If I had to pick three words for how it felt to do a full day meditation retreat for the first time, those are the three.
I'm a big fan of Socially Awkward Penguin, for me it's some of the most relatablehumor out there. So when you come back from there, imagine someone who thinks of themselves as a little awkward to start with in situation with strict formal rules and traditions, all infused with deep significance, from a culture that is not your own. I felt like I was constantly making errors, because I was, every little thing has a right way and a wrong way: which side of the cushion to be on, which mudra, facing which direction relative to the assembly or your cushion. The inside of the zendo is a highly scripted performance, and you can't spectate, excepting by reading accounts, so participating for the first time is bound to be awkward.
The three chanting services provided the most confusing part of the day, some ofthe content is phonetically transcribed japanese, some is english, some may be phonetic pali, i'm not sure. There's an announcer who reads the titles before you chant them but if you don't know that and you look clueless enough the teachers assistant turns the pages for you the first couple of times. I figured it out by the last service. A lot of the smaller verses, especially at meal time, don't get announced so if you're a regular, memorization is key for those.
Breakfast and lunch in the zendo turned out to be a treat, I was focused on the forms and followed along pretty well for breakfast, but missed the wash water and had not perfectly clean dishes for lunch. The kit includes a little spatula for 'licking' the bowl in a dignified manner, to make sure you get everything out of the meal. The wash water is you beverage for that meal, drink about a third as part of the ceremony, drain about a third into the buckets, and save the last portion to drink after. I dumped all my water after drinking a small portion and didn't have enough for the toast after wards. The food was really excellent, simple hearty, portions just right for a light day of sitting and walking.
At the end of the day I left before dinner, feeling a little overcome at the scale of the thing. After years of on and off solo mediation this is a bit like running a marathon both in terns of the physical demands of sitting for more than 12 hours and the demands on concentration and focus. Thankfully, there are slow and fast walking breaks built into the program, which help to ease the physical strain of sitting. I tried to stay in the zendo as much as possible and follow along, there was a lot of helpful correction along the way as well as good examples sitting all around you, especially during the meals you can sort of follow along for the most part.
What goes on in the zendo is a highly choreographed experience, with the goal being to break you completely out of your everyday mind and absorb it into contemplation of the present moment. The forms force you out of habit and daily convention and into strictly stereotyped roles, it removes a few of the 10,000 things that come up in our minds moment to moment so that we can see more clearly into the murky water of the self. For me, as a beginner, it was Monkey Mind all day long, swinging from the rafters of the zendo while I sat still as a stone.
So after all that, what could have possibly been worth the physical pain, the anxiety, the otherworldliness of it all? Not sure I have an answer to that but I'm seriously considering the upcoming 3 Day Sesshin at City Center next month.