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This is the second part in a multi-part post about why I started following a Buddhist path.

As I said in my last post, I had left my faith behind but I still had a lot of questions about suffering and the nature of suffering. I was still suffering and was dealing with depression, excess weight, a host of family problems and a general pessimism about life that made living seem almost unbearable.

Cover of "Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful ...

Cover of Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life

Eventually, I reached a point where I broke down. I could no longer go on living the way that I was. I knew that if I didn’t make some serious changes in my lifestyle that my physical and mental health would deteriorate rapidly and I would find myself dying early. As bad as my outlook on life was, a basic desire for self preservation would not allow this to happen. When I broke down, my wife shared a book with me that she had recently picked up. The book was called Savor. It was written by Thich Nhat Hahn and Dr. Lillian Cheung. The book was looking at the problem of obesity from a Buddhist and a medical perspective. As I read through the opening chapters, I began to see just how important the issue of suffering was to Buddhism. Eliminating suffering was the foundation of the entire Buddhist perspective.

I had studied a bit about the basic beliefs of Buddhism in college as part of a World’s Religions class. I had a basic understanding of what Buddhists believed but this was the first time I had ever seen Buddhist principles put into action. It amazed me at how simple and straightforward the application of the Four Noble Truths could be.

The other thing that struck me at that time was the almost single minded focus Buddhism put on the world as it really is. There was no mystical magic being to relate to. Buddhism always brought things back to your self. In the Buddhist perspective, there is no external world that exists outside of the self. The mind is the final arbiter of the world that we perceive. Everything in the world comes to us through our five (six in the Buddhist view) senses. We then add meaning and context to that sensory information and start to relate to it. This is how we build up the world and this is where suffering begins and ends. Finally, I had found a reasonable explanation for what causes suffering and what can be done about it.

I decided that I should give Buddhism a try. The approach was so simple and pure and the practice was designed to integrate into ones daily life. It was a practice with a purpose. It meant I would have to learn how to meditate but I figured that having tried so many different ways to deal with suffering that one more couldn’t hurt. I did some research and found that in the town just north of me there was a Zen Center so I gave them a call and arranged a visit. My experiences with Zen and what I thought about the experience will have to wait for part 3 of this series. However, before I end this, I’d like to share a quote from Brad Warner in his book Zen Dipped in Karma Wrapped in Chocolate about his experience in discovering Buddhism. He’s a great writer and his words capture my feelings better than my words can.

When I say that Buddhism worked, I don’t mean that it was a magic solution to my problems. Nor do I mean that any miracles happened or that I was able to erase all doubt and fear from my mind through some kind of special power. What I mean is that Buddhism…provided the most truly realistic and practical way of dealing with life. It isn’t spirituality, but it isn’t materialism either…Buddhism does what no other philosophy I’ve ever come across is able to do. It bridges the gap between these two forever mutually opposing ways of understanding reality. It negates both spirituality and materialism yet simultaneously embraces them. And it’s more than just a way of thinking about things. There’s a practice involved — zazen. You cannot separate the philosophy from the practice. If you don’t do zazen practice you cannot ever hope even to come close to comprehending the philosophy.

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As I said in my last post, my weekend was spent at the Providence Zen Center where I took my five precepts and formally became a member of the school. The Zen Center is a beautiful place and spending time there was a great experience. Sure, I’m sore from all the bowing and odd movements that my poor, still overweight, body isn’t use to but I can’t complain too much about that. I’ve got a lot to write about this entire experience but I’m still processing a lot of it and I’m sure it will come out over the next few weeks as I continue to write.

One of the more interesting events from this past weekend was an inka ceremony. Basically, this is the way that the Kwan Um School of Zen bestows the title of Zen Master on someone. This is a process that takes years to complete and is compared to earning a PhD. After seeing the ceremony firsthand, I can see why. For 30 minutes, the candidate for JDPSN (Zen Master) status had to sit while one person after another came up to her and asked questions meant to trip her up or confuse her. In Zen studies, these questions are called koans. Watching someone answer koans for 30 straight minutes and hit each one out of the park was nothing short of awesome. After seeing this, I have a much better understanding of why they call this part of the ceremony dharma combat.

After the ceremony everyone filtered out of the dharma hall and down the stairs to the dining room for an amazing vegetarian dinner of sweet potato enchiladas. I found an open seat at a table right next to a sign reading that the tables were reserved for those who could not sit on the floor. I figured I met that criteria as I was already so sore that I was having trouble getting my legs to cooperate with me when I wanted to do things like walk or stand or move them around.

While I was sitting there trying to taste each of the ingredients in the enchiladas so that I can reverse engineer the recipe, the newest Zen Master in the Kwan Um school sat down right across from me at the table. She thanked someone sitting a few chairs down from me for their kind words at her ceremony and started to eat her dinner. A few more people sat down at the chairs around us and, before I knew it and without planning on my part, I found myself caught up in the discussion that popped up at the table. Anne, the new Zen Master, lectures on science and environmental issues among other things. As we sat at the table eating dinner we discussed environmental science, the changing ecosystem in Florida where she lives, alligators and just how cool they really are, and the importance of actions to do whatever possible to make positive impacts on the environment. She had an amazing depth of knowledge about this subject and her compassion for all living things was palpable as she talked about her experiences working with various groups and research teams.

A few other people came to the table and they were not as inclined to discuss science and environmental issues so the conversation drifted to other topics. These topics were much more along the lines of generalized discussion that happens among people at a large group: things like travel plans, how long different people had been at the Zen Center already, the quality of the food, the experiences one had in the various ceremonies going on that weekend, etc. This was where I got to see just how down to earth a Zen Master could be. The fact that she had just been through an incredible ordeal and passed with flying colors never came up in any of the conversations. It was like it never happened. Sure, she was a Zen Master, big deal, there was an upcoming train trip back to Virginia to discuss since driving in the northeast corridor is such pain to do. It was almost an inconvenience when the time came for her to get up from the table to take part in a cake cutting to celebrate her accomplishment.

After we had all gotten our cake (and it was a delicious cake) we were back at our seats and a new person joined us. This was a person with a question about something someone said in the ceremony. It was a line that had not even really made an impact on my mind at the time but the short version of the story was that the conversation eventually led to the realization that Anne has stage 4 colon cancer and she stares death in the face on a daily basis. The ease with which she tossed out the phrase “it’ll get me some day” still leaves me in awe. She deals with the immediacy of her mortality on a moment by moment basis and has learned from it and become stronger because of it. It was at this point I realized just how amazed I was at this person sitting across the table from me. Her attitude and her humility and her courage were unlike almost anyone else I have ever met. Usually, you only hear stories about people like this. This time, I was experiencing it first hand. I was almost consumed with admiration for the person sitting in front of me talking about how she had tried macrobiotics for a while to combat the cancer but didn’t want to spend all of the life she had left in the kitchen cooking foods that meet the very high bar set by macrobiotics.

She was called away shortly after that by a group of people who hadn’t seen her in a while and she went to speak to them. I continued to have some conversations with those around me but I was still stuck mentally in the previous conversation. I had never seen that kind of clarity, compassion, courage and intellect combined in one person so well. I could not help but feel angry with the knowledge that she would not be a teacher and master in our school for as long as she should be because of the cancer. Then, because this was a Zen retreat, I was left with my own thoughts about why I was feeling this way and why I was thinking this way. I did my best to learn from the example she had just set and accept the reality of the situation for what it is and to be present in this moment because it is all we have. Sure, in some future moment she will no longer be a part of our school but that’s the business of that moment. For now, there were plates to be picked up and trash to be thrown away.

A few minutes later as I was cleaning up my dishes at the sink, one of the other people I met this weekend asked me if I enjoyed having dinner with three Zen Masters. At first I thought he was trying to trip me up with some sort of “gotcha” koan. Then he pointed out to me that the other people that I had been sitting with and talking with were also the same people who usually sit up at the front of the room during the ceremonies and that the reason they did that was because they were Zen Masters. Since things were all so new to me and I wasn’t used to seeing these people outside of the ceremonies yet (I had only been there for 24 hours at that point), I didn’t even realize who some of the other people I was eating with and talking with were. How’s that for down to earth and low key? There was nothing to differentiate these Zen Masters from me, a guy who was there to take step 1: the five precepts. As my new friend laughed at me, I let the lesson sink in. I’m still trying to learn from that moment. I have a feeling I’ll be learning from that moment for a long time to come.

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It seems like as soon as my leg healed,  I injured myself again. This time it’s my foot. I was running around with my son and his best friend and managed to hurt the bottom of my left foot. Once again, I can’t go to the gym because I can hardly walk without limping. There’s no way I can exercise with it feeling this way.

At least with a foot injury I can still meditate. Unfortunately, I’m finding it hard to sit for long periods of time. The other morning I went to sit for 20-30 minutes but couldn’t get past the 15 minute mark because of the pain.

Even though I was hurting, I had committed to going to the Zen Center on Wednesday evening. I planned on sitting any way I had to in order to get through the night. As we began sitting, I felt my body begin to relax into the calm concentration of zazen and I began to focus my mind on the present moment and dismiss thoughts that arose. It didn’t take long before the pain popped up along with thoughts about it. This can be quite distracting when you are trying to meditate. Usually, pain is caused by sitting with your legs or back or feet being held in one position for too long. That’s pretty easy to address by gently moving whatever needs to be moved. This pain wasn’t going away that easily.

We were only 10 minutes into the first 25 minute sitting and I was having a harder time than I thought I would. I wasn’t sure what to do about the pain so I focused on sitting and keeping a clear mind. The beauty of keeping a clear mind is that when you are meditating in a group with others, you are all of the same (clear) mind. It’s one of the few times when one has a shared experience of that intensity. As someone who used to play music and as Brad Warner says in his book Sit Down and Shut Up, it is similar to the experience of playing music in a band when everything is going right. It’s a great feeling to be that connected to others and this happened to me last night.

This is not something that happens to me every time I go to the Zen center. It’s not something I try to force because that would defeat the purpose of sitting. When it happens, it happens and it’s nice when it does.

As I sat there in meditation, I felt a connection with the others in the room and a strange thing began to happen: I felt myself gaining strength from my connection with them. As I felt more “oneness” with those in the room, the pain in my foot subsided. I began to, literally, transcend the pain I was feeling. It was no longer an issue for me because the pain in that foot was just pain in one of my feet and, at that point in time, I felt like I had 16 feet. Before I knew it, the first sitting was over and it was time for walking meditation.

This was really a concern for me going into the evening since walking was harder for me than sitting. I’m limping pretty bad because I can’t put much weight on my left foot. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to spend 10 minutes walking or if I’d have to stand aside while others walked.

My concerns and worries were unnecessary. The diminished pain in my foot continued through the walking meditation and into the next session of sitting. It was an amazing experience for me to be that connected to others around me in practice. I have read about it and have heard about it but I hadn’t experienced it to that extent before. I had felt this kind of connection in small doses in the past but this was the first time that I had felt that connection for an extended practice period. Even after we were done, I continued to feel a connection to everyone and everything around me in a way that I don’t normally feel. It didn’t last forever but it was nice while it did.

Tonight, my foot still hurts. I really want to get back into the gym and I hope to do that starting on Monday morning. The pain is slowly going away and I am moving faster and without as much of a limp this evening. I just wish that the relief I felt last night would have stuck around longer! But, one cannot force something like that.

I think that this experience has really helped me to see how important it can be to practice with others. Practicing alone or sitting by oneself is important as a daily routine is helpful. However, last night reminded me that to be a part of a community, a Sangha, is even more important and can be even more helpful. If you are practicing and not currently a part of a Sangha, I can’t encourage you enough to find one to be a part of. It will challenge you and encourage you and help you to grow in ways that you can’t on your own.

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I have the opportunity to meet with others once a week for meditation. This is a great time for me but there are many others who, for one reason or another cannot meditate with others. For me, that’s the other six days of the week. Fortunately, I found the Online Meditation Crew to keep in touch with. They are a group of people who are joined via Twitter and sit together a few times a day. They stay in touch using the hashtag #OMCru. Even though it is a virtual connection, it’s nice to know that there are others sharing their practice and its a great motivator to continue to sit.

One of my problems is that I’m pretty busy so I don’t spend a lot of time on Twitter. Ideally, I could configure twitter to send me SMS messages for when someone uses the hashtag #OMCru in a tweet. Unfortunately, Twitter doesn’t do this any more. So, being the inquisitive and tenacious geek that I am, I have found a solution to always stay in touch with the #OMCru tweets whether I can visit twitter or not.

1. I have an RSS feed for a search for all tweets containing #OMCru. http://search.twitter.com/search.atom?q=%23omcru

2. Using Yahoo.com feed alerts, I set up notifications for “as they happen”

3. When a tweet is posted with the hash tag #OMCru, I get notified so I know what’s happening and can take time to meditate if at all possible.

Three simple steps to stay connected with others that I can share my practice with. Additionally, this helps me keep in touch with everyone who is a part of this growing group since new members are always joining in and it can be hard to follow them unless you’re on top of the tweets. This gives me a better chance of making sure that I can use twitter to connect with others who I am interested in following.

Online Meditation Crew

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I went into the woods because I wanted to spend a weekend in contemplative Zen practice. Also, I went into the woods because that’s where the retreat was being held so I didn’t really have a choice. When one is on a Zen retreat, habits, attachments and motivations are challenged. This weekend reminded me that I am indeed a city person and not a “get connected to the wilderness” kind of guy. Seriously, given the choice between a beautiful mountain vista or going to a gallery opening and a show at the theater, I’ll be sucking back the free wine and discussing the motivations of the artist and how they reflect on contemporary life in a heartbeat. It’s not that I have anything against the outdoors, it’s just not where I find myself being drawn when I want to relax. I saw some amazing and beautiful things this weekend. The colors and the birds and the amazing view of Mt. Washington covered in snow reflecting light in every direction were breathtaking. However, the blisters on my feet and hands and the sore and aching muscles in my body were equally impressive. The cold and the rain didn’t help much either.

If I’m going to trip when I’m walking, I’d rather trip over the brick sidewalks we have in Portland instead of over loose rocks or branches or holes that have been hidden by leaves. Slipping on acorns is a job hazard squirrels have to face, not humans. It amazes me how something that is as beautiful as the scenery that surrounded me the past two days can feel so foreign. It’s like having the worlds greatest cake in front of you and learning you’re allergic to it. I’m just not that into the wilderness I guess.

This doesn’t mean I didn’t have a great weekend. Don’t get the wrong impression from the above paragraphs. I had a great weekend and I’d do it again if I had the chance. In fact, I didn’t want to leave when it was time to go. I wanted to stay and sit more. I experienced a deeper level of practice than I’ve ever had before this weekend. I got to know members of my Sangha better and had a lot of fun with them sharing this experience. There was a lot of laughter this weekend as we experienced the joys of connecting with one another and sharing a deeper practice. Personally, I’d rather have had this experience in an urban environment instead of on a mountain side. Everyone else was walking around in awe as they felt this great connection and oneness with nature. Meanwhile, I’m walking around just trying to keep from slipping in the mud.

Slipping on acorns is a job hazard squirrels have to face, not humans.

I think my biggest issues came from having to deal with sore muscles and an aching body coupled with an intense feeling of I-don’t-belong-here-edness. The first few periods of walking meditation we were on had been a little hard on my body. My feet weren’t used to the type of exertion I was subjecting them to. They began to blister up and my hands also began to hurt from having my walking stick rub against them. As one who grew up raised by a pack of geeks running wild over the plains and mountainsides of a role-playing game designed universe or traversing the cliffs and crags of the on-line world, I was totally unprepared for the physical aspect of walking meditation in the great outdoors. My mind was on just about everything else other than focusing on being calm.

 

These do not prepare you for life in the woods.

 

On our third walk of the day, we got lost. Yes, I said we got lost. In the woods. In Maine. In the middle of nowhere. Lost. At this point, my body was feeling worn out and my mind was trying to figure out just what the anchor person on the news would say about the party of hikers whose bodies had finally been recovered after a three-day search. As the fat man on the retreat, I knew I’d be the first to go. I’ve seen the movies. I’ve read the books. There’s a reason Steven King sets all of his novels in this part of Maine: people go there to get lost and eaten by animals. It’s always the funny fat guy who goes first: usually mauled by a bear shortly after saying something witty and ironic considering his feet are about to get chewed off by an animal with a bad attitude and claws the size of whatever is comparable to a bear claw. It wasn’t as bad as my mind made it out to be and we weren’t really lost too badly. The leader of the retreat knew the area pretty well and guided us back to a path that we took to our campsite. However, I went on record as only wanting to hike on the paths after that. I didn’t think it was polite of the other members of the Sangha to laugh at me while we were on a Zen retreat but I guess I was wrong because they had no problem doing it.

Eventually, the day was over and it was time for bed. Did I mention that we were in the middle of nowhere? I think I did. If you ever visit the mystical land of nowhere and find yourself in the middle of it, be warned that modern conveniences like electricity are not always available. For most people this is a quaint and charming trait. If, though, you are like me and have gained so much weight that your throat closes up at night and stops you from breathing, it is a major problem. I had no power source for a CPAP and despite my best efforts going into the trip could find no good way to power it for the evening. This meant that my night was spent gasping for air every minute or so and my body never got the deep restorative sleep it so desperately needed. Of all the nights to go without oxygen, this was not the night where I could afford to do it. I did it anyway. When we woke up at 5 A.M. I felt like I’d been hit by a truck. My throat was raw from snoring and my head ached from oxygen deprivation. Another great day was about to get started.

The second day of the retreat consisted of some meditation but was mostly dedicated to a “five-mile hike” we would be taking to the top of Frost Mountain. I saw with my own eyes the brochure that stated the walk was “easy” and consisted of “mostly level paths”. Bullshit. First of all, the “five miles” was one way. When you go on a hike, whatever distance you travel out, you have to travel back. Do the math. That’s ten miles of hiking. I didn’t sign up for a ten-mile hike. Other people kept using the phrase “good hike” to describe what we were doing. I’m still not sure how those two words go together in a sentence. Secondly, we were walking up something called “Frost Mountain”. This should have been a red flag to me. When something has the word “Mountain” in its name, that pretty much excludes using the words “flat” or “level” to describe the route going up it. So, I find myself pushing as hard as I can, lungs heaving and heart racing at 170 beats per minute at minimum to make my way up one hill after another. I’m slowing down and keeping the entire group from moving ahead as they stop every so often to let me catch my breath and allow my heart rate to come back down to a more normal level. In all of my workouts at the gym, I’ve never felt this exhausted. I’m not sure about the appropriateness of using profanity on a Zen retreat when the idea is to do these things in as much silence as possible but I believe I uttered the phrase, “you’ve gotta be fucking kidding me” at one point as we rounded a bend and looked up at a hill that just kept going and going until we lost sight of it behind the trees.

Halfway up this hill as the others were waiting for me to regain my composure, I mentioned that I was really happy I could be doing this, and I was. The fact remains that I would never have been able to do this hike 55 pounds ago. There’s just no way my body would have handled it. Sure, I was tired but I was physically fit enough to do the hike and I wasn’t about to let some hill stop me from making it to the top. I was too determined to win this struggle. I mentioned that it’s not easy to pull 275 pounds up a big hill and that’s when I found that two of the members of the retreat only weighed 120 pounds each. I told the male skinny vegetarian Buddhist with an overly zealous and joyful attitude to put the female skinny vegetarian Buddhist on his back and then grab about 30 pounds of rocks and I’d race him to the top. It was a little sad for me to realize that I weighed as much as two of my group combined plus the legs of the third member of our four person team. Then, I focused on the positives and renewed my passion to reach the top of this hill from hell and began to climb again.

Once we reached the summit, we were rewarded with an amazing view of the surrounding landscape. We could see all the way into New Hampshire and standing tall over everything was Mt. Washington. It was covered in snow and whiter than the clouds. It really was an amazing view. We sat there on the mountain top and had lunch. It was completely vegetarian so I had some veggies stuffed into a sub bun and it was the best tasting sandwich I think I’ve ever had. I did get to have a little bit of meat though. My apple had a worm in it. Actually, I only saw half of the worm. But, at least it was protein.

Did I mention that half way up the mountain it started to rain? Oh yeah, I think I left that part out. It was cold, I was tired and now, I was getting wet. For the most part, our heads were kept dry because the leaves on the trees were still stopping most of the rain from hitting us but it wasn’t perfect. When I put the hoods up from the coat and the hoodie I was wearing underneath that, I started to get so hot and sweaty that I couldn’t stand it. I ended up choosing rain over heat and accepted the rain as nature’s way of reflecting my mood back to me. By the time I got back to the camp site, I was moving at a snail’s pace and my feet were throbbing in pain. The other three members of the retreat were standing outside the yurt waiting for me as I slowly approached. As I got up to them, they all started to clap and cheer for me as it was obvious that I had accomplished something big. It was nice to know that they were just as happy for me as I was for myself. I kicked that mountain’s butt and I came back down alive. I’m so sore now I can’t put it into words but I made it. So, I went into the woods and came back out the next day. I went in rushed and hurried with a cluttered mind and I came out tired and sore and with a clear mind having pushed myself to the limit and beyond. Next year when I go back to do this again, I’ll be even more prepared and able to (maybe) enjoy the experience.

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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.

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When you hear the word Zen, what do you think? A calm, peaceful and serene painting of a flower blossom? A carefully maintained rock garden with perfectly raked sand? Zen Rock Garden A monk sitting in meditation while the world spins around him? Sure, these things are all a part of Zen, but don’t allow yourself to think that Zen is all peace and quiet and tranquility. Zen meditation goes far beyond sitting on a cushion in a room. In fact, some forms of Zen meditation can get very active indeed. I experienced some of this last night and I have the aches and pains to go along with it today. At the Zen Center I visit, there are programs on Tuesday nights and on Wednesday nights. On Wednesday night, things are fairly subdued. Most of the time is spent in sitting meditation, though there is some walking meditation halfway through the evening. Tuesday night is meditation of another sort altogether. It is focused on bowing and chanting meditation. They perform 108 bows in a rather short time period. After that, there is a long period of chanting. The night ends with a short period of sitting meditation. This was the first time I’d ever gone on a Tuesday.

When one performs bowing as a form of meditation, one must remember that there is no object that one is bowing to. It is simply a way to get the mind focused on one thing and that is the act of bowing. When you bow, you start by standing up straight. You then bend your knees till you’re on them. Then, you bend forward until your forehead touches the floor. You put one foot on top of the other and extend both palms up. You then pull your arms back, return to your knees and stand up straight. You do this motion 108 times. On Wednesday nights, we bow like this but we only do it 4 times. This is 27 times more than what I was used to doing. Even though I have been exercising and have lost a lot of weight, my body was not physically capable of doing this! Instead, I did full bows and then did half bows when my knees couldn’t take it any more. I probably did 20 full bows and 88 half bows though honestly I wasn’t counting. Once again, it’s the state of one’s mind while bowing that is the most important thing to be concerned with so the form wasn’t as important as the practice.

There’s a great mathematical formula that explains why the number 108 is used but I’m not going to go into that here. Just take my word for it that 108 bows of any sort will destroy your body if you’re not physically prepared for it and chanting for more than 20 minutes straight will give you a sore throat. So, here I am today with back muscles that ache whenever I move too quickly or stand up or sit down, my throat is raw and my legs are weak. I never thought that Zen could be rougher on my body than anything I do to it at the gym. Becoming more fit has made it possible for me to easily do the 4 bows on Wednesday night but I am in no way fit to do 108 on a regular basis! Here’s the thing that really amazes me: some practitioners do 108 bows ten times a day for a total of 1080 bows. I think for now I’ll just stay on my cushion and watch from the sidelines.

So, if your view of Zen is one of a bunch of people sitting around maintaining some state of meditative bliss, rethink your assumptions. Zen challenges us to be able to maintain an ordered and focused mind regardless of what we’re doing. That’s the point of the bowing and chanting meditations—or at least one of the points. Whether we are walking or working or playing or sitting or even sleeping, Zen says that we should be present in that moment. Learning to keep a focused mind while sweating your butt off as every muscle in your back begs for mercy is another way to learn to be aware of the present moment. Believe me, I wasn’t thinking about the past or the future or living in some fantasy world while I moved my body up and down and up and down. The only thing I could do was focus on the moment. I had no thoughts other than the ones that were focused on getting through the moment. Now, my challenge is to keep being in the present moment each time I move and I’m instantly taken back to last night when I got my first real Zen workout.

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