Well, if we want to be totally accurate, I survived one day of a zen meditation retreat.
Many retreats are 7-10 days or longer, and I hope to have that experience some day soon. But the fact is, right now I’m a normal fella with a normal job, and taking off for two weeks of introspection in the woods is easier said than done. So I decided I would start with one day. One day is better than no days.
And ya know what? I think got out of it what I was looking to get out of it. It served as an introduction the retreat lifestyle and what to expect out of the experience, and I showed myself that yes, I can, in fact, do it.
One day was tough. It’s tough to even imagine how hard a week would be. But it’s possible, and I’m really glad that I took what felt like an important step on this never-ending path towards…
Well, I’m not really sure where. But I think that’s the point.
The retreat started at 8 AM on Saturday morning, at a nice little Zen Meditation center just outside of Boston. The focus of this particular center was the Kwan Um school of Zen, a Korean branch of Zen Buddhism that focuses on the teachings of Zen Master Seung Sahn. I did not know a whole lot about this particular branch of Zen prior to embarking on the retreat, but I had been meditating off and on for a few years.
I was looking to a retreat as a way of solidifying and heightening my mindfulness practice. I read again and again that when you’re ready to get serious about meditation, you do a retreat. So why not?
I arrived at the Zen Center bright and early and introduced myself to one of the elder resident students, a nice older lady named Beatty. She had a calming, maternal presence of sorts. I must have looked like a deer in the headlights, not used to being awake at 7:30 AM on a Saturday. I had no idea what I was getting into. I patiently waited in the sitting area of the Zen Center, reading a book and waiting for the day’s activities to get started.
The Morning Meeting
At around 8:15, there was a morning meeting for the whole center.
This particular retreat was made up primarily of residents of the Zen Center (like Beatty), with a few outsiders in the mix as well (like me). There were probably 8 or 10 people total and it was close to a 50/50 male to female ratio. There were a few people around my age (30), several that were much older, and a few that fell somewhere in between.
This was a “silent” retreat, so talking was kept to a minimum whenever possible. While total silence was the goal, it seemed that if you really needed to give directions or ask a question, talking would be allowed.
As such, the morning meeting was brief and used as few words as possible.
One of the residents handed out “work practice” jobs for everybody. Clean the kitchen, assemble groceries, empty the trash, etc. Being the new guy, instead of work practice, I would join one of the group leaders for an “orientation” session.
One woman, the in-house “leader” of the retreat, was assigned orientation duties. I’m not sure what the proper Zen term for retreat leader is, but she was a very friendly half-Korean woman named Lee, and since I was the only guest who had not previously completed a retreat at this center, we essentially had a one-on-one information session.
She explained the rules and practices of the retreat and covered everything that I could expect from the day ahead. There is a surprising amount of structure and logistics to consider when planning a 15-hour silent retreat, so the explanation was needed and made me feel at ease.
If you want to pass water to somebody, you need a container
Lee started off by explaining that to newcomers, the rules, and structure of a retreat can seem overwhelming—or rigid.
“Think about the customs and structure as a case—or a kind of container for holding the teachings of Zen Buddhism,” she said. “If you want to pass water to somebody, you need a container, right? Well, if you want to pass down the tradition of Zen Buddhism for 2600 years, you also need a container.”
Made sense to me. We all need a little structure and discipline now and then. I tried to make mental notes of everything I needed to remember in order to avoid offending anyone. It was likely an exercise in futility.
“Don’t get too bogged down with the processes,” she offered. “We’re here to help. If I correct you, don’t take it personally. Honestly, it would be a lot easier for us to just let things slide, but we genuinely care about everyone here.”
Lee briefly went over the schedule. The day would consist of:
- Sitting meditation,
- Walking meditation chanting and bowing
- Formal meals (an incredibly detailed process which I definitely would not remember correctly)
- “kong-an” interviews
“A kong-an interview is essentially a one-on-one with the resident Zen teacher, and everyone will get one throughout the day,” explained Lee. “The teacher will spend an hour or so talking to you about your practice, and then present you with a ‘kong-an’ to contemplate (a Zen riddle of sorts). These are the big questions.”
“There is no real answer to these questions,” Lee said. “So don’t worry about not having it all figured out.”
“It’s difficult,” she continued. “As a Korean especially, I always want to have an answer. But that’s the whole point here. Not knowing is the point. Not knowing IS the answer.”
Not knowing is typically not a problem for me. I’m comfortable not knowing things and I wasn’t too concerned about it.
After our orientation, while everyone was finishing up work-practice, I sat and read a book by Seung Sahn. Before long, the actual daily activities would begin.
“It’s not some super-concentrated state of zen,” Lee said. “That’s a common misconception. Meditation is being aware of everything, and accepting everything. It’s accepting each thought, whether positive or negative, without judgment.”
At around 10 AM, the first sitting period started. Most people sat on cushions on the floor, but I opted for a chair. Sitting on the floor is quite painful for me. They say that there’s something useful about being closer to the ground, and that may very well be true. But I think I can have a better practice further from the ground, with less pain in my body.
Previously, my longest meditation stretch was probably 30-45 minutes. This retreat would feature three 2-3 hour blocks of meditation, generally broken up into periods of 30-45 minutes of sitting followed by 10-15 minutes of walking.
During the walking meditation periods, it was acceptable to leave the room to use the restroom, stretch, etc. Suffice it to say, this would be my most intense meditation experience yet, by far.
I was surprised at how quickly the first session went by
I sat in my chair. I tried to focus on my breath.
In. Out. In.
I got distracted. I thought about my to-do list at work, or my girlfriend being on the other side of the world. I found myself thinking about my friends and family often, and how on earth I would explain all of this to them.
And then I noticed that I was distracted, and returned to my breath.
Over, and over, and over again.
The breath is the center. The whole point is to get distracted and come back to the breath. As the day went on, I came back to my breath sooner after losing focus — at least a little bit.
The Kong-An Interview
I was the second person in line to have my Kong-An interview. About an hour into the first sitting, around 11 AM, I entered the interview room.
I had no idea what to expect, but it was really just a lighthearted, informal conversation.
I bowed as I entered the room. You’re supposed to do a small bow first, and then this full bow where you get down on the floor and everything. The teacher would later explain to me that the purpose of the full “on the floor” bow is to surrender your ego. To give into “don’t know mind”.
“So. Why did you decide to attend this treat?” he asked, making direct eye contact and smiling, speaking softly but confidently.
I sheepishly explained that I’d been meditating off and on for two and a half years, and was looking for a way to learn more and deepen my practice. I had read that a retreat was a great way to take the meditation experience to the next level. Whatever that means.
“Great,” he said. “That’s just great. Welcome—we’re glad to have you.” He spoke slowly, seeming to pause between each sentence to think about what he really wanted to say. No words were wasted.
He spent a few minutes explaining his background—his time embarking on many months of meditation in Tibet and Korea, and how he came to be the resident teacher at this particular Zen center. I asked a bit about his family.
“Was it hard leaving them at home for months at a time to go on retreat?” I wondered.
He said that, yes, in fact, it was very difficult, but at that time, they had their lives setup in a way that made it doable. Now he gets to live in a comfortable house across the street from the Zen Center and doesn’t have to spend as much time away from them. “I prefer this lifestyle,” he said.
The Big Questions
After a few minutes of small talk, we got into the “big questions.”
“Who are you?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I responded.
From the little I had picked up at that point, I got the feeling that not knowing things was in favor around those parts.
“Correct!” he explained, gleefully. “Good job!”
“We get bogged down in this sense of I, my, me,” he said. “Our ego. It permeates everything.”
Letting go of that, letting go of this idea of self that we have constructed, that is kind of the point of all of this.
You can call it God. You can call it the universe. You can call it Buddha. You can call it “don’t know.”
“Don’t know is everything,” he said. “So if I ask you, who are you?” he went on. “You might say, I’m Steve. But that’s the name that you were given at birth. Who were you before you were born?”
“Don’t know,” I said.
“Correct again!” he cried out.”How old are you? 30? But how old is what’s inside of you. Your ‘self’? How old is your conscious?”
What happens when you die?
So, as I took it, in my very rudimentary, preliminary understanding of all of this, when we accept that we don’t know, we can begin to work towards a quieter mind. Towards “enlightenment”, in some schools of thought.
In The Moment BEFORE Thinking, We Are All The Same
“What is the one true, clear thing?” he asked, continuing the same line of questioning.
And then wham! He slapped his leg, hard.
It made a loud smacking sound, and he explained that
“Right there, when we both heard that sudden sound,” he said. “we were for that instant, for that moment, exactly the same. In the moment before thinking, we are all connected. When all that we are doing is perceiving sound, we are the same.”
“And then,” he said, still smiling. “We go off on our own.”
“I think,” he continued. “Is Steve understanding any of this? You think, ‘that was weird, what on earth is this all about. I wonder what’s for lunch.’ And on and on and on.”
But in that one moment, when all we perceived was the harsh sound of hand on leg? We were the same. And we were connected.
“Meditation,” he explained. “Is a way of increasing that connection.”
I liked that thought. The idea of minds connecting in that brief instant before thought resonated with me, perhaps more than anything else I took away from the experience.
The teacher smiled a lot. He laughed a lot. He didn’t seem like some ultra-strict, egotistical guru dude that you sometimes envision with this sort of thing. I got a good vibe from him, and I left the interview feeling curious and ready to do some meditation.
We wrapped up the Kong-An after about a half-hour.
“It won’t always be this easy,” he said. I guess the idea, eventually, is to get into the actual Kong-An stories and to seriously contemplate those. “But don’t worry about that for now,” the teacher said. “Have fun! Enjoy it!”
The Formal Meal
During orientation earlier, the most thorough and overwhelming explanation involved meal-time. The formal meal process for a Kwan Um Zen meditation retreat is quite involved, and trying to take it all in made my head spin.
“It can be the most traumatic part of your first couple retreats,” Lee said that morning, only half jokingly.
“It’s like a beehive, or an ant hill. Don’t let it overwhelm you. Once you get the hang of it, it’s really quite beautiful. Everything just flows in silence, the group gathering and eating, wasting nothing, with little to no verbal communication. It just works.”
After the first sitting, it was lunch time.
Note: I still don’t really understand how the formal meal works. I’m new to all of this, and I just watched the person next to me and tried not to mess up. But I’ll try to explain.
Essentially, everybody received four bowls. Each set came wrapped in a large placemat, with a little pouch inside containing chopsticks as well as a small hand towel.
The bowls reminded me of a hobo carrying a bandana on a stick containing all of his belongings. A self-contained all in one meal-pouch.
The meal was set in the center of the room on a mat on the floor. Everybody gathered around, seated on meditation cushions (those with physical ailments were sitting in chairs with small tables in front of them…the resident teacher, for example, had a broken foot and thus sat in a chair.)
There was a very particular method for arranging the bowls on your placemat, with utensils pointing at three o’clock, the edge of everyone’s placemats aligned precisely, and the four bowls all touching one another in the middle of the mat.
Residents then walked around with various pots of food, stopping in front of each person. The instructions were to hold out your bowl if you wanted some, or bow if you did not. Once you had enough in your bowl, you’re supposed to turn it to the left to signal so.
Earlier, Lee had advised me to not use more than one or two bowls. “Just more to clean,” she said.
Most importantly, they also came around the room with a pot of cold water. One bowl is reserved for water. Don’t forget about the water, I was told! This is the cleaning system of the meal, and also used for an “offering” at the end.
Once everyone had been served, Lee clapped this wooden noisemaker thing, and the eating period began. The idea was to eat quickly, but to not rush through it, so that everyone finishes at around the same time.
Once everyone finished their food, we all used the water we received earlier to clean the remnants off of the bowl. Using your finger, the spoon, whatever, you must clean the sides of the bowl as best you can. Then you drink down the water and remnants of food, all mixed together as though it were a soup.
As Lee said earlier, “some people think it’s kind of gross, but really, it all goes to the same body, right?”
Next, once everyone was done with that whole cleaning process, they walked around with a pot of hot tea. Everyone used the hot water to more fully clean the utensils and bowl, and then again, everyone gulped down the food and hot water mixture as though it were a soup. The tea was actually very tolerable. I enjoyed that part of the experience.
There is a certain way that everything must be arranged the whole time. The water goes in a certain bowl (top left? Bottom left? I can’t remember). Make sure you save some water for the offering at the end.
Once everything was clean and we all made an offering by pouring a bit of water back into a large bowl, everybody stacked their four bowls in a certain order (there were two brown bowls and two blue bowls, and there was a significance to that, but I would be lying if I said I understood it).
Everyone then folded the hand towel neatly, wrapped the bowls up in the placemat, tucked the utensil pouch and hand towel back in the arrangement, and tied the placemat up like a hobo bandanna again.
Just Follow The People Next To You
I felt like I did a decent job with the whole four-bowl-formal-meal-thing, and the food was actually delicious. It was a cauliflower curry with tofu, not too dissimilar to a lot of Indian food I’ve had.
And the meal ritual was, in fact, entrancing. I could see what Lee was saying about the beauty of formal meal. Pure efficiency. No wasted energy, no wasted food. Like an ant farm
The first meditation session ended, and I felt…fine.
I was worried beforehand that my back and ass would hurt from sitting in a chair for so long, but it wasn’t too bad. A little bit stiff, but no debilitating pain or soreness.
The walking meditation portion of the experience was particularly stirring, and probably the type of thing that would look somewhat cult-ish if you were casually observing without any context.
Just a room full of people wearing robes, slowly walking in circles around the room, staring at the floor, shuffling about.
I tried to feel every step while walking. Tried to feel my toes on the ground. Tried to hear the sound that the group’s feet made against the floor.
Everyone fell into a kind of natural rhythm while walking, which was entrancing. I found myself watching the floor move by. It was like I was looking out the window of a moving car, and it seemed to help me focus.
My mind wandered, and it was maybe a little harder to bring it back while walking as opposed to sitting. It was good practice for being out in the world though. Even with your eyes wide open, walking down the street to get your morning coffee, or to get the groceries after work, you can still be aware.
And so it went.
Throughout most of the day, we alternated between 30-45 minutes of sitting meditation and 15-30 minutes of walking meditation, punctuated by two meals and two bowing and chanting sessions.
Bowing And Chanting
I won’t lie, I found the chanting part of the retreat to be the most unsettling.
And this is where I wonder if I’m better suited to a practice without a particular school, or Dharma, or whatever you want to call it.
I think the concept of chanting is, in theory, alluring.
It’s another form of meditation, basically. You are fully aware of the sound of your own voice, and theoretically, that helps you focus on the moment and relinquish the idea of “self”.
But the subject matter kind of loses me. Most of it was in Korean, I think, but we did do one or two chants that were translated into English. And those started getting into enlightenment, and Nirvana, and the Dharam is the only way, and the mantra, and it just felt a little too…religious maybe?
I felt like…what is different about this than any other religion?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad I did it – and I’m not saying that I wouldn’t do it again.
Maybe I just don’t understand it well enough yet, but during my first day-long retreat experience, it was not my favorite aspect. It was also just hard to follow along with. The chants moved fast, and the rhythm was tough to keep track of. Perhaps if I grew more comfortable with a few of the passages, I would be able to really get into it, rather than just focusing on following along.
Ebbs and Flows And Finding The Center
I’d say overall, I felt pretty good about my meditation. My mind was definitely all over the place, but I think I was coming back to the center more quickly as the day went on. The sessions after lunch were probably the hardest, as I was sleepy and had a belly full of food. Wish they had an espresso machine at the Zen Center.
I did feel a few points of darkness.
I think it was primarily contained to one sitting session. And I think it was just after sundown. It was a little darker in the room, the city having turned over to night.
It was just after sundown, and the room was slightly darker.
And I felt the loneliness of it all for a moment.
I felt sad to think about the idea of not having a self. I thought about my beautiful girlfriend, and how much I love her.
But according to this, I don’t exist?
How can love exist if we don’t have a self?
She loves ME.
But I don’t even exist.
What is this!???
And then I also started thinking…these people here at this retreat, do they seem particularly happy or “enlightened?”
I know that’s not the point. The point is that there is no point.
But is that really what I want to be like?
Is this Zen thing just a way of saying life’s too hard, let’s not even try? Let’s just go sit on a cushion all day, and say that we’re ending suffering for all beings, when really we aren’t doing much of anything?
Maybe truly “happy” people don’t really need to think about all of this. They just do.
I also thought about suffering, and about how it would probably be more productive to do something about alleviating suffering, rather than just sitting on a chair. That’s the age-old question, right? We’re not actually helping anyone. Zen meditation ain’t gonna do anything for a starving child in Africa. I don’t really understand how that fits into a practice quite yet, but I know it’s something that folks in the Dharma have contemplated for eons.
All of that ran through my mind in one way or another.
I was also thinking about being disconnected from my girlfriend. She’s back home right now in a foreign country, thousands of miles away, and my mind inevitably wandered to her. What is she doing? Is she thinking of me?
But I was also aware of the fact that this goes in ebbs and flows, and sooner or later, I would return to my center.
I felt some moments of joy.
I wouldn’t say it was bliss, but the experience was definitely pleasurable at times. I found myself thinking, “Wow! I’m getting pretty good at this meditation stuff!” Which tells you just how far I actually have to go.
So was there any great takeaway from my first Zen Meditation retreat? Do I all the sudden feel more relaxed and aware and…Zen?
It’s not a lightswitch. It’s a lifelong practice.
I’ll continue checking various practices at various centers. I’ll try some less Buddhist affiliated centers, to see how it goes with a little less Dharma.
I’m really glad I did it, even if it was just for one day.
Honestly, it was easier than I thought it would be. Based on some of the reading I had done previously, I half expected to be miserable and counting down the hours immediately. So that’s a good thing, right?
So was I excited to go home when the day was over?
You bet your ass I was.
But I do feel just a little bit more mindful today. I feel…happy.
After just one day on retreat, I find that I’m reminding myself to be mindful more readily throughout the day. Walking down the street to the coffee shop Sunday morning, I felt the mist on my face. I listened to the sound of my steps on the street, and I didn’t lose myself in a sea of thoughts, at least not right away.
At dinner with my family later that night, I tried to speak clearly and forthrightly. I tried to have empathy, but I tried to be direct as well.
I’m not saying I was successful. But I tried.
And hopefully, I can keep some of that with me moving forward.
This is just the beginning though. I’m on to something here, for myself. I’m not quite sure where it’s leading yet, but I do know that there is something here that’s worth investigating.
And I’m excited to keep going. To forge my own path.
Well, not MY own path. I’m excited to find A path, I guess?
How do I say I’m excited to find out more about this, without saying I’M? How do I feel excited when nothing actually exists?
Oh you whacky Zen.