of 15; same guy who welcomed me into the Program with open arms. The cords of friendship are often bungee. I don’t remember anything about that retreat except that if I wasn’t a “writer” before, I was no more a “writer” after. Unless of course you are not of the persuasion to believe that there’s some sort of mystical rite of passage or membership card or week-long hazing you must endure in order to call yourself a “writer.” I am decidedly not of that persuasion
The Zen retreat (it was a mini retreat really) was much like backpacking in that if you leave early in the morning, drive to a trailhead on a mountain or a canyon, hike all day, have a granola bar and some Gatorade for lunch, hike back to the trailhead and then get in your car and go back home or to the rented cabin, grab a shower and eat at the quaint-yet-overpriced vegan café in town, you went on a “day hike.” If after hiking all day, you pitched a tent, ate crackers and mealy noodles cooked with a camping stove and slept in a sleeping bag on a sleeping pad and woke in the middle of the night to scratch at the poison sumac you brushed against that is driving you bonkers, you’re a rugged backpacker! This was my first time engaging in a prolonged period of meditation. It was my sobriety birthday gift to myself as I had 7 years sober that very day.
Zazenkai is unlike zazen which is simply a set period of sitting meditation, or Zen Immersion which is more of a commitment with sitting meditation, walking meditation, a dharma talk, caretaking on the grounds of the temple and all followed by a period of coffee or tea and conversation. It’s like donuts and coffee in the basement of the church I went to growing up minus the seething husbands itching to mow the yard, have a beer and watch the game and feral children in pretty pink dresses and clip-on ties running amok as their mothers attempted to have civilized conversations. Zazenkai consisted of alternating blocks of sitting meditation, walking meditation, sitting meditation, caretaking of the grounds, a simple yet tasty lunch of mushroom and leek soup with crackers and a brief meeting with the Zen teacher to where yu are given to the chance to meet one-on-one with the resident Zen teacher to discuss your Zen practice. In my zazenkai, the rhythm of the day (all conducted in silence by the way) disturbed only when, attempting to get a more comfortable position at the table to engage my meal, one of the chair legs slipped into the floor grate behind and beneath me and I almost toppled over the whole damn table trying to right myself. I don’t know if he was just trying to make me feel like I had not just shattered everybody’s peace or not when one of the long-time members of the temple leaned over and whispered “You’re not the first person who has done that” but it made me feel much more at ease. After lunch there was more sitting meditation, walking meditation, sitting meditation and the closing rituals.
Honestly, I think I did well. Not as in “Oh I think all the other Zen-iacs must have been quite impressed with my Zen-zeal.” Not at all, if you don’t meditate at all, it’s difficult to relate what a “successful” period of meditation means, but anybody who meditates on a regular basis knows what I am talking about. The walking meditation sessions, kinhin, I remain convinced were concocted by a Zen monk about a week after Siddartha Gautama started teaching and leading sessions of sitting meditation because he realized that, searching for enlightenment or not, this whole Zen thing wasn’t going to fly unless they spiced it up a little and allowed for practioners to get up and stretch their legs that have fallen asleep or get their blood flowing a little. And the periods of zazen were exactly as they are at home when I’m meditating by myself, save for the fact that doing it in a room with a Zen master and eight or nine other people, I experienced moments, flashes really, of absolute joy and absolute sorrow, all in the same zazen session. But, each time, I would return to the breath, and the joy and the sorrow would pass.
I will admit to having one ulterior motive going into the retreat. See, I have been consciously and deliberately preparing my mental fluidity in the build-up to this retreat because I wanted to come out of it clear headed and fully awake to the fact that my sugar consumption is much, much higher than I would like and I at least want to cut it in half. I also went into the retreat with the deep desire that I would awaken to the fact that I have been smoking cigarettes long enough and, with this zazenkai in that bag, I would have the mental clarity and spiritual strength and courage to come out of the experience with the serenity to finally quit.
Instead, I came out of the experience convinced I do not need serenity or a zazenkai retreat or a meeting with a Zen master to quit smoking or drastically reduce my sugar consumption.
What I really need is a 7-foot tall ornery, adolescent chimp named Brody.