Buddhists all over the world regularly gather for silent meditation retreats with a 24-7 schedule. Last week that’s exactly what I was doing – I sat a Zen sesshin. (Sesshin is a Japanese word that means “collecting” or “touching” the heart-mind, or shin). I sat in silence, staring at a wall, for hours and hours every day, even though it was June and pretty hot and somewhat miserable at times. Why? In this episode I describe a Zen retreat, or sesshin, including what a typical day is like, and the challenges and rewards of maintaining silence and meditating for 6-10 hours a day.
Quicklinks to Transcript Content:
A Typical Day at Sesshin [2:45]
The Physical Challenge of Sesshin [9:10]
Social Interactions During Sesshin [13:18]
Meditating Whether You Like It or Not [17:00]
The Value of Quantity of Meditation [19:12]
The Value of Building Endurance [22:45]
Your Karma on Display (to Yourself) [24:40]
Other Rewards of Sesshin [29:48]
Note: In this episode I’m going to describe sesshin, which is the Zen version of the extended meditation retreat, but many other forms of Buddhism have retreats, and many lay Buddhists spend significant portions of their limited vacation time attending them! The essential elements of Buddhist retreats are always the same: lots of meditation, silence, simplicity, and retreat from the distractions – and comforts – of regular daily life. Retreats can be tough – they’re a little like doing a meditation marathon – but they’re a precious opportunity to calm down and turn inward.
A Typical Day at Sesshin
A sesshin is a Zen meditation retreat, lasting anywhere between 3 and 10 days, but typically 4-7 days. Sometimes people are allowed to attend parts of sesshin and then go home at night, but sesshin are traditionally residential. For the duration of the sesshin, all participants stay more or less completely silent, and follow a 24-7 schedule centered on zazen (seated Zen meditation). Schedules vary, but there’s usually 6-10 hours of meditation every day, broken into 30-45 minute blocks separated by walking meditation or other activities.
Just for fun, I’ll take you through a typical sesshin day. (This is a schedule followed at my local Zen monastery for its more intensive retreats):
At 3:50am, someone comes running around the sleeping quarters ringing a loud bell to wake everyone up. You have 30 minutes to get dressed, wash up, grab a cup of tea or coffee, and get settled in your seat in the zendo, or meditation hall. Zazen begins promptly at 4:30. If you don’t show up, one of the retreat leaders comes looking for you. (You can always leave a sesshin, but by participating you’re signing up for the discipline.)
You then sit in meditation for almost 2 ½ hours. Fortunately, you don’t have to sit still for more than 25-30 minutes at a time; meditation is scheduled in blocks separated by opportunities to adjust your posture, or get up and do slow walking meditation. However, in Zen retreats – as opposed to retreats in some other traditions – everyone does everything together, at the same time. There are particular bells or other instruments sounded in particular ways to let you know what’s happening next.
After early morning zazen is a chanting service. It begins and ends with bows, and follows an established pattern. (I’ll talk more about Buddhist chanting in future episodes). Chanting lasts about 30 minutes, and then there’s breakfast. Even the meals at sesshin are done in a formal, silent way – the idea is to incorporate all aspects of our daily life into a meditative space. So, when it’s time for breakfast, everyone stands at their seat in the zendo, holding a set of eating bowls up in front of them, slightly above eye level. At a signal from the retreat leader, everyone processes to the dining room, waits at the tables until everyone arrives, and then sits down together. (Note: an even more formal way of eating at sesshin is to eat in the zendo at your meditation seat, while people come around and serve you the food; this is a beautiful practice but it’s also more labor intensive and intensifies the physical challenge of the retreat because you have to spend more time seated in a meditation posture.)
Back to the dining room: at signals from instruments, everyone opens the cloth wrapped around their eating bowls, and proceeds through a ritual of spreading out their bowls and utensils in preparation to receive food. (I’ll go into detail about this practice, called oryoki, at some point in the future.) Food is passed, everyone takes what they want, and then eats together in silence. You need to eat everything you’ve taken, because at the end of the meal, you clean your bowls (water gets passed, and then a container for the waste water). Then you wrap them back up, and take them back to the zendo where they’ll be waiting for your next meal.
After eating there’s a short break, but everyone assembles again at 8:30am for a silent work period. All the food for the retreat is prepared by participants at this time. In addition, the retreat facility is cleaned, the grounds are tended, repairs are made, and other projects are tended to (like sewing meditation cushions). Work ends at 10am, there’s a short break, and then you’re expected to be in your meditation seat by 10:30.
You sit for another 2 hours, rewarded by lunch at 12:30. Lunch is formal and a repeat of the ritual used at breakfast. After lunch, there’s a slightly longer break where you can take a nap. At 2:30pm, however, you’re back in the zendo – this time for 3 hours. In the middle of this there’s a talk by one of the teachers. At 5:30pm, there’s formal dinner (same ritual), which is usually just bread and soup. There’s another break, and then the day ends with zazen from 7pm until after 9, when everyone is served a small cup of tea and a cookie. It’s lights out at 10pm, but at some intensive sesshin – if you can believe this, after following a schedule that includes about 8 hours of seated meditation – participants are often encouraged to sit even longer, on their own. Some people sit into the wee hours of the morning, and there’s even a tradition of sitting up all night on the last night of the most intensive retreats. No matter how late you sit, however, the wake-up bell rings the next morning at the same time.
The Physical Challenge of Sesshin
If this all sounds pretty grueling, I won’t argue; it often is. As I mentioned earlier, sesshin is a little like running a marathon – it pushes your limits and can’t really be described as pleasurable. It may have pleasant moments, but it will almost always have miserable ones as well. Most of us struggle at some point in a sesshin with physical discomfort (if not outright pain), fatigue, drowsiness, boredom, and occasionally a desire to be doing absolutely anything else. However, just like a marathon, there is a reward for sticking it out despite the discipline, effort, and endurance required.
Before I get to those rewards, however, I should say that the physical challenge of prolonged meditation retreats isn’t as bad as it sounds. At least, not usually; some people have serious injuries or health issues which make sesshin quite difficult, but most people are much more capable and resilient than they may first think they are. For one thing, in the West, most Buddhist meditation centers will let you sit on a kneeling bench or chair instead of insisting that you sit cross-legged on the floor. However, even sitting stock still in a chair for 8 hours a day can cause discomfort… still, most people find that the discomfort peaks on day 2 or 3 of the retreat and then really doesn’t get any worse.
This may not sound very encouraging, but it can actually be a rather liberating experience. It’s typical to go into sesshin for the first time with a fair amount of apprehension or even anxiety about how physically challenging or painful it might end up being. You may wonder whether you can hack it at all, or whether you’ll face the embarrassment of having to take off in the middle of the retreat. Amazingly, very few people ever need to leave, no matter their age or physical condition. It may have something to do with a kind of positive peer pressure: “No one else is moving (or leaving)… I guess I can sit here for another half hour. Besides, I wonder what we’re having for lunch.”
There’s also a kind of internal process of relaxation and letting go that allows us to settle into sesshin. Much of our physical discomfort comes not from the activity we’re engaged in or the position we’re sitting in, but from our resistance to being still and to being the slightest bit uncomfortable. I experience it as tension, and a constant, subtle effort to squirm and avoid pain. At a certain point in sesshin, perhaps through sheer exhaustion, we can drop the extra tension and resistance. Our knee hurts? So, our knee hurts. As long as it’s not doing any lasting damage (that is, when we get up from meditation, we feel okay), we just accept the ways things are.
When we go really deeply into meditation and acceptance, sometimes the pain actually recedes. This is a profound, somatic lesson for us that can inform the rest of our lives. The instinctive panic we experience when we encounter discomfort – or even face potential discomfort – does not have to rule our existence. Once we’ve sat a whole sesshin and not only didn’t die, but didn’t even injure ourselves, we may feel better able to face whatever discomfort we encounter in the midst of our daily lives with more equanimity and confidence.
Social Interactions During Sesshin
Sesshin presents other challenges than purely physical ones: During a retreat, people are asked to keep silence and minimize social interaction. Talking is kept to an absolute minimum; maybe you need to ask someone for clarification on a task you’re given, but even then, you’re encouraged to whisper or write a note so as not to disturb others. Except perhaps in a private interview with a teacher, you don’t carry on a single prolonged conversation the entire time. You certainly don’t chat, share jokes or comments, or inquire to find out how other people are doing. You avoid eye contact, and forgo the usual “excuse me’s” and “thank you’s” of ordinary social relations.
Some people find the lack of social contact the most challenging aspect of sesshin. Depending on your past, it may trigger some social anxiety, or your habit of socializing may be hard to keep in check. Many of us end up recognizing, because of the sesshin restrictions, how we rely on social interactions to distract, entertain, assert, or reassure ourselves. When we’re really left alone with our own thoughts, feelings, and experience, we end up having to face things we usually find ways to avoid.
At the same time, many people find tremendous relief in being free from the expectation of social interaction. Ironically, it’s sometimes the most ordinarily talkative or extroverted people who enjoy the silence the most. It’s like some of us operate outside of retreat with a strong sense of social expectation – that we have to talk, respond, look after people, entertain people, or otherwise interact. When that expectation is lifted, the spaciousness lets us attend to our own experience and let go of worrying about the presence of others.
An expected result of sesshin silence is a striking sense of intimacy with other retreat participants. Even though we’re not talking or interacting socially, we’re doing everything together, and creating a community where everyone does their part to take care of everyone else. We’re also devoting our time to exploring what’s most important in our lives. The details of personality and life circumstances are set aside. I don’t need to ask you what you do for a living, and you don’t need to decide whether I’m a pleasant person to be around. Our sense of connection and mutual support grows as we meditate next to each other for 8 hours a day, eat formal meals side by side, sleep in the same quarters, and silently encounter one another when out for a walk (we wouldn’t make eye contact, we’d just make a small bow to each other as we passed).
It’s common for people to actually dread the transition back into talking and socializing that comes at the end of a retreat. This is something else to practice with – we need to find ways to integrate what we’ve learned in sesshin back into our everyday lives – but it highlights how sweet and restful prolonged communal silence can be.
Meditating Whether You Like It or Not
I promise to say something about how lovely sesshin can be, but let me continue our discussion of the challenges it presents because, honestly, the rewards are intimately tied to working through the challenges.
One of the biggest difficulties you tend to encounter in sesshin, after the physical demands and the silence, is the sheer amount of meditation you’re expected to do. I’ve done dozens of sesshin, but it’s still not unusual for me to find myself thinking at the beginning of one, after I’ve been sitting zazen for say, an hour, “I’ve signed up to do this for 8 hours a day? Am I crazy? Whatever for?!”
The thing is, no matter how hard you try, a lot of the meditation you do during a retreat is not going to be… shall we say… very enjoyable. Your experience will vary by sesshin and it’s difficult to predict, but it’s typical to feel like at least half of the hours you spend in the zendo are more or less wasted. You’re in pain and can’t relax, or you’re incredibly drowsy or dull and just physically sitting there while the minutes tick slowly by, or you’re preoccupied with plans, projects, worries, or – to some extent even worse – completely random thoughts like the theme music to old TV shows. To sit hour after hour when you’re not particularly enjoying it, or you don’t think it’s doing any good, or you aren’t getting any better at meditation – this takes some major endurance. This is where it’s like running a marathon… you just keep going, even though at times, all you want to do is quit.
Why keep sitting meditation when you feel like this? Why create a structure like sesshin, which sets you up to pretty much inevitably feel, at least at some point, like you’re just passing time until the next bell rings? There are at least a few different answers to these questions.
The Value of Quantity of Meditation
First, you never know when things will line up and you’ll have a “good” meditation (that is, one you enjoy, or that feels clear and focused, or that gives you some kind of insight). You may sit for an hour and a half resisting every moment, or barely consciousness, and then it’s like the clouds clear and you have a half hour of meditation that makes it all worth it. My teachers called experiences like this “moments that make us dance.” They’re not the point of meditation (I’ll get to that in a minute), but they sure help us stay inspired and engaged in the practice. Plus, they may give us insight into our experience, meditation, or even the rest of our life that can be very useful.
Second, most people find, regardless of how busy their mind tends to be or how “bad” they think they are at meditating, their mind settles down after a few days. Not entirely – and there may be busy-mind flare-ups, and every retreat ends up being different – but in general, you get tired of rehashing the same old stories and worries hour after hour, and it’s like your mind wears itself out. Also, in the context of retreat, you’re minimizing new stimulation: You’re not watching TV, reading the news, surfing the web, socializing, going to work, negotiating intimate relationships, starting new projects, etc. Somewhere in the middle of the retreat, during a break, you may realize you’re just standing there, looking at the sunlight on a flower or the steam rising from your tea. You notice things that you usually miss because you’re too caught up in your thoughts. Basically, if you just sit in retreat long enough, no matter how pleasant or unpleasant your experience, it has an effect on you.
Third, the sheer quantity of meditation gives you a chance to work on your approach to it. You can get all kinds of meditation instruction and read all kinds of books on it, but ultimately you have to figure out how to do it yourself. Your body-mind is unique, and you’re the only one that really knows what’s going on in your own experience. Over time, you can learn to direct and manage your meditation in order to maximize your alertness, level of engagement, and stillness. You can learn to notice when you’re pushing for a particular kind of experience, and then relax. You can recognize when you’re creating a struggle within your own mind, trying push away thoughts only to have them come back and completely take over your awareness, and learn how to sink below the level of thinking and rest in non-verbal awareness. You may realize you’re constantly comparing yourself with others, and learn to center yourself in your own experience instead. There are countless ways we obstruct our own zazen, and sesshin gives us a chance to notice them and find ways around them. Meeting with a teacher during sesshin can help you navigate this process.
The Value of Building Endurance
Finally, meditating whether you feel like it or not is extremely important. At least in the case of zazen, the point is not to achieve some particular transcendent experience or some particular insight; rather, it’s to learn to be at home in your own body-mind – to directly experience your life without trying to push anything away, or grasp after anything. It’s relatively easy to practice this when you only meditate for a little while, or only when you feel like it. Sitting for an hour in the cool morning air, in my beautiful home meditation hut, after a nice cup of coffee… Ah, I sit, letting everything come and go, so nice. But when I’ve already sat for hours, my back hurts, it’s hot in the zendo and beads of sweat are trickling slowly down my skin, and I’m fed up with the whole darn meditation thing that doesn’t seem to do any good anyway? That’s when managing to be present with my direct experience, without trying to push anything away, or grasp after anything, becomes a profound spiritual practice.
Who are we when we don’t like what’s happening, when we don’t think there’s anything in it for us, when we don’t get the luxury of choice? This aspect of sesshin can bring us up against the ultimate questions of our lives. That may sound a little dramatic, but the opportunity is there to recognize how you respond to stress and find ways to let go of whatever extra misery you’re adding to the situation (i.e. dukkha). This lesson is invaluable for the rest of your life, where you can cultivate the ability to stay present with challenging circumstances.
Your Karma on Display (to Yourself)
Another valuable lesson of sesshin has to do with working on your karma. In Zen parlance, “your karma” means all the ways you are that resulted from previous causes – genetic, familial, and cultural causes, plus all of the experiences you’ve had that have led to your conditioning and habitual responses. Based on countless causes and conditions, you’ve ended up with a particular karmic “package,” if you will, that affects the way you think, speak, and act. Some of your karma you can change, some you have to accept and learn to work with, and in general assigning blame for the way things have turned out for you isn’t helpful. Even blaming yourself isn’t constructive; instead, working with your karma is a matter of first recognizing it, and then deciding the best way to deal with it from here on out.
Sesshin is an opportunity to see your karma more clearly. When you have a negative reaction to something or someone, you’re left alone with your reaction. For the most part, you don’t get to express your feelings or opinions, or change anything in your environment. You’re deprived of the usual ways you might distract yourself, or cope, or make yourself feel better (like complaining to friends, getting lost in something entertaining, eating, or drinking). You just get to watch your reactivity reverberate through your mind and body for minutes, hours, or even days. Like it or not, you get more familiar with your habitual reactions – and you might just reach a point where you can make a choice to respond differently.
Perhaps an example will help illustrate what I mean. One of the aspects of sesshin I tend to find the most provocative is the silent work period. People get work assignments and are asked to simply accept them and follow the direction of their work leader. Unfortunately, I’ve found that there’s a fair amount of sexism involved in the assignment of jobs at many Zen retreats: Cooking jobs get assigned to women more often than men, outdoor or physical jobs get assigned to men more often than women, while sewing work is almost exclusively done by women and maintenance tasks by men. This bothers me to no end.
It’s not that I’m “wrong” to object to sexism, but my karma is to get stuck in an endless argument, full of outrage, with the powers-that-be – all in my own head. After a few minutes, such argument isn’t helping anyone, but only ruining my own ability to be present to my life as it is. During one retreat, I was assigned to my favorite job of all – maintaining trails in the woods. Contrary to sexism, I got to be outside, doing manual labor, right? But at the same time, my Dharma brothers got assigned work on the monastery roof. There were no women on the roof. I hardly enjoyed working on the trails at all that retreat; instead, as I worked, I rehashed my excellent arguments against sexism over and over. Because of the container of sesshin, I had to face my strong habit of dwelling on righteous arguments to the detriment of my own mindfulness and appreciation for my life. I didn’t find a way to let go of my resentment during that retreat, but subsequently I’ve learned to work with this karma of mine in more fruitful ways (that I’ll go into at another time, perhaps).
Sesshin can bug you – and therefore reveal to you your karma – in all kinds of ways. You can react negatively to people who move too slowly, or too quickly, or too loudly, too timidly, or too boldly. You can resent the sesshin schedule because it makes you wake up too early, stay up too late, doesn’t give you enough time to exercise, or doesn’t have enough zazen. The food, the chanting, the teacher, the coffee, your bed, or living in close quarters with others can be terribly annoying. Your own sleepiness, lack of insight, sadness, physical pain, or busy mind can upset you. No sesshin is without something to provoke you – which is why I always internally chuckle when I tell non-Buddhists I’m going away for retreat and they say something like, “Oh, that sounds so nice.”
Other Rewards of Sesshin
Still, I don’t mean to imply sesshin is just misery and challenge! Not at all. If there weren’t rewards involved in doing retreat, why would we keep doing them?
I’ve already mentioned a number of benefits from doing a retreat:
- It’s a precious opportunity to calm down and turn inward
- You cultivate the ability to face whatever discomfort you encounter in the midst of your daily life with more equanimity and confidence
- It can be a tremendous relief to be free from the expectation of social interaction
- You can end up feeling a striking sense of intimacy with other retreat participants
- You may experience pleasurable moments of profound stillness, bliss, or insight – or “moments that make us dance”
- Your mind settles down after a few days, and you can find yourself noticing and appreciating more of what’s around you
- It’s a chance to work on your meditation
- You have a chance to see your karma more clearly
I can think of two other rewards I want to mention before I draw this episode to a close. First, it’s a common experience for people, on the second, third, or maybe 4th day of sesshin, to settle into a groove that makes them think, “I could do this forever. This is really the way to live!” That may sound strange, given the fairly austere environment of retreat – no socializing, no entertainment, no excitement, no creative projects, no sex, no alcohol, little free time – but it’s true. At retreat, life is stripped down to its essentials. You are fed, and have shelter. You cooperate within a harmonious community to keep everything running, but don’t do any more than necessary. Instead, you focus on just being – trying to be as fully awake and present for each moment of your day – and night – as you possibly can.
I’ve done an average of about 3 sesshin every year for 20 years, although it’s almost always a challenge to find the time and resources to do so, because I feel like, during sesshin, I’m at my most awake and honest. Only in the spaciousness of retreat, when I’ve put everything else down, can I take full stock of my life and how it’s going. I remember what I really want my priorities to be – being as awake, appreciative, and compassionate as I can be. It’s easy for those priorities to be forgotten in the midst of the demands of everyday life.
Finally, sesshin can show you new ways to live that never would have occurred to you otherwise. It’s difficult to describe exactly what I mean, but it’s like the unusual, artificial, rather extreme environment of sesshin can push you into new territory. I mean, sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t – but the harder you work at sesshin, the more likely you’re going to walk through some new door, or open up to a new perspective, or drop some old piece of karma that’s compromised your vitality or intimacy. I remember leaving a few sesshin feeling as if part of my hard shell had fallen away, and I actual experienced a little anxiety about how to function out in the relatively abrasive, crazy world given my new, tender state. Fortunately, after many years of going into sesshin and coming back out to integrate what you learn, your perceived difference between retreat and daily life tends to decrease.
If you’re interested in attending a Buddhist retreat, inquire with a Zen or Buddhist center near you; even if they don’t offer multi-day, residential retreats, they’ll probably know who does. Even if you live far from a retreat opportunity, they’re something it would be worth traveling for, particularly if the retreat is residential and lasts for at least several days.
There’s a whole lot more I could say about sesshin… but I’ll leave it there for now.