Originally Published: June 29, 2013 by remingtoncooney | Going into retreat is like going into rehab.I know that sounds extreme, but, for me, it couldn’t be more true. Typically, when people hear that you are going off on a spiritual retreat, they often say, “oh how sweet. That’s so nice that you’re doing that for yourself. You’re going to be so relaxed.” And there is some truth to this: going on retreat often does get you to a point of relaxation; but getting to that point…that’s the ‘cold turkey’ part. I told you in my last post, that I’d just had that intense weekend, which ended in my Sunday hangover (which really threw me off -center, as binge drinking does).
Before that weekend, during the week, I was all up in my head, writing papers and philosophizing. Come Monday, an hour train ride into the country side, and suddenly… nothing. As in, there was still stuff around – small local shops and houses, the train station – but when I say nothing, I mean, I was left with nothing to distract me. To distract me from what? To distract me from me (my mind). Because deep down, most of us don’t really like being left alone with our own minds for too long. Because then we really begin to see ourselves. And when this happens…woah watch out!
So this is how the retreat/rehab situation usually goes for me (it’s happened like this on several occasions):
Day 1. – departure/arrival at Hosen-ji Temple (AKA getting high for the last time).
“Oh I’m so excited to go off and be at one with myself in the mountains. Look at me, look at me, look at me. Off to become a guru. Oh and look at these lovely monks, aren’t they so sweet how they smile and bow to me. Yes, bow to me. I am a Zen student in training. Soon I will be a master and the mountains will bow to me as well.”
Night 1. – First signs of withdrawal (First meditation – 1.5 hours long: in the evening after afternoon introductions have been done.)
“Hmm…I can’t seem to find my velvet breath. And this cushion just doesn’t feel quite like the cushion I use at home. I wish I had my cushion from home. It always seems so much easier to meditate at home. And why is my back so stiff? Do I have back problems? Oh my god, what if all the meditation this week, ends up giving me back problems? And my legs – they’re beginning to hurt. Why are they hurting now? They can’t hurt now! it’s only being like 20 mins and I’ve gotta keep this up for a whole week. What if I get leg problems? Okay, okay, okay, just find your breath, where’s your breath? Oh there it is…wait where did it go? Oh my god, I can’t breathe properly. It’s because I don’t have my meditation cushion from home!”
This, my friends, is called anxiety, and it stems from clinging, attachment, and fear of the unknown.
Day 2. – Withdrawal continues (starting to go into ‘cold turkey’ phase)
“Okay feeling a little better today, I can do this. I’m ready for this. I love meditating. Piece of cake. Oh shit I forgot, we have to do other stuff…like work practice. Awww, work practice. Can’t we just meditate? Ok, half an hour morning cleaning: mopping the floors and sweeping the zendo. Yeah I can do that. Piece of cake. Half an hour cleaning dishes and mopping the kitchen floor (on my hands and knees with a rolled up rag). Yeah no problems. Wait… 1.5 hours of working in the garden…umm, yeah I guess that’s fine, I like gardening…wait, wait, wait…just weeding the garden, for 1.5 hours?! But that’s just the same thing for like, 1.5 hours. And I can’t weed properly right now, because I’m really distracted right now. Like I’ve got all these problems on my mind…like I really miss people from home right now, and, and, and I miss my host-family…and their cooking, and, and, I’m not sure who might be emailing me right now, or who might be calling me right now, like dude…how am I supposed to weed the garden with these serious issues going on?!”
(and after work practice)
“Oh my god, they do have a computer here…with internet…I can check my emails….”
Angel: NO! Don’t do it. You’re here to meditate; no emails or Facebook!
Devil: Just one….just check one email…
Angel: It’s never just one!!
Me: Okay, okay, okay…I’ll just check one…
an hour later….
This is what I call ‘the temper-tantrum of the mind.’ When the mind is set still, it throws a huge temper-tantrum (like a young child might) especially after being distracted by so much stimuli (society). It literally makes up whatever story it can, just so we don’t sit still – or weed the garden, for that matter – in peace. The mind doesn’t like it when we sit still and concentrate on one thing because it means the mind gets left behind (rhyme).
Day 3. – Halfway mark
“Mmm I’m feeling much better today. I can breathe more clearly. I experienced velvet breath on the cushion today. I can see the mountains with new eyes. I don’t even mind work practice. Hey, I’m getting real good at this whole weed the garden, weed your mind thing. And now I’m painting the cabins – look at how great I am at painting cabins; simultaneously I’m painting my mind …dude, that’s so deep. Maybe painting like this will make me enlightened. Maybe by the end of this week I’ll have a Kundalini awakening.”
This is where you get to, when you think you’ve kicked your old, rigid habits and gotten to a progressive place. But don’t be fooled folks! the ego is there – it’s just disguised as something a little more tricky. This is the ego in sheeps clothing (or as I like to call it ‘the guru complex’ – Osho, Bikram, Genpo Roshi, Michael Beckwith, etc) . Watch out for it!
Day 4. – Relapse
AHHHHHHH, get me out, get me out, get me out of my HEAAAAAADDDDDD!!!
Hondo – (main hall) where chanting and morning service took place
Day 5. – Kicked the Habit
Soft breath; soft thoughts. Enjoying the feeling of the Earth beneath me, and the wind on my face as it blows in through the zendo windows. Enjoying the noise of the train outside clicking on the tracks; the bullfrogs burping in the rice paddies, in the cool evening air. Enjoying the taste of the seaweed and sesame rice on my tongue, as we eat in slience on the tatami floor. Enjoying the smell of wood and incense as we sit proud in stillness. Enjoying the mist shrouded mountains above the zendo, as we do kinhin. Enjoying the sound of the water in the ditch, flowing through the irrigation canal; entering my life through the water in the ditch of the irrigation canal.
Taking my breath to the pain in my legs. Softening the pain with each breath, as I allow my legs to feel the way they feel. I allow my back to feel the way it feels. I allow my breath to be deep; I allow my breath to be shallow. I allow my thoughts to come and go like the mist comes and goes through the mountain tops. I don’t want to go anywhere, because right here is enough. I still miss everyone back home, but they are also sitting very close in my heart. I still feel angry at myself for x,y,z…but that’s okay, anger is allowed. I still feel deep pain in my heart…that’s okay, pain is allowed. Soft thoughts…softer thoughts…no thoughts: velvet breath.
no comment: why would there be any need for comments? What matters is what’s beneath language.
Some slight exaggeration to get my point across. But it’s not far from the truth, I can assure you. So, I’ll repeat my Norman Fischer quote from my last post: spiritual practice “is no picnic.” If you’re not being challenged, you’re not really practicing. As Michael Stone says: “spiritual practice should be like an itchy woolen sweater in the winter time: it’s uncomfortable, but it keeps you warm.”
That being said, it’s not bootcamp either, and don’t ever let it become that way.
Unfortunately, Zen is a little bootcamp-esque and sadistic/masochistic, and therefore, it’s not for everyone. Some parts of it are not for me either, and I really learnt that this week. I don’t believe in sitting through physical pain. That, for me, is disrespectful to the body. Nevertheless, Zen is constructed this way to prove a point – and that point is proven in my retreat/rehab experience above. I went from hell to heaven in 6 days and the only difference was the way I was using my mind. Hence the term, ‘mind-training.’
There’s a great Japanese proverb: “Fear is only as deep as the mind allows.”
Similarly, ‘hell’ as we know it, exists in your mind and your mind only. Don’t believe me? Have a retreat/rehab experience. I highly recommend it.
Soft thoughts…softer thoughts…no thoughts: velvet breath.
(Important, offhand note: I’ve talked about Hosen-ji temple as a ‘monsatery’ However, I discovered today that – although it’s a Rinzai temple housing Zen monastics – it’s technically not a monastery. It’s classified as a ‘Zen training centre’ founded with the intention of allowing lay practitioners to experience a semi-monastic lifestyle. An actual monastery is far more strict and observes all monastic rules. This centre observed most, but not all, monastic rules.)
What is this?
Writings from the Summer of 2013 during study abroad in Kyoto, Japan.