Silence while in sesshin

I spent my first morning at Kannon Do today, the zen center in Mountain View. I’d been wanting to go for the past few weeks, ever since I found out about Tassajara and began reading Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, by Shunryu Suzuki. It’s a fascinating introduction to Zen practice, looking at how proper breathing and posture play a critical role in effective meditation.

As someone who’s not particularly in touch with his body (posture has not been one of my strong suits in life), I was surprised how easy I found it to center myself when I sat for my first session of Zazen. I was able to remember the posture they showed me, head back, elbows straight over my chest, everything in alignment. I felt like I was on my way.

Breathing, however, was another matter. They advised me to count my breaths, 1, 2, 3, and see if I could get to 10. I never got above one. The trick was counting your breath while not thinking about anything else. I came close a few times, but I always came back to thinking about the fact that I was counting my breaths, rather than just counting them. That may seem a bit counterintuitive, but it’s like trying to breathe regularly without thinking about the fact that you’re controlling your breathing. Doable, but it takes practice.

So I’m one for two. Now comes the hard part, clearing my mind. See my problem is that I’m someone who thinks about everything, who thinks about thinking, so asking me to allow my thoughts to pass me by without focusing on any of them runs counter to exactly how my mind works at every other time I’m awake. To add to that, you’re not supposed to intentionally clear your mind, but rather to allow it to clear itself. You can’t intentionally ignore your thoughts, or you’ll just be thinking about the fact that you’re not thinking about anything!

So I went back to step one. Every time I had a thought, I just focused on my breathing, checked my posture. Sometimes the thoughts persisted, and slowly I taught myself not to fight that impulse. I saw how if I just let thoughts come, eventually they would pass.

I was supposed to do this for forty minutes. That was my plan going in. That was what was on the schedule I saw online. But as fate would have it, my first day was the Saturday of the sesshin, the all-day retreat at Kannon Do. So I meditated from 8:40AM to 11AM, just under 2.5 hours.

It was amazing. Now I won’t deny I was tired after that long. But I had moments where I saw the purpose for the silence, I felt why you struggled with all the discomfort at first. For just a brief moment, I felt true calm come over me, a sense of peace that struck me as something wholly new. I want that to continue, I want to come back to that place and make that feeling last for more than just a few seconds.

And so I will sit tomorrow, and see what happens.

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