Monday, March 15, 2010

When Not To Do Zen

Sexual Harassment
Sexual Harassment, May Day 2005, Helsinki, Finland

That weekend retreat was way more intense than I expected. It's almost ridiculous how much of it was exactly what people like Philip Kapleau and Brad Warner and what have you describe in their books – the emotional roller-coaster ride, the feeling of abject misery and self-loathing giving way to elation, the Zen teacher deflating my expectations rather than acceding to them, the hurty legs, the crazily energetic, light-headed, and "purified" feeling afterwards. And the fact that it really is a rough ride, even if it is only two days.

A part of the whole point is, clearly, to push the limits. The discipline serves that purpose, because pushing the limits is uncomfortable, physically and mentally. Often – and probably for most people – the outcome is positive: you get rid of some nasty baggage you were carrying, and end up with a lighter backpack.

But sometimes it isn't. Sometimes you don't bend and stretch and emerge the better for it. You break, and the pieces rearrange themselves into some much nastier configuration. Then really bad things can happen. You can go into psychosis, or leave everything to pursue some phantom in the hills, or start to think you're a great enlightened master with some flavor of crazy wisdom and start a sangha of your own. There are plenty of stories like that around, although for some reason not a lot of them make it into books or blogs or pop culture.

There's a lot of gentle but relentless social pressure in my sangha to practice more. Since most people – most definitely yours truly – often struggle with maintaining the motivation to keep practicing, this serves a purpose. On that retreat, the social pressure to conform to the discipline was overwhelmingly strong (which is a part of the deal, of course), and the pressure to participate in stuff that wasn't strictly obligatory – yaza, free sitting at night – was pretty damn strong too.

There are some safeguards in place to prevent things from going too far. I'm sure the sensei and instructors kept a close eye on how things were going, and would have intervened had they noticed someone starting to seriously crack up. I had to apply for the retreat, and I had to sit a zazenkai or two before even applying. I've heard that the teachers don't accept everybody for sesshins.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that the balance of the pressure is in the other direction, and despite the senseis' repeated stressing that breath counting really is a very good practice, much of the talk is about koans and sesshins, people often recommend going to stay at Zengården for a while, and that sort of thing. All this is very valuable, and I by no means think that sesshins or retreats or koans should be dropped to make room for people who aren't up to handling that kind of thing.

However, I think that we could use a little more instruction on when not to sit, or go on retreat, or on a sesshin. There was one guy there who looked pretty miserable at the end of the retreat, and I sure hope that he wasn't left all alone with that misery. (Of course, I was too blissed out to be the one to do anything about it, and now I feel a bit bad about that.)

Not everybody is able or willing to climb the steep paths, and I believe that it would not hurt those who are some way up to think of more ways to support less intensive kinds of practice as well. If someone who "only" sits a half hour a day and shows up at the zendo every couple of weeks feels like a second-class Zennie, then something isn't quite right.

I had a very good retreat. It was much tougher than I expected, and I'm much weaker than I like to think, but I feel much better about it. It was important. But I am going to put my ideas of jumping straight into a sesshin the first chance I get on hold for a while, and just stick to my regular practice and maybe do another weekend retreat in the autumn, or next year, and then we'll see. I ain't no leatherneck Marine of mysticism, and dressing up like one isn't going to do anyone any good.

As a postscript, I coincidentally happened on this funny story just now, illustrating one incident of somebody going a bit too far and cracking up. It has a happy ending and makes you laugh, but that guy Robert could actually have gone to the lake and jumped in, and not come up again. Worth thinking about.


  1. Funny you should mentido leather necks. Your first paragraph reminded me of one S/M session I had (true story) and how the whipping made me feel sort of elevated for a couple of days.

    I understand you are more of a traditionalist but maybe you can give it a thought when sesshins don't seem to work.

  2. LOL! Now, that's a novel idea. Unfortunately, I'd have to divorce my wife first, and that's one sacrifice I'm not prepared to make.