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. Continue reading