That last entry was a complete throwaway, it occurred to me to write out a sesshin blurb in that format, so I did, but my heart wasn't in it. The problem is I'm not sure how to write about what actually happened, or if I should, or if I want to share it with everyone. I'm not trying to be coy (well maybe a little) it's just a hard experience to sort out, the crucible of sesshin can have a dramatic effect on people, even experienced sitters.
The Language Thing
One of the hardest and most compelling parts of sesshin for me is the restrictions on reading and writing. Speech I don't have a problem with, but not being able to read and write was initially terrifying. I work in a world of words and conceptual constructions, formal and informal grammars, ontological structures, inheritance hierarchies, complex networks, directed graphs of nodes. For fun I mostly read, voraciously, online and off. It's not a recognized condition but it's probably fair to say I'm on the hyperlexic side of the curve.
Over the course of the last year or so as I've sat through more than twenty full days of meditation the experience has been varied, but as each new experience has come up I've learned to recognize it and label it and let go. In the classic texts there are 10,000 things that come up durning meditation and the practice is to meet those things, recognize them for what they are and let go of them. Just sit there and process what comes up, be still and simply endure your own inner chaos and learn what it is that drives you to distraction.
It's a slow process, picking apart the sensations, perceptions and conscious formations that arise in our minds and figuring out how not to become attached to them. Thus we relieve all suffering one moment at a time, sitting there on the cushion, soaking it in for a little while. Each new sit has brought me a new piece of knowledge about myself, a way to stop for a moment and recognize particular formation for what it is: delusion. So when I realized that I spend most of my time in mediation, and in life, thinking about what to say, well, it might not sound like much but it made a big difference.
I haven't started in on the original writings of Dogen just yet, but there is one phrase that has stuck in my mind since I first heard it: "the mind moves from the present to the past". That is, even though we understand time to be a linear phenomenon, with the clock ticking inexorably forward away from the past and into the future, our experience of it is distinctly non-linear. We visit the past every time we remember a pleasant memory or a regret or a loss, and we travel into the future every time we compose, practice and rehearse what we are going to say or write to someone.
Sitting there, one day it came to me, I'm almost always in the past or the future. Either swimming in an ocean of regret and loss or hanging from a cliff of anxiety, fearful of falling into the uncertain future, grasping at the vines. So I had my moment, my sudden realization that I'd been sitting here out of time most of my life. Living in my own forest of delusion about what may have happened and what might happen. That's when it finally got quiet, the monkey sat down in my lap, right there in my cupped hands, curled up a went to sleep.
Nothing to Say
It's what happened next that I'm not sure what to say about, or if there is anything to say about it. Because what it is required the suspension of language, and how can you describe an experience that is inherently outside of the bounds of language? This is the fundamental koan of Zen, how do you show what cannot be described in words? Many have tried, but the answers tend to frustrate beginners:
"How do you think of not thinking? Think of non-thinking."
"The way that can be told is not the true way."
"The path is the goal."
There are moments that I could describe, but they're just memories, just the worlds I use to remind myself about a past that has already dissolved into emptiness. And there are things I might want to say about the future which doesn't exist outside of my own prognostication. The past and future are products of the persistent delusion we all carry around with us, that we are separate from the rest of the universe, that what we think and experience in day to day life is reality. The truth is far more profound than words can describe and it's highly resistant to being recorded or explained, you have to go looking for it yourself, and you can't stop looking until you find it.
Going back to the beginning of this blog, a little more than a year ago, I laid out my goals for practice:
"What I hope to learn [is] how to be in the moment with myself and the world. How to let go of my delusions and see clearly, how to step away from my habits and into a spontaneous life."
Even at the time I knew that these gaining ideas weren't quite in line with the teachings, but sometimes you have to go with the best you have. Having a specific goal in practice misses the point of exploring yourself and looking for the present moment. Believing for a second that anything has or can be accomplished in seating meditation is a trap, we don't improve by sitting, we create space in the rest of our lives so that we can improve ourself. It's a subtle distinction but critical to keeping close to the way, which is what is required to actualize the enlightenment that can be touched in Zazen.
Practice, therefore, is just that: practice. The real work of becoming a Buddha—something I never intended to pursue—happens outside of the Zendo, away from the cushion. Practice prepares the ground of awakening, but the seed is already beneath the soil, richly fertilized with our karma and delusions, ready to come up through the ground and grow if we can just let the light in and make room in the garden of our minds.
"Dirt farming and cloud farming, it's all the same."