I’ve just got back from my six-monthly, week long, Zen Buddhist retreat at Crosby Hall, in west Lancashire. As always with the autumn retreat, I have come home with a cold. Forty people sitting together for eight hours a day is not conducive to infection control.
Maybe we should meditate in face masks? Then, we would look like rows of chimpanzees trying to come up with the plot line for Hamlet!
On the one hand, the physical and emotional process of every retreat is the same; on the other hand, every one is totally different. It could be no other way, really.
The first day is spent adjusting to the new regime – the early morning rise, the eight hours of meditation, the aches and pains that come from stillness but, at the same time, the sense of freedom that comes from a structure to the day that is designed to give the mind the openness of no-structure.
The second day is the difficult one, when the body begins to hurt and the mind starts to examine the things it doesn’t want to. You have to just get through this bit, and then the next few days are easy and enormously interesting, as the body adjusts and the mind explores new discoveries.
What does my mind do when I am meditating?
It doesn’t stop thinking, for a start. Trying to stop the mind from thinking is a little like trying to stop the heart beating. Thinking is what it does. I guess I’ll only stop thinking when I die!
At first, I just watch the thoughts as they come up, and then let them go away again. The trick is not to follow them, or grasp at them, and then they will start to slow down and lose their ability to seem real. They are, after all, only electrical discharges inside a skull.
Even if you are a genius, they are still only discharges in your skull.
At this point in a retreat, I find myself fixing and obsessing on a phrase or expression that my mind seems to have randomly chosen from the various things my teacher has said. One time, I pondered on Douglas Harding’s insistence on looking at the looker rather than at the seen. This time, it was Keizan’s question, What is this?
The beauty of this is its simplicity. I sat and asked myself What is this? SometimesI had my eyes open, and so was asking about all the world, the Thingness of Space; and sometimes I had my eyes shut, and so the question becomes What is this thing I call me? The Thingness of Me . . .
Then I started to flick my eyes open for just a snapshot of the world, and I found there was another question. What is this? And why does it have to have a name?
This is so simple and facile, you’re probably thinking, Why go to all that trouble and discomfort to find that out? It’s obvious.
But, I felt that was the point. It is obvious. It’s so obvious we’ve forgotten to notice it. We subscribe to the notion that the universe is a vast web of interconnected energy and flow, but we forget that this applies to our tiny chaotic lives as well. It applies to the wall you’re looking at.
This felt so important that I wanted to dance. I can’t dance conventionally, but I do a good hip-hop impression with my hands and face! It is how I physically express joy.
We all do the Dance together.