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.

Nothingness, or no-thing-ness?

Artist: Cecil Touchon

If you take a step toward your soul, you will at first miss the meaning. You will believe that you have sunk into meaninglessness, into eternal disorder.

Carl Jung

How could anything meaningful grow out of nothingness? If nothingness is the grounds for nihilism, and nihilism is the rust gradually disintegrating society, then wouldn’t an encounter with nothingness lead to the hollowing out of meaning and value?

In Zen Buddhism, nothingness can be better understood by hyphenating between the conjunction of the two words, ‘no-thing’. The Zen tradition understands nothingness as an encounter with the absolute of emptiness, a dropping away of the self-referential concepts and thoughts that make up our sense of self, our usual conscious experience. Through the disciplined practice of mindfulness, the cultivation of the present moment, Zen practitioners can experience the dropping away of self-consciousness, an experience described as a vast nothingness or emptiness.

Self-consciousness, the ‘I’ in the drivers seat of how we experience the world is occupied from morning until night with the definition, categorisation and association between ‘things’ in the world and their meaning. We have evolved like this for the purpose of survival – to master our environment, as well as to map out and manipulate our social worlds. Most importantly we have turned this capacity inward, onto ourselves. We have become objects for reflection and assessment, as ‘things’ in the sense of ourselves being an “I”, an object that is perceived as having experience; a ‘me’ that is constant across time. This ‘me’ that we spend so long thinking about and referring to is a classification of our mind, a classification that has emerged from the intersubjective meanings we have attributed to relationships, objects and places that we encounter.

It can be reasonable to understand how an encounter with nothingness can lead to nihilism. These experiences can reinforce the emptiness of concepts and striving and as such the delusion of attributing any meaning or value to anything. If concepts and thoughts are empty constructs, ‘no-thing’, then a logical view would infer that any concepts and thought of meaning and value are also empty. This groundwork then sets the scene for a kind of cynical, spiritually destructive path for life. The famously cynical character of Ivan in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov has the famous line “everything is permitted” indicating a moral relativism. However, this world view may also express itself in a more insipid and pernicious way, leading to a general inertia and banality. A life that is unaware, distracted, uncritical, mindless – easily placated by the packaged entertainments, bullshit work and sedating pleasures of modern life.

Taking a purely logical view, this also seems to be a rational way to behave. If there is no meaning or value to be found in the nothingness, then why not just zone out and allow yourself, in the words of Kierkegaard, to be “tranquilised by the trivial?” This Philistinism, which is recognisable across any age, may grow out of this encounter with nothingness. No appreciation or interest in spirituality, the arts or culture, because of a view that none of it matters, or that none of it is real. So much of the science, business, media, and political mainstream implicitly or explicitly encourages or propagates this view. Selfish genes, the God delusion, the orthodoxy of utilitarian progress, the fashionable ideologies that attempt to replace religion with abstract frameworks of secular ‘shoulds’ are all in some way an expression of this.

These concepts are then set against each other in a never-ending ‘what-about-ism’ shouting match that serves as its own distraction and entertainment. This is now our daily experience and the vacuity some of us feel, arises out of there being no common ground to any of it. No common axiom, no Maypole to dance around. The implicit shared meaning of the village commons has been discarded as valueless and now everything needs to be made explicit. This explicitness, the minutiae of having to explain every grain of detail is the chaff that is clogging the mills of our society.

What is the alternative?

The Zen concept of nothingness refers not to a black hole of meaning and value, a wasteland of being, but rather as an absolute emptiness, a formlessness that is embedded in being itself. Freud referred to this state as oceanic consciousness, the conscious experience before thought and concepts. This sense of emptiness is experienced because our categorising, classifying, comparing ego (self) has dropped away. There is nothing there that can do the ‘thing-a-fying’ that carves our world into distinctions, creating a matrix of things and associations, which includes our own sense of self.

The feeling of no-thingness or emptiness that results in the dissolution of the concept bound self can be the grounds for a new concept of freedom. Without the subjective I, there is nothing to anchor the grasping, taxonomist nature of our self and what is experienced is the void of pure awareness, a black hole of concepts and associations. This can be a very anxiety producing condition, the Christian Faith refers to it as the ‘dark night of the soul’, the wilderness, the desert. As mentioned this experience of emptiness can be framed as nothingness, a field of absence, but it can also be viewed as a field of presence, the presence of the implicit value and meaning of life as it is.

The philosopher and physicist Henri Bortoft talks about the active absence of encountering no-thingness, or the whole of awareness. Paradoxically he refers to the awareness of the whole becoming known through the complete attention of the subjective ‘I’ with all of the parts (or things) of awareness. This is the practice of mindfulness. A broad, all-encompassing awareness of the myriad parts within consciousness. A mindful, open concentration on all the parts of our awareness ultimately can overwhelm and dissolve the self-referential, egoistic part of our minds, revealing the whole of being. This inexhaustible fecundity of being, shows us that we and life itself are implicitly valuable and meaningful. The tone of a sunset, the enveloping sound of rustling leaves in a forest, the Kookaburra’s laugh in the rising dawn, all these experiences are all still happening, regardless of the machinations of our self-obsessed, re-presentational thought. They do not rely on our subjective concepts to be meaningful, they are inherently meaningful for their own sake and carry on without our self-obsessed thinking.

When we realise this, when we become attuned to it, we realise the value of all life as an end-in-itself, rather than as an instrument we can leverage for a purpose we have momentarily conceptualised. Far from being the empty hole that nihilism grows out of, nothingness can be thought of as a connection with the whole of being that refreshes us and, in a Copernicus-like revolution, de-seats our sense of self as being at the centre of our conscious universe. Encountering nothingness in this way shows the inexhaustible wholeness of being, of life itself.