Soon your sesshin will begin. The word sesshin is a compound sino-Japanese term made up of two ideographs, setsu and shin. Shin means mind. Setsu has several meanings—touch, receive, convey. Usually sesshin is literally translated to touch the mind, but it also means to receive the mind, to convey the mind…[Sesshin] is a time to put everything aside, to forget everything and to focus all one’s enquiring spirit.
~ Robert Aiken Roshi, Teisho: Some words about sesshin for newcomers to Zen
In case you’re wondering—in case you noticed—it’s been a week since I last posted here, despite my goal of posting at least two or three times per week. The primary reason for this particular gap is that this past weekend, I attended my first sesshin.
To settle the mind…
A sesshin lasts from two to seven days and involves intensive seated meditation [zazen], as well as walking and work meditation and a variety of mindfulness practices.
This sesshin at the Austin Zen Center ran from Friday evening until just past noon on Sunday, and was quite silent indeed. With minimal exceptions, we did not speak to each other, nor even make eye contact or gesture. For example, in place of the usual chanting periods, we simply bowed in place, facing one another. These periods alternated with sitting meditation, walking meditation, temple cleaning, meals, and rest, beginning at 8am (or earlier, for those wanted extra sitting) and running until 8:30 or 9pm each night. During some of the zazen periods, people were taken to separate rooms for private meetings with one or another of the teachers.
Altogether, the twenty or so of us spent over eight hours in sitting meditation, although most of zazen periods lasted either 30 or 35 minutes. By my count there were over two hours’ worth of walking meditation (typically involving very slow laps by the group around the meditation hall), and the head teacher gave dharma talks on Saturday and Sunday.
“Everything is included; nothing is exiled.” ~ Kosho McCall
I’m not sure how to describe sesshin, or even my specific experience this past weekend. I’ve been sitting at AZC typically five days (totaling nine or ten hours) per week the past eight months (with breaks for travel and illness). For the six months immediately prior, I sat on my own for half an hour every day, and for some years before that I sat off and on, both on my own and at the Great Mountain Zen Center in Colorado.
That’s all by way of saying there wasn’t too much that was new, aside from the duration and intensity. Sitting still and letting one’s mind settle is far more grueling than you might think, and not speaking or hearing non-ambient noises for nearly two days can be somewhat disorienting. So our few rest periods were sorely needed (with an emphasis on the word sore), and both nights I slept very soundly. I signed up for interviews with two of the leaders, the only times during the weekend that I used my voice and my discursive/narrative mind in a sustained way.
Curiously, the only time this retreat grew really difficult for me was Saturday evening. In addition to the normal back and leg pains (relieved slightly by rotating through different postures), I also developed a terrible headache and pronounced nausea—whether from being dehydrated, in reaction to something I ate, or owing to general exhaustion, I don’t know. Yet while it took all I had to push through the last couple periods that night, when the came time to wrap up the next day, I felt somewhat surprised it was over already.
“You did a nice job with those bells.” ~ a fellow retreatant whose name now eludes me
One new thing that was new was my serving as doan. I’d been training for this ceremonial task—which involves signaling meditation periods and times to bow by ringing bowl-shaped bells—for some time, but had yet to perform it in real time. And with such an unusual schedule, what a time for my big debut! It was quite different to meditate with a clock in my peripheral vision, to actually know how much time remained in zazen, and to be responsible for ensuring that periods began and ended as scheduled.
Yet it was an enjoyable challenge, and judging by the above quote, I guess I performed adequately. All the doanryo tasks are great mindfulness practice, really, and participating is always more fun than merely standing on the sidelines. As with the practice—and life in general, really—serving as doan meant being pushed beyond the familiar into a place where I often didn’t know what I was doing or what to expect, a place where one eventually discovers not only that this experience is inevitable, but that it’s okay, too.
“You are a Zen student, which means you have a reserve of fearlessness.” ~ Kosho McCall
As for what I took from this sesshin, what I learned or how I changed, I can’t say. There were at least a couple moments where my heart seemed to crack open a little wider and, as I said above, moments where I felt my body cracking as well. After we finished on Friday evening, and during one of the breaks on Saturday, I had the fleeting sensation of seeing what was before my eyes (first, a bookshelf, then a broad green leaf with its translucent network of veins backlit by the sun) with a stunning, breathtaking sense of clarity, vividness, and immediacy I’m not sure I ever felt before.
But I sense that such moments are probably more distractions than signs of impending enlightenment (the “natural high” of meditation, drug trips sans chemicals). This practice isn’t so much about deriving particular benefits or seeking specific changes: it’s more about getting out of one’s one way, applying the outcomes of one’s sitting—whatever that means—to daily life in the world of noise and bustle, distraction and discontent.
So perhaps the value of my first sesshin will manifest in the form of renewed inspiration to continue practicing, to dig beneath the noise of discursive thought to the innate wisdom and compassion that lie beneath, just waiting to be tapped. If that’s what comes of this past weekend, then I’d say it was time well spent.