Monday, October 18, 2010

The Great Koan

This weekend I attended a sesshin with the Orindary Mind Zendo at the Garrison Institute in New York state. It was my first retreat with the group and I had a wonderful experience. It's humbling to sit facing the wall for hours at a time--at the mirror of your mind, as Barry Magid the OMZ teacher calls it. You're consumed with thoughts, fears, frustratitions, anxietes--"Am I breathing too loud?" "Why is he swallowing so much?" "What did I get myself into!" "Damn my knees hurt." "Did the jikido(time keeper) fall asleep or what?--this is way longer than 30 minutes!"

And what I came to find is that the thread running through all these thoughts was always I, I, I. Every thought had me as its center. Not once did I think about someone else's discomfort. Naturally, I knew that other people were uncomfortable, frustrated, and anxious; but when you're sitting cross-legged and your back hurts, all you can think about is yourself and your own problems.

Although it might sound mundane or intuitive (duh-uh!), the greatest thing I learned from the retreat was that, even though you may not know the fellow meditators' names or even what their voices sound like, chances are they are just like you. They are uncomfortable and uneasy, perhaps sad and afraid.

If there's one Buddhist teaching that sesshin really drives home, it's that we all suffer. It's our shared inheritance as humans. It binds us together. And with that comes compassion for others' suffering. A sublte shift occurs between "I"- and "you"-oriented thinking, where the center of your mental and emotional gravity is reverses. You realize that your wants and desires are not the imperatives that you once thought they were. A space opens, and in flows the suffering of everyone around you. And with that compassion, and maybe even a little joy.

Sesshin is an extraordinarily transformative experience. I have never felt as close to my practice as I did this past weekend. But the true task, as always, is to carry that into our daily lives. Lay practice is hard--juggling work, family, exercise, friends, hobbies, and of course, practice itself. But there doesn't need to be a dichotomy between practice and our everyday lives; in fact, our lives are the best places to practice. But you already know that.

Charlotte Joko Beck put it best when she said, "Why do you call it a retreat? What are you retreating from?" It's a great question, a koan of sorts. Some might say that for lay practitioners, it's the one great koan--the Genjokoan, as Dogen might call it.

For in truth there is no seperation between our lives and our practice; they are one and the same. The task, of course, is, in the midst of our hectic and frustrating lives, to realize or remember this.

Easier said than done.


Image borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: h.koppdelaney.

1 comment:

  1. Very true, I am going on a weekend very soon, we had a day one not to long ago and I was the same.
    Cool blog. _/|\_