My Intensive Retreats (Sesshins)

The following are notes from 2004 to the present, written after each sesshin I participated in. Hopefully there is maturing within the sequence, so if you are interested in what seems to me most valid, you should start at the end.

Denko-e Sept 2004 (initially written as an unsent letter to the Sesshin leader/teacher)

This first morning after the Sesshin ended, I had an extraordinarily clear realization, for me, that the core of "who am I" that which peers out of my eyes and somehow extends through my body, is the same as "big mind", that which is peering back, and somehow surrounds and pervades me. Both feel alive and conscious, and both feel palpably overlapping but amorphous. They change with my reflection as their boundaries fade, and merge.

Further, what has been holding me from this realization is my rather extravagant hope, e.g., for Satori that includes a rising up of Kundalini that would free all energy flow and purge all negativity in my subconscious. Instead, the blocks remain, feelings of inadequacy and insecurity, and habits of discursive thinking and afflictive emotions. My habits subsequently took me through helping my wife get out the door to work, feeding the pets, and making breakfast, before writing this letter.

I think energy flow and posture are closely related; if I could only get my posture right, the blocks (or knots) would be gone. I have some kinks in my lower spine that correspond to the knots where the energy pathways are hindered, also in the forehead's frontal lobes and other chakras. They relate to habits, in addition to anger. I fall woefully short of Buddhas 8-fold path, particularly right thinking.

The Sesshin itself was wonderful for me, even with my problems due to under/over-sleeping, daydreaming, not paying attention, and morning-only participation. I did have several wonderful happenings in Zazen, including tastes of Sammadhi, and clearly perceptible energy releases along meridians parallel to the spine that are still impeded in knots/chakras. These would start after several periods of sitting, and continue through lunch. In Kinhin I could not resist contorting the muscles and vertebrate in the small of my back with each step to further open the knots. These kinds of happenings have been common in my sesshins for some years. There was also a similar shift of energy in my frontal lobes, feeling like the flesh of brain cells inside being redone and redistributed within the brain behind my forehead, and the feeling of being permeated by big mind; metaphorically being soaked clear through by Suzuki Roshi's fog. And throughout, as always, there is a deep excitement at Sesshin's induced changes in perception, that accentuates my compelling, repetitious, and frequently self-hating thinking; until I finally begin searching for "who is hating, what part of me wants to be this ideal, and why", and other variants of the koan "who am I, what is?"

As an afterthought or memory from Denkoe not mentioned above: One new experience or feeling was of energy flow (Qi?) transforming and moving some fleshy parts (topsoil?, karma?) in the fore-lobes of my brain to distribute them more broadly across top-front and sides of the brain.


Rohatsu Sesshin 2004, (written as an email report to my adult children)

It was a very good sesshin; albeit small, about 10-12 people most days. I was there only from 5am till 1pm or so, for me just the morning shift most days. Most of that was just sitting formally in Zazen, including ceremonial Oryoki breakfast and lunch.

The sesshin process addresses a straightforward quest for the meaning of our individual lives. This question is usually framed in terms of koans (puzzles) such as: Who am I? What is the Self? What is the Source? But it is sometimes just framed as recognizing and being aware and appreciative of the present moment, accepting what is, just being here with each breath, and so forth. After a few days of this one begins to feel a greater sense of being within a unified body/mind/universe, and within a big mind that includes and pervades even the surrounding trees and stream and rain, with living energy and emptiness underlying everything. (Buddhism's three gates of liberation are: Emptiness/inter-being (egolessness, no self), Signlessness/notionlessness (everything changes, impermanence), and Wishlessness/non-craving (ending dissatisfaction, desire and grasping).

Most of my sesshin experience is of the conflict of wanting to sit well while my mind wanders, of various melodramas, vain-gloriousness, desires, daydreams, etc. Although I realize only bits and pieces of what is sacred, even that leaves a wonderful afterglow, including happiness, that will fade into the normalcy of the next few days.

Jikoji's new resident teacher, Michael Newhall, led the sesshin. It was one of perhaps hundreds (thousands?) of independent sesshins worldwide on these dates, that commemorate Buddha's birthday.

Three days after Rohatsu: I feel let down and disheartened, particularly by the board melodrama about the road maintenance that intruded into the sesshin. But it still was good, albeit with less stressful energy and mind-washing than prior sesshins, possibly due to my mornings only practice this year.

Subsequent (long after Rohatsu) thoughts/realizations:

The energy flow I occasionally feel, or even force in daily practice, originates in my lower body, behind the stomach area, and goes up along two channels parallel to my spine, up the back and top of my head, down through the frontal lobes and into my face. Then it goes nowhere unless I more or less force it, e.g., by imagining I am swallowing it, when it goes back down my body's interior, through my stomach, and then spreads out. Alternately it can recirculate down the front of my body.

There are knots along these channels corresponding to the chakra positions. However, a friend pointed out that the knots along my spine were not chakras, since chakras are in the center, not in the spinal area.

The effects of Denkoe and Rohatsu have been to more clearly separate the channels and to weaken the knots, allowing easier energy flow, except perhaps in the knot in back of my neck, and in my frontal lobes, corresponding to the third eye. The flow does not seem primary; instead the stress between knots, and the pressures within the knots, is more the norm; flow is unusual and frequently forced, as an opening/loosening exercise. Right now for example the primary pressure is between/above the eyebrows, lesser pressure in the back of the neck and lower back. These knots do seem to be interconnected.

Rohatsu in particular seemed to weaken the tight knot in the middle lower spine area, and to separate the channels to bypass around this knot. I further realized afterwards that one effect of improved posture, both enhancing the curvature of my lower back/spine and moving my chin back with my head more erect, was to address these two areas. The knot in back of my neck seems unrelenting, but I am trying to keep my chin back and head erect in the hope of weakening it. I suspect after that, if in this lifetime, will come some adjustment to further open the frontal lobes.

The process however has been ongoing for over thirty years and is only correlated with sesshins. The pains, tensions, knots, and energy have been clearly perceptible since I started practice, and whether I practice or not; I once stopped sitting Zazen for some months, but it didn't matter except to free up some time. It all changes continuously, and sometimes is very strong, sometimes only mild, but I think the sensations are always there, albeit sometimes more painful or stressful. They are mild enough so that I do not express them or describe them to others, and can always manage to function without apparently diminishing my effectiveness.


Parinirvana Sesshin, February 11-17, 2005

The Sesshin, with Angie leading, Mike as Eno, and Elizabeth as Tenzo, was wonderful, and well-attended despite our lack of advance notice/advertising. The food was great; Elizabeth deserves a commendation considering it was her first tenzo. The caretakers were ubiquitous and amorphous; particularly Judy with Jane Jeffries later as Sogu, Oscar as sometimes Tenzo, Bill and Joolz as work leaders.

The process goes on, but with more of the "nothing special" character. The "channels" along my spine are probably just nerves, and the knots just places where they get pinched (except for the head knots which clearly correspond to the chakras). There was considerable flows and changes in the spine and surfaces of my forebrain areas, feeling like layers of flesh getting moved. (At the concluding sesshin at Tasajara (Winter 1977) the energy flow was spectacular; I felt like a cowboy swinging a lariat with the lariat being the energy flow up my spine and down my front; I eventually tired of it and threw my imagined lariat onto the alter there.)

As in prior sesshins, I had dokusan with the teacher; each dokusan has been memorable for me, and has added a personal note to the somewhat impersonal sesshin atmosphere. In this case, it was just the renewing of acquaintances, and sharing concerns; but the background of the teaching was clearly ingrained.

Still, several days later, I am left with pains in between my eyebrows, in the top back of my head, back of my neck, and small of my back, as well as in the base of my spine.


Tanjo-E Sesshin, April 4-9

Vanja Palmer came again from Switzerland to lead this sesshin, with Michael again serving as Eno.

I attended mornings only through lunch, and then all day Saturday, that included a Board meeting. If anything, my mind and melodramas were more active than in prior sesshins, possibly because there were more melodramas at home, and I did not get enough sleep, averaging about 6 hours. There were however lots of hints and tastes of the sacred, similar to those of prior sesshins, and the final morning was sublime. There was a dawning realization of the Buddha being born within my sacrum and lower spine, sending energy, love and light throughout my universe, and including all beings. Still however blocked in the mid-spine by emotional attachments; lust, greed, fear, anger, etc. And still my overactive mind works frenetically on its melodramas, for glory and fame.

Dokusan with Vanja ranged over Jikoji's status and well-being, his role, my experience, and so on. I mentioned that I might ask Michael to give me the precepts, somewhat following Bryan's example (who invited me to join his precept-taking ceremony at Kamo from Keibun Otogawa). [I am thinking I have done enough traveling and I would like to be in my meditation hut that would also be blessed/recognized. Also, having the precepts here May 25 would be closer to my home base, and would give me something special to do for my birthday (70!). Finally, I think I could write my own precepts, and ceremony. Vanja encouraged me, saying that it would give Michael confidence.

October 30 2005: No sesshins yet, but still the process goes on. In daily meditation and thereafter there are strong sensations of changes in my brain and head, mostly in between the eyebrows, top of head, and back of head, and also in the various spine centers. In my walks to the zendo with the dogs I have of course mindfulness as an objective, with dual awareness of small mind's self-centered thinking and big mind's everything, particularly the beauty and awesomeness of my natural surroundings (trees, sunset, brush, etc.). At one point I did have a strong realization of the oneness of big mind, but mostly I am just aware of it, but still caught in my thinking.


Rohatsu Sesshin Dec 5-12 2005:

The sesshin was leaderless and silent, with no chants, talks or services (Michael, our Resident Teacher, was missing due to his adult nephew's accident causing his severe medical emergency). Actually the residents did it all, particularly Gerow and Judy, with support from us attendees. I started with my usual am only attendance with afternoon/evening practice at home (but in fact mostly not done). The next day I stayed for an afternoon as well, the next just another morning, then two all-days (4:30 am to 10 pm with commuting), and finally today's wrap-up am lasting through lunch. As usual, one of the primary benefits was of the shared experience with the other participants. One was a Benedictine priest in training, and there were several other new-to-me participants but most were old Jikoji people, ranging from 15 down to a low of about five at some times. Our silence may even enhance our shared experience.

I sat in the Burmese position, with my legs spread wide, rather than the lotus, with one foot on the other thigh; but even so my knees and back were problematic. The impacts grew, starting with some tortuous back and leg pains, leading me to get into and even admit my suffering. My flapping mind, which I feel anguish about, breezed throughout much of the sesshin, sitting at times in the midst of sometimes astounding energies and attention, as well as aches, strains and pains. The felt visualizations including washing each of my organs and cells with each breath, unfolding flaps and onions of flesh in my brain (particularly in my frontal lobes above the eyebrows, but also of my carving a deep canyon across and in back of the lobes' area), and moving muscles and flesh particularly around vertebrae, and particularly in my lower back that still feels kinked. It feels as though there are blocks to energy flow due to kinks at the spinal area in the small of my back, and again just behind the abdomen. I come back to ancient koans (who am I, thinking non-thinking, working on the great matter). While working on the koans, my illusions (of my mind-flapping ego-consciousness) give way to body-mind awareness, but ego usually dominates, with my mind flapping. Many times the energy shifts lead me to the same space as the koans, encompassing body-mind-energy awareness and awakening.

Toward the end the sesshin's energy brought my spine and brain into more awareness, as Suzuki-Roshi's "not one and not two", like the body-mind, or heart-mind for that matter. There were periods of dramatic energy flow in spine and brain, sometimes with the perception that 'I" was moving my energy up my spine and through each chakra successively, and sometimes spontaneously, with later increasing of awareness within my spine with various energy paths, not flowing, just there.

Gerow, the Ino, said a number of things that were helpful to the group, about the special energy sesshins tap, and the centuries of prior practices during Rohatsu, for the benefit of all beings. Later, he recalled the idiocy of wanting to be a Buddha or some special thing rather the being the truly special being one is, with its fully awakened original mind (clouded by social delusions in most of us). My non-acceptance of my ego, feelings, and flapping mind, and my dedication to becoming better, are my instances of this idiocy; but I have many other conflicts, due to lack of self-acceptance and of partly unconsciously wanting to become some ideal or other.

In retrospect, daily Zazen practice has been the backbone of my life for 35 years, and sesshin practice drives its energy and life-force. The energy is not "mine" however; instead it is my probably undeserved inheritance from my sesshins through the past 30 years, most of which were led by Kobun Otogawa at Jikoji, or at its predecessor. In view of Gerow's comments, it may also be from Kobun and his line extending thousands of years back to Buddha. Kobun said something like "sesshins are to die, although we tell our friends we come to sit, we actually come to die ". Wanting our selfishness and narrowness, and our ignorance of others' sufferings, to die, and seeing our continuing negativity as intolerable, is understandable; and, from the viewpoint of self-acceptance, targeting just our negativity is impossible.

Overall however this sesshin had less "magic" than some prior sesshins, that included instances, e.g., of sammadhi, and of touching on what is sacred.


Jan 2006: No sesshin, but there was a shift in my process over the last day or so. It started in the evening as I was retiring, with strong perceptions of body sensations, particularly of my outline/skin, but also in my spine and chakra-locations. The next morning's Zazen was exceptional, and the strong feelings persist particularly between my eyebrows and down my spine at the back of the throat and in the small of my back. These feelings are crowding the my flapping mind's normal thoughts. A week or so later: another shift, again with changes in my spinal consciousness, centering on the small of my back, on going to sleep and on awakening (at 4 am!), and later improved Zazen sitting in full lotus. February 2006: still more changes in perceptions, now centering on pain in my lower back. Somehow these pains seem connected to arthritis in my hip, but they continue up my spine and into my head. For almost thirty years I have felt that there are muscles and nerves like stretched rubber bands, connecting locations corresponding to the chakras along my spine to and in my head. These are mitigated, and in part dissolved, by my practice; but other pains replace them. I am concerned that I will damage my lower back further during the sesshin next week.

Parinirvana Sesshin February 2006:

Angie Boissevain again led this sesshin, that was also attended and supported by Michael Newhall, although Angie brought her own sesshin officers and many of her Floating Zendo members. I stayed at Jikoji throughout, even overnights, and was able to sit every sitting except perhaps a dozen when my kitchen and serving jobs conflicted. The schedule was moderately intense, particularly during the last three days. My mind was however frequently clouded; it was hopelessly involved in writing what became The Noble Truths, paraphrased, but the thinking itself was an Addiction.

In an email to my adult children, I wrote that the sesshin was "about the same as last time: grueling, inspiring, frustrating, wonderful, mind-blowing etc. Ho hum. I sat well due to a better Zafu (higher, with a visco-elastic cushion underlying buckwheat hulls, that I found and bought at the last minute). Sitting low and in the lotus posture is better for one's back, but higher and in the Burmese posture is easier on the knees. The higher zafu makes quite a difference after 15-18 40 minute sittings per day. My struggle with my overactive mind was difficult (the remedy is to accept one's thoughts, something I have failed to do even after 40 years of practice).

Tanjo-E Sesshin, April 3-9 2006:

Michael Newhall again led the sesshin, with strong support from Gerow, Judy, and other residents, and later from Bryan. I attended three full days and two full mornings, and sat without undue distress in either the Burmese or half-lotus positions with the strong support of my new high cushion. The affects and effects were very similar to those above. At one point there was a very clear realization of egolessness, i.e., that there was no "I" who was conscious and responsible, only the Suchness of universal being. I think I am closer to that Suchness on an ongoing basis, without my sense of personal accomplishment and gain, and its consequent sense of failures and guilt. But it takes mindfulness and practice, and without mindfulness I am my usual neurotic self. My process, and my aches and pains, continually get sharper and more profound.

Denko-E Sesshin, October 18-22 2006:

Led by Michael with Hakuzan (Michael Winnegar), Denko-E was a relatively gentle and well attended sesshin that focussed on the precepts during its talks.

Rohatsu Sesshin, December 1-8 2006:

Led by Michael, it was the most intensive of Jikoji sesshins since Kobun's death. Participation ranged from 8 to 20, probably averaging twelve for meals, and including Jikoji's five current Residents (each off and on), six older men including me, and many others who came at various times. Donnalynn was a very active Ino, and Baylor was the principal Tenzo. The schedule included two Zazen sittings before breakfast, four more before lunch, two more after lunch, a work period, and tea, and the final two after dinner. I sat through lunch daily, and then continued my practice at home in the afternoons and evenings, mostly so I could sleep at home in privacy and with the convenience of a nearby bathroom.

It was very difficult practice, as usual in sesshins, for me with the reward of a breakthrough in consciousness several times on the fifth and sixth days. The breakthrough was like grace, effectively coming from nowhere and changing my experience from just sitting with most of the struggle and sensations focussing in my head to just sitting with with a more distributed consciousness stemming from and into the various spinal centers, including my head. Nothing was lost, including my bad habits, and nothing gained, including awakening. The first time it happened it felt like something had popped, in my forebrain.

Now, a day after sesshin, it still can be brought back in sitting, but my effort is inconsistent and one result is my not being satisfied with my drifting consciousness, with my inconsistency of effort, and/or with the apparent intention of gaining something. After the sesshin I had bouts of depression about my loneliness and insignificance, but with undercurrents of joy. I think I see clearly the realms of consciousness in living as distinct from the physical universe and the timeless Ideals. The consciousness realms however do not seem grounded in physical reality as much as in the afterglow of a universal Buddha mind. As an engineer, pragmatist, and pessimistic realist I will need to work on that.

Conclusions

I think this will end my log of sesshin experiences, and of my process. My process seems as much physical as psychological and emotional, but independent of my will (except insofar as I allow it to occur naturally, and greatly appreciate its apparent benefits). The major physical processes relate to the pathways up the spine, from the lower back to the top of the spine, and extending to the top of the head and forehead areas. It feels now like a stretched and occasionally flowing membrane, with strong sensations in the lower back, back of my neck and head, top of my head, and forehead. It may relate to degeneration of the spine with age, and/or to natural physiological developments through intensive practice.

My practice, while woefully inadequate, is vital to me. Maintaining mindfulness is difficult, even with the props and support of teachings, Zazen, and sesshins. Zazen itself is difficult in terms of maintaining attention without objects or expectation of gain. Sesshins impose many added problems, both of tolerating some extraordinary levels of discomfort and of maintaining attention and posture without being disturbed or distracted by thoughts or by aches and pains.

Over the last few years I have had some sense of approaching Truth and oneness, with concurrent shedding of layers of neurosis or social delusions (that were unconscious, being embedded within neuronal structures in my brain, and within muscles and bones, e.g., from habits of poor posture). My tendencies, e.g., from hatred, greed, and delusions, do not seem to diminish with practice, but my reactions to my hatred, greed, and delusions do change. In emotional terms I am hopefully learning to be more compassionate and less judgmental. It is not determined by my actions, thoughts, or will, although it may be partly dependent on them, as well as on circumstances, and environment.

I would probably rationalize this in terms that seem to suggest faith, but still deny any possibility of self improvement. In Truth, I do not understand God, Buddha, Reality or Being, and my mind does flap. I study the mysteries, but "the deeper I go, the less I know". On the other hand, there are fewer possibilities. God, Buddha, spirit and energy do seem to be merging and becoming more apparent to me, possibly as a result of aging.

Teachings, and teachers, have been and are of incalculable value to my practice. Group (Sangha) support is essential for sesshins. The rewards of practice, being consciously aware of just being within the moment's beauty of beings and nature, are more than commensurate with the difficulties.

Audio Notes, Inside Rohatsu 2011 for brief (15 minute total) introspective verbal reflections during the final days of the 2011 Rohatsu sesshin.

After briefly reviewing this in 2013: Not much has changed. Jikoji has become more refined. My experience while perhaps deepening promises no particular resolution. I sit Zazen in the full lotus more comfortably now, several periods daily and during sesshins. I may even be making some progress in not being caught up in discursive thoughts and afflictive emotions, particularly during zazen. My perceived pressures and pains are clearer but entail less suffering, always changing moment to moment, hour to hour, and day to day. Simply being fully and honestly present is never guaranteed, but it is a possibility. Practice is non-ending.

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