I signed up for a sesshin, or retreat, at a place called the Zen Mountain Monastery upstate: a week of lots and lots of sitting in a formal and disciplined monastic setting. I wanted to experience someplace other than the one zendo which I have attended exclusviely since I started practicing, and be an anonymous face in a large crowd. I also wanted to hear what the teachers had to say, after being deeply impressed with a couple of talks that I had read online. Two people I know who had trained at ZMM encouraged me to go. One of the founders, now deceased, is regarded as a major figure in western Zen — John Daido Loori.
[An aside for readers not familiar with Zen as practiced by most Western lay people: the core of the practice is sitting, or zazen — seated meditation. It’s important to sit every day, and it is likewise important to do intensive practice as often as your schedule permits: that is, all-day sittings, or zazenkai, and multi-day sittings, which we call sesshin or retreats. During these extended sittings there is no talking, reading, or fooling around with phones or computers. There are periodic breaks (sometimes barely adequate) in the zazen schedule for things like meals and sleep. The idea is to keep practicing around the clock. Sesshin tends to sharpen your skills and, ultimately, make you more acutely aware of where you are and what you are doing. This is also known as being awake. It can be said that Zen is for those who would dare to wake up.]
So I drove up to Mount Tremper, NY, on a rainy Monday afternoon, and sesshin began that night. The next day at about two o’clock in the afternoon I packed my bags and walked, deciding that this was not a fruitful use of my time right about now.
The place had about it a slight fragrance of psychopathy mingled with the incense.
My mattress was seriously fucked up, and made my back hurt. The ratio of showers to people was too low to expect more than one shower over the six days. The schedule was 3:55 a.m. rise, and lights out at 9:30, with a number of short breaks and only one one-hour break for all your rest and exercise. Breakfast and lunch were taken as formal oryoki, an extremely elaborate ritual involving lots of chanting and drumming and bells, folding and unfolding cloths and arranging bowls and utensils in a very particular way.
Maybe I gave up prematurely. I was uncomfortable and got but little sleep my one night there, and sleep deprivation has a pronounced negative effect on my mood (so it is for everyone, but I seem to do worse than most). My lower back ached, although not bad enough to be a crisis. There came a point in the oryoki ritual in which you put a bit of rice on the handle end of your little wooden spatula as an offering to your supernatural imaginary friend the Hungry Ghost. That’s when I realized this was not for me. I deliberated over the next hour or so to give myself a chance to reconsider, but that was pretty much the turning point in which I said fuck this.
If this sesshin regime were a prison, Amnesty International would have something to say about the inadequate opportunities for sleep, exercise, exposure to the outdoors, and bathing. But it is by no means a prison. You go in on a purely voluntary basis for a limited time — and although it is discouraged, you can get up and leave, as I did.
I packed my gear and took it out to the car as people were assembling in the zendo for the next round of sitting, following lunch. Drove down the driveway and found there was a gate that I was going to have to open in order to get out. When I got out of the car, I saw one of the monks walking towards me, and understood that I was going to have to speak to her. I had half-tried to tell myself, prior to escaping, that walking out and hitting the highway was going to be a satisfying act of self-liberation. But when I realized I was going to have to explain myself to someone, I felt a sheet of emotion extending from somewhere around waist level to above my eyes. She asked whether something had happened. I explained as best I could that this just was not for me, not now. She said, why did you come? I knew the question was not rhetorical. She wanted me to consider why I had come in the first place. Unable to recall any reason, I said it sounded like a good idea at the time. She tried gently to dissuade me from leaving, suggesting that I might try hanging around for the afternoon, talking to one of the teachers. I pictured myself re-entering the building with my baggage and re-installing myself in the room, and found the image intolerable. If she had said, come on, I will help you get your stuff back inside, it might have been a closer contest. I told her, as respectfully and tactfully as I could, the same things I just said here. I am attached to my petty bourgeois lifestyle, and have trouble tolerating a week with scarcely a shower and a bed so uncomfortable that it will take my back days to recover once I get home. She said, we could do something about the bed. I said, I am a wordly and unspiritual sort of dude for whom offering blobs of rice to supernatural beings is not the way I want to spend time that I could otherwise be with my wife and kids and cats. I said I understood that walking away from the commitment to stay till the end was not approved of, and could accept it if I was banned for life. She was perfectly gracious about it, and said on the contrary, I was welcome to come back and try again any time.
I was practically in tears as I drove away, because leaving was an anguishing decision, and I felt — rightly or not — a certain shame and humiliation from the failure. It took the rest of the week to process and get over it. It isn’t necessary to justify myself, but I am gonna do it anyway and state for the record that I am not a one who typically quits when faced with adversity or difficulty. I have done week-long sesshin a couple times before, with schedules that were perhaps not as grueling as this one, but certainly not leisurely — and walking out was never under serious consideration. I have kept other tough commitments in this life, like training hard for 20 weeks to run a New York Marathon at a Boston-qualifying pace even when the last 10 kilometers were brutal.
So what happened here? I think this experience can be seen as analogous to a computer crashing under excessive load. Too many hats: father; stepfather; husband; computer programmer; professional court interpreter; distance runner; single-payer healthcare activist; ….Zen monk? Crash!
There is only so much you can do at a given point in your life. You can stretch the container pretty damn far, but we all must reach a limit at some point; then you have to choose between this and that, not both. Far be it from me to find fault with this style of practice. I might even go back and try it again some day, as the monk kindly suggested that I could. For now I belong on my mat at home and zendo, and in my supremely comfortable bed with wife and purring cats.