Friday, November 5, 2010

Retreat Afterglow

October SunsetOctober Sunset, Helsinki, 2010

Last weekend's Zen retreat had some quite interesting after-effects. My general mental state this week has been rather different than usual. That has mostly—although not quite completely—faded by now, which is a shame, because I liked it.

This week at work should have been somewhat upsetting and definitely stressful. There have been some changes that are not altogether pleasant, some tasks that are not particularly exciting or interesting, and a lot of interruptions coming from all directions. Normally, I would be a wreck by now; stressed out of my skull, irritated, surly, and generally not much fun at all.

We're participating in a research project that requires us to assess our stress levels for each day, and my check mark was at "Much lower than usual" all week, despite all the stuff going on. Now, I'm feeling peaceful if looking forward to a good night's sleep and a quiet weekend.

For the first three days after the retreat, my dominant emotional affects were gratitude, wonder, equanimity, and mental flexibility.

I was repeatedly struck by things I usually take for granted. My pay slip, for example. I was looking at it, and thinking about the incredible, miraculous confluence of actions and interactions that result in the universe conspiring to deposit money in my bank account every month, what a tiny part I play in that huge web, and how my part is also a part of the web that results in other people getting their pay slips every month.

I felt deeply engaged in my daily actions, at work and at home. It felt easy to stay on whatever it was that I had to be doing, and to find the right thing to do or say—or, especially unusually, not say—in those rapidly changing and shifting circumstances. Meetings that would otherwise bore or stress me, didn't. Tedious tasks felt significant and not tedious at all, and I did them easily and well. Interruptions and multitasking didn't bother me; I simply switched to doing whatever had to be done, and did it. If someone was in a bad mood, I did not pick up and reflect that affect in my usual way, but lived with it and, I think, may even have helped a bit.

It felt really good. This was not detachment, in any sense of the word; I was not serenely floating above worldly concerns; I was strongly and immediately and directly engaged with my usual, everyday things, which made them feel anything but usual and everyday. They just didn't get to me. If this is upekkha, I like it.


  1. I find there is quite a difference between detachment and non-attachment also. Detachment is about aversion and has all kinds of unpleasant, usually buried overtones.

    One thing I find odd though is that when one engages, especially in a full-on kind of way, but isn't attached to the engagement is the amount of speculation on one's motivations, emotional states, etc that are offered by others. It's almost like a demand to explain one's self.

  2. Interesting account on the effects of such a (relatively) short period of sitting. I find it remarkable that such strong and clear effects can be attainable.

    However, I have discovered out personally that to reap such a nice dose of non-attachment you really need to have the "right" mindset. With the "wrong" approach, weak zazen practice and perhaps a particularly strong quality of monkey-mind, the gains might very well be of the opposite sign, or luke warm at the best, easily nulled by the sheer amount of sleep deprivation of a typical retreat.

    The practice has an all or nothing quality to it?

    I definitely had a response from this one. Armed with the extraordinary energy levels I propelled my self into a frantic whirlwind of squashing sprint items with a relentless pace, which result in a mini-burnout by the Wednesday evening, and a terrible headache the next two days which was luckily taken care off by a good dose of painkillers and a nice warm cup off hot-sweet wine drink with almonds and raisins.

  3. I didn't expect this either. It was a very nice bonus.

    The March retreat's effects were more like what you're describing—very high energy with perhaps a slightly manic edge to it, followed by a backlash. I suspect a part of the reason was just release of tension—I was very nervous about surviving the retreat, and the retreat itself was largely trying to cope with pain, being stressed-out about the prospect of dokusan, and coping with a pretty major emotional low; Saturday night was the *pits.* This time around, having survived it once I was pretty confident that I could survive it again, having taken dokusan a few times I was less nervous about that, and I could at least attempt to practice more (although subjectively speaking, most of Saturday's sitting didn't really *feel* particularly strong).

    There was no manic energy this time, nor any need to throw myself at things. The effect is also longer-lasting and is tapering away quietly rather than ending with a bang; I'm still feeling a little of it.

    Having talked to some other people about this, I get the impression that every retreat/sesshin is different; some just are better than others. Perhaps this one will be the best I'll ever have. If so, I'm very happy to have had it.