– The meditation hall at Great Vow Zen Monastery, where I have lived for 9 months and have participated in 10 sesshins. I have also done one 10 day Vipassana retreat (as taught by SN Goenka), which I highly recommend.
I returned this week from a 5 day silent meditation retreat that Zen Buddhists call sesshin (sesshin is often translated as “touching the heart-mind”) at Great Vow Zen Monastery. It was my 11th long retreat, and, as usual, it was a deeply meaningful experience. It was also utterly outrageous and fascinating; although retreats can be difficult, for me they are like going on spaceship adventures through my own mind/body and discovering new worlds! In this post I’ll share three reasons why I feel that going on meditation retreats is spiritually useful. This post is mainly about retreats that are 5 days or longer. There are also shorter 1-2 day retreats that are good introductions to retreat practice, and that can be very powerful experiences. My discussion in this post is also limited to my experience in the Zen tradition, though I have also done a Vipassana retreat which I strongly recommend as well. For a more in depth explanation of what meditation retreats are like, and for a fuller explanation of why I think they are important, you can read my book (specifically, the section is entitled “Meditation Retreats”) in the free pdf above.
- You can study your own mind in a very profound way.
Ehei Dogen, a great Zen Master of 12th century Japan, once wrote that, “To study the Buddha Way is to study the self.” A practical dimension of this statement is that the ridiculous activities of our crazy mind become immediately apparent in meditation. Many people who are interested in the psychology of the human mind find retreats fascinating, for few other activities reveal the mind’s outrageous and mysterious workings with such potency. Retreats can be deeply humbling, for when we systematically observe the mind with scrupulous honesty, the arbitrary line we draw between normality and insanity is often seen to be deceptively thin.
In a sesshin, most of the usual external distractions that we use to temporarily sedate our underlying anxiety are eliminated, allowing the mind to reveal what lies beneath its synthetic mask of “normality.” By studying your own mind, you begin to notice patterns of thinking that arise from deeper causes. You will firstly probably discover that your mind is completely addicted to thinking, and see how much energy you unfortunately drain by giving your mind an unregulated passport to travel through the misty realms of past, future, and fantasy. It is ridiculous to witness the endless parade of memories, images, songs, movies, hypothetical conversations, alternate futures, etc., that compose the surface layers of my conscious mind, and that arise like popping popcorn in the first two days of the retreat despite my sincere attempts to still the mind. Some teachers call the phenomenon of the racing mind in sesshin “karmic clean up.” In this state, you realize how much our mind habitually obscures and confuses our experiences, and how irrational some of its fears and worries are.
As my teacher Chozen Bays likes to say, the untrained mind is like a 2-year-old with ADHD holding a flashlight in a dark room full of toys. The Buddha called it “monkey mind,” referring to a monkey’s tendency to swing from branch to branch in the forest, insatiable and never at rest. It is one thing to read about monkey mind, but when you are forced to observe its workings for days at a time, you realize why continuous meditation is necessary to understand the deeper insights the Buddha taught about. Just as a reflection can’t be seen in a dusty mirror, so our True Nature typically remains unrealized if we are habitually dominated by distracting thoughts.
Once the mind calms at a deeper level through concentration practice – typically by day three or so – mental elements begin to arise from the personal subconscious, and even from the deeper layers of the collective psyche. It fascinating to witness how the surface layers of the mind are really branches stemming from the deeper layers, and how all of the mind’s contents are interfused with body sensations and feelings like a three dimensional kaleidoscopic hologram forming the basis of our illusory assumption of a personal “I.” When the surface layers of the mind are cleared away, you are freer to get in touch with deeper feelings and intuitive insights that frequently bubble up like nuggets of gold being harvested from piles upon piles of useless dust. It is a common experience that life guidance or insights concerning one’s personal life are received on Sesshin, precisely because the thinking mind is let go of so totally.
For people interested in the human mind, this type of spiritual work is inexhaustibly fascinating, and the ancient maxim of “know thyself” is, on Sesshin, brought alive in ways that are nearly impossible to recreate in ordinary life.
- The mind can be calmed on an extraordinarily deep level.
After the craziness of the first couple days subsides, it becomes possible to calm the mind in a very, very deep way. One Zen practitioner I know described Sesshin as taking her mind to the dry cleaners, referring to the healing effects this calming process has on the entire mind/body system. Meditation engaged in for only 20-30 minutes has empirical physical calming effects. When this natural by-product of meditation is multiplied by days of dedicated spiritual work, the result can be a level of mental and physical calmness that is rarely, if ever, experienced in everyday life.
A great teacher once said that meditation is like keeping a wild tiger chained to a pole. The tiger keeps trying to return to the forest because of its deeply rooted habit energy, but eventually it gives up and lays down once it accepts the fact that it is permanently chained. In a similar way, if we “chain”, again and again, our awareness to our breath (or to the object of concentration, generally speaking), the mind will eventually stop feeding energy to to distracting thoughts. And, at some point, even subtler and more subconscious workings of the mind, which we are ordinarily unaware of, can be calmed through persistent practice.
On a retreat, if the practice is wholeheartedly engaged in, the thinking mind can sometimes dissolve for hours – and even days – at a time. This type of absorptive meditation is deeply, deeply, deeply restful. There is no way to really describe these states of concentration, for they have to be experienced to be understood. Yet they are not “mystical,” but actual states of physical being that can be accessed through meditation practices as simple as following the breath continuously. Once the energy that was being channeled to thinking mind stops ceaselessly flowing to it, an energetic vitality arises that Japanese Zen Buddhists call Joriki. This energy can be used for all sorts of creative and humanitarian pursuits, or really for anything you want to use it for.
Although concentration states are not the goal of meditation, they are a healing natural by-product of the practice, a confirmation of spiritual effort, and a practical way to rejuvenate ourselves.
- Most importantly, retreats create auspicious conditions for spiritual realization.
Insight into the dynamics of your personality and states of deep calm are relative benefits, and are mere by-products of meditation. The higher goal of meditation is insight into the nature of reality itself. Anyone who engages in meditation for an entire week will benefit physically and emotionally from doing so, and will taste at least some of the fruits of a stilled mind. Yet the spiritual reason for going on retreats is much deeper than these wonderful but temporary benefits. The spiritual reason for calming the mind is because it mysteriously distracts us from the ultimate quest of realizing our True Nature (or God-Nature, Buddha Nature, or whatever word you want to use) – present this very moment – that gives rise to the mind, the body, and to all things.
Perceptive readers may realize that this previous statement implies a paradox: if this True Nature is always present, what is the point of going on a difficult retreat? In Zen, this is a question that almost universally perplexed all the ancient Zen masters when they first entered the path. Dogen expressed it like this (I paraphrase): if Buddha Nature is originally present as our own natural awareness, why do we have to practice? Why did the Buddha have to meditate for 6 years, renouncing everything to realize something that is originally present in all of us right now – that is us?
The answer is a paradox intellectually, but in actual experience it is true: although our own True Nature is never separate from this very moment, to actually realize this experientially, and to fully embody it without being hindered by own own karmic conditioning, requires wholehearted effort. Nearly every master in the long lineage of Zen (going back over 80 generations) to the historical Buddha himself, has made it abundantly clear that the Buddha Nature they speak of cannot be realized without temporarily renouncing the small mind with persistent meditation. On sesshin, conditions are intentionally created to do just this, to help us drop away the small mind for days at a time, enabling us to explore what Zen Buddhists call “The Great Matter of Birth and Death.”
The group support, the fixed schedule, the silence, and the lack of any entertainment devices all contribute to this unique set of conditions. In these auspicious circumstances, the ancient questions of “Who am I,” “What is God,” and “What is the Buddha” can be explored uninterrupted by usual worries and daily responsibilities. Although this exploration is obviously not limited by retreat conditions (for all everyday activities are themselves meditation), on sesshin we can “study the self” with a depth that is impossible to recreate in everyday life when our thinking mind must constantly be used.
In this sense, a sesshin is an extremely rare and auspicious karmic circumstance whose ultimate purpose is to help us experience our own True Nature directly. All the other reasons for attending sesshin pale in comparison to this Great Matter than can be thought of as nothing less than salvation itself. If you actually experience your True Nature (which is not a “thing” to be experienced, but nevertheless is an experience), you will begin to feel literal disgust when you hear literary descriptions of the enlightenment experience. All the mystical scriptures of the world will seem to you like used toilette paper in comparison to the actual experience they are pointing to. For you will see that they are merely describing your own very Self, which cannot be gained or lost, which cannot die and has never been born.
Conclusion and “Disclaimer”
What I have described so far are like the pearls at the bottom of the sea that can only be found by diving. It would be both a lie and a disservice to say that sesshin is easy, and that such experiences are easy to have. To get to the diamonds, we must work with the coal. And the truth is that most people, including myself, encounter difficult physical pain on their first sesshins, and find it extraordinarily difficult to calm the mind, which acts like “a fish out of water” when first being trained. I am still really only a beginner, and often have great difficulty calming my wandering mind. Spiritual work is a humbling thing…
Additionally, any emotional trauma laying dormant in the personal subconscious is likely to be encountered on retreat, a reason why working with a qualified spiritual teacher is invaluable help guide you through murky spiritual terrain. Yet all the difficulty and effort is worth it, for what sacrifice is not worth the everlasting and indescribable joy of God-Realization? All genuine seekers: test and see for yourself if this is true!
To conclude, a dedication:
May the Great Masters forgive me for describing the Sacred
With words that sound like iron nails on a chalkboard
Or a wretched scream
To the authentically illuminated.
May I forgive myself for describing the Sacred
Which is indescribable, and which reveals Itself
Only to the humble, to the pure in heart,
In silence and in secret.
May it be only for the sake of other people.
May these words bring benefit to others
And glory to God.
With love and deep gratitude for anyone who took the time to read this. Sincerely,
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