Reflections after a silent retreat

I returned from my zendo’s ten-day silent retreat just yesterday, called a “sesshin” (which means “gathering the mind”). This is not my first time on sesshin, but it was the longest I’ve been on.

The challenge on returning is to express what was going on there, since the practice while on retreat is so comprehensive — every aspect of your day is given to a form of meditation. Obviously there are the times you are explicitly practicing: periods of zazen and walking meditation, the services and ritual meals, the dharma talks and interviews with teachers, and the work-practice periods. But several other aspects of your experience are pervaded by the spirit of meditation practice.

The most prominent of these is the maintenance of “noble silence” which includes not speaking with anyone casually and keeping your eyes kept at a 45-degree angle to the ground. The purpose of this is to keep your attention focused inward. I find this very easy to do where people are concerned (talking and listening are *hard*), but very challenging when walking around outside — who wants to look down when there are mountains and trees and animals and birds? Especially if you live in Brooklyn? But, as in meditation, the real point is not necessarily to do these things 100% of the time or you’ve failed, the purpose is to commit to returning to them as default stances. In meditation, the default stance is — attention to the breath. In noble silence the default is — attention to the breath! So in this context, you can beckon a fellow practitioner to ask about some part of the schedule, or you can look and see the mist rising from the eastern mountain or the woodchuck scampering into some rocks ahead of you — but when you do so, you do so simply and intentionally and gently return your attention within.

Speaking of the schedule — that is another implicit form of meditation. Here’s the schedule for the eight full days of the retreat:

5:30-7:30 zazen
7:30-8 service
8-8:30 breakfast
8:30-10 rest/exercise

10-11 work practice
11:20-12:30 dharma talk and zazen
12:30-1 service
1-1:30 lunch
1:30-3:30 rest

3:30-4:30 zazen
4:30-5 service
5-5:30 dinner
5:30-7 rest

7-8:30 zazen
9:30 lights out

I’ve wiggled the times a little bit — I think the zazen periods were actually a little longer, since there was definitely less space between the end of the last zazen period and lights out. But that’s the idea. This is a pretty spacious schedule as silent Zen retreats go. What’s interesting is that, early on in a retreat, you find that the rest/exercise/free times are much shorter than you anticipate, so you either need to do a fair amount of planning to do what you need to do, or you need to scale back on what you think you need to do. Here are parallels with noble silence: the schedule is meant to foster a sense of intentionality and simplicity.

And especially with so much seated meditation (a teacher at the zendo describes zazen as being like yoga, but you’re holding one position for the whole period!), you begin to give the free times over to taking care of what your body needs. For me, this meant: 1) naps, 2) bathroom and washing, 3) light exercise and stretching, and 4) sitting with a cup of tea and looking at a field. But to be honest, it’s mostly 1) and 2). 3) feels like a gift when it happens (exercise as a gift! what a magic trick that is). When 4) happens it’s like the most enjoyable kind of meditation you can do because: wind in the grass, tall clouds, and bitter green tea.

I would also give 10 minutes to check my phone for important emails and to make sure the world wasn’t on fire — disappointing, since it mostly was. But then I put it on airplane mode and put it down. Would you believe my cell battery lasted the whole 10 days without charging?

That your free time is given to what your body really needs is a great teaching, as valuable if not more so than any of the dharma talks. And in this context so much of the scheduled activity that isn’t zazen involves taking care of the community — cooking, cleaning, serving, and in general keeping your business relatively together so as to give everyone the space to enjoy noble silence. So when you take care of your body, you are taking care of yourself so that you can continue to take care of others, who in turn are taking care of you. Zen implies that this is what the world is actually like, and we go on retreat to see its activity more clearly.

Communicating all of this is hard, and much of it I couldn’t articulate until I sat down and started to write about it. The comprehensiveness of the experience makes reflection challenging while you’re in it — but then, you’re not really meant to be stepping out to reflect during that time. You are stepping into experience. It’s only when I left and was walking around Bed-Stuy and ran into a seminary colleague of mine, that I found that the retreat experience was precisely not given to theological reflection. That is to say, I sounded like a spacey cult person, focusing on specifics of zen form which were most relevant to me (“you see, the koans are about you” etc.) rather than the wider surround of safety, care, and frankly, freedom.

And while I like this “simply and intentionally” label to describe what is happening on retreat, it comes off sounding a little spartan in a way that doesn’t speak to the reality. The experience does not live itself like lack, but like abundance. Food is delicious, people are still people but generally in good spirits, and as anyone who has ever sat quietly knows, there’s no such thing as silence. Or rather, silence is not the absence of sound, which is never a thing that happens, but more of a relationship to sound and activity. In leaning into silence, you somehow dissolve the boundary between yourself and the sounds and activity of the world. So silence is not a absence of sound — silence is just sound.

2 responses

  1. This is a good post. I think a lot of my amazement at a 10 day retreat is that the time seems totally undifferentiated. The breakdown, in particular, makes it seem less crazy

    • You’re right, the undifferentiated time is in discrete chunks. But one of the surprising things that starts to happen is, the difference between seated meditation time and everything else breaks down a bit — it sort of all just starts happening.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *