Friday, September 16, 2011

Zen Product Review: Zazen Sleep

This is our first installment of Zen Product Reviews, where we review Zen products to help you make enlightened buying decisions.

Today we're looking at Zazen Sleep Formula, which is a new product which promises to help put you to sleep, naturally.

You're not supposed to fall asleep during Zazen. In fact they have a stick in the Zendo just for waking you up if you do decide to have a nap in the middle of a session. It's not used much anymore but it's still sitting there on the altar. Just in case.


Frequently Asked Questions

Zazen Sleep formula has a FAQ on their site which gets a few things not quite right, here then are my answers to their questions:

What is Zazen?

Zazen is sitting meditation with no object. Essentially sitting and staring at the wall trying not to think of anything. Turns out to be a lot harder than it sounds.

How long does it take for Zazen to work?

Zazen typically lasts for 40 minutes when practiced in a Zendo. Personal Zazen times may be as short as five minutes or as long as a whole day if the sitter is tolerant to pain.

What is the active ingredient in Zazen that will help me sleep?

Boredom. There's not a lot of excitement in the Zendo, except for the beginning and ending bells it's slient, the wall is painted plain white, the windows are above your line of sight so you can't look outside. It's just you and the 10,000 things in your head. Get tired of those and it's sleepy time.

Are there any side-effects?

Some people experience joy, crying, emotional release, feelings of samadi and an expanded, universal sense of self. Your mileage may vary.

Can I take Zazen even though I am taking medication?

Experienced practitioners highly recommend avoiding intoxicating substances as they tend to interfere with the correct operation of Zazen.

Where can I buy Zazen?

The dharma is free, but you'll need to rent or borrow a quiet space in which to perform Zazen, contact your local Zen Temple for more information about attending sittings in the Zendo or attending other events to become familiar with Zazen.

What is the best time to take Zazen?

Zazen is best practiced first thing in the morning. Before the sun is up and you have time to compose yourself. Well, you have time to brush your teeth and wash your face, but that's it, the Han's ringing.

How do I know Zazen is right for me?

You'll just have to try it and find out.

Has Zazen been approved by the FDA?

No, but it's approved of by Dogen.

What is the taste or flavor of Zazen?

Oh, a Koan, I'm gonna have to meditate on that!

Who should not take Zazen?

Those who are already perfectly enlightened should not require Zazen; but then, it never hurts…


Our Recommendation

Don't fall asleep during Zazen. That stick is pretty serious looking.

I bet the herbal supplement tastes awful, but I'm not trying it to find out.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

I Suck at Sesshin

No really, I'm awful. This beginner was in no way prepared going into this, not physically, not emotionally, and it showed. Here's the play-by-play:

Sunday the 21st

Got stuck in traffic on the way in, needed to stop in to the office before they closed to reserve some rooms for an upcoming weekend with some other parents from the children's program. The Tanto made a point of giving me a stern look when the "no electronics" admonishment was read by the Ino, I'd say my reputation proceeds me but I was in the middle of typing out one last email on my phone at the time, so I had it coming.

After orientation some people stuck around for oriyoki instruction, I went to unpack my room and get ready for the week. After dinner in the dining room we had another rest period (which is traditional after eating) then a period of zazen or two and a brief service for chanting the three refuges, the Ino announced the start of sesshin and our week of silence had begun.

Monday the 22nd

I was late to the first morning sit, which was a real issue because not only did I miss the morning greeting, I didn't really know the form for getting into the zendo a little late. Like any other form you follow along as best you can and try not to dwell on it while settling onto the cushion.

We got our week long Soji assignments in the morning: mens bathroom in the residents hall. It's a Soji dream (lots of toilets and urinals) and there was a bit of a race to get to the soji sheet, read the instructions for the toilets, and grab the supplies before someone else. The first day we had too many on the crew, half were supposed to clean the outside men's room, so there were a few moments of "everyone is doing something, what should I clean." Once we had that sorted negotiating turns at toilet cleaning got easier (there were only two of us left) and the rest of the week went quite smoothly.

Some of the participants work in the kitchen during the week, some are on the Oryoki Serving crew, I was on a dish crew Monday, Wednesday, Friday and one shift on Sunday. After a week on the farm and occasionally doing drop-in shifts I know dishes pretty well so this was a welcome break from the sitting and I was able to help out some of the other participants with putting stuff away and other kitchen forms. So my one area of semi-competence durning the week was well outside the Zendo, but at least it's something.

Tuesday the 23rd

By Tuesday morning I was coming to grips with the schedule a bit and discovered a great gift: a noisy neighbor. Remember back at that last one day, when I was fidgeting all over the cushion? Well, it was that all over again except I was on the other side, thankfully I had Shundo's advice to follow: be compassionate, which wasn't hard considering my recent experience. I'd been there and knew how it felt to sit with my own suffering and to feel like I was disturbing the people next to me. In fact, as long as I had this suffering to be compassionate about, I was able to sit very quietly and focus on that. It was much easier than sitting with my own suffering.

After lunch I took a long hike on the break, up Middle Green Gulch trail to the ridge and then back down the fire road past Hope Cottage. I got back just in time to change out my shoes for sandals and get into the Zendo for the afternoon sit, sweaty and well exercised, feeling every breath.
After dinner I took another break for a sauna, the Jisha to the Tanto came in after me and left before me. I should have paid attention to this but I was enjoying the sauna after the hike at lunch break. When I finally did get out and shower off I was a bit alarmed to hear the Han sound out before I was quite dressed. The message of the Han is 'come to the zendo now', I'm sure nobody minded that I got dressed before I did.

Wednesday the 24th

Most guests who aren't working get a break after meals, the dish crew has to report to the kitchen to do the dishes, so we were excused from the sitting periods after breaks. Monday I didn't take all these breaks but Wednesday I did. Schedule fatigue sets in pretty deeply after three days of dawn to dark sitting, having those breaks was nice even if I did feel like I was missing out, or cheating, or something. Most of the break time I spent in the dining room working on my origami and drinking coffee.

During the week Reb would periodically walk around and give posture adjustments, by Wednesday I could at least get into a posture that didn't need much correction when he came around. Of course I went right back to slouching after that, but for a moment there: Passable Posture.

Thursday the 25th

Got up early, around 2AM, went down to the kitchen around 3 and made coffee then went to the zendo and did an hour of sitting in the dark. Wasn't too hard to be the first for the 5AM sit after that, even after taking time to go get a coffee after the wakeup bell started.

I had two practice discussions Thursday, which was a long time to wait to have a conversation with anyone. The character of the two discussions was pretty much the opposite of what I had expected going in, but I did get what I was looking for, even if I wasn't quite prepared for it that early in the morning.

Remember the ocean of suffering I went swimming in last month? Well it's still there and since my noisy neighbor got a doan job I was all out of distractions, compassionate or otherwise. Most of the rest of the day was spent with that ocean behind my eyes, leaking out slowly and quietly (I hope) as I sat on the cushion.

Friday the 26th

Friday morning came and went, I took a walk down to the beach after doing dishes and got back in time for the lecture. While at the beach I noticed a bag that had been there yesterday, I don't know for sure what was in it but judging from the weight I decided not to open it up. Sitting on the bench I noticed a number of cigarette buts on the ground in front of a bench overlooking the ocean. After a moment of disgust at having to clean up after these dirty litterbugs I picked everything up and walked it over to the garbage cans at the parking lot.

My little beach cleanup left me thinking: what an odd mix of intentions these people had, to come to the beach and try to find some peace and then to poison themselves (as an ex-smoker, I totally understand but I had to develop an aversion to help myself quit) and finally defile the beach by leaving their litter behind. By the time I got to the garbage can to drop off my little bag of shit I'd gotten over my disgust and saw that I'm really no different. We're all a mix of intentions and the trick, if you can call it that, is to stop yourself in the moment between though and action, evaluate the intentions that come up and try to pick the best one.

After listing to the lecture I actually worked up the courage to go up to the front and ask a question about my experience on the beach. You can hear the exchange between Reb and this beginner here (it's about eight minutes in total).

Saturday the 27th

While the break for a walk and doing the Q&A was good I spent most of the day Friday in tears again, twice I got up and a tissue that I'd tucked under my shirt fell out onto the Zendo floor. My neighbor was nice enough to point this out both times. During morning Soji I hit my head on a beam while getting my shoes and blurted out "Every God-Dammed Time!" which drew a few mute stares. It's one thing to break the silence while you're doing dishes but another to start swearing before Soji. Clearly I was starting to get worn down.

After cleaning the mens bathroom but before breakfast I asked the Ino if I could go lie down, my legs hurt, I was tired of crying all day long, I wasn't getting enough sleep or food (I'd been taking small portions at meals all week). Going back to my room I fell asleep immediately and had the most lurid dream I can recall having in years. It reminded me of a story about Ananda, from the roll-in to the Surangama Sutra (p.25 in that translation) where Ananda goes out begging and is tempted into a house of ill repute, he's about to loose his virtue when an agent of the Buddha intervenes at the last minute and 'saves' him from the clutches of a low woman.

Waking up from the dream I checked the schedule and clock, looked at myself in the mirror and quickly shaved then returned to the Zendo for lecture. Turns out you're not actually supposed to shave during Sesshin but I had forgotten to bring a hair brush as well and was starting to look like one of the Farm Crew. Sitting through the lecture was easy enough, and I stayed in the Zendo for fast kinhin, i think, and for lunch.

After lunch I walked down to the beach, coming back my fatigue caught up with me, I felt immeasurably lonely walking back, didn't want to sit in the Zendo and cry any longer so I went straight back to my room to hide under the covers for a few hours. I neglected to tell the Ino where I was (this is part of the Sesshin protocol) and after a few missed sits she came up to check on me and ask what was wrong. I offered up some lame excuse about my legs hurting, and got some advice on stretching and taking a walk to the beach.

Good advice, but hardly pertinent to my situation. I guess it's what I get for lying about why I was missing in action. I promised to come back for the evening service, which was going to be a Bhodisatva initiation ceremony for one of Reb's students (the same one, it turns out, that helped me with the chant book way back at that one day sit).

Sunday the 28th

By Sunday I felt like my knees weren't going to make it the whole day, so I decided on skipping oroyki which has become my favorite part of the full day sits, but which is also the longest time you have to sit without a posture adjustment. I felt that the sitting was more important, though having done it getting in and out of the zendo before and after each meal was a bit awkward, so I'm going to either have to start doing yoga (which is popular around the Zen Center for what are quickly becoming obvious reasons) or give up my pride and sit at a table.

During the final Q&A session after the closing lecture we got a demo of Kyosaku technique after one of the other sitters asked for it. It was all I could do not to get up and ask to be next, but after seeing it once there was really no need to get up and reveal myself as a total Masochist.

After the conclusion of the last sitting period in the afternoon I cleaned up my cushion, and headed out to the kitchen for tea and cookies, on the way one of the senior teachers stopped me and asked a seemingly innocuous question, "would you like to know something about our Zendo forms?" Uh-oh.

"Of course!" I responded and was then told that wearing a mala in the Zendo is specifically forbidden, by Dogen himself. Fuck. It really left me wondering: what else am I doing wrong? I'm sure the list is a lot longer than I'd like to think it is.