It’s been several days since the end of my first 5-day sesshin (Zen meditation retreat) and although it feels that the effects have worn off, my commitment to Zazen has not. As I’ve explained to friends and family, a meditation retreat is not about relaxing, but more an opportunity to deepen my meditation practice. And that it did.
Before I elaborate on my retreat, I want to share my circuitous journey to finally committing to Dharma practice. I first became fascinated with Siddhartha Gautama’s story when I was in high school. After college, I moved to Santa Fe, NM where I met a friend who introduced me to Zazen. That’s when I immersed myself in books on Buddhism, Zen, the Buddha, and I began to sit regularly at the beautiful Upaya Zen Center on Cerro Gordo Road. I also attended my first sesshin, a short 3-day retreat. It was a simple and beautiful time in my life.
In 2000, I left Santa Fe and moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. I felt the call to continue my Zen practice and found the Bay Zen Center, where I attended a couple of sittings. Just when I needed to sit the most, at a time when my life felt overwhelming, I stopped. Yes, life happened and through it all, I felt the tug to go back to the cushion.
But it wasn’t until 2009 that I finally returned to the cushion, and another year flew before I found my way back to the Bay Zen Center. (It takes me a long time to get some lessons but as the Spirit Rock Dharma teacher Anna Douglas said during my May retreat: Does the snail think it’s slow?)
The first days of sesshin
The Bay Zen Center is located off of Martin Luther King Blvd. in a residential neighborhood near the Berkeley/Oakland border. It is not necessarily the ideal location for a retreat. But it is a wonderful place to practice.
It can be loud: heavy glass and debris crashing on the sidewalk, neighbors speaking in French and English, sirens coming near then far, the squeal of a BART train passing every few minutes, the heavy bass of a car beating through my body as it drives down the road (only in I-hella-heart-Oakland!), an Amtrak whistle blowing in the far distance.
All the noises and sounds of urban living penetrating through the walls of a Zen center, reminding me that this is life, in all its grittiness. It is just as beautiful as birds singing in the morning sun and crickets chirping in the evening dusk. Listening Zazen.
This was how I spent the first couple of days sitting. In the midst of all the noise in my mind, I allowed myself to just listen to the noise outside the center.
Listening did not come easily. Thoughts of the previous days’ events came and went: finding a starving cat in the middle of my hike, the unfinished jobs waiting for me when I returned, the mess I left the house in, and what was that noise? and the plane overhead, hmm, where can we go next year? oh right, I should be sitting…
Even though I sit for 40 minutes every morning, my body and mind were not used to the concentrated effort that sesshin required.
I’ll post more on my reflections on sesshin in the next couple of days [Part 2 is here] but for now I need to get ready to cram a full week’s worth of work into the next 4 days, including finishing up some projects, determining what will happen to sweet Satchel, the starving cat I found in the Oakland hills (this will be a future post), and starting up my figure drawing class (excited!).