The seven day meditation retreat I attended last week at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center was hard, but gentler than I expected. Which surprised me. And worried me - will other retreats (in zen, sesshins) be as gentle?
On the first day, there is orientation in the afternoon, a bountiful dinner and a short sit in the evening. Admonitions are recited and silence is requested for the remainder of the week. Insomnia cuts my sleep in half the first night.
The second day, which is the first full day, I find myself really resisting, which makes it more difficult. I feel clumsy and unsure of myself.
The third day, I awake to my alarm at 4:15am with a big “NOOOOOO” into my pillow. I get up anyway.
The fourth day, a dharma talk that cracks me open. Tears in zazen and the strong urge to run outside and throw up.
On the fifth day, I have dokusan (a private meeting with the teacher) and I begin to notice feelings of settling - into the schedule, my body and whatever is coming up.
On the sixth day, the early morning is so quiet that waves can be heard crashing onto Muir Beach in the distance. I experience worries about transitioning and leaving. There is strong discursive thought during zazen, but it is slower than usual. My knees have adjusted and while still painful, I find it is not unbearable.
Seventh day - a very settled feeling. Discursive thought continues but is like a chatty friend who says all the wrong things at all the wrong times, but means well. By the end of the day, my knees feel wobbly and I can’t tell if the floor is moving or if I am. My feet feel very sensitive. I can feel every floorboard when I walk and when I put my shoes on to leave the zendo, I feel the softness of the shoes and the ground beneath them. I find it a little difficult to walk but, again, not unbearable.
Eighth day. Leaving day. Excitement arises. And uncertainty. Discursive thought becomes a little concerned. How will things change? Will they change? I want to feel joy and connect with those around me once we’re finally able to talk to each other, but I feel a strong urge to be alone. I also don’t want to be asked what I do for a living or ask anyone what they do. I don’t want to measure anyone, but inevitably this comes up in conversation. I eat a few cookies and take a short walk outside.
On my walk, I encounter one of the wild turkeys who has decided to call Green Gulch home. I watch crows circle and chase each other in the sky. They are very large here. I caught one crow in particular watching me as I was walking back to my room one morning. I paused, took a step back and gazed back at him (her?) briefly before moving on. I watch a bee investigate a flower. I see a dragonfly. At one point, I reach out and touch a calla lily because I want to know what it feels like.
I will miss drying my hair in the sunshine, the hot salty showers and Earl Grey tea after lunch. Resting some days and exploring a little during others. Not doing. Only being.
There’s so much I’m leaving out. Writing about it helps me make sense of it, but it doesn’t even begin to touch the experience. There was no big breakdown or enlightenment experience (not that I expected one!). Only the steady hum of the schedule and the ebb and flow of thoughts and emotions. Lots of space and just enough time between sittings to rest but not too much.
(What I'm watching right now: From US Marine to Zen Monk)