Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Three Robes Sesshin

Before I plunge too far into daily activities, I'd like to write a little bit about this last week on retreat at the monastery. We conducted an experiment with retreat forms. One aspect of this was to allow people to adjust the schedule as they needed to -- to sleep later and do zazen later, to rest as they needed to, to sit into the night if they wished to, etc. The other main aspect was that we had four 2-hour blocks of zazen during the day, during which people could sit, stand, walk, or lie down. And they could do this in the zendo, or outside. The monastery has beautiful grounds, meadows and woods, and the weather was really beautiful, so many people opted for outdoor practice much of the time.

I went into the retreat with some uncertainty about what my duties would be, with several things on my mind, remember to bring this, tell so-and-so to bring that, etc. I was officially designated assistant-shuso, and it wasn't altogether clear what that meant, other than that about halfway through the week the shuso would leave to go back to town to take care of work issues. At which point I would take over as acting shuso.

It's not typical for someone who has not been shuso before to take this on during a retreat, and I didn't know what it would look like. Still, I found myself looking forward to this retreat, the silence, time to sit quietly and step out of my daily routine for a little while. I found that there is a ground of quiet confidence and ease that feels new, and stable.

That sense of ease and lighteness persisted through the week. The shuso set things up so well that I didn't have all that much to do other than ring bells at the right times, which I've done before and enjoy doing. I did have one situation to deal with, but again I had plenty of help, and it went well.

I enjoyed the 2-hour blocks without bells. So often there's a posture-adjustment bell before I'm really ready to adjust my posture, but if I don't do it then, 15 minutes later I'm hurting. Most of the time I just go ahead and move as needed, but I'm aware of having the scheduled bells sometimes really not fitting with what my body needs. This way, people were getting up and/or adjusting posture and/or leaving the hall at various times. We all got mindful about walking quietly, paying attention to how the door closed, trying to close it silently, etc. There was an intermittent rustle as people came and went, that was really pretty nice once we got used to it, something like the sounds of birds, leaves rustling, etc., outside. Someone compared it to being in a library, where people move around more or less quietly, pages turning, etc., but all involved in studying in some way. This had some of that quality of all of us being involved in meditation in various ways, together and individually.

One thing some people found difficult at first was that without everyone else doing the same thing at the same time, they realized that they had to figure out for themselves what to do next. They had to take responsibility for their own practice. It felt to me that over the course of the week as the novelty wore off, more people spent more time in the zendo, sitting, recognizing the value of that practice more and more and choosing it more intentionally, rather than just doing it because it's on the schedule.

For myself, I've had to do that for quite a while now, and have had to be very conscious about what's going on with my back over a long day of sitting. There were actually places set up in the back of the zendo for people to lie down for meditation, and I was not the only person taking advantage of that. That and yoga helped a lot.

Oh, that was another point of this sesshin. We had three structured exercise activities or groups. And a little later in the day than we have traditionally done exercise. Both the time and the gentle yoga group that I joined were perfect for me. Helped stretch things out and rest and relax muscles that had gotten really tight. We had a QiGong group that was a bit more vigorous, and a woman doing one-on-one Alexander Technique instruction. Others did use the time to take a walk, or a run, or individual stretching.

Once I took on the acting shuso role, I started getting less sleep, because I had to get up earlier to ring the wake-up bell, and sometimes stay up a little later getting things settled. I actually went and took a nap in my room during one period of zazen, which felt strange, but refreshing. I ended the retreat feeling good, tired but not flattened, not crashing.

We still have to do a debrief, and make some tweaks (we did some tweaks half-way through) for the next time we do this. But overall, I think it was a success, and most people enjoyed it and also found it worthwhile.


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