A Sesshin of Sickness

In the Zen tradition that I practice, the term for an intensive meditation retreat is sesshin (a Japanese term meaning something like gathering or touching the heart-mind). Typically lasting anywhere from a single day or weekend to a full week, sesshins feature multiple sessions of sitting, interspersed with walking meditation and work, meant to open a space for extended, concentrated mindfulness. While I’ve only attended a couple sesshins so far, I can attest to their value in supplementing daily meditation and helping one dig deeply into the experience of being really present.

The past couple weeks, in the midst of my worst illness in at least a couple years, it occurred to me that I might be experiencing a rather different sort of sesshin.

With all respect, I submit that it’s not unduly flippant or facetious to call lying on my back for hours, drifting in and out of sleep and eating very little, a sesshin. Granted, I wasn’t exactly in a meditative state much of the time: the first day or two I was too sick even to do my regular half-hour of solitary sitting. But we’re always talking in Zen about extending our practice to all of life, and likening a debilitating illness to the noble effort to attain enlightenment seems very consistent with the irreverent, humbling humor so typical of Zen.

Basically I had a lot of time on my hands, and so I thought, why not use this opportunity that’s been presented? Why not turn this into something of a lying-down practice, letting my thoughts pass without pursuing them, being attentive to the various physical sensations and sounds that arise? Practice does merge with life, if you just keep your eyes, ears, and mind open. It’s all about knowing when to push and stretch, and when to let go; going with the flow, but with mindfulness and discipline. (And meditation is a stretch: How long can you sit still? How many aches or itches can you sit through without squirming or scratching?)

Actually, sickness sesshin seems considerably harder than the real thing. Once one’s body and mind acquire a certain familiarity with sitting, the main challenge of sesshin (from my perspective, at least) is the self-imposed absence of distractions, the restlessness that comes from having nothing to take your mind off the various things that arise: strong emotions, physical discomforts, thoughts that refuse to leave you alone. In my experience, meditating for long periods is rather like driving across the Great Plains without music or a travel partner.

Unlike sickness sesshin, the regular version offers the solidarity of fellow seekers (a solidarity no less diminished, but even enhanced, by the prohibition on talking). And it’s divided up into sitting periods of moderate length marked by bells, with the walking and work periods providing very welcome opportunities to move and stretch. Part of what made my illness seem like a sesshin was the way in which time stretched to the point of irrelevance. What time of day is it? What day is it, even? As with a regular retreat, I was privileged, in a way, to be able to step outside my habitual rhythms and perceptions.

While for the better part of a week my mind was closer to fuzzy than focused, I was grateful that rather than constantly craving the diversion of videos, games, or music, my Zen practice enabled me to turn even a miserable level of discomfort and inactivity into a source of fascination. What is this? What’s going on here? What am I feeling, hearing, seeing? And I didn’t have to worry that my coughing and sneezing would disturb my fellow practitioners, which helped a bit. If I was eating very little, at least my loss of appetite meant that, unlike a regular sesshin, I wasn’t fighting that distraction as well.

My intention with all this is not to somehow spiritualize suffering or characterize my practice as some kind of extreme asceticism or stoicism. I don’t exactly recommend extended illness as a path to mindfulness. But you see, here’s the thing: as the story goes, what launched the Buddha on his path was a sudden awareness that sickness, old age, and death come to all of us. Even in my delirium I was quite aware that the time will come—assuming I live long enough—when a week-long illness will be accompanied by much heavier possibilities, and I won’t be able to assume an eventual return to wellness.

And so it is with gratitude toward this practice, and those who support me in it, that I’m emerging (slowly, maddeningly slowly) with a renewed aspiration to learn from every aspect of my experience, each moment, even those that are quite the opposite of pleasant. It’s a blessing to cultivate an increasing openness to everything that comes my way. Is that “spiritual”? I don’t know. But it does seem a more direct, courageous, skillful way to live, and that’s good enough for me.

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