Going Deeper in Your Spiritual Practice

One of my New Year’s goals (a.k.a. resolutions) this year is to go deeper in my spiritual practice. My spiritual practice is Zen Buddhism, but hopefully these words will apply to whatever your spiritual practice is. While the pandemic has been stressful for most, impacting so many practices and things we did in our lives, ironically, for me, it is actually turning out to be helpful.

For many years now, I have essentially been treading water in my spiritual practice. I was MOL following basic teachings and do 20 minutes meditation sittings (known as zazen, za for sitting; literally translated, sitting zen) most mornings. Occasionally, but really rarely, I might do an evening sitting. Along comes divorce, being single, and the pandemic with all its social isolation, anxiety, and stress,

As I have written before in previous posts, for years (decades), when my life got stressful, I had fantasized about being a desert hermit. Most notably in the Big Bend-Terlingua-Alpine, Tx area. To that end, I recently submitted my name for consideration for a Department of Biology Chair position that is open. It would a major redirection of my life, back to my previous life as an evolutionary geneticist/college professor, but one that has its own appeal to me even this late in my life. Its a long shot and I’m not sure I would do it, but I’d like the opportunity to make a decision about it. I didn’t get the desert part about my desert hermit-hood, but with the pandemic, I did, ironically, get the hermit part. Just in a small town in upstate SC with my children, grandchildren, and great grandchild nearby. It could be worse, but it is still sometimes lonely. Enters, deepening my spiritual practice, which serendipitously, has actually been helped by the pandemic.

I kicked off this “deepening” last week by attending a Zen sesshin at the Windhorse Zen Center (WZC) in Alexander, NC, some 91 miles from me. It had been 7-8 years since I had been there for a sesshin–or anywhere for that matter.

I seem to be attracted to intense experiences. Zen sesshins are not for the faint of heart. They are INTENSE!. Classically, these meditation retreats involve 4-7 days of sitting in still, quite, formal-posture meditation (zazen) for 9-10 hrs each day. These sittings are broken up by walking meditations (kinhin), work time, teachings, and chanting. They are done in silence. You eat vegan food (ugh!) and no coffee (another ugh!). The latter two I find really not to my liking.

Why INTENSE? As I discuss extensively in my Guru book, intense creates the greatest brain growth (neurogenesis), which is what learning and spiritual growth are all about. Guru was centered around a Native American vision quest experience, but I discussed that the personal/spiritual growth/neurogenesis phenomenon applied to Zen sesshins and other intense experiences.

With the new sesshin format, however, caused by the pandemic, Zen has gone largely virtual via Zoom. I attended last week’s 2-day sesshin in person though. This involved spending most of my time in my room, which came equipped with its own bathroom and kitchenette, complete with refrigerator, microwave, electric tea kettle, and toaster oven. I prepared my own meals from the ample stocks they supplied. I did cheat a little, however, I brought my own coffee and dripper. Yea, caffeine!

Everything else was via Zoom. I did my sittings, all the sessions I would normally do in the meditation hall (Zen), and meeting with the teacher (Dokusan) in my room. For a hermit it was great! This new format is much more to my liking! Plus, it was a 2-day, unheard of pre-pandemic. They are 4- or 7-days usually. It was a great way to get my feet wet in sesshins again.

I really got a lot out of it. I attended with two goals in mind: 1) I wanted to deepen my spiritual practice. I was tired of treading water. 2) I was feeling very ungrounded and wanted to re-establish my groundedness. Progress was made in both areas. In Dokusan (formal meeting with the teacher), Lawson-roshi pointed out that both objectives could be accomplished by going deeper into my Zen practice.

What are some of the other things I am doing to deepen my practice now that I am back home away from the rarefied environment of a Zen monastery? Thanks to Zoom and the WZC, I am participating in their morning and Sunday services (zazen, chanting, teachings). I have yet to make an evening session (7:00-8:30 pm) as 1) it interferes with my cocktail hour and I often to bed quite early these days. I’m going to try a month without the cocktail hour as the alcohol makes me drowsy. This, BTW, is another topic I want to write about. I’m re-evaluating my relationship with alcohol in all of this.

Additionally, I have increased my zazen sessions even when I am not participating in one of the Zen Center’s sessions. I have signed up for a 3-day sesshin for late February, but to do it by remote via Zoom and here at home. That way I don’t have to find someone to look after the dogs and chickens, etc. I have also taken out a membership to WZC. I am feeling a great need for sangha (community) that supports my spiritual practice. I plan on participating more in their various offerings as a way of building sangha.

Wish me good journey. Gassho