She led me out of the dining hall, where 70 or so people sat, silently cooling down tea and rotating around the fireside. Keeping my eyes lowered in obedience of the week’s regimen, I felt a wave of panic as we moved privately into the common room, and then a sense of ease while catching the evening sun on the couch beside Hunter, a college student slouched in exhaustion from an austere six days of sobriety.
Demurely, my eyes rose to meet Zuisei, a woman of governed aspect and voice. I tenderly recalled how one month ago, her stern-faced reception left me stammering through the first day of my residency. I wondered if I was about to be reprimanded for something. But when I met her eyes, they contained a soft smile, and with a gentle nod, she lifted her arms to embrace me. Losing self-restraint, I let out a thankful sigh and wrapped into her.
This was on Saturday, the final full day of a week-long “sesshin”—an intensive period focused on radical inner examination through roughly 10 hours of zazen meditation each day, concurrent with a prohibition on speaking, writing, reading, other-watching and anything that might divert the practitioner from staying-with-oneself.
These were the final moments before my bus departure to LaGuardia Airport, as I’d miscalculated my flight time and, much to the disapproval of the teachers, was leaving half a day too soon and missing the closing ceremony.
As I pulled away from Zuisei, a vague laugh trembled out my mouth, and I said the only thing I had to say—the only thing I’d been saying to myself all day—“I’m frightened.”
A spirit of abandonment and say-yes-to-flux
I’d lived at Zen Mountain Monastery in the Catskill Mountains for 26 days, watching creeks loosen up their kinks and innocent new birds bump into windows as winter reluctantly gave way to spring.
Aside from “Hosan”—the allotted 48 hours of downtime each week—I’d have to wake every morning at 4 a.m., slug down a few cups of coffee and be in the “zendo” (meditation hall) by 4:50 for the first two hours of zazen and liturgical chanting. During this period, I was often so grouchy and sleep-deprived that I was either stuck in an exasperating cycle of small hypnagogic jerks, or fighting plain unrelenting anger.
After morning service, from 7 to 8 a.m., we students would meet in the Sangha House for, depending on the day, art or body practice. As a multimedia artist, this naturally was my preferred daily activity. During this hour of expression, we were prompted not to work—or to simply do without contrivance, intention or the formation of ideas.
One body practice exercise, for instance, had us start with a clear and spontaneous movement, which we’d then attempt to identically repeat for about 10 minutes.
Of course, while attempting to repeat an action, you often find that the movement organically changes—your hand swings a different way, your neck adds a bobbing gesture and so on—and with each change, you observe it and include it in the reproduction. By the end, you’re doing something almost completely unlike what you began with.
We employed this same spirit of abandonment and say-yes-to-flux in the art room, with whimsical deer-tail brushes and wild Sumi ink.
As two of the “eight gates of Zen”—a system of cultivating and preserving mindfulness and Buddhist practice throughout all aspects of life—body and art practices train students to trust the true expression of their nature, which can produce nothing but the most beautifully authentic art. It’s already teeming inside you, rising and falling within each breath, and therefore, there’s no need to go searching for it; or, in other words, to contrive.
Actualize potential and maintain balance
…today I’ve made progress simply by studying my mind and discovering the outrageous volume of my resistance. I come to discern that breath is the instrument of control for this being, and attending to it intimately disengages this resistance.
I imagine each inhale like a translucent hand reaching into my skull, and with the exhale drawing thoughts down into my dark belly where they can’t swell or create shadows, where they’ll just sit there like decomposing food. … I do not move or adjust myself. When I itch I don’t scratch, and when I hurt I just receive the hurt.
This helps habituate the mind to the impermanence of feeling-states, and disempowers the compulsion to apply action and energy to things that self-expend.
At precisely 8 a.m., already four hours into the day, everyone reunites in the dining hall for the first of three meals: the Oryoki breakfast. Oryoki, meaning “just the right amount,” involves a choreography of dining-ware placement and cleanup meant to effect deliberate and unwasteful eating.
After some preliminary chanting, each person unwraps their dining set in sync with their companions: three stacked wooden bowls, a silver spoon, chopsticks, a small silicone spatula, a napkin to lay under the bowls, a napkin to place on your lap and a dishrag.
We continue chanting the numerous names of Buddha and our gratitude for nourishment as large bowls of food are passed down the table in succession. We eat with unwandering eyes and silence to uphold concentration, and though you wish someone would look up and nervously giggle with you after you’ve lapsed in mindfulness and spilled all the contents of your bowl onto the floor, it’s unlikely to happen.
Once everyone has finished, wooden blocks are clapped together to announce cleanup. At this point, everyone licks the leftover gunk from their spoon and chopsticks and uses the small spatula to scrape remnants out of each bowl into their mouth. In this way, you’re expected to appreciate and consume every morsel you’ve been offered. After a few more ceremonial touches, you tie all your dining supplies back up, folding the knotted napkin over in semblance of a lotus petal.
For the better part of every day, residents are more or less plugged back into the ordinary world by engaging in a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. work shift, with the customary and informal (talking permitted) one-hour lunch break at noon.
Engagement is the accurate word and key concept in this and all the other Zen gates, for the purpose here is to train your working self—just like your creative-expressive self and your eating self—to really give your whole being, to immerse your entire life, in the present moment.
What phenomenon occurs in the mind when it’s not transporting baggage, or cycling through or creating scenes? It’s an easy guess! What occurs is quiet stillness and the facility to work without grudge, hurriedness, indifference and inattentive messing up; to just work, and nothing else.
Rarely are the short-term residents assigned the same job every day. In fact, most days you move through two or three different areas, and your activities can range from simple housekeeping or cooking, to splitting wood and reconstructing cabins, to sewing napkins and aprons in the stitchery.
As I learned from some perennial, free-to-gripe residents, there’s no objective or design in place to emphasize, strengthen or profit from the skills a student already possesses. Rather, we’re encouraged—as in compelled, as in challenged—to step up and actualize our potential in unfamiliar domains, while being ready and willing to catch our balance once the unfamiliar turns familiar and is then pulled out from under us.
Through this framework, students of the monastery are met yet again with the urgency to harmonize their individual flow with the most basic law of reality: nothing is permanent, everything is in constant fluidity. This, the major premise of Zen Buddhism, is the bridge connecting every order of the day and every swift passage from one moment to the next.
I spoke with Shoan, a monastic with striking eyes and a knack for highly concentrated listening, at lunch about the reasons I’ve come, my history of trauma and emotional volatility, my crucial search for serenity and bearing.
She began visiting the monastery when she was 22, similarly carrying numberless questions on the meaning of life and metaphysical reality, similarly burdened by restlessness and despair. She came pursuing an understanding that, in the vast time and proliferation of human beings, there must have been someone that came up with an answer, an informed response to suffering. She found this in Buddha. Will I?
All the month-long residents met with Hojin today in the common room for a brief, but intimate, discussion on the nature of Buddhism and the questions that have arisen through our practice.
Gabriela, a young music therapist from Brazil, speculated about the beginnings of samsara—the cycle of birth and death that continues until one reaches nirvana, the emancipation from self and suffering—and how it may be related to childhood acquisition of language and semiotics. The idea is that, in the absence of an enforced way of seeing the world (such as conceptualization), we return to a pain-free state of non-attachment, an unaffected state of being.
This made me realize the irony of our situation: we come here in search of meaning—the meaning of love, for instance, or happiness, or the meaning of a career or an explanation for all the violence and destruction in the world.
The irony lies here: In the process of zazen we are disburdened of meaning. We are allowed to observe without grasping or translating into message and significance. We lose that notion of vital importance we were continually taught to attach to words, emotions, ideas. We reach pre-childhood, enlightenment, pre-learning.
At the end of the work period, we’d gather once again in the dining hall for a quick cup of tea, before changing into our robes for evening zazen.
The zendo, a humble space with bare white walls and undecorated windows, reminds me of a Protestant chapel. On the ceiling, a crucifix is supported between simple wood panels, preserving the monastery’s first purpose as a Christian summer camp for underprivileged boys. On the floor, 30 or so zabutons and zafus [small, round cushions] are neatly smoothed out and relatively lint-less—black and still and soothing.
You’re taught to bow upon entering the zendo, and then twice again when you reach your assigned seating. You aren’t told why you’re doing this. ‘Why’ questions seem to be traditionally frustrated in Buddhist teaching, but you’re asked, nevertheless, to do it wholeheartedly. And I think that’s ultimately the thrust: You bow as if to say, “I’m here to exhaustively, fearlessly, vigorously practice. I give myself over to that.”
Each zazen period lasts between 25 and 35 minutes, though many feel excruciatingly longer. During this time, you’re instructed not to move or breathe audibly. Many times, the pain in my legs, hips and back—combined with mental disquietude—was so severe that I broke into mute tears. This, I was later told, isn’t uncommon.
As an aside, I’d like to say a few things about my experience with zazen, as it constitutes the main trail of this spiritual trek. I was told to think of zazen as similar to pedalling a bicycle up a mountain (in fact, Dogen, the founder of Soto Zen Buddhism, describes zazen as “sitting … like a bold mountain”). It’s a task of endurance. Like bicycling, it contains many ups and downs, as you travel through exotic mental landscapes on an unbalanced surface.
Before entering residency, I hadn’t imagined how arduous sitting could be. Yet, in just one month, I saw the action in my mind wax and wane, rage and tremble, through three pronounced and intense stages, which I’ll call 1) asleep cooperation, 2) onslaught and 3) awakened cooperation.
The difference between zazen and meditation, as we in the Western world have come to understand it, is that in zazen there is no supposed separation between body and mind. This is to say, the objective of zazen is not to cause anything to occur in the mind—not to simply avail the seated position, using it flexibly and with cleverness, to prepare conducive conditions for mental calm.
In zazen, there is no intention and no mind-work (such as body scans, point of focus and so on) The objective of zazen is just zazen, it’s the position itself: sitting, breathing, letting everything in, letting everything out. In sitting, you’re just doing what you’re doing—no trying. When you find the mind has drifted into a memory or a story or a desire, you gently return to the present moment, which is breath. This is all.
The ego, I came to learn, doesn’t like zazen. This makes sense. There’s no use for it in zazen, and when it stops being used, the ego starts to deteriorate. This is the process Zen practitioners call ‘dying away.’
The ego—the bundle of memories, mannerisms, ideas, beliefs, passions and talents that we regard as selfhood—exists in the head, not the breath. As Shunryu Suzuki writes in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice, “There is no connection between I myself yesterday and I myself in this moment.” There is no self, then, as composed by these aggregates.
Thus, in the constant calling-back to breath, to the now, what’s really happening is that the master-slave relationship between ego and mind is constantly interrupted. The ego stops getting what it desires and needs in order to maintain power over stillness and silence. Moreover, it’s not protected, as every barrier it builds around itself is eventually exposed and, once seen for what it is—a defense against liberation—starts to crumble.
For me, zazen was less like a bicycle ride and more like an exorcism. By the second week, I was experiencing horrifying nightmares, both in bed and during sittings.
I call my first stage ‘asleep cooperation,’ because I was practicing with enthusiasm and passive curiosity, which in fact are ego-barriers, and without the slightest understanding of purpose.
For me, zazen was less like a bicycle ride and more like an exorcism. By the second week, I was experiencing horrifying nightmares, both in bed and during sittings, in which I was being repeatedly, and in different ways, attacked. Demons, witches and other collective-unconscious archetypes were popping up in an overt effort to sway me back into the grips of my ego.
I had one particularly eerie vision during a sitting in which I was being gradually approached by a woman. As she neared me, her countenance became older and older. All the while, she repeated this command, “You must believe in the wisdom of the shell!” Then she started sprinting towards me, and as she came close, her face transformed into that of an old crone. I jumped awake, causing an evident disturbance in the zendo.
These nightmares produced in me a feeling like none other. I was afraid for my life. That is why I call this stage ‘onslaught.’ The attacks were real, but not physical. They were occurring somewhere within me, and somewhere within me, there was mass-scale death.
I learned at Zen Mountain Monastery that inner demons are a reality and not just a figure of speech. When you don’t feed them, they show themselves like ravenous hyenas. I also learned that, after a little while, they subside. This terrifying phase dies and the next begins. Whatever form these phases take depends on the person (I spoke of my experience with some of the other residents, and they confirmed similar sinister encounters!)
In sharing this, my intention is to exemplify the truly awesome, creative and revelatory force of just sitting. It’s also my hope that we as a genus, and every single perplexed and despairing individual, can see how desperately we need to learn (or relearn) how to sit with ourselves, to face ourselves, to see the wars ever-raging inside us. This is truer today, in this time of boundless distraction, than ever before.
How easy it has become, after all, to turn away from the phenomenal and fantastic worlds within us; how easy to flee suffering moment by moment; how easy to withdraw from and abandon the pure self: diversion in every phone swipe, every television pixel, every aimless road trip, your fears merely stuffed in bags hitched to the trunk.