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The Zen Meditation Retreat Recap

My blog discussion about my fascinating one day zen meditation retreat with Karen Maezen Miller was cut short by the passing of Sophia’s mother.  Here is a quick recap of that memorable day from a few weeks ago:

The morning and afternoon were segmented into twenty minute periods of sitting meditation (zazen) in the meditation area (zendo).  There were a dozen other students signed up for the retreat, from all walks of life, from students to police officers.  During the meditation segments, we would face the wall and basically, uh, try not to think.   Each session was announced with the striking of the wooden han.  We had a choice of sitting on a map, a meditation bench, or a chair, and it was suggested that we try each of them at least once.  The mat felt the most “authentic,” of course, because it was the most uncomfortable, but by the end of the day, sitting in a chair was pretty nice.

Trying not to think while meditating was as difficult as you would expect, although I didn’t find it particularly painful to attempt.  It was relaxing to sit there and breathe, although it took me a while to understand “how” to breathe correctly.  The tense guy sitting next to me was desperate to “do it right” and was getting more stressed trying to achieve perfection than when he walked in that morning.   Karen Maezen Miller assured us that the act of doing the meditation was more important than doing it a specific way.  I had no preconceived notions, and wasn’t pushing myself to become a zen master, so I think I enjoyed the retreat more than the tense guy.  Los Angeles had a funny way of interrupting our quiet, with fire engines, vans playing Mexican music, and ice cream trucks passing by outside, but while he cursed under his breath, I enjoyed the distractions.

After each sitting meditation period, there was a period of walking meditation (kinhin), where we followed each other around the zendo in a circle, which reminded me of the movie Midnight Express, where the hero was forced to exercise in a Turkish prison.  Surprisingly, I enjoyed this kinhin more than the sitting meditation.  I’ve always been able to better “zone out” when I am walking or doing a repetitive motion.  I’m assuming this is the experience runners get during their runner’s high, or how knitters can knit for hours — where time seems to stand still.  I have frequently had this feeling when walking the streets of Manhattan, as the crowds of passerbys calm me, like waves in the ocean, and I  stop thinking about my life, letting myself become “one” with my environment.

The zen meditation retreat took place in a classic Los Angeles house in mid-city Los Angeles that had been transformed into a modest, but attractive zen temple.  Karen Maezen Miller wore a beautiful, priestly robe.   She had a contagious spirit that was both intense and gentle.  She was assisted by another instructor, a male of about thirty-five, who I assumed was not at the same level of knowledge, mostly because his robe didn’t have as many bells and whistles attached.  He had just completed a longer retreat, and seemed monk-like in his responses, although if you met him at the supermarket, you would think he is another typical LA resident, maybe a screenwriter.

The male instructor was responsible for showing us the rituals involved in zen meditation.  At one point, he taught us how to  bow to the statue of Buddha.  He assured us that Buddha was not a God, but a man, knowing that there might be issues with other religions.  I felt that he was purposely vague about the matter and I wasn’t sure why we we getting into this territory so soon,  especially since very few of us could  sit in the lotus position for more than ten minutes.

I bowed out of respect.  I’m sure no one would have cared if someone felt uncomfortable and didn’t bow.  I had no problem honoring the tradition, but I would have liked to have received more information about Buddha’s role in all of this.   I know Judaism has a strong tradition against idolatry.   I’m curious to understand the intersection between the science of meditation and the spiritual/religious aspects, and how well Buddhism plays ball with Western religion.

If I truly learned anything important about myself during the retreat it happened at lunchtime.  We were served a delicious vegetarian meal, buffet style.  We were expected to keep quiet during the eating period, in order to connect with the sensory eating experience.   I sat with the other students in the living room, eating our tofu and vegetables, being silent, averting the glances of the others.  I don’t remember ever feeling so uncomfortable.  Or, more honestly, I felt the discomfort of the others, like rays of negative energy surrounding me, and I had an overwhelming need to make a joke, to break the ice, and to make everyone feel at home, not for their sake, but for my own.  At one point, I couldn’t stare anymore at my plate anymore, and had to walk outside onto the patio alone, where I could finally relax.   I could be by myself.  I didn’t have this discomfort during the silence of the sitting meditation, because we were each alone in our tasks, like students in a classroom taking a standardized test.  But lunch IS traditionally a time for conversation.  The silence WAS deafening.

What did that discomfort mean?  I’m not exactly sure, but maybe it will help me understand why it is difficult for me to shut up when I am on Twitter, or I feel required to compromise when talking with another individual during a heated exchange.  I feel the energy of others, and my weak sense of self gets drawn into the vortex.  It is difficult for me to focus when there are others around, especially when I sense their agenda. This affects my work patterns.    I work best when I am in the midst of an anonymous crowd, like in Starbucks , or locked in my office like a cage, with the blinds drawn.  The minute Sophia walks inside the room and sits on the couch next to me, my focus turns to mush.  I KNOW she is in the room.

After lunch, Karen Miller Maezen asked us to wash the dishes and clean up after lunch.  Her latest book is all about the connection between zen and every day chores.   I wonder if she uses this technique with her children, to get them to clean her home.

It was a very cool experience, nothing like I expected.  I’m just not sure what to do with  I learned, if anything.

11 Comments

  1. Fascinating, and I admire your restraint in not parodying this experience here. We are so alike in pop culture triggers because I was in that “Midnight Express” prison even before I read that line. I’m not sure how I would’ve handled that day, it doesn’t sound like my cup of tea, but I think I would’ve enjoyed the enforced silence during lunch. It sounds like a relief to remove that pressure of conversation.

    • Danny, with was a very interesting experience that I recommend. And the temple is in walking distance from your house!

      (also testing threaded comments for the first time)

  2. I did a meditation retreat once. I couldn’t focus at all…I managed to think about everything under the sun other than myself.

    i think you did an excellent job of making the experience “authentic..”

    How’d ya like that—throwing the authentic in there? huh? 😉

  3. luxury retreat hawaii

    July 3, 2010 at 5:17 am

    what do zen meditation really do or feels like? was it really that different from other meditations and retreats like yoga??

  4. Wow, your lunchtime epiphany is eerily familiar. I am so tuned into the people around me I catch myself taking on their inflection and mannerisms. And giving in, oh…the giving in……

    I am only a dabbler in Buddhism but have thoroughly enjoyed some of Pema Chodron’s teachings. “Getting Unstuck” might appeal to you- it’s on iTunes. She’s delightful.

  5. “Or, more honestly, I felt the discomfort of the others, like rays of negative energy surrounding me, and I had an overwhelming need to make a joke, to break the ice, and to make everyone feel at home, not for their sake, but for my own.”

    You are sensitive to other people’s feelings. You need to put up some mental shields to protect yourself from “negative energy”. You already use physical shields, like being anonymous in a crowd, or barricading yourself in your office. xx

  6. Neil, I go away for a while and I come back to a new format and news of Sophia’s mom passing and a post about you doing Zen meditation! I am proud of you for trying it and sticking with it for a day. I am also sorry for your loss. xoxo

  7. i would have never made it through lunch in silence either. silent meditation i can do. quiet while eating, everyone would hear my tmj joint popping (shudder).

    i do want to explore a day with her in the future. and on the bowing thing…i have practiced yoga for years and it is just recently that i have found the place in myself to be comfortable with the bow at the end of class when we say namaste. i used to just nod my head a bot but now i feel like going forehead to floor when we close. not sure exactly what shifted but it had to do with me, not the class.

  8. It is difficult for me to focus when there are others around, especially when I sense their agenda. This affects my work patterns. I work best when I am in the midst of an anonymous crowd, like in Starbucks , or locked in my office like a cage, with the blinds drawn. The minute Sophia walks inside the room and sits on the couch next to me, my focus turns to mush. I KNOW she is in the room.

    You may not have learned anything about you, but I have enjoyed learning about you.

  9. I find it easy to “disappear” into myself in any setting. I often feel invisible. What I’m finding more difficult as I get older is engaging with people in group settings, something I did much more easily and comfortably when I was younger.

  10. It seems like you learned something though- especially noticing your discomfort during the silent meal. That speaks volumes! (Excuse the pun.) I know I have mentioned this to you before but check out “Anxious to Please”. I think you would get a lot out of reading it (from one people pleaser to another). I get anxious like that. I am probably a mix of you and that tense guy from your class. 😉

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