During the week between Boxing Day and New Year’s Day, I participated in a silent meditation intensive called a sesshin in the Zen tradition. It begins after supper on the first evening as we all take our seats in the meditation hall. The monitors for the week read out the precautions – guidelines developed to help us make the most the week ahead. We maintain “inner and outer” silence, keep our eyes lowered, forego normal social courtesies like saying good morning or thank you. It used to be that we weren’t allowed to engage with the Monastery cat but, mercifully for all involved, that particular precaution has been eliminated and giving Rudy a pat or a kiss is no longer discouraged.
Petting the cat aside, sesshin can sometimes feel harsh. We get up early…like 3 am early….and in this particular sesshin, we go to bed later and later so sleep is scarce. We sit for hours each day, noticing our mind as it is alert or sleepy, distracted or crystal clear – sometimes all of that within one sitting period. The precautions and the schedule are there to help us but they can feel restrictive if we start to want to be anywhere else but there. All our usual distractions are gone – needless to say that there are no cellphones or computers or even reading books or writing things down. The sparseness of the practice leaves us with no choice but to see what needs to be seen and seen through. It truly is a gift.
At this point in my training, I have done many sesshin. Some people count and keep track but I never have so … I dunno … maybe 40 or so? Although I have typical patterns of how my mind and body behave within the week, it would be a mistake to assume that I will know what will happen. Each one is truly unique. It is fascinating to watch what I create or get attached to and what I negate or run away from. There is a whole lot of svadyaya (self-knowledge) going on and, in many ways, this is the point.
At this most recent sesshin, all of that was happening but one situation stands out and, indeed, it has helped to set my intention for 2020 and perhaps for the whole decade to come. It caused such a radical shift in how I saw myself in the world that it has taken me some time to even be able to frame it in my mind. It all started when I was last in line to receive the hot cereal at breakfast.
We take our breakfast and lunch in the meditation hall in a style called oryoki – often translated as “just enough” meaning that it is a practice learning to take just enough food. It is a highly choreographed meal with special bowls and utensils, cloths and hand movements. It was a source of enormous stress for years for me because of issues around food but also around the fact it took me years to actually get to the point where I knew what was coming next within the complex dance of it all. Watch an instruction video here if you are interested.
Where I practice, we sit in rows and servers come through and serve us in pairs, in turn, down the line. This too is choreographed (and silent – we use hand signals to ask for more and to say enough). Sitting at the end of the row, I was an odd person out so I was served singly rather than in a pair. When the server came with the oatmeal, her bowl was very nearly empty. I should mention here that there are 13 hours between supper and breakfast – most of them waking and busy. When breakfast arrives, some might say finally arrives, I tend to greet it with great joy and a hearty enthusiasm. It is safe to say that I was looking forward to that oatmeal. Although the server scraped that serving bowl sincerely in hopes of conjuring up more hot cereal, my portion ended up being about 1/3 of what I had hoped to receive.
After we bowed and the rest of the breakfast dishes continued to arrive and be served, I could feel a heat rising in me – this isn’t enough! I will starve! Everyone else got their breakfast! I’ve been cheated! Of course, this was ridiculous – there was plenty of other food to make up for the lack of oatmeal but in the moment, it felt almost catastrophic. Even as I was observing myself get all worked up, I was telling myself how absurd it was to get all worked up. And then we ate breakfast and continued with our morning and I didn’t starve. It was fine.
Then came lunch.
I ended up last in the row for breakfast because I held back to allow people to get their bowls ahead of me – there is usually a bit of line up and I thought to avoid it by lingering over tidying up my seat. No so for lunch – I hustled right over to get my bowls and made sure I was not last in line. No sir-y-bob! Not this time! It wasn’t until I was being served the rice and noticing that there was plenty for everyone that it hit me. By angling to ensure that I would be mid-row and not left with a 1/3 of a bowl of food, I was putting someone else potentially in that position. There was even a little bit of “too bad for you, sucker!” in my actions. Say what?
What became clear, if not clearly articulated, was that I want to learn to be the person who says, thank goodness I was the one who was there to receive the least so that another will not have to. I want to be able to do that without resentment, to do it authentically, without obligation or sense of duty or martyrdom or any other kind of heroics. I want to simply and genuinely be glad to be the one who spared someone else’s suffering by taking it on myself. How can I practice that? This is the question that I ask upon waking and before sleep.
During one of the talks, a senior monastic described a practice that a well-known contemporary Zen teacher shared as one of her own. The practice was look around the meditation hall and, looking directly at each person sitting there, think to herself, “May (individual’s name) be fully enlightened and may they do so before me.” Over and over.
There is medicine in that.
Dear reader, may you be fully enlightened and may you be so before me.