Sunday, June 17, 2012
After hearing about sesshin at the Rochester Zen Center for 30 years, I finally went to one with Michael. What a wild ride! Michael and I drove up in two days, staying overnight in Cortland NY where we enjoyed a lovely dinner at an outside cafe.
When we arrived at Chapin MIll the next day, Michael loved showing me all his favorite spots. The country property is beautiful and the retreat center is open and spacious, yet compact and comfortable. The two monitors talked me through some of the protocols, including the use of the “stick.” Oh yes, they would hit me, and I would have to put my hair up to give them a clear shot! As the newbies were leaving the tour of the dokuson room, whom did we run into but the Roshi himself. Hi Marty! he said – Oh, wow, I can’t believe you remember me. I don’t mind saying that I am quite intimidated by the whole idea of him, especially the dokuson “interview.” When the retreat started, I felt excited and prepared. I had been getting up earlier and sitting more the past few weeks. I thought I was ready for whatever would come along, but I also knew I was a bit apprehensive about dokuson and the stick.
To make a very long story short, my body felt good the whole week. I slept well – from 10:30 to 4, my legs never fell asleep, my hip and back felt fine and I was never sleepy. To the contrary, I was pretty wound up most of the time with the intense energy pervading everything, and my mind would not quiet down. The windows were open, and there were many wonderful sounds coming and going: the soulful train whistle, a heartbreakingly beautiful wood thrush. If only I could relax and settle in to just listening. 15 minutes into each sitting, the monitors started prowling about the zendo whacking flesh around me, including mine, in no predictable order. Waiting, waiting, anxiety, anxiety. Bells rang and yogis ran like stampeding elephants to the dokuson line, where a constant parade of coming and going added more stomping footsteps to the soundscape. Should I go to dokuson now or not? What should I say? Thinking, thinking, rehearsing, rehearsing. Another bell and drum and it was time to take away the dividers for chanting. Now it was time to put the dividers back. Bow, Walk, Chant, Bow, Sit, Whack, Ding. It seemed like constant commotion and very little time to settle into quiet – at least compared to what I was used to at IMS: 45 minutes of undisturbed quiet for sitting, followed by 45 minutes of quiet for slow walking.
By the third day I finally realized, despite chanting the wonderful Affirming Faith in Mind, that I was indeed very attached to my preferences of retreat format. I kept hearing Susan O’Brien’s voice – try to remember to relax. Actually, in trying to relax, I was resisting the whole experience. Once I saw this and decided to surrender to the high energy, the whole experience changed. I still wanted to impress the Roshi, and I still wanted to have some “special experience” to report to him, but I saw this grasping and tried to give it some space as it swirled around. I ended up doing a lot of metta which added strength and softness to everything. One evening at dinner as I looked at the clear carafe of water on the table, it occurred to me that all the thinking that was going on was just a process like tasting the tofu and green beans. The thoughts themselves were transparent like the water in the carafe.
The week was incredibly wonderful and incredibly hard. I learned so much during the six days – not exactly sure what, but I know whatever it is will continue to unfold as the months and years progress. I loved catching glimpses of Michael during the week, though we were on opposite sides of the zendo and didn’t really intersect much at all. He started out the week with the beginnings of a cold, and I heard him cough occasionally, but I knew he was being well cared for by the monitors and I didn’t worry about him. When the sesshin was finally over, we fell into each others arms and cried and cried as Bach played in the background. He had had an amazing week, and we had the whole ride home to share our experiences.