I survived my first sesshin. It's amazing how many things can happen over the course of three days when, on the surface, all you're doing is sitting and not speaking.
First, there was the physical challenge. One remarkable change for me was that I was free of back pain for the first time in an extended sit. Darlene recently did a posture adjustment for me that transformed the way that I sit. She has told me before, but this time, a couple of weeks ago, the lesson sunk in. I tend to sit with my shoulders curved in, my chest collapsed towards my spine. For the past week, I have been aware of this, constantly going backwards and forwards, in and out of usual alignment and erect posture. I managed to incorporate that "shoulders back and down" state into my sitting this weekend - and lo and behold! No mid- or lower-back pain! Hooray!
My knees are another story. I noticed late in the day on Saturday that my knees were giving me trouble. I finally added some support cushions, and had instant relief. They seemed fine today, until this afternoon, when my left knee began having excruciating shooting pain. Apparently, I waited too long before responding to the discomfort, and I am now paying the price with throbbing, aching, over-spent knees. Another lesson, one that will have to be incorporated before the Rohatsu Sesshin in December - otherwise it will be a very long five-day sit.
Then there was the silence. I spend a great deal of my life home alone, since my partner and I have differing schedules. Silence is something that I am comfortable with; in fact, I get overstimulated and exhausted very easily with too much people contact. I anticipated that this part of the sesshin would be easy for me. Interestingly, though, being silent around twenty other people is even more tiring that socializing. Language serves as a distractor. Without it, I was intensely aware of every movement and mannerism of those around me. We sat in the zendo, side by side, hearing each other's breath. We ate our meals in silence, eyes averted, acutely in tune with each clack of the fork on the plate, each trip for seconds. Most of us slept in dormitories, so even changing clothes, getting ready for bed, and sleeping were communal activites. I found myself longing for time alone.
But at the same time, the silence creates space to notice and appreciate those things that are usually camouflaged. The bow of the person across from you after a sit period becomes an intimate and nurturing acknowledgement. The bell signaling the next activity rings out into the stillness with a rich beauty. The changing light in the zendo throughout the day, the intermittent breezes that cause the trees to rustle outside, even the fly that wanders into the room and buzzes stupidly, full force, into the closed window, become bodily awarenesses, sensations that fill you up.
There are so many other aspects of this sesshin to write about, that I will revisit it over the next few days. For now, I leave you with this:
On Friday afternoon, we sat for three periods in a row separated by kinhin (walking meditation). Then we had tea, the formalized ceremony with servers bringing cups, a cookie on a small napkin, and hot tea to each person, with lots of bowing and ritual all around. We begin drinking the tea and nibbling on the cookie all at the same time, at the sound of the clappers of the kokyo (chant leader).
My initial zazen periods were refreshing and full. When the tea service started, I was alert, present. Picking up my cup, and taking that first sip - ah, the peppermint! The taste flooded my mouth, the heat warmed my throat and then my whole body. I smiled and closed my eyes, savoring it all - the moment, the cookie, the quiet, the exquisite freshness of hot peppermint tea on my tongue. This, then, is zazen.