The hour of Zazen stood out curiously on the Summer Camp schedule.
I was only about three months into Aikido training, and all I knew of Zazen were a few comments from my dojo’s grumbly senior members, such as, “Why anyone would want to sit in an uncomfortable position for a long period of time is beyond me.” We didn’t sit at my old dojo, so maybe it was rebelliousness that carried me over to the hall that afternoon. I wanted to see what the hubbub was about.
One beauty of beginner’s mind is that it doesn’t bother you much when you arrive late to a large room full of people preparing for Zazen. The Zen priest Genjo Marinello Osho was still giving his introduction so I was able to sneak into a row in the back before he rang the bell. His sage commentary flew over my head; all I heard was something about counting to ten.
I sat seiza on the zafu since that was most familiar, in retrospect not the wisest choice. The bell rang, and moments later my knees started to burn, my back to ache, my mind to spin… “This is one of the craziest things I’ve ever done.” That’s what I thought as I struggled not just with discomfort, but with a surprising flood of desires: move, scratch, fidget, run, do something. Sitting still is much harder than it sounds, let alone counting to ten. It must have been no more than 20 minutes before the bell was rung again and I was free to move. After a couple of these sits, I was in a daze.
It’s natural to want to laugh a thing like that off from a safe distance, kind of like you would a minor earthquake or a powerful thunderstorm where no one got hurt. But there’s no shelter from an internal experience of the raw forces of nature. I was intrigued into wondering what a few more inner tempests would reveal.
Back home in Connecticut, to scratch this new itch, I tried sitting a little on my own, and read a couple of internet articles and books. I remember reading Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind and The Unfettered Mind. The main point I seemed to take away was, “Don’t fixate on things.” Don’t try to get something, don’t think you know what you’re getting. Engage fully in what’s in front of you, but don’t get stuck thinking any one thing is such a big deal.
An article by Kate Savoca in Biran (the Aikido journal) was my first introduction to Sesshin. I’d only heard rumors about Rohatsu Sesshin, the mythological eight-day retreat that Chiba Sensei used to make his Kenshusei students attend on a deserted island, where even the toughest aikidoists reportedly threw up in their gis, passed out on the floor or ran away in the night. But Kate wrote with appreciation about embracing the challenges and small personal lessons of Sesshin. No macho stories indulging in suffering and violence, just a description of hard, rewarding training. It attracted me in the same way Aikido did: there was a mysterious virtue and soul-nourishing energy that came out of facing challenges head-on.
This is how, about six months after starting Aikido training, I attended the three-day Sesshin at Bucks County Aikido with only that Summer Camp introduction and a couple of self-supervised sits under my bright white belt. I’m looking back on it now a few years later with several Sesshin of varying duration behind me, including a few long, cold Rohatsu, but I still think that first 3-day Sesshin was my hardest. The difficulties were many: inexperience, pain, distraction, fatigue, self-consciousness, and of course, the Attack of the Flies (there was an uncanny infestation of flies that year).
Yet in unison with the other participants I pushed through the weekend and emerged elated. When I looked around at the trees, the lake, the potluck food, the road on the way home, it felt like my eyes had been scrubbed out. The experience was unique and irreplaceable. Whether you fixate on the gruesome details of Sesshin as a badge of honor, or laugh them off, the immutable, invaluable core of Sesshin is what it reveals to you about yourself and the world around you. This is yours alone.
The way we approach Zazen practice in the Aikido dojo is somewhat unusual. Outside the dojo, many, if not most, students of Zen first read a lot about it, have Intro to Zen orientations, special retreats, technical coaching and so on. In the dojo, on the other hand, we often jump almost straight onto the cushion, unawares, like I did at that Summer Camp. If I’d thought too much about it I probably never would have tried that first sit before having someone teach me “how to sit,”and definitely wouldn’t have launched into Sesshin so unpracticed. But I’m glad I did. Tasting Zazen in its raw, unfiltered form, not knowing or analyzing in advance what it’s all supposed to mean or do for you, holds a special power. For the same reason, I can see why it’s better to not have too much verbal explanation when learning Aikido techniques. The most important thing is what the experience shows you in that moment.
As I started attending Sesshin in the context of a formal monastery, sitting became layered with discourse, koan practice, and religious ceremony. At the heart it was still just me, watching those internal forces of nature, but an architecture started growing all around the raw experience. It’s easy to get lost amid all that meaning, to fixate on more superficial influences. I hope that with Zazen, Aikido, acupuncture and my other endeavors, I can remember to stay in touch with the essence of the practice. Every time I train I have the opportunity to launch myself into the center of the tempest. If I sit with my eyes open I might be lucky enough to really get tossed around, cracked open and revealed.