This past weekend I was in the woods at a retreat with my Sangha from Northern Light Zen Center. It was a great experience and I am very glad that I went. It’s amazing what spending two days in meditation will do for your clarity of mind. This retreat was a mixture of sitting meditation and walking meditation. The walking took place outdoors in the woods and was an opportunity to see a lot of beauty in the autumn trees, the moon and the stars and the sunrise and sunset. It was also a time for me to experience practicing through some hardship. I’ve already gotten a post about that half-written but didn’t want to publish it yet since I want to focus on the positives of the experience before I start speaking about the challenges I had to overcome.
As with all Zen retreats, this one was designed to push the body and mind to their limits in order to quiet the mind so that it could focus more easily while in meditation. I think I spent at least five hours in sitting meditation this weekend and another four in walking meditation. I would have done even more had I been able to attend the full retreat but I had to arrive late because my wife works on Saturday morning so I stayed home to watch the kids while she was at her job. I arrived at the perfect time at the retreat though: right after lunch. I met my Sangha as they were walking back to the yurt we were using for meditation so I was present for the entire afternoon and evening sessions.
At first, I had a hard time concentrating on sitting because I’d had a hectic morning trying to get ready to go and deal with the logistics of everyday life and then trying to find the camping site in the Maine wilderness. Once you leave pavement behind, a GPS becomes a little less reliable when trying to reach a destination. Let that be a warning for you if you plan to come to Maine. We have a lot of unpaved roads up here. However, I did begin to finally quiet down my mind and began to focus. About three minutes after that, it was time to get up to begin walking. We spent 20 minutes wandering through the woods and I realized that even though I am in much better shape now than I once was, I’m not much of a hiker. All of the exercise I do is as low impact as possible so my feet are not used to being picked up and put down over and over as I exercise. This meant that I was pushing my body in a different way than normal and I began to wear out more quickly than I ever thought possible. Fortunately, it was only a 20 minute walk and then we were back to sitting for 20 minutes. My body was worn out so it took me about 15 minutes to finally calm down and get back into the calm state that is conducive to sitting meditation. Five minutes later, time for a walk. This went on for a few hours: sitting, walking, sitting, walking. My body didn’t quite know what to do and my mind was mirroring the state that my body was in. That evening, after dinner, my mind and body were quite worn out and in the last sitting meditation session, I found that I achieved a level of calmness and focus unlike any I’d ever experienced. My mind was at a point where it was too tired to wander around as my aching butt sat on the cushion. I actually came out of that sitting session feeling better than when I had going in. I had turned the corner just in time to go on an evening walk under the stars.
The night sky was amazing. The moon was full and so bright in that clear sky that it hurt ones eyes to look directly at it. We didn’t even need our flashlights it was so bright. I’ve never seen shadows cast by moonlight as clearly as we had them on this evening. As we looked up at the stars (facing away from the moon), we could actually see space debris and satellites moving slowly in orbit around Earth. We even saw a few meteors flash across the sky as they burned up in the atmosphere. It was a perfect way to end the evening. My mind felt as clear as the sky we were looking up at. After the walk, we had a brief period of chanting meditation and then went to bed. I was asleep before 9:30. I was probably asleep before my kids at home had gone to bed.
The next day started at 5:00 A.M. I’m not sure why Zen retreats start so damn early but I think it has to do with keeping the body and mind worn out. That, or those who run the retreats are just a bunch of sadistic bastards. However, since I know the leader of our Sangha isn’t a sadistic bastard, I quickly dismissed that hypothesis. The day started with 108 bows. Once again, I entertained the thought about sadistic bastards but dismissed it again. Last week I did 108 bows for the first time. I was thankful that I had done it because I knew what to expect from this session. I did 107 half-bows and did the final one as a complete bow. This helped me from getting too sore but it was still murder on the muscles in my neck and back. We then spent time in sitting meditation and, once again, I was amazed at the clarity of mind I still had. We went out for a morning walk and then went back for a longer session of sitting while interviews were conducted.
On a Zen retreat, if you are with a Zen Master, you will be given a koan to answer. Since the leader of our Sangha is not a Zen Master, the interview process is a bit more laid back. For me, it was a time to see that Colin, our leader, was concerned about how I was handling the schedule and concerned that my being gone from home for a weekend wasn’t causing any problems for my wife or family. He was very concerned about this and he shared some stories about how he had to face the stress that came with going away for a weekend when his children, now in college, were young. After I had my interview, I was able to go back to the meditation yurt and spend the rest of the interview session in sitting meditation. That was about 40 minutes of uninterrupted sitting. It was the most amazing 40 minutes of meditation I have ever had. I was able to be present in the moment, with crystal clarity of mind and really feel my connection to the world around me and see my true self a little more clearly. This isn’t the self that we normally relate to, but our real innermost self. It was a liberating experience for me to know that I was having this experience without extending any effort as I had no energy left to extend. I see now, more clearly, why Zen stresses the importance of sitting just to sit and not being attached to thoughts or feelings or perceptions or impulses. Now, my goal is to learn how to achieve this state of calm without having to go away for days. The challenge I now face is to not get attached to that experience and to try to force myself to have it again. I cannot repeat the past and the next time I have this experience, it will be different. It will be a new and different experience but will be just as amazing.
After breakfast, we went on a “five-mile hike”. The goal of the hike was to reach the top of Frost Mountain and to eat our lunch up there. The five miles was actually only the distance to the top of the mountain and didn’t include the five miles back to camp. I’m not going to write a lot more about this here because much of the other post I am working on includes my thoughts and feelings while on this trip. For now, I’ll leave it at the joyous news that I made it to the top and back and received a round of applause from my Sangha on my return to the camp site. Once we got back, we had time for one session of sitting and chanting. Then, it was time to clean, pack and go home. We all agreed that we would love to stay for one more day but clinging to the experiences we’d had on the retreat would not be a good thing so we reluctantly got into our cars and headed home.
I got home and fell into bed and slept until it was time to go to dinner with my family. It was a great dinner and I loved being back at home with them. After putting the kids to bed, I started to work on a blog post but I was still exhausted and went to bed earlier than normal. I was surprised to find that I wanted to sit and meditate before going to bed but I knew I needed to give my body some rest. Instead of meditating, I just lay in bed and watched a bit of a movie and then fell to sleep. Now that it’s all said and done and I’m sitting here with a sore body and a clear(er) mind, I couldn’t think of a better way to spend a weekend separated from my family.