I just finished a weekend retreat that was conducted in a formal, traditional Zen Buddhist fashion. It’s called Sesshin, which literally translates to “gathering the mind”, or “gathering the body-mind”. Gratefully, the endeavor did exactly that.
It would seem odd that a person would want to engage such austere practice. With the myriad ways to escape one’s stressors, why in the world would a person want to go someplace and meditate from 8 AM until 8 PM, sometimes for several days? I’m often presented with some derivative of the attitude: “I’m not going somewhere that people sit on their butts for hours at a time staring at a wall!” Resistance is understandable.
I will be perfectly honest. This is not for everyone. Even some who desire this form of retreat find the physical challenge beyond negotiation. However, I count myself among the fortunate who not only desire it, but who actually relish it. I’ve continued to come back to the practice for all of my adult life. But why? What’s in it? What’s the call? Therein lies the mystery.
The practice, as engaged, has been handed down in an unbroken chain since the time of Buddha – for about 2500 years. The aspect of facing the wall is attributed to a person called Boddhidharma, which is a legend in and of itself. By observation alone, there must be some bit of substance herein. The “wall-gazing” piece, by whatever perspective, minimizes distraction. It’s a way to focus. In essence, one is faced with a mirror. That mirror offers a glimpse into one’s very soul.
It’s easy to become lost in the whirlwind of life on a daily basis. We can become so very task focused that we lose sight of the bigger aspect of life. In other words, why are we engaged in all these tasks? What do they provide or accomplish? Oftentimes the greater aspect of life is lost in its simplicity. It’s the release from the “task oriented” world that the Sesshin environment provides. Oddly, even amidst the endurance of Noble Silence and hours of meditation, deep intimacy develops among the people who participate.
At some point during the process there is a renewal. Perhaps it’s possible to say when or how. More importantly, the magic just happens, completely of its own accord, without need for explanation or description. On the one hand, one could say that they “survived” the weekend. On the other hand, they could say that they survived their self.