Stepping into the Stillness

Imagine, if you would, stepping into a room or a place where your thoughts are just not there. A place of peace and calm where those monkey-mind chatters that are usually bouncing around in your mind, just cease and are replaced with open awareness in each moment. No thoughts, no memories, no emotions, just peaceful open awareness where you are focused only on that awareness. Occasional thought might briefly wander through, but you don’t attach to them, you don’t get caught up in them, and they pass. A noise may get your momentary notice, but it too just passes on its way. So peaceful, so restful.

I am trying to describe what it is like for me when I step into my stillness. This is why I meditate. In Zen practice, the meditation form is called zazen, translated, sitting (za) Zen. This stillness is what happens that makes meditation so appealing to me; that keeps calling me back to it after some 35 years of practice. For me, where I am now, it is the “stillness.” Zazen is also the road to better attention and enlightenment, called kensho and ultimately, satori in Zen-speak. This post seeks to explore this stillness for you the reader. The desert highway image above has something to do with this effort. We will come back to it below.

Zazen is a form of mindfulness meditation. Vipassana Buddhism has a similar form. They are particularly powerful for moving you into this stillness. These practices move you out of dualistic thinking toward experiencing the world and yourself non-dualistically, as one with the universe. This is the enlightenment experiences mentioned above, kensho and satori. Kensho is just a brief glimpse. Satori is the real deal. Where you are able to stay in that exaulted place all of the time. It requires major brain rewiring (neuroplasticity). Other forms of meditation also move one in that direction, including yoga, transcendental meditation, etc. I do know from personal experience that Zen’s zazen meditation does.

To find and be able to hold this place of stillness usually takes years of practice for most of us, however. If I am in a hectic or stressful time in my life, as I have been lately, it is more difficult to stay in that stillness. I can get there because of all the practice I’ve had, but holding it, staying in it, becomes more of a challenge during these periods. I can touch it, but get caught up in a thoughts, and have to pick my mind up like training a little puppy, bring it back, and tell it to “sit.”

When I am in an intense spiritual retreat, a sesshin as it is called in Zen, I have been able to reach a deep level of this stillness for periods of 15 or more minutes and merge into it. With practice, I’m getting better at being there in my regular daily sittings, and even at times more and more, to be able to slip into it as I go through my day doing my various activities when I don’t have to be using discriminating thinking and when I just sitting being mindful. The secret is to keep practicing. That is why it is called “spiritual practice.”

Of course, there are many mental and physical health benefits of meditation that have been studied and published (see references at end of post from a workshop I attended a couple or years ago. A great workshop on meditation given by Dennis A. Marikis, PhD). There are also social benefits: meditation increases compassion. This is because meditation moves you from our cultures highly egocentric ways of looking at the world to a more allocentric worldview. Allo– means other. To look further into this aspect of meditation, see references at end.

I’ve been thinking for some time how to describe this “stillness”. The opening paragraph is where I have gotten so far. To “paint” a picture of it in words, it is very much like the metaphor of my last drive back from the Chihuahuan Desert of Big Bend National Park that I describe in some detail in my Guru book, hence the desert image above. To suciently describe it. I was driving heading north up Tx highway 118 going to Alpine. It is a pleasant drive through the desert flatlands mainly, dotted with occasional solitary desert mountains. As I drove the 90 or so miles up that road, it was like meditation, only in this I was moving steadily up the highway. I was “sitting” as in driving the truck. It struck me the mountains were like passing thoughts during meditation. They appear on the horizon, then you are passing them, and keep on truckin’ down the road/sitting, leaving them behind. The flatland is that still place in meditation. An occasional car or truck would pass, coming from the other direction, maybe another passing thought, memory, or feeling. It passes by. You are alone again driving down the road. A little later, a train passes, also going in the opposite direction. Ahh, a longer series of thoughts maybe. You pass it and are once again alone in your stillness as you drive.

Let’s talk about where most of our minds are are most of the time, at least where my mind used to be most of the time. Afterall, I don’t know what is really going on in most people’s minds. I am just summarizing; taking an educated guess. For most of us most of the time, especially in our culture, we have an endless dialogue going on in our heads most, if not all, of the time, except when we are asleep or unconscious. Even asleep, chatter goes on in our brains when we dream. This is monkey mind: chatter, chatter, chatter. And it is very egocentric chatter usually: me, me, me; mine, mine, mine; I, I, I. I know this is how my mind use to mostly work at any rate, and still does quite a bit if I don’t catch it and take it out of gear, back to being mindful in whatever I am doing. Our resting mind, is not “resting” at all. It is like a little hamster on a hamster wheel: round and round he goes, getting nowhere. How tiring! How much energy it sucks!

Imagine now, stepping into a place of no thought. Where that mind is still–and quiet. No chatter, no thoughts, just open awareness. The poor little hamster gets to get off of his wheel. It is incredibly peaceful. It’s Heaven, Nirvana! And it is always right here with us. Ours free for the taking. But the way is narrow–and for most of us it takes a lot of practice to access it. Our culture teaches us to bury it pretty much from our birth: consumerism, never-satisfiedism; more is always better, and never enough. More, more, more! Or, we get bored, sad, lonely, fearful, angry, etc., Things are only right, okay, for a little while. Sigh. Our little hamster-minds just running her little legs off on that wheel.

This stillness builds equanimity, another important concept. Defined by Webster as calmness, self-control, even-temperedness, tranquility, etc. I define equanimity in terms of no suffering, another important Buddhist concept, which ranges from the extreme to dissatisfaction and boredom in terms of psychic and emotional discomfort mainly. It takes practice and stillness to be able to have equanimity and to be able to quickly return to it when life knocks you out of it. I, again, talk a lot about this in Guru.

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Blood Moon Sesshin at Windhorse

Finished my first five-day sesshin with Windhorse Zen Center at about 3:30 pm Sunday, my regular place of “business” these days for meditation retreats. In my efforts to ease back into doing sesshins after seven years away from them, I did a two-day sesshin in January, a three-day one in February, and now a five-day in March. Working up to full-Monty, seven-day ones.

As a reminder, sesshins are intense Zen Buddhist meditation retreats. In the new tamer, Western culture version, we are only sitting in formal meditation eight hours a day, as opposed to the 9-10 in the old days as inherited from Japan.

I’m sure everyone who has not gone to one of these, wonders what do we do all day, from some 6:30am to 9:00pm? Below I’ve put our schedule from this sesshin, along with a little explanation. For now, I want to focus on more general principles.

Pre-COVID, when we were still doing these in person at retreat centers, three rules that were followed were: Noble silence, not looking around or in each others faces and eyes as we went about our day, and no social greetings, which follows from the first two. Sesshins are times for deep internal work on ourselves. These rules are in place from vast years of experience to facilitate that deep internal work. Noble silence is about not talking, singing, or making any unnecessary noise so as not to disturb or distract others. Only written notes are allowed except during chores. Again, the purpose is to keep the focus inward. No phone calls, texts, internet, music, etc. You are not supposed to journal either. This is where my Bandido archetype comes in, my own Captain Jack Sparrow: I look at this rule especially as a “guideline” rather than a “rule.”

Now that so much is being done virtually, in our case via Zoom, texts, and emails, many of these hard fast rules have been somewhat relaxed. Now these are not to be done unless they are sesshin related. For example, during Dokusan (formal meetings with my teacher during sesshins), he lets me know my schedule via email and tells me when he is about ready via text, then I pull up his Zoom link on the Internet, and we have our consultation. And, of course, since I’m doing these from my home, I can decide which rules to follow and to what extent as they serve me. The dogs don’t care, wondering why I’m spending all that time sitting in a chair or on my meditation (zazen) mat, and when I’m going to take them for a walk.

Why do I do sesshins? They are intense and a lot of hard work. They are exhausting. First, back to the old adage, “No pain, no gain.” Intense=pain=gain. Personal and spiritual growth are learning processes. Learning means brain growth (=neuroplasticity, specifically). Intensity stimulates more brain growth, thus more learning, thus more spiritual/personal growth. Second, my purpose in these is to deepen my spiritual practice and increase my personal growth. These are my primary aims.

Zen sesshins are focused on spiritual awakening or enlightenment, referred to as kensho or satori. In my case, this is a secondary goal. If it happens, it happens. I have had several of these satori-like experiences, what psychologist William James called “unitive experiences,” and describe them in my two books, WindWalker and Guru. These experiences were great, fantastic, wonderful, and what psychologist Abraham Maslow called Peak Experiences. They are not, however, my primary goal. Being an enlightened Buddha might be great. I don’t know, I’ve never been one. But, again, my primary goals are cultivating inner-peace and personal growth.

Back to the question now of what we do all day during a sesshin–

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Can Zen Sesshins Be My New Desert Road Trips?

I wrote yesterday about meeting my dragon, Chaos, and my psychological resistance in my most recent sesshin. Today I want to address the question of whether my Zen sesshins can become my transition retreats as my long trips to the Chihuahuan Desert of Big Bend, Texas, area used to be? Since I can do the sesshins from home now on Zoom, can they replace my historic desert road trips (to borrow from the movie, Animal House)?

The desert road trips were a way of stepping back and taking a hard look at my life, evaluating where I was in it, and where I wanted to go from where I was. They also had adventure and wildness, both of which I am drawn to. Above all the desert road trips were spiritual retreats promoting spiritual and personal growth. My life has changed significantly since those trips, the latest being in 2019.

Early on I had children then teens still at home. I was enmeshed in family, church, professional, and personal life streams. I just needed to step away from these for a while to get my perspective back.

Now, there is just me, an old me at that, and my two dogs. Now that I’ve terminated my boys school, equine-assisted psychotherapy as well as my other counseling services, I no longer have these pulling on me.

At this stage in my life, my focus is on gardening, self-sufficiency, simplicity, spiritual deepening, and living eco-responsibly. My solitude and hermitic life-style nurture these. Pretty much I have substituted bicycling for driving my truck, part of my effort to do my part to mitigate climate change. Back to my title question. Can Zen sesshins replace my desert spiritual road trips?

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