Ordinary Wonder: Notes on a Zen Retreat

Image: “Awake All Night” by Brett Whiteley

Droplets falling, notes on a pond

Sesshin, “to touch the heart-mind”, is a period of intensive meditation usually performed in a Zen Monastery. My own experience of Sesshin was a six-day silent meditation retreat, held at an old Franciscan Monastery in a nature reserve near Stroud, New South Wales. I have been practicing with the Ordinary Mind Zen School since October 2020, and this was the first time that I felt ‘ready’ for my first retreat. I was very apprehensive as the retreat approached. There is a family history of psychosis on my father’s side of the family stretching back three generations and my old fear of being overwhelmed by ‘the shadow’ and succumbing to a psychotic break resurfaced. Going into Sesshin I realised how much this spectre has informed much of the nameless little fears that have shaped my life in countless unknowable ways. A recurring dream as a young child of a black shadow looming over the foot of my bed still holds an image in my consciousness, and I was anxious about the possibly of seeing this figure again. My apprehension had me prepared for a visit to the underworld, Dante’s “abandon hope all ye who enter”, flashing in my mind as a kind of steeling for a difficult emotional battle.

The liberation of silence

The aspect of the retreat that I was most worried about, the silence, in the end was the part I enjoyed the most. There is such liberation in silence amongst company! This silence removed all social hierarchy within the group. There were no cliques, no in or out groups, no one on top or bottom, no cool or not cool, even male or female felt irrelevant. This silence removed so much of the mental planning, analysis and rumination related to social interactions that fuels so much of our internal chatter. “Should I say this?”, “I can’t believe he said that”, “I don’t like that comment”, “His voice is annoying”, “That’s not what I meant”, “I wish I said it this way”, “I wonder if they like me?”

All this inane, back-and-forth, self-conscious chatter dissolved during the retreat. Interestingly, despite being no talking, there was a real sense of getting to know everyone just by being in presence with one another. Everything outside of the language realm took on much more significance. A small smile whilst crossing paths the hallway. The sound of a turning foot on the floorboards of the dojo. The way a person ate their soup. Through these observations it was interesting to watch how the judgemental and critical part of the mind, could still find the tiniest of social moments to latch onto and use as a way of separating itself from others. Comparing and competing over the tiniest differences in behaviour.

I had a truly wonderful, rich experience during this retreat. Moments of real joy, which were very unexpected. My experience was a privilege of being able to be present and witness the ordinary beauties of the flowing natural world and at times the equanimity and wholeness of my own essential self. Much of that sense of wholeness was experienced during the Samu or working periods, where my job was to wash up after lunch with two other people. I had noticed my impatience on the first day, which eventually dissolved or transformed by the third day. What was formed in its place was a deep sense of compassion and inter-relationship with the two others that I was working with. It was an unusual feeling in the sense that it was as though I had tuned into a sense of compassion rather than it being something I possessed or had cultivated. I had an intuition that whilst I could feel this compassion within, simultaneously it was a universal feeling, outside of me, available to everyone. Around the same time, I noticed that my inner critic and rumbling tremor of anxious internal chatter had also completely died down. I found it interesting that this died down in parallel with the quietening down of the judging mind that constantly monitors social interactions.

The musical flow of nature

With more than 8 hours of Zazen (sitting) during the day, there was so much… nothing happening. Much of the experience, particularly in the first couple of days was noticing the slow-moving lava lamp of discomfort throughout my back and shoulders whilst sat on the cushion. However this nothingness, compared to our everyday rush of stimulation, cleared me out to experience some infinitesimal, ordinary moments of pure wonder. The first, was sitting on a chair during a break with a cup of tea looking out the window. It was a warm, overcast, breezy afternoon and as I was sitting, there was a big gust of wind that led to the puff of a Dandelion dispersing in the breeze, whilst a rusty-red, rapidly rotating gum leaf fell through the expanding white mist. This moment must only have lasted a second, but it is seared in my memory like a painting. Another moment was standing on the bank of a lotus pond in the dusk of the final evening. Looking at the pink and blue lotus, my eyes were drawn to a lotus-free part of the pond, where ripples were emanating from some unseen disturbance. There must have been some unfelt or isolated sun shower that I couldn’t feel, with invisible falling droplets triggering rhythmic ripples that were like notes of music on the pond. I saw the music of the natural world in that moment standing next to the lotus pond and a feeling of melancholy came over me in realisation of how distracted and ignorant we have become of these everyday wonders.

The paradox of change and transformation

Our teacher, Geoff Dawson, gave a fantastic talk on the second day about the three Buddhist personality types, grasping, aversion and confusion. Which interestingly map onto the three Buddhist poisons of greed, hatred, and ignorance. Realising my own grasping nature and how closely I matched the characteristics described by Geoff from Jack Kornfield’s The Wise Heart provided a lot of clarity to past behaviours. At the same time, I noticed how I also grasped at the category of grasping, with a “Ah! That’s the problem!” making it feel like an infinite regress into the past, something inescapable. The nuance (and lesson) in Geoff’s talk that helped break out of this eternal recurrence was shifting the perspective from change, as though we could change into some other character, to one of transformation. Any change in ourselves comes not through a complete negation of who we are but rather an extension of our characteristics into something beneficial, which in the case of grasping is generosity. It is not about becoming someone else, but realising who we are and extending or transforming this pattern of personality into a different shape. In my case, the open palm of generosity, instead of the closed fist of grasping. Nothing about the hand has changed, except the way it is being used. This process of transformation isn’t about a Gatsby-like quest of changing yourself into someone else, a fool’s errand. Rather it is about extending beyond the fixed set of thoughts, feelings and behaviours that have stiffened through habit. A process that commences with mindfulness of these thoughts, feeling and behaviours. What was common across the transformative gestures for each personality type was the opening to others. Grasping transformed into generosity. Aversion into wisdom. Confusion into vulnerability.  

Return home

The most profound experiences of this retreat occurred once I returned home. Firstly, everything was incredibly vivid, even driving down the freeway back to Sydney, a drive I have done often and always write off as ugly and dull. Everything had a charge to it and a sense of spaciousness, as though everything had fallen into its rightful place. When I first saw my two-year old son, he didn’t look real, almost like he was shining as an angel. There was such a surreality to seeing him and a lightness to holding him, that it took a couple of minutes for his familiarity and weight to register. The following day, sitting at breakfast I could feel a sense of vibration throughout my whole body, gently pulsing up and down. Later that afternoon whilst I was lying in bed with my wife in the summer afternoon, my son napping, I felt a return to the feeling I used to have when we were first falling in love. It was such a rapid transformation to a feeling of another time, that suddenly the 13 years we had been together felt as though it had collapsed into an instant. It was as though, for that moment, there was an atemporality to my experience; 13 years and those early moments together in 2009 collapsing into one instant of feeling.

The difficulties of written reflection

Writing it all of this down performs a kind of reification of the experiences which isn’t my intention. The moments which have held their place in my consciousness from this week were fleeting, at most a couple of seconds. There is an impossibility in trying to pin down any kind of internal experience, even if that experience is nested in the everyday wonder of the world. The danger in writing a reflection like this is that you embellish and, in a sense, betray the nature of what happened. In this article I have tried to be as true to reflection as possible. The paradox lies in the fact that our words are re-presentation of all we experience, and at times a poor one. However, they are all we have to share our experiences with others. In this instance I have written about my experience for posterity, but also in case others see in these words a door they would like to walk through to explore zen meditation and mindfulness for themselves.

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