Posts Tagged ‘silence’

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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Today I feel like my monkey mind has been flinging its poo towards the insides of my skull. Even tonight while sitting at the Zen center I felt my mind fighting me with everything it could. I was wanting to just sit and be quiet and focus on my breathing but my mind just wouldn’t calm down. It never really did. It started when I realized that it was so quiet in the room that I could hear my ears producing a steady hum. It wasn’t really a ringing in my ears, it was more like hearing the blood flow through them. Since that was the only thing I could hear, my mind kept fixating on it and wouldn’t stop returning to the noise of the silence. I was very thankful that we had a fan going for our walking meditation and our second round of sitting because that meant there was enough background noise that I could no longer hear the distracting sounds of my own ears.

Once I was free of the ringing, I had to deal with a barrage of crazy thoughts one after another. I’d keep bringing my mind back to the center where I was only focused on breathing but I couldn’t stay in that place for long at all. Whether it was the numbness in my foot or the itch on my back or a song I had heard earlier in the day being played on a loop I could not keep my mind under control. I know that this is normal for meditation so I’m not going to get too upset about it. This was more of an annoyance than anything. I am thinking of it as being similar to when you are trying to have an important conversation with your spouse and a your child keeps interrupting to tell you something completely pointless and not worthy of a lot of attention. You wish that the interruption would go away but you still love the thing doing the interrupting.

My mind has been like this all day. I had a hard time at work because I was constantly having to bring myself back to the task at hand. I’m trying to tackle a couple of difficult problems and I needed to be able to concentrate in order to really solve them. I’ll still have some problems to deal with tomorrow because I just couldn’t get through all of them today due to a lack of concentration. It’s a good thing that tomorrow is a new day. That means I have a whole new set of opportunities to be able to concentrate and focus. That’s the great thing about the present: it’s always new.

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I’ve just spent most of the evening with my kids. My wife is sick today so I took them out to dinner and then we attempted to go to Borders Books. The attempt failed because they close at 7:00 on Sundays. At least until September when they start staying open till 9:00. My kids are in rare form this evening. They’re having a lot of fun together but have been getting quite loud. I mean really loud. They were loud in the restaurant, loud in the car to Borders, loud in the car on the way back from Borders and loud now that we’re home. They’re upstairs and I’m downstairs right now and they’re about as far from me as they can get in the house and it still sounds like they’re playing together in this room. It makes me appreciate the times that I get to sit in silence. On Wednesday nights when I’m at the Zen Center, we have a group of people all together sitting closely and in total silence. The peace and tranquility are visceral when you experience it in an environment like that. It was the first thing I noticed about sitting when I went the first time back in June. I couldn’t believe that it was possible for all of those people to be together in one place with a silence so great that someone’s stomach rumbling would be heard by everyone in the room.

Once, in college I was in a class where we went to Washington D.C. and visited different groups each day that were working with the poor or homeless or marginalized people of the inner city. It was an amazing trip and I learned a lot about how to organize a group and work together toward helping those who are truly in need. After we spent a couple of weeks in the city, we went to a retreat center to “decompress”. The retreat was run in total silence. I hated every moment of it. I didn’t understand the purpose behind it at that point in my life and I was miserable through the whole thing. At one point, I went out on one of the walking trails and just started to talk to myself in order to get some noise. I guess with age comes an appreciation of the value of silence. Today I would love to have an opportunity to go on a silent retreat and I hope to sometime soon whenever I get an opportunity to go to on a retreat with my sangha.

Instead of oppressive, I now find silence to be a liberating and clearing experience. When I sit in silence, I find that I am more aware of the world around me and within me. My mind is often the loudest thing in the room when I sit in silence. Through embracing the peace and quiet around me I begin to provide my mind with the motivation it needs to quiet down too. Through silence, I can find stillness. Through stillness I find calm. Through calm I find peace. Through peace, I find an end to my suffering. Through ending my suffering I become a Buddha. The kids have finally quieted down and I find that my thoughts are coming to me more clearly and with greater ease. I may take this opportunity to just sit and enjoy the silence before someone throws a stuffed animal or bounces a ball off of another person’s head. Ah, silence.

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