Back from the Dead

Reflections on Rohatsu Sesshin

Why am I doing this? comes up sooner or later on sesshin, usually by the fourth or fifth afternoon, when I’m bone weary, blinking back sleep, the winter daylight starting to wane—that melancholy moment—and I’m staring at the wall without much focus or resolve.  Why am I doing this?  I sit there trying to remember, as if it’s one more thing that slips my mind as I get older.  I know there’s a reason.  What is it?

In this case, the thing the great teachers say is quite accurate, though it sounds like a smart-ass Zen reply.  We sit just to sit.  There is no other reason.

That’s why I can’t remember the reason.  There isn’t one.

“What happened?” my wife would say to me every night as I snuggled into bed, long after she had gone to bed.  I drove home in the evening because I sleep better there.  How do you sum up the events of the day in a few words?  The food was good, I might mumble.  My back got stiff.  Somebody farted during afternoon walking.  Those were the big events of the day.

I’m embarrassed to admit that my sesshin goes in the reverse order of everybody else’s, or at least what everybody else says.  The first day is often my best one, the clearest, when I have the most energy.  I sail through sittings with no problem.  The second day is difficult because it includes our regular Sunday morning program, so the schedule is slightly different and a lot more people show up; I’m always glad when Sunday morning is over.  I’m also glad when the weekend is over, and the people who were sitting just for two days—and can’t take on important jobs—are gone.  On Monday morning I settle in with the real sesshin.

I’m also starting to get tired by that time, and bleary-eyed.  It’s natural that muscles tighten and get stiff when you’re sitting still for hours every day; a part of Zen practice is a slight degree of sleep deprivation (in some cases not so slight; you hear stories of Asian monasteries where they sleep two or three hours per night) so that, presumably, your body breaks down and gives in.  You get into some strange kind of zone, which comes from staring in silence at a wall for hours every day.  You’re not quite yourself.  You’re entering zombie mode.

Just as I’m getting tired and having trouble bringing my mind back to my body again and again, my subconscious seems to go apeshit, spewing out constant chatter, songs from childhood, weird dream-like images (often of distorted gnome-like people), sexual fantasies.  You would think—and people often say—that as sesshin goes on the mind would get clearer and calmer, but mine seems to get tired and more cluttered.  That situation worsens as any particular day goes on.  At the end of the afternoon we have an hour long period when we can either walk or sit, and I mostly sit, with the mind of a true lunatic.  I can’t believe how nuts I still am.

I haven’t mentioned fear.  This is much diminished from the time I first sat sesshin, twenty years ago, when fear was an almost constant companion, at least after the noon hour.  But at every sesshin I’ve been to, I’ve had an overwhelming feeling that I’m going to die before I make it home.  That makes no sense.  What the hell would I die of?  Boredom?  As irrational as it seems, that fear always comes up.  I’m never going to see my wife, my son, my grandchildren again.  I’m going under.

The problem is partly that sesshin itself is a kind of death.  You’re giving up all the things that make you you, your work, family, friends, daily activities, your identity in the world.  I always go to the Y on the Friday afternoon before sesshin begins, and I sometimes stand in the shower room blinking back tears, thinking about how much I’m going to miss the place.  I won’t feel all sentimental about it when I go in today.  I’ll probably feel slightly sick of the same old people, and the mildewy smell.

But when you’re sitting on sesshin doing nothing, you can’t help seeing that the breath is rather precarious, such a small mild thing.  We only have so many breaths in a lifetime (we have no idea how many, of course), and every breath you take is another one down the tubes.  And another one, and another one.  You’ll never get those breaths back.  The Grim Reaper is sitting at the end of your allotment.  He doesn’t look bored.

This year I didn’t experience much fear until the last afternoon, but when it did come it was overwhelming.  I stood there in walking meditation shaking like I was freezing to death.  By a weird coincidence I was called in to see the teacher at exactly that moment.  The same thing happened in my first sesshin, 22 years ago.  So I went in and confronted her with this fact: I’ve been doing sesshin for 22 years, and here I am having the worst panic attack ever.  How can this be?

There’s no how.  That’s the way it is.  You get proud of your ability to handle sesshin and receive a little reminder of who’s in charge.  It ain’t you.

“What did you get out of this one?” my wife said as we took a walk on Saturday afternoon, the day after sesshin ended.  The correct Zen answer, of course, is Nothing, but that’s not the right answer to give your wife, so I took a deep breath and looked back on the experience.  I got an absolute conviction (once again) that the only point of meditation is to come into your body, that all the techniques of meditation, all the spiels that try to sell this brand of meditation or that one are a load of crap.  The point of meditation is to bring together body and mind, and that will happen if you sit there.  I came to see that really everything that came spewing out of my mind—the chatter, the obsessively repeating songs, visions of gnome-like people, the fantasies—all of that is fear, the whole thing is fear: it’s the mind not wanting to see the present moment, which is eternity in all its magnificence.  It’s waiting for us in the midst of the distractions.  People who are searching for eternal life are staring right at it.  Yet it’s no use fighting the distractions.  If they’re in there—as Larry Rosenberg once said to me—it’s good that they’re coming out.  It’s not what I want to happen.  It’s driving me crazy.  But it’s necessary, and I’ve got to let it be.

And the thing I’m calling the body, as my wife pointed out on our walk, the thing I’m bringing myself down into, is not just this body.  The weird thing about going into yourself that way, for days at a time, is that you find that what you’re calling your body—you could just as easily call it your mind—is vast, far vaster than you ever had any idea, it’s infinite.  There’s an infinity inside you as well as outside, and they’re finally the same infinity, all one thing.  To know that I could have read what my teacher wrote on my Rakusu when I took the precepts fifteen years ago, the quotation she chose from Dogen for me to see.  “To study the way with the body . . . is the study of the way using this lump of red flesh.  Everything coming forth from the study of the way is the true human body.”

Your teacher writes that on your Rakusu, and fifteen years later it makes sense.