By the third day of sesshin, the schedule, the silence of work practice, the energy of the other sitters in the Zendo, all lent itself to my mind turning inward.
At that point, my inward mind became strangely obsessed with swallowing. Yes, swallowing.
It’s one of those physical actions I never noticed until I sat for 3 days. When my mind finally became tired, it decided to focus on the inside of my mouth and the saliva that formed at the back of my throat. That saliva has to naturally go somewhere. So I found myself constantly swallowing and the more I focused on what seemed like my saliva endlessly collecting at the back of my throat, the more I needed to swallow. In a quiet Zendo, swallowing can be very loud.
I found myself becoming self-conscious, and then I began to hear other sitters swallow. What was going on? It was starting to drive me a bit batty.
Fortunately, daisan (interview with the teacher) was called after that sitting block, and I asked Diane, the teacher, about this strange fixation of mine. I wondered if other sitters encountered this problem. Maybe it was common. I didn’t know.
Diane responded that what was at issue was not the object (the swallowing) but the grasping or obsessing that my mind was doing. After 3 days of my mind processing everything it possibly could about my life in the previous days before sesshin, it ran out of solid thoughts to hold on to. So it grasped for what was closest. And what occurred at that point was swallowing.
She instructed me to start labeling my thoughts. A fixation on swallowing was ‘grasping’, thoughts that had me feeling frustrated was ‘frustration’, etc. When I returned to the cushion after daisan, I may have swallowed as much as before, but I did not obsess about it.
By the third evening, I found myself settling into a much quieter state. We faced each other with the final sitting block and my eyes gazed naturally at the sitters opposite me. As my eyes began to adjust to the evening candle light, the sitters became abstract shapes of form and color. It’s hard to describe: it was as though I lost the ability to describe in words what I saw – just that I was seeing shape, color, and form. Nothing more.
As the sit progressed, my eyes naturally lowered and I found myself looking at the rug. And then, faces appeared in the rug. Yes. Faces. Fantastical faces of creatures, of animals, of demons, and generic faces of eyes, nose, mouth, ears. My eyes weren’t necessarily focused so I thought, let me just focus them, thinking that these faces would disappear. Hmmmm, interesting: the faces only became more clear.
When I talked to the teacher the following day, she told me that this was normal. That there was nothing to fear; that my mind was getting to a certain state and that I should just observe this phenomena. She even told me there was a name for it: makyo. I was not fearful and if anything, I was intrigued, curious as to what was happening in front of my very eyes.
Pain and my physical body
By the fourth day, I hurt. My lower back was not conditioned to sitting many hours a day and I remember the pain being so great that at one point, I felt I was going to pass out. I told myself to breathe, just breathe, then I felt my heart beating almost too quickly to the point of hyperventilating.
And I thought, what can I do? Just five more minutes, breathe. Just one more minute, breathe. Just 30 more seconds, breathe. And then, the bell was struck to signal the end of the sitting block. I was so relieved! Kinhin (walking meditation) could not have come at a better time!
That evening, I sat in a chair to relieve the pain and as I sat, I waited for makyo to occur. But it didn’t come.
Instead, I began to sense that I couldn’t feel where I was in the space of the chair. My feet were firmly planted on the floor, but I could no longer feel where my feet stopped and where the floor started. The same was true for my mudra, the shape that my hands formed, upturned left palm on top of the open right palm, thumbs touching to form a circle. Where did one thumb start and another end?
I could not sense physical space nor where my body sat in relation to it. I remember thinking that what I was feeling was probably a good thing, but once that thought entered my head, the sensation of no space, no body, disappeared. I felt the floor concretely beneath my feet, the chair solidly under me, and my hands distinctly touching each other.
Final thoughts and Conclusion
Such is sesshin and sitting in general. Thoughts come and go, feelings and sensations appear and disappear. But what makes sesshin or any long retreat different from daily sitting is the concentrated effort allowed by the container of the center, the sangha, the schedule, and the members who are there for the same reasons.
In all the years of sitting on my own, and especially this last year of consistently sitting daily, I never experienced any of the breakthroughs of just listening, of makyo, of losing the physical sense of any boundaries. Although these phenomena did not last long, it gave me a glimpse of what is possible when just staying present in the moment. And most importantly, having a teacher to guide me through the process was immeasurable.
I remember a thought I had in the middle of sesshin. It went something like this:
I’ve been been sent on a journey. At the start of the journey, I was told: we don’t know where you’re going, what vehicle you’re taking, or how you’ll get there. But your job is to come home.
I feel like I’ve only begun but I am that much closer to coming home.