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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Dancing with the Dragon

Bandido and his dragon, Chaos, guarding my Shadow cave and its “treasures”. She lies asleep here in the lake of my great unconscious. .

Just finished a three-day Zen sesshin. For those who don’t remember from my earlier posts and writings, these are intense meditation retreats where one is in sitting meditation (zazen) for about nine hours a day. These days involve rounds of multiple sittings, broken up between with walking meditation (kinhin).

For me, these have never been fun. They are hard and often involve unpleasant internal work; and usually, for me, are accompanied by a lot of discomfort and pain from the long hours of sitting. On this one for example, I had to make a run during one of our breaks to my chiropractor. My T7 vertebrae began screaming out almost from the start. I usually try to get into see him for an adjustment before a sesshin, but too many things were going on before, and I hadn’t made it this time. Having to get out like that is scattering when you come back and try to merge back into your sittings.

Again, many of you may ask, so why does he do these things again? I wrote a blog post on that just recently, but need to expand on it some, as it will be a section or chapter in one of my book projects. Basically, though, it is for the spiritual and personal growth they promote.

In my lifetime quest to cultivate peace-of-mind and personal growth, such intense experiences as these, along with vision quests, really make you stand and face your own shit! That deep inner stuff most of us would really prefer not to know about much less face. It’s called our Shadow, which I also need to write a separate post.

Shadow is those instinctual, suppressed parts of ourselves that reside down in our subconscious. Meaning, we are usually unaware of them and try to keep them stuffed down, or hide them when they do come up. They come up when we are stressed, inebriated, tired, and, of course, in our dreams. Shadow is those parts of ourselves we really don’t want to know about much less face. Well guess what, during sesshins, Shadow is out, unchained. Enters, my dragon, Chaos. She’s out, and I have to dance with her if I want to move forward in my life.

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Desert Wildness

Desert mountains of Chihauhuan Desert of Texas

“Fuck!” Bandido exclaimed as he removed his smelly cigar from his mouth and looked over at first, Chaos, then at me with an accusatory eye. “You’r waking her up,” and sighed, heading over to her, I assumed, to calm her down. Walking away, he said over his shoulder, “It’s our damn desert calling to again.”

I had awoken early this morning with my anxiety way up about 1) tomorrow would be the last day of my counseling career as we did our last equine-assisted psychotherapy day at our boys’ school. We had been taking the horses out to for some 14 years now and earning a good salary for doing it, and it that only involved being out there four days a month. My income was about to take a major nosedive! But, what Bandido was referring to was #2: about another trip out to the desert of Big Bend National Park, 1500 miles of driving one way, in the Chihauhuan Desert in far West Texas.

Those few that have read my two books, especially the Guru one, know, Bandido and his sidekick, Chaos, his dragon, are my Jungian Shadow complex. Bandido is the dragon keeper. His job is to keep Chaos calm and mainly sleeping. She’s the dragon that guards my inner-most sanctum, those repressed parts of myself that I’d rather not deal with or admit to. Although, at this late stage in my life her “treasure,” my stash of issues and repressions that she guards, is greatly diminished hopefully. Thank goodness. I’ll have more to say about these two in later posts on Shadow work and individuation.

Briefly though, Bandido is rude, crude, doesn’t miss words. He shoots straight to the point. He is not very civilized, so to speak. He is my alter ego. He’s the part of me that comes out when I’m pissed, anxious, or just irritated, for example. Stupid irritates me. And there was a lot of stupid running around the last four years. I like him. He takes after my heart. What’s this about the desert then?

The desert, or rather its wildness, calls to me in times of transition. I am now neck-deep in transition as I leave my old life in mental health counseling and aim to devote what lefts of it in these sunset years to discern and follow my calling, which is basically about writing and teaching to help others in their own spiritual and personal growth. To be clear, when I use the word “spiritual,” I define it as inner-peace and personal growth.

I have been in a series of personal transitions over the last several years. My first was back in 1998 when I was leaving academia and giving up my tenured professorship. Over the last recent years, I have felt the need and taken trips to the desert in 2015, 2017, and 2019. I have a biannual pattern going here. So a trip in 2021 would fit into that pattern. That’s not why I’m going, though. Rather, like I said, I am amid another major life transition, and that is calling me. I need to go out to spend some clarifying time out in the desert.

Now, this is more vision-quest type time. It’s intense, alone, and camping out in the desert; experiencing her directly and head-on. Experiencing her wildness! What do I mean by “desert wildness”?

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Synchronicity: Discerning a Path in the Darkness

I’m a true believer in synchronicity. It happens to me mostly when I am in the midst of a major life transition, which is where I find myself right now.

Psychologist Carl Jung, a contemporary of Freud, defined synchronicity as the simultaneous co-occurrence of two events that seemingly have no discernible causal connection. I discuss three of these during a major life transition I was going through in my first book, WindWalker: Journey into Science, Self, and Spirit, available for now through this website (darrellyardley.com) directly from me.

One of those synchronicity events was when I had walked out of my office at the university and over to get on my Harley to go home. I had only recently realized that I wanted to make a major change in direction in my life, a calling that had been subliminally calling to me for years, but I had ignored and shoved down. That calling was to leave my academic, research career in evolutionary genetics and go into mental health counseling. I was pondering this as I walked out to my Harley that day, wondering how I could go about making that change.

My Harley was usually the only one in the motorcycle parking area, but that day, sitting right beside mine, was another beautiful Harley. As I was looking over at it and getting on my riding leathers, upped walked its owner. We stood there and talked for a few minutes. He said he was just coming back from completing is last course for getting his counseling degree. This immediately got my interest. Was I not just thinking about that? I didn’t even know Clemson University offered degrees in counseling. I had checked into it but with the Psychology Department. This degree program was through Education. Several days later, I found myself enrolled in my first course in the program. Classes were held in the evenings and so would not interfere with my faculty “day job.” Plus, as faculty, I could take one course a semester for free!

Enters my current life transition, having decided that after 23 years, I am through with counseling, and terminating my contract with the boys schools we have been doing horse therapy (equine-assisted counseling) with for 14 years. I am in a discernment phase now 1) trying to decide what my callings are in this late stage of my life; and 2) the need to find an additional source of income to replace some of the income I am loosing from the boys school. Something that involves using my callings.

I know a lot of the pieces (the #1’s), just not yet how to pull them together to accomplish #2,. One of those pieces was to go deeper into my Zen Buddhist spiritual practice. In this regard, the COVID pandemic and the extensive use of Zoom actually works in my favor toward this end. I am now a participating member, mainly via Zoom, with the Windhorse Zen Community, about 90 miles away, near Alexandria, NC. Now, back to synchronicity…

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“If you have to ask, you wouldn’t understand.”

I was reminded of this saying once again the other day. It comes from my old Harley motorcycle days. In my journey through life and all the “strange” things I’ve done and do, I have often been asked, “Why do you do that?” Or its variation, “Why would anyone want to do something like that?” Been here before. Done that. So, here’s the story…

An old biker getting off his Harley and dressed in full black leather riding gear was approached by a little old lady, obliviously mainstream and well to do. She asked, “Why do you ride those things? They’re noisy and just look at the type of people who ride them.” He looked at her and politely said, “Mam, if I have to explain, you wouldn’t understand,” and he walked off, leaving her standing there.

Now, this is not a post about Harleys, although I sometimes miss them. It is a post about my current life and a course I’m just finishing teaching. I have been teaching an OLLIE course through Clemson University. OLLIE for Osher Lifelong Learning Institute presents short courses for retired folks, usually taught by retired faculty from Clemson, that be me in this case. Twenty-five plus years ago I had taught one on recombinant DNA for what was then OLLIE and while I was still a faculty at Clemson. It had been fun. Retired folks signup and take these courses because they’re interested in the topics and enjoy learning new stuff. They are lifelong learners. It is a great program.

The topic of my course, based on my new Guru book, was ” Medicine Wheels, Vision Quests, and Jungian Archetypes.” It was three lectures and one experiential where I will give participants an opportunity to meet one of their own personal archetypes, face-to-face, so to speak. All lectures are done via Zoom.

The course was one of my forays to see if there was interest out there for some of the stuff in which I am interested and to potentially give myself an avenue for a new path as I walk away from my current job from burnout and into the unknown at this point. Not sure where I’m going, but I’ll know when I get there.

In the first lecture, at the end of it, one of the participants asked me, “Why would you want to do something like that?” I smiled, and told her and the very small class, first the old Harley riders response, and then a story of a physician I had been working with many years ago. However, this being a class and all, I took a deep breath and gave her a partial explanation, on which I went much more into detail at the beginning of the next lecture. Then, in the spirit of learning, weaved in my answer over the next two lectures for good measure.

As for the physician story, I had just come back from the vision quest that I wrote about in Guru. Several of the staff had gathered round me when I came back, curious about where I had been and what I had been doing, and all sorts of questions about my experience. Somewhere toward the end of that telling, the physician had walked up and was listening. When I had finished he asked me,

“Why would you want to do anything like that?” Although he had done work with medical intuitive, Carolyn Myss, and was himself pretty good at it, as well as certified in acupuncture. he was pretty arrogant and cocky, and I had bit my tongue with him more than once in our pas in one of his smart ass remarks. It was Payback” time: I looked at him and said, “Well, Bobby, if I have to explain, you wouldn’t understand,” and like the old biker, just left him standing there as I walked off to see my first patient. He never asked me again. Okay, back to my story.

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