My Experiences on a Zen Retreat in the Welsh Valleys
I recently went on a Zen retreat and thought that I'd share the story here. Mainly because I want to write it down before I forget it.
I have been interested in Buddhism for a while and at the time of going to the retreat I had been practicing Zen meditation at least once or twice a day. Now I should explain to the uninitiated that Zen meditation in the form I am talking about means counting your breaths on every in breath until you get to five then starting at one again. If any other thoughts arrive in your mind you simply acknowledge them and let them go, do not engage with them. Looking back on the retreat it was only about a month and a half ago but already my memory of it is getting hazy. It was a very strict schedule, we had to get up every day at 5 am and go outside into the freezing cold to do some gentle exercise for about 20 minutes then into the farmhouse for a cup of tea in silence to allow us all to wake up a bit. The whole retreat I should mention at this point, was done in silence. That is you could not speak to anyone else during the course of the entire retreat, unless to give them an order such as pass the salt, no other communication was permitted to enable us to focus more clearly on our minds without the distraction of communication. I think for me the lack of communication was probably the single most amazing thing about the retreat for me. I personally have a lot of problems with communicating with other people and in reading other people's body language. I believe that I may have mild Aspergers so the best thing about the retreat for me was being able to be with other people (there were about 25 of us in all) without the pressure of having to make conversation and get to know people. As a bit of extra background knowledge I didn't know any of the other people attending the retreat prior to attending it and although I know more about them now I have not contacted any of them as yet.
After it was time for us to finish our morning tea someone would bang the gong and we would all go and silently line up and wash up our cups one by one then make our way to the meditation hall. In the meditation hall we would then do 30 minutes meditation in the afore mentioned manner with a ten minute break afterwards followed by a 30 minute communication exercise, which was then followed by another ten minute break and then by another bout of meditation. This routine was repeated throughout the rest of day until approximately 10 although we did have breaks for lunch at 12 and tea at 7, and a short 30 minute period for free time. The communication exercise involved pairing up with another person, chosen at random based on whether or not you'd done an exercise with them already. The two of you then sat facing each other generally in the crossed-legged or half lotus meditation position. One person would then ask the other person there question for the retreat and the other person would then try to answer that question for 5 minutes after which a gong would ring and the partners would swap over. The question for all first timers to the retreat was "Who am I?". Therefore if you had a partner who's name was Bob and whose question was "Who am I?" you would ask them: "Bob, please tell me who you are." The other person would then to the best of their ability try to answer this question in the best way that they could. Some of the responses I received upon asking people the question were fascinating. Many people got very emotional and a few women especially would start crying sometimes. This made me feel slightly uncomfortable however if you had asked the question you had to sit impassively like a statue listening to the person and not reacting in any way so I was careful not to let this show.
As the retreat go on I felt myself get more and more immersed in the process. At the start of the retreat I still felt very self conscious, especially as I wasn't aware that we would be having communication exercises. I am usually very uncomfortable when talking about my emotions and I found that very hard to do at the start. However as it went on I found it easier and easier and near the end I was speaking to these complete strangers like they were friends that I'd known my whole life or my mother and father. I felt an amazing sense of freedom and peace because I knew that everyone on the retreat was following a program and that even if they did think something I said was stupid they couldn't tell anyone else as no-one was communicating. We were also encouraged to keep our questions with us at all times. Even when eating, sleeping or walking, I found that by doing this I actually came to realise a lot about myself. Let me say here that I am usually very critical of people who have claimed to 'find themselves'. As this process of 'finding themselves' usually involves going to India or some similar country and bumming around for a bit. I have never understood in the past what that phrase meant. However I feel like on that retreat I can honestly say I learnt a lot about myself. I am not a different
person for going on the retreat, I am still fundamentally the same person with the same drives and interests after it than I was before it. However I feel like I am now a lot more aware of myself, not in an anxious 'self-conscious' manner but rather in a self noticing way. I still make use of the technique they taught us of acknowledging our thoughts and feelings as they arise, even outside of meditation. This is done as a means of becoming more mindful. I still have a lot of problems in my life and a lot that needs to be accomplished both in my own attitude towards things and in my interactions with the world but I feel that the retreat helped me to notice what I am doing more intently.
I feel that I have almost lost what I actually gained for a brief moment in the retreat which was a brief seedling of true compassion and empathy for other people which I believe since then I have unfortunately never regained in my dealings with the world and other people's hostilities. The problem is that it's all well and good to be weak and emotional in a retreat setting, however in the everyday world where there are people who are out to get you and there are social mores which have to be followed it is not acceptable to just be angry all the time for example or just break down crying in the middle of the street. I believe however that we can all help ourselves connect more with others around us and be more compassionate to others by calming our own minds through meditation. Because once we’ve stopped the turbulence in our own minds we can try to see things for what they really are.
I can't really sum up the experience of the retreat, or even put it into words really. It sounds pretentious but how can you put something into words which does not exist in words? During the experience I felt a dramatic simplification of my life. All that mattered was what I was doing at that moment, I didn't allow myself the extravagance of thinking of the future or the past only in the present to what I was doing at that moment. I found the experience incredibly profound and liberating. I felt during the retreat at some points very connected with everyone else, as though we were all really the same, almost as if I was sharing their minds. Obviously I didn't know what they were thinking but I felt very connected to the them through the experience. I was also surprised at how much I judged people without them even having to say a single word to me. Every time I saw someone I started realising exactly what was going through my head when I looked at them, how many judgements of there face and clothes I made instantaneously which I tried to use to imagine what their lifestyle or career was. Some parts of the retreat were very hard and at some points I did just want to give it up completely and just get up and run around the room screaming at the top of my lungs instead of having one more moment of silence and sitting motionless! However of course I didn't and I feel that I learnt some very important lessons for my life during the retreat and I am definitely going to go back to another one. I could write pages more about my experience but I think I'll leave it there for now as I can never really capture all of it in a brief report like this. If anyone is interested the retreat was through the Western Chan Fellowship. I am still practicing Buddhism however I am practicing chanting now as I was before the retreat with the Soka Gakkai International group. Hopefully someone will find this report interesting and hopefully it will inspire someone to pursue Buddhism as a way of life as I truly believe it is one of the best ways towards personal happiness and peace.