In this special guest blog post, Crimson Gate sangha member Ana N. offers an account of her first long retreat (sesshin). Enjoy!
These pains you feel are messengers. Listen to them.
On a recent Sunday afternoon I drove out to St. Dot's, the beautiful wooded retreat in the Sonoma hills near Occidental where our Santa Rosa sister sangha, CityZen, has been having retreats for many, many years. I was coming from Petaluma where I had been spending the weekend with my husband celebrating our anniversary. The solo country drive was sweet and quiet and beautiful. It gave me time to slow down and notice everything that I was feeling about the fact that I was headed to my first sesshin. Until recently I hadn't felt ready to go to sesshin. It had been very obvious to me when I wasn't ready, but becoming aware that I was open to it was more subtle. I remember realizing one day that I no longer felt much resistance or fear or anxiety about it, but rather felt a growing excitement and anticipation.
When I arrived at St. Dot's I settled into my room in a shared cabin and walked down the shady hill to
the zendo. It had been set up in one of the main buildings, a gorgeous Arts-and- Crafts lodge named
Lydia House constructed with exquisite care and detail about a 100 years ago. The zendo itself was in
a covered porch with huge windows overlooking the hills, the towering sequoias, and passing
butterflies and birds. I was so struck by the beauty of the setting, the building itself, and the beautiful
alter and flowers that CityZen had arranged.
This was a silent retreat, and one of the most interesting experiences was of spending a week of deep,
quiet intimacy with 16 other people and realizing that I didn't know the names of several of them when
we said goodbye! And yet, I felt so close to each of them by the end of the week.
We all engaged in “work practice” that contributed to the smooth functioning of the little world that we
created together that week. I and a partner were in charge of the twice daily tea ceremony, and I also
worked in the kitchen in the mornings with 3 others to prepare ingredients for the day's meals. I loved
the ritual of the tea ceremony in the pre-dawn zendo lit by flickering candles, and I had the chance to
experience sinking into my tasks in a kitchen in a way that I never had before. I could pay attention to
the beautiful green of the jalapeno as I diced it into tiny little bits, and revel in the crisp freshness of the
many colorful greens that I tore up for our salads. And believe it or not, cleaning a kitchen was never
so enjoyable! I think it had to do with having it be the only thing that I was doing - the only thing that I
was concentrating on - and the knowledge that it was part of a collective effort to provide a wonderful
experience for all of us.
It wasn't all easy, however! After a while of sitting I began to have a lot of pain in my upper back.
Over the course of the week I often suffered from this pain quite a bit. At first I wondered what would
happen if I got up screaming, fled up the hill, jumped in my car and took off! After talking to our
teacher, Megan, I tried to stay with the pain and learn as much about it as I could, and eventually I
began to notice some patterns. I realized that I was constantly rating my meditation, and myself, based
on how much pain I was having. “If I weren't having this pain, I could meditate better,” or, “It must be
that I'm not sitting correctly or I wouldn't be so painfully uncomfortable.” Fundamentally, I just didn't
want to have the experience that I was actually having. Eventually, as I stopped resisting it and instead
tried to pay attention to my pain, I began to be able to describe its characteristics. I began to notice
how clenched and tense my body became when I was in pain – how much I resisted the reality of that
pain and how much I was trying to make my experience something other than what it was. I began to
loosen my shoulders and relax. I began to pay attention to the nuances of my pain, the way it was so
localized and easy to point to, and the way that it came and went, often appearing when I'd thought or
spoken about something painful! I got to know it in a much more nuanced way, and I became a little
more willing to accept it instead of fighting it.
Another interesting experience was a certain quality that time came to have for me during this sesshin
that I don't often experience. The days felt very long, sometimes disorientingly so, but not in the sense
of time dragging on. Instead, I've come to think about it as the day opening up to me moment by
moment in a way that it seldom does. I was so much more aware of my day and of myself in my day,
and so the day seemed long - at times difficult and at other times luscious. A related experience was
that I'd find myself having a question and by the time I got to a dokusan with a teacher I couldn't
remember the question any longer. Nonetheless, I found that I had plenty to talk about with the teacher.
I think that I wasn't anxiously hanging on to questions quite as much as I so often do, and instead
allowing different questions or thoughts or feelings to come and go as they did, naturally. Of course,
this wasn't always the case. At one point we were in walking meditation after a dharma talk and I
realized suddenly that I was very nearly bumping into furniture because I was so preoccupied with
trying to remember what it was about this dharma talk that had coincided with a question I'd had
earlier. When I realized this, I wondered to myself if it was really so necessary to try to force the
memory, and instead decided to trust that whatever connection I'd made was already taking root inside
me, whether I remembered it precisely or not. Maybe, instead, I could concentrate on what was
happening in that moment. How hard I was grasping to know something concrete, and subsequently
how disconnected I'd become from my surroundings. It was hard to take the leap of faith that a seed
was planted that I didn't need to understand (or watch over) entirely, but I think it was the key to the
opening up of my days in a new way. I found myself noticing how my mind tends to work, began
hearing the sounds of the birds, the distant passing cars, and the wind in the trees that were there all
along, and feeling sensations that I normally don't even notice.
Re-entry the weekend following the retreat was strange.... I don't think that I really let myself be aware
that I was in a different state of mind than the world around me when I left St. Dot's on Friday, even
though we were warned of this! It took me some time to realize that I'd overbooked my weekend and
that I was feeling tired and overstimulated. Perhaps there was a part of me that was afraid to
acknowledge the powerful impact of this sesshin on my state of mind. I found myself resisting
meditation in the following days, and its been hard once again to not judge myself for that.
Yesterday I went to a one-day retreat. It gave me time to settle in and pay closer attention to whats
been happening since my first sesshin. More than anything yesterday, I became so much more aware
of the many obvious, but also the much more subtle ways that I constantly wish for things to be other
than they are and how quickly and powerfully it takes me away from the life I actually have! Lately its
been discouraging to face the extensiveness of this tendency. But I'm also curious to see how
recognizing it will unfold for me. And I look forward to my next sesshin!
Megan Rundel is the resident teacher at the Crimson Gate Meditation Community in Oakland, CA..