It has been a while since I have actually worked on anything with Harada. Much of the time in the one on one meetings with the teacher (sanzen) he just asks me, "How is your state of mind?" He often presses me to be more involved as a teacher. I am just a small town teacher of meditation. I have never led a retreat. When I go to sesshin I go to push the boundaries of my meditation and deepen the "Dharma Eye." A sesshin is an all out affair. It is a week long mountaineering expedition of the mind, a constant push except for a few rest stops and sometimes a little comic relief. So this blog will be about how I approach a sesshin and some of what I went through in this last sesshin. I would not say that my experiences are indicative of a beginner at sesshin so you might or might not find this interesting.
Much of my practice is to cut thoughts and remain fully and clearly conscious. What I aim for when I meditate is to stop thinking. Many Zen practitioners would quickly say this is a wrong approach and they might even point to passages in Zen texts like the Platform Sutra that seem to also say that stopping thought is the wrong approach. But if they think this, it is only because they have never had a truly deep meditation experience, have never experienced Kensho. They also don't understand what these Zen texts mean by stopping thought. Zen is different from many of the other meditation systems which asks the practitioner to withdraw from the sensory input of the external world. In Zen we sit with our eyes and ears open. So stopping thought to a Zen practitioner is different from stopping thoughts in these other systems which ask the meditator to turn everything off. It was against these other systems that the Zen masters argued In Zen we want to stop our interior verbal dialog, any imaginings, anything extra added on to awareness but we don't stop awareness. In fact we discover that verbal thought and imagination impinge on awareness. Then when we do stop our thinking we find ourselves in the realm of deep awareness and another type of thought.
The first day of sesshin I am already sitting well. Nothing hurts. My mind is already generally quiet from all my many years of sitting. But not totally quiet, interrupted every minute or two by a short stream of thought or dream like images. I cut them off with focus on my breath and by keeping my eyes open and focused on a spot on floor or the person sitting across from me. I have many meditation techniques which I use throughout the sesshin but I always start each block of meditation by counting breaths. During the sesshin there are four sitting blocks which run from 1.5 hours to 3 hours and these are generally divided up into half hour periods. We also do 40 min. of chanting and there is a talk which we sit through that is not cut into periods. During the first period of each block I count my breaths, sit tall, keep my eyes wide open and focused, and hold a mudra (hand position) high, not on my lap. This is not a relaxed in any way. I am pushing my concentration, I am putting energy into my physical posture. You might say that I am driving out my thoughts. Isn't meditation suppose to be relaxing? Not this type. But then near the end of this first period there are long periods between thoughts and I have started to build up a type of energy called Chi or Ki. I feel this energy as making me wide awake. Now for the second period I generally take another approach. I just let go. My hands are siting in my lap. I sit tall but am not concentrating. I just relax my mind which is now quiet and all the sensations of sound and sight just wash across my consciousness. My mind become like a clear mirror. The longer this period of thoughtlessness lasts the more Chi energy seems to build up but this is just the beginning of sesshin and after maybe 5-10 minutes my eyes close and I momentarily loose consciousness and I start dreaming and thinking. As soon as I notice this I open my eyes and let go of the thinking and go back into thoughtlessness until after a few minutes again my eyes close and I go through the same cycle. I go through this cycle of completely awake thoughtlessness, loosing consciousness, closing eyes, dreamlike thoughts, noticing the thoughts, opening the eyes wide and returning to thoughtlessness, several times during the period. Some times these periods of thoughtlessness get shorter and shorter and I start counting breaths again. Other times after a few cycles I settle into thoughtlessness till the end of the period. This pattern of practice, going from concentrated practice to relaxed practice, is called holding fast and letting go.
Many people think that they can just let go and relax their minds into good thoughtless meditation without any effort in developing concentration, but my experience is that when most people try to meditate this way they are never able to completely drop their thinking.
And then there is letting go and completely letting go. I am reminded of the Indian Sage Ramana Maharshi who as a young kid wanted to know what it was like to die so he laid down and completely let go of everything in his mind. He ended up in deep samadhi and had the enlightenment experience that set the course for his life. In meditation, with some effort, it takes concentration, you can experience this complete letting go. I do this at the very bottom of the breath when I have let all the air out. I completely still both mind and body and then completely relax all the focus of the senses and conscious awareness Then for a few moments it is as if I am completely absorbed into the undifferentiated but I also seem to become a vessel with the energy of the Universe just poring in. Energy seems to poor in so quickly that this letting go becomes so intense that I can no longer hold this meditation.
When I sit sesshin I am trying to do two things, one is quiet the mind but the other is to accumulate Chi energy. They work together. Completely letting go is not easy. It takes quite a bit of Chi to let go but once you are able to completely let go for even a short time the Chi just pores in and fills you up from the abdomen to the crown of the head. Because I have been doing this for many years in just a couple days of sesshin I am almost completely filled with Chi and had several prolonged periods of deep thoughtless samadhi. Also I have generally stopped thinking to myself as I walk around.
On day 3 things get tougher. I am experiencing more pain and I am just plain tired. I face this challenge every sesshin. It comes with such negative thoughts as, "Why am I doing this to my self?" "I am just too old for this." and "Will I ever sit deeply again during this sesshin?" I may try to sleep through a period or two to regain some strength and avoid the pain but I know the real answer is to sit even more deeply and so I put even more effort in deepening concentration. When in pain usually I count breaths. I can always put up with the pain for another ten breaths. And then another It is the nagging thoughts that really make the pain difficult. If I can cut my thoughts and really concentrate then the pain will recede into the background and not bother me. Also the pain keeps me awake and focused and even if the pain sits like a big rock in my consciousness I am not thinking much, deepening the meditation and accumulating Chi. Eventually the pain often seems to disappear as meditation deepens and I have accumulated enough Chi. I remember thinking to myself that as a soccer player when I was younger I often played in pain but that never stopped me from putting out all out effort and I loved it and so I do the same with meditation.
There is a few other meditation techniques that I want to discuss. I call this purifying the channels. Sometimes I do these during the second and third periods of a sitting block. The first channel I focus on is that of sound. The idea is to become absorbed in the sounds around without being attached to any one sound. I do this by moving my concentration to my ears and feeling the sound on both ears. Eventually it becomes like an ocean of sound washing across an empty consciousness. The next technique I use is to purify the visual channel.. In this technique I open my eyes wide and move my attention to the whole visual field without attaching focus to any one thing. Done correctly the edges of the peripheral vision become clear and the visual field becomes a single round mandala. I find this technique so difficult that not only does it cut off all thoughts but I just cannot hold it for very long. I once did this technique for a whole sesshin and actually lost vision in one eye. I guess my eyeball went dry and would no longer properly transmit light. But I also attained a very deep samadhi. Once I have successfully purified both channels then again I let go and just let everything in.
I don't know exactly what Chi is. I don't know any scientific studies that have tried to pinpoint a cause to the phenomena. I tend to think of it as nervious system energy but its importance in meditation cannot be over emphasized It accumulates through deep meditation but it helps to continue to deepen meditation. It definately can be felt in various ways such as a strong sensation at one of the Chakra points. When you are filled with Chi the Crown Chakra on the top of the head is activated. Also when you are filled with Chi there is a certain "pressure" that you feel when meditating. Harada Roshi calls this a "taught balloon."
So what is the outcome of all this effort in meditation. Each sesshin is a little different. Sometimes I experience strong feelings of love and joy And certainly all that meditation intensifies sensations. And my mind is quiet. But most important is that I look out at the world and don't see it as just divided up into individual beings and things but the whole world, the whole Universe as a single body that contains us all. And the joy and love I feel is not only my joy and love as an individual but the Universe's own joy and love. And this insight is not only my insight but the Universes own self realization.