My First Retreat (Part 1 of 3) – a Zen sesshin at Rocky Mountain EcoDharma

| October 12, 2017 | 2 Comments

What do you call it when the food at the retreat doesn’t agree with you?

30 minutes of sh*tting meditation

J/k lol, everyone. This joke (which has probably been thought of before) occurred to me during one of the breaks. I was resting in my room, and I overheard a woman whispering a remark to a man as they waited for someone “taking too long” in the bathroom. Maybe it’ll become clear why (but probably it won’t) this felt like the right introduction for a kind of scattered recap of my first retreat experience…

The Journey To:

Inspired by Ted Meissner, and later as part of being a Director here at SBA, I subscribe to a lot of contemplative (Buddhist) community newsletters in a vain attempt to keep informed. One of those is Rocky Mountain EcoDharma Retreat Center after I’d heard about them via the SBA podcast. (I live in Utah, so a center in Colorado is to be considered “relatively nearby.”) Their August newsletter featured a free retreat (sesshin).

For those who don’t know, I’d never been to actual, formal retreat (again, somewhat rural area + retreats are expensive). Also, at the time I was waiting to move into a new place, I had just bought an RV (a 1976 Dodge Holiday Rambler that drives just fine), and many of my personal relationships were coming to an end (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing). For the first time in my life, I was mentally healthy and free to travel and do something for myself. So I did it. I contacted Kritee Kanko (a Zen Priestess who was running this retreat).

Now, Kritee is amazing for many reasons. But one is definitely how much care she showed for me prior to the retreat. She made sure I had all of the directions available. She reminded me that this was a Zen retreat (which are notorious for their rigor) so that I could come mentally prepared. She discussed my circumstances and goals. At one point, she even offered to have her family babysit my service dog, Happy! (RMEDRC is an isolated lodge high in a rural area of Colorado – bears routinely walk by the lodge doors, so no dogs can safely stay there for extended periods. Not to worry – arrangements were made for both her and for me to be separated for a short time.) Anyways, I made up my mind, finished all the errands I’d need to in order to come back with my new apartment ready to go, filled up the tank, and started driving.

I took the scenic route that DID NOT INVOLVE F***ING WYOMING (more on that later).

I-15 is I-15 (a highway that I’ve often driven and a principal location in Fallout: New Vegas). However, once I turned towards US-6, I was in new territory. Instead of apologizing, I’d like to thank you all for continuing to read this article since I didn’t really take any pictures. I was driving an RV, not stopping to take pictures every few feet, okay! However, I will say that around Price, I saw mountains where the stone itself was sea foam green. I’ll have to read up on why. My educated guess is that, back when all of this was under the ocean, that rock experienced different conditions from surrounding rock (which begins to get a little red in that area – my part of Utah does not have the iconic “red rock”). (Edit: Messaged a geologist and got the answer.)

Between Price and the junction with I-70 (Green River), there is a stretch of road that is perfectly flat, straight, and empty, heading towards a gap between some mountains. It was basically the setting for a car commercial – iconic! There were also … what I can only compare to Martian canali. They looked like dried stream beds (natural, meandering), but were narrow and deep. And the mountains varied widely within only a span or two. Some were the generic rounded tops. Others had stark angles. There were lots of rippling layers. It was all very “cyclopean.” Truly, that part of the West is one of geology’s grandest Muses, and I wish it had been for Lovecraft too. (It’s more “cyclopean” than anything in New England, imho*)

Anyways, I finally caught up to the distant mountains and got to a real highway (I-70) just before sunset (which was a relief because I don’t want to imagine driving that in the dark and uncertain where the nearest services might be). I kept driving until I hit Fruita, Colorado. (Is it Fruit-a or Fru-i-ta?) I’m used to state borders having large, colorful signs, but not here. However, there was a big announcement for the Continental Divide when I crossed it (3 times, actually, by the time I got home – remember, roads curve). I pulled over for a couple of hours, then got to “Parachute” (which is right up the highway from “Rifle”) and pulled over for a few more.

It was here that, upon waking, I spotted some legal Cannabis dispensary and remembered that Colorado has legal Cannabis. I brushed my teeth in their bathroom. (It was clean and private. Also, the towel dispenser dispensed random amounts of paper towel each time you activated it. I had to wonder if that ever messed with any customers.) I decided that I’m single, aging, and on an adventure, so I got cash from an atm (they only take cash) and bought a candy bar. Laugh or disbelieve as much as you want, but I’ve never had “pot.” I’ve never even really known how to obtain “pot.” Still, adventure! I bought a chocolate peanut butter bar intending to eat it before I left the state. I never did eat it though. I hope whoever finds that Colorado-flag-themed white paper bag that it came in enjoys it. (Between trying to make decent time and the retreat itself, I just forgot the thing, lol)

Upon leaving the store (which was across the street from a Subway that also sold ammo, by the way), I followed I-70 some more. Every little valley seemed to hide an equally little, but architecturally enjoyable town. The famous Vail, Colorado ended up being one of those. Vail is, at best, “suburban” in size, and it’s hard to believe that it’s this super-famous place to visit (but I’m happy for them, I guess?). Also somewhere in there, I drove through a canyon that surely showed all of “the best of Colorado” in 30 minutes or less. There were the famous red rock mountains draped in various shades of green, rivers with actual white water rapids (and people on them) just like on TV commercials, and tunnels that had been blasted through the mountains. It was also where the door on the side of the RV got damaged. Not a big deal though – it just made “tying the door shut” a part of the journey from there on out, lol.

Oh and I should mention that this was the beginning of a long trend of “up up down down left right left right (B A?**)” highways. The RV handled the majority of them just fine, but in a couple of places, I definitely had to shift to the right lane and lower gear and hang out with the other trucks going 5 mph or less in the right lane and in low gear. Everywhere there were signs for chaining truck tires, and it was clear that this place was basically impossible in winter (unless you were from there, maybe). I could not stop wondering about South Park (the TV show). Like… it just kind of hurts my head to compare the town of that show to the reality of Colorado. I can see it, but the show definitely doesn’t showcase just how small that town must be or how cut off it must be in winter. The only thing it gets right are the bus stops. There were “xing” signs for bus stops even when there were no houses. (Apparently Colorado kids live up in Mallorn*** trees.) Anyways…

I got to Idaho Springs, which I’d heard about because it’s a “ha ha” that there’s an Idaho Springs in Colorado and an Idaho Springs in Idaho. (Depending on where you are in Utah, that can cause some eye rolling.) I left I-70 and got onto some kind of “historic, scenic” Central City Parkway. … Well, I guess I’ll start by saying that I had been “in the mountains” the whole trip, but this … thing… took me to the tippy tops of the actual Rocky Mountains (and not just shorter side-chains). There were definitely some spots where I had to go into low gear. But all of that is less important than the fact that, at some point, an ancient Elven wizard clearly cast a High Magic spell to confuse any traveler that entered this domain.

At first, you encounter Central City, which I believe I’ve heard lore of in the stories of other adventurers. According to tales, it was supposed to be the capital of Colorado since it’s technically in the center of the state. It’s also barely accessible by today’s standards, let alone by those of the “Pioneer” times. Denver ended up being chosen instead. However, the place still seems to be quite busy for its size and location. The architecture purposefully hints at a “fun” version of the “old” West, and there were lots of signs for “casinos” and “saloons.” It reminded me of nothing less than New Orleans or a tamer nod to Westworld****. A fun place to visit, but probably not to stay. (And even then, only if you were already in Colorado, otherwise it’s waaay too off the beaten path.)

But I could be wrong. (I didn’t fact-check the stories I half-remember.) And I didn’t actually stop. Also, the roads didn’t really line up, so it was hard to know how to “stay straight” on one until you were ready to get off of it, lol. Not that that was what *really* mattered as one drives through here. Phone service ends. Maps become unreliable.

I took a left onto something that had a number as if it was a serious highway of some sort. I headed towards “Black Hawk” and “Nederland” for a lot longer than my Google map printout seemed to indicate that I should have. (Not just the “times” listed, but the actual number of miles – it had to be more than that.) I passed a “last shot” (“sexy” woman holding a pistol) sign for gas. A bit after that, I stopped and almost turned around. I seemed lost. I couldn’t phone anyone at RMEDRC. This place was going to be a terror in the dark if I let the sun set on me (no lights or side rails on the road). But then I took a deep breath and really thought. I found an actual map of all of Colorado (not just the zoomed in Google map). I decided that I had come too far to be defeated now. I took an educated guess and continued on.

I got to Nederland. It had a Thai restaurant (?!?). Also, a BBQ place right next to the gas station (May Galadriel be Praised!) with the unfriendly signs on shoplifting and the understandably unfriendly locals lamenting about how many people seemed to be showing up for Labor Day weekend. But it was still a couple of houses deep in the mountains and near a lake. Just as my Google map printout suggested, there was a roundabout. I took the “second” exit as it said, but it dead-ended at the lake. However, right across from the lake was a post office. At a loss, I drove up to a mail maiden in the middle of taking down the flag for the night. She explained to me that “Ward” was literally the opposite exit on the roundabout. There were no signs or landmarks, but she drew a complex rune denoting how many curves before an especially big curve where I would find the hidden path called Overland Rd leading to the retreat I sought. She warned me of the danger of “the nasty dirt road” and bade that I take my time. After a thanks, I parted from that blessed Elf maiden of the Colorado woods:

Lórien was slipping backward, like a bright ship masted with enchanted trees, sailing on to forgotten shores, while they sat helpless upon the margin of the grey and leafless world. Even as they gazed, the Silverlode passed out into the currents of the Great River, and their boats turned and began to speed southwards…Suddenly the River swept round a bend… and the light of Lórien was hidden. To that fair land Frodo never came again.”  ~The Fellowship of the Ring, LoTR Book 2, Ch 8, Farewell to Lórien

Suffice it to say, her directions held true. I made it to the dirt road and down the dirt road. I made it to RMEDRC.

The Retreat:

http://boundlessinmotion.org/sesshin-schedule/

Now, this should be the detailed bulk of this article; however…

That first evening after setting up, we went over some rules. Journaling was discouraged (as the Zen tradition typically wants to bypass such mental stimulation in favor of finding a state slightly beyond regular cognition). I came with the intention to be serious, to see if I could sit with the challenges of a retreat, to see what I could realize or attain, and to experience fully. So I did not journal at all.

I don’t know if that had a positive (or even negative) impact on my experience, but it does mean that I don’t have notes to refer to or to publish directly. Additionally, meditators (including me) often have difficulty recalling in vivid, chronological detail all of the thoughts and experiences that we have during meditation. After all (depending on the type of meditation, of course), the goal is to be fully aware of or to fully experience the moment – not to make mental notes to compile later. So another result of my sincere intention is that I was also serious about my meditations, and meditation was, naturally, most of the retreat time. So there’s a lot that I can’t recall in my usually thorough way. However, here’s what I do recall (as it occurs to me):

Evening 1:

Rules

In addition to “little or no journaling for the duration,” this was to be as silent a retreat as possible (no talking except as necessary in the kitchen). So far, so good, as this rule didn’t intimidate me at all. There are times that I can be talkative, but being liberated from having to *constantly* consider when and if and how to say things to other people to prevent their anger at misunderstanding me or at my forgetting some social rule that I was never even taught was something that I had specifically looked forward to. In fact, I recommend that anyone with society-based anxieties give themselves such a vacation at least once in their lives. (No joke.) It is just as good as you imagine it would be.

Next, we were to wake at 5AM and be ready to come downstairs for sitting by 5:20AM. This was a little more concerning for me since I have a couple of health concerns (braces and allergies) that can make brushing my teeth a relatively long and necessarily thorough process. Still, I internally committed myself to (1) not worrying about it the way I often worry too much about things and (2) finding a way to make it work. I succeeded at both and ended up brushing my teeth during the longer breaks.

Formal sessions were to conclude after 10PM at a minimum. I can definitely see the potential for anxiety to turn this rule into a cruel feedback loop (as it so often does with so many things). One could worry about not being able to fall asleep, then worry prevents one from falling asleep… you get the idea. However, I wasn’t worried at all, and not only slept well, but woke up with my alarm every day of the retreat. I had heard from more than one trusted person that a common retreat experience is to have all of this energy at the beginning and to say to yourself, “I’m going to do all of this stuff like hiking and extra sits,” but then to become too exhausted for that kind of thing after hours of sitting. So I walked in kind of expecting that, and while I didn’t completely crash the way that others seem to, I definitely slept well when I did sleep. I also slept during more than one break as well.

Only one shower was “allowed” during the whole retreat (as this is traditional in Zen, saves water, and the time could be better used / we weren’t going to get all that sweaty or dirty anyways). A shower was actually the first thing I did when I arrived since I had been in the RV for so long. (And Kritee was nice enough to allow me a parting shower for my trip back.) This was another rule that didn’t really “bother” me although it did make me wonder about feminine hygiene during modern Zen retreats. (Traditionally, women would not have been at a Zen retreat – more on that later – and maybe women just wouldn’t go that time of the month or everyone at a longer retreat would develop enough to not period shame. I don’t know. If we get Kritee on the SBA podcast someday, maybe we can ask?) (EDIT: We got her on the podcast! http://secularbuddhism.org/2017/11/25/episode-283-kritee-being-an-indian-woman-priest-in-the-zen-tradition/ )

All of us would take turns at chores like cooking and cleaning up. I’d heard about this before, so didn’t think it was anything special. However, Kritee at some point mentioned that retreats often have dedicated cooks and such. Our retreat was apparently unique in that we were all working together to make it – to set things up, to lead parts of the practice (one person was a certified yoga teacher, another experienced retreat participant sometimes led walking meditation or chant, etc), to cook, to clean. And you know what – I like Kritee’s perception. And although certain chores can trigger elements of my conditions, I made some preparations to keep that to a minimum and was able to do …decent?… for this short period of time. Oh, and the food… I’ll be talking about the food more in a minute here.

BEARS!!! Okay, bros. So I keep mentioning how remote this place is even by “out West” standards. Well, they see bears all the time there. Also moose and similar wildlife. I guess I’ll put it off for Day 2 below, but yes, wilderness safety (with heavy emphasis on wildlife) was a part of our orientation. YESSS!!!

Zen custom (specific) instructions. I’m not going to go all into it (and may not do a worthy job if I did), but there’s a certain order that we must stand up and walk out in, a certain process to giving and receiving tea, times when there are bows, etc. Absolutely nothing that made me or anyone else uncomfortable (although Kritee seemed concerned that some might find it so). We did them as they came up either as Zen practitioners specifically (or out of respect for those among us who were) or to honor and respect the tradition of Zen – all of those men (more on that later) back to Gotama Buddha himself who made not only this retreat, but any kind of Buddhist practice at all possible for us today.

I think that covers all of the rules…

Practice

We sat (zazen) for a while after that. I made sure to find a proper, yet maintainable position and then to hold it for the whole sit. I knew from many, many different sources that in Zen tradition it is frowned upon (in varying degrees) to fidget or make minor noises during a sit. I was deeply determined to honor that unless I was about to die. Honestly, I’d never sat much longer than an hour and certainly never with the intention to not allow any fidgeting at all. I went in wondering if I’d be able to meet this challenge. But I totally did. It wasn’t as hard as I thought or had heard it would be. (Although I can completely see how it might be hard for others; I really do.) In fact, Kritee surprised me later on by commenting on how …sturdy… I was. (Go, me!)

This said, I think it was during this very first set of sits that I attempted the traditional, formal posture (lotus) to the best of my ability. For those who don’t routinely practice lotus position, your feet or legs are likely to fall asleep even if you get every millimeter of the position correct. And I don’t routinely lotus; my foot did fall asleep. But I wanted to meet the challenge and to see if I could persevere and what I would find on the other side of that perseverance. I did persevere, but I don’t think that specific posture added anything special to my practice or attainments. Still, I found that I *could* do it and that a minor discomfort eventually faded and didn’t prevent me from reaching the level of calm, awareness, or concentration that I reach during my normal meditation practice. And those are both good things to know.

A couple of notes here:
(1) In our modern world, anxiety usually does not have any benefit. But while I didn’t have to unleash my “super-anxiety power,” I can definitely see how it’s usual style of urging (e.g. “Don’t fidget or the instructor will call you out in front of everyone!”) could probably help someone to power through that style of sitting meditation. Just an observation?

(2) After this first attempt at experiencing tradition, I generally switched over to a position that was “lotus,” but with my left leg upright (knee toward my chest, foot flat on the ground) that generally works for me and prevents the pressures and bendings that usually cause my foot to fall asleep during a real lotus. (It’s hard to describe in words, but one may imagine the seated position that Quan Yin is often depicted in*****.) While maintaining any position for an extended period of time causes minor discomfort, this one is a tried and true standby for me that allows me to better focus on things other than discomfort and for longer periods of time. I find that’s more beneficial than insisting on a strict lotus position, so I generally stuck to what was beneficial.

Next, if I recall correctly, this was our first session of chanting. While chanting is not a major part of my background or Secular Buddhism generally, I did have past experiences. In addition to occasionally chanting with the aid of a mala (I have one of Tibetan origin and another that is not tied to any lineage) or as part of a few recent SBA Practice Circles, I have often listened to various recorded chants (e.g. Diamond Sutra in English, some suttas in Pali, and of course, the Heart Sutra in Japanese) as part of practice or as part of broadening my own study. But I had never chanted out loud in a language other than English or in the style of the Zen tradition specifically.

You can check out some brief instructions on how to chant (in the Zen tradition) on page 4 of the “Boundless in Motion Sutra Book 2016” 

http://boundlessinmotion.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Final-sutrabook-Nov2016.pdf 

which Kritee compiled and used for this retreat. I would argue that most people of any experience level could open that sutra book and chant passably. (And I support my argument with the fact that most attendees were new to Zen retreats / chanting, and we all did “pass” during chanting sessions.) However, I’d also argue that to approach a kind of “mastery” of chanting takes a bit more work.

Personally, I think I was generally okay on posture, but I had some trouble (and still do) on ensuring that I was vocalizing from the right area of the body (i.e. the hara or area just below the belly button). I am unsure of the volume I was supposed to aim for. (Kritee compared chanting from the hara to the techniques used by opera and metal singers…). And, of course, I noticed some variation on how people were pronouncing the Romanized Japanese syllables.

This may be the wrong way to think about it (from a Zen perspective), but I kind of wish that I had a resource that would help me to make sure that I’m getting these mechanical aspects of chanting down. (For better or worse, my mind has now made a connection between chanting and singing, so… what if chanting incorrectly causes some harm to the vocal chords or limits the benefits that you can achieve from the practice? Also, I don’t want to chant with others someday and have them be like, “You’ve been doing it wrong this whole time [and now have that wrong way habituated] and are throwing the rest of us off.”) But regardless… I’m still (doing my best at) chanting.

That’s right. This retreat has permanently expanded my practice to also include regular sessions of Zen chanting (primarily the Heart Sutra and the Four Great Bodhisattva Vows).

I still remember quite clearly the subtle variations in the vibrations I experienced not only in my torso, but my legs and the air around me as all of our voices interacted. Also, there’s a unique state of mind that is achieved by focusing in on the articulation of one syllable at a time and not on overall meanings (of words, sentences, or passages). And, of course, there is the sound of our unified voices and even the messages of the verses themselves once one has a chance to instead focus on them. (The chanting sessions themselves did not allow for this by design. Kritee commented [and I’m paraphrasing] that the messages of the verses were supposed to sink into your subconscious over time as you kept up a chanting practice. So the usual “reading for meaning” happened primarily during breaks – especially if the chant was in a language we didn’t know and the explanation in English was written beneath it.)

I wouldn’t be surprised if some reader judged me for noting the sensual enjoyment that can come from not only listening to, but being a part of a Zen chant. However, my primary reason for continuing this specific practice beyond the retreat is that I found the state of mind achieved (very focused or “one pointed”) to be of great value. Samadhi (concentration) practice is a particular challenge for me, and I found benefit in approaching it via Zen chanting instead of some of the other ways I have tried (e.g. via the breath). Also, there is value in the verses themselves. It may be lost if one does not speak the language, but I have spent some time chanting the English language versions as well. In fact, I had an important insight during a chant of the Four Great (Bodhisattva) Vows that I will share a little bit later on.

This article has been broken into parts to make it more website-friendly. You have reached the end of Part 1 of 3, but not the end of the story. So please continue on to

Part 2: http://secularbuddhism.org/2017/10/12/my-first-retreat-part-2-of-3/

Geek References / Citations

*http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/LovecraftCountry

**https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Konami_Code

***This is the first of many Lord of the Rings and/or Dungeons and Dragons references in this section.

****http://www.hbo.com/westworld

*****https://images-na.ssl-images-amazon.com/images/I/51Cy%2BY2y13L._SL500_AC_SS350_.jpg

Tags: , , , , , ,

Category: Articles, events

Jennifer Hawkins

About the Author ()

“Reading my articles will tell you more than a summary here.”

Jennifer is the Community Director for the Secular Buddhist Association and a mentor for the Coursera: Buddhism and Modern Psychology online course from Princeton University. She also sells artwork in her local area and aspires to manage a secular meditation center / lending library in her local area.

Comments (2)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Mark Knickelbine says:

    I’m going to comment in sections too!

    I never sat a sesshin, but I did attend zendo regularly for a few months, and your description really takes me back. One of the areas of greatest cognitive dissonance for me is something you capture perfectly — the constant sense of performance, all the rules one has to follow and the worry over whether you’re doing everything right. I joined shortly after finishing the MBSR course, and that is virtually the opposite — non judging, not getting hung up on things like posture, etc. Once after a 45 minute sit, everyone got up to start kinhin. I got up with everyone else, but my legs had fallen completely asleep, and I soon toppled over. The young priest there was clearly more concerned that I had scattered cushions all over than that I had landed on my ass.

    I did enjoy chanting though, for the reason you describe — that feeling of the tone reverberating through you, your voice joining in that vibration — powerful feeling of oneness.

    Looking forward to part II!

    • Jennifer Hawkins Jennifer Hawkins says:

      Hi Mark!
      Glad to read your comment!
      “One of the areas of greatest cognitive dissonance for me is something you capture perfectly — the constant sense of performance, all the rules one has to follow and the worry over whether you’re doing everything right.” That’s basically most of my day to day life (anxiety), so… Zen sesshin wasn’t this particularly “different” thing for me, lol. However, I am very sorry about your negative experience. I’m glad you didn’t actually get hurt.

Leave a Reply