Sunday Afternoon of the Soul

Sitting Rohatsu Sesshin

In the twenty years I’ve been practicing at the Chapel Hill Zen Center, I’ve missed four days of Rohatsu sesshin, which takes place during the first week of December.  The first time was when my sister got married to her second husband.  I was the Ino that year, and when I got the wedding invitation said to my wife, “Oh no, they scheduled it for the wrong day, I can’t go.  That’s the first day of sesshin.”  She sat me down and said, David, this is your sister, your only sister, she’s getting married, your whole family will be there, you have to go.  I realized she was right, and went to my sister’s wedding, and arrived at sesshin on the third day.

The second time I missed the first weekend was when my sister died.  The funeral was the first weekend of sesshin, and when I joined the group on Monday we had a memorial service for her, and I completely went to pieces.  I had a week to sit and mourn.

It isn’t everyone at the Zen Center who sits sesshin.  There are a fair number of people who never do all day sittings or longer retreats, others who occasionally do them.  But there is a hardcore group of people who always do sesshin, no matter how we practice the rest of the time.  We show up on the first Friday evening and look around the room and start laughing.  It’s the same people every year.

It fills me with as much dread as anticipation.  I don’t know how other people feel.  I nearly always enjoy the first sittings in the morning, when the sun gradually rises and the world comes alive, the birds start to sing.  I like the morning sittings in general, the bright cold sunny days.  The dharma talks take place in the morning as well, and the noon meal is the best one.

After lunch we have a work period, and I often begin to feel sleepy—it’s time for a siesta—and begin to run out of steam.  When I’m feeling really sleepy we have some kind of body practice, in recent years Chi Gong, which is subtle and only mildly physical.  The afternoon stretches in front of us endlessly, with two sittings and a long period of Open Zazen at the end (the instructions are that you can sit or walk, but some of us try to sit the whole thing out, and that can be hard).  It’s like Sunday afternoon with nothing to do (a time when my son and I used to say we were facing the Essential Emptiness of Human Existence; we dealt with that by going to a movie), only it happens for six straight afternoons, followed by a smaller evening meal, and more sitting.

Afternoons have always been a difficult time of day for me: the day has expanded and is now contracting; there’s something melancholy about the waning light; I’m sitting in the zendo staring at that wall.  It’s like dying.  It’s like death.  Day after day.  My muscles stiff and sore, eyes bleary.  A knot in the pit of my stomach.  No relief in sight.

And yet I wouldn’t miss it.

I remember the first time I did sesshin in that building; I had dokusan with the teacher in the midst of a real panic attack, when I was ready to bounce off the walls, felt I couldn’t stay in the building one more minute.  I had the sense that this feeling I was experiencing, this utter panic—which of course was not about being in that room, it was about being in my mind, being in my life—was the thing I was practicing Buddhism to come to grips with.  She said something to the effect that our greatest difficulties in sesshin are ultimately our greatest gifts.  I’ve found that to be true.

Sesshin produces the moments when we most clearly face the mystery of being.  It’s late afternoon.  The light is failing.  You’re hungry, and grouchy, and exhausted.  The day is dying, and so are you.  You can’t move.  You’re staring at a wall.

The year my sister died, I had been with her two weekends before, sitting and watching as she breathed.  I watched her breathing instead of my own.  She was six days from death.

The following year, the Sunday after sesshin—when I was back on the streets of my beloved Durham, taking a walk—I got a call from my wife that her father had fallen down the stairs at his house in Asheville a couple of days before, was still bloody and incoherent.  She went up the next day, called and told me she was convinced her father was dying, so I went up immediately.  For the next week or so she and her sister and I stayed with him around the clock; her sister would sleep at his place at night, and I would go over first thing in the morning, around 5:00.  Mostly he was sleeping a restless sleep, and I sat beside him on my meditation cushion, alert to him and to myself, trying to be with everything that happened.  I would sit for two hours sometimes, two and a half.  “I thought last week was sesshin,” I said to myself.  “This is the real sesshin.”

I have of course had extraordinary moments on retreat: days when my body seemed literally to disappear, so I had to look down to make sure it was there; a day when the bird singing outside seemed suddenly to be in my head, and the thoughts running through my mind were somehow outside in the trees; moments when I was suffused with enormous energy, so a three mile walk through twelve inches of snow (this was in Barre, Massachusetts) was like walking across the street; times when an hour of sitting seemed to go by in minutes, moments when I sank into my body in a whole new way, so that there seemed to be no body and no outside the body, just one huge thing.  I don’t sit sesshin for such moments, though I used to think I did.  I sit for the ordinary moments, when it’s a man staring at a wall.  I sit for the way it makes me feel the day after sesshin, and the week after.  I sit for the way it’s changed my life in the twenty years I’ve been doing it.

I don’t want to do it, and I want to do it.  And I don’t want to do it.  Anyway, I do it.

I sometimes wonder if the time will come when I can’t sit sesshin anymore, or I just don’t want to, when I’m finally too old and have to put it aside.  I wonder what that will be like.  Will I miss it?

The plan is to sit again in a couple of weeks.  There’s no telling how it will go.