Welcome to Our Collective Retreat (Sesshin)

Welcome as we are in another day of our collective sesshin in Northern California. It’s a very special time because we have never tried to have a sesshin with all of the population of Northern California. But with all of us sheltering-in-place in response to the corona virus, here we are.

Sesshin is a Zen word that translates to “touching the heart-mind.” Buddha would gather his followers to study, practice and sit in meditation for several months during the rainy season when it was difficult to travel. The last part of this practice period would be an intensive time of sitting for a week or more in what today we call mindfulness. The purpose of a sesshin is collect and unify one’s normally scattered mind in order to refine and focus it.

Mingyur Rinpoche,said the following about preparing for a long retreat or sesshin:

I’m going to do this retreat not only to benefit myself but also my friends, family, colleagues, society, and the world. If you are a Buddhist, think of rousing bodhicitta for the benefit of all sentient beings, so they may recognize their true nature and completely awaken.”

Although his words were from 2017, he is addressing us as we shelter-in-place today. Yes, we are staying in our homes for our own benefit but more importantly to benefit our friends, families, colleagues, neighbors, society and world. I cannot think about another example where humankind has sacrificed together on such a large-scale. We are saving all beings by sheltering-in-place, practicing social distancing and assisting family, friends and neighbors in safe ways. This is the essence of sesshin.

Clearly, this collective sesshin that we are engaged in is different than a traditional sesshin ending a practice period in a Zen temple. Those retreats are time restricted (usually a few days to a few weeks), are conducted in silence, have their own set of rules, and strict daily schedule and routines that all must followed. There some other norms for sesshins that I will discuss later.

The largest difference between our collective sesshin and regular sesshins (besides the size) is that our collective sesshin is an unplanned sesshin of everyday life. We are asking people to stay in as each lives their own life.  This coincides with my own interest in Zen—how do I manifest Buddha life in everything I do each day.

As Gandhi was organizing for the Salt Strike in India, a pivotal event in the Indian independence movement, he recognized that he had no resources except for the large populace everyday on the streets. In the final days when he reached the beach where salt was produced, he said to multitude of people surrounding the area, “you are already sitting around all day, come sit with me for a purpose for justice.”

Well we are the masses, all in our homes, so let’s be there with purpose. How many times, have you said, I wish I could practice more, meditate more, be more intentional, but I don’t have time? What is quite wonderful about our current situation is that your request has been answered—you have the time now. That’s what we are doing in our collective sesshin, we are in our homes, in our place and this is our chance to do it with purpose.

How do we use this special time that may never come to us again? Let’s look at how our sesshin is the same or different than traditional sesshins.

In any sesshin, including ours now, as you focus attention on your body and where you are at this moment, emotions and feelings arise. We have learned through practice that what arises does not have to control us. What arises is what arises—nothing more and nothing less. We acknowledge the arisings as they emerge and with most, that is all we need to do. The feelings pass quickly. But certain other emotions and ideas stick with us and won’t let go of our minds and body.

In this this particular time and in this particular sesshin that we are living through in Northern California, a lot of arising is happening. Over and over I am hearing about fear, anxiety, anger, and suffering taking over people’s lives. This particular constellation of emotions often emerges out of trauma. I define trauma as the unfinished story of pain that reaches deep into every part of our physical being. We all know the unrelenting power of lingering stories, stories without conclusions, stories that have a visceral urgency to be finished. That is trauma. Unexamined, feelings of hopelessness, anger, sadness, and fear arise, retriggered by current events.

Our retriggered traumas take us back in time. In the queer community, many older gay men have said for them they feel like it is 1985 when AIDS was raging through our community, taking life after life with little understanding of how and what can be done. For those that survived, this great suffering and grief has never been fully resolved. The corona virus crisis occurs and the old feelings come rushing in.

Our reactions to the current state of affairs is overlain by these past emotions that twist themselves into this new situation. I want to suggest that when you find that combination of fear, anxiety, and anger, first try to acknowledge their existence. If the emotions lesson or go away, that’s all you need to do. But if you find yourself stuck in any one of those emotions, that’s a good time to acknowledge that perhaps there is something behind it. Try to identify the source, how it felt in 1985 to watch a partner die, what it was like to fight in a war you were unprepared for, how it felt when you lost a job or ended a difficult relationship. Identifying the source is discovering a little post-it note saying this memory and feeling is from the past and I am reacting to that, not to the current situation.

From that realization, you can start differentiating from the past and the present. When we feel from stored trauma, we are remembering a feeling and emotion but not feeling the same way we felt at the time nor how we would feel a current emotion arising. In seeing the post-it note, you can gain a little distance to look at the trauma. Quite often in formal sesshins, individuals may have very powerful emotional responses arise as they give the time and patience to feel what is deep in their bodies. In our collective sesshin, the same will happen. If you can, allow your feelings to arise and respond to them. This is where our practice of mindfulness is the most useful for us.

To do so, we must practice self-compassion. We all are suffering and hold hurt within our bodies. We all had plans and dreams disrupted by this virus. We have been expected to adjust to major changes in lives, the loss of a job, distance from loved ones, and isolation. We cannot change what has happened and clinging to that past will not allow us to live on fully. Acknowledge those disruptions with gentleness, compassion and feeling.

In a traditional sesshin, we would be following a rigid schedule. You walk in the door, the schedule is posted and that is what you will be doing for the period of time. In our collective sesshin, each of us is determining our own schedule. What is your schedule, what are doing, how are participating? Are you still feeling part of the world or perhaps you are feeling a need to hide away. When do you get up, eat, exercise, do chores, sit, go to sleep? Pay attention to the order your life need right now and be aware that it will change.

In a traditional sesshin there are many periods of sitting; some exercise, with Kinhin–walking meditation or yoga; and meals to provide for the nourishment our body needs. In our sesshin, this about your schedule and how you are providing for these needs. We each need to determine how I am living my life—do I want to live my life kinda schlumpy, or do I want to live my life with purpose. All the little decisions get magnified in our sesshin—what do I wear if I am not going outside; how do I want to look for myself; what makes sense now? Whatever the answers are for you, determine them with intention and purpose.

Traditional sesshins reduce distractions as a matter of course. Now, we are forced to ask ourselves, what nourishment am I feeding my mind right now. This is challenging as we are talking about the consumption of news, social media, live streaming…all aspects of the place and time we are in right now. I would suggest examining what is coming as a source of nourishment. I recently binged watched Star Trek: Picard in two days. A noble hero struggling to be moral in a universe filled with deception.  Afterwards, I decided to binge another program which I discovered was filled with a level of violence that only fed the fear in me.

I find that reading fiction works for me in a different way.  I just finished The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, a horrific book detailing the violent and degrading conditions that African-American slaves faced in this country. Yet I was able to observe his characters confronting the unconfrontable. The bravery, the determination as they struggled through life, gave me a vision of the courage and the perspective required to confront a virus wreaking havoc worldwide. A good friend in South Africa posted on Facebook as his country is just starting their shelter-in-place, “My father was under house arrest for 25 years by the apartheid regime, I think I can endure the next three days.” Let the nourishment we recieve from real life and fiction that carry us to this greater place.

In a traditional sesshin, you are admonished not to have any sexual interactions. Some of you are sheltering with your loved ones, many of us are not, so sexual feelings and desire for intimacy will inevitably arise. Acknowledge these feelings, as well as step back to identify what do you desire at the moment. Our greatest suffering comes from not getting what we have determined to be what we want or need. But this is not just our mind speaking; sexual energy is a powerful energy within our body that should not be categorically suppressed. There are alternatives for dealing with sexual energies within social distancing rules. Intimacy during difficult times helps us feel connected and comforted and allows us to gather the energy to face our suffering another day.  During our collective sesshin, please pay attention to this.

Another important aspect in a traditional sesshin is the dokusan, or practice consultation with your teacher. Who can you talk to about your life and what is coming up for you? Who do you know that may be able to give you some guidance? By being honest with your situation and eschewing glibness, you may discover any number of unexpected people will listen and offer you wisdom. I have been surprised about the openness of people sharing direct comments to me on social media, including people I barely know. Our situation can bring out the best in friends and strangers if we ourselves are open to accept support and understanding.

We need to remain connected to others, especially if you are alone. Zoom meetings, face-timeing, talking on the phone, talking over the fence to neighbors, texting, social media messaging—provide means of communication and possibly intimacy. In a traditional sesshin a powerful connection develops from sharing the same space in silence as you experience humanity without having to talk. In our case, in addition to looking inward as we sit and meditate, we have to look outwards to find that human interaction vital for our well-being.

Each day, each hour of our collective sesshin presents an opportunity to celebrate another day in our lives. Unfortunately, there will be people who die from the coronavirus and other causes that will not be around to celebrate. What will spark joy in your life today? At least once a day, give yourself up to the beauty and love that exist around us.

Sesshins offer a container for safely within the group, within the space, within the appointed time period. What do you need to feel safe right now? What arises for you that you can do in the space you are in? We are all struggling with this. While we have health guidelines for dealing with exposure to the corona virus, each of us needs to do what we sense we require for our own safety based on our physical and mental health status and experiences. Do what you need to do, what makes your comfortable without making yourself crazy. If obsessiveness and fear are overwhelming you, sit to find your way through them.

Our collective sesshin officially was planned to end on 7 April. When I am in the beginning of a traditional sesshin, the end point is often in my mind—can I make that far; oh, another day has passed; I am almost there. Eventually, I let the end point go and am able to focus more consistently on the moment. We are not trying accomplish anything in sitting or in a sesshin. We are living.

For the betterment of our lives, the end point of our collective sesshin has been extended for at least another month. Enjoy the extra time we have been granted as you continue to be focused on the now and the present and today. By embodying your experience, you will discover unimaginable changes in your life. We are all here in you and for you as we continue this practice together.

Thank you.

This piece was based on a transcription of a dharma talk, I gave to the San Francisco LGBT Sangha on 30 March 2020 via Zoom

The talk ended with the Enmei Jukku Kannon Gyo, chanted in the times of disaster to relieve suffering and bring upon healing.

KAN ZE ON                       Kanzeon! Salutation and devotion to Buddha

NA MU BUTSU                 We are one with Buddha

YO BUTSU U IN                In cause and effect related to all Buddhas

YO BUTSU U EN               and to Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.

BU PO SO EN                    Our True Nature is

JO RAKU GA JO                Eternal, Joyous, Selfless and Pure.

CHO NEN KAN ZE ON    So let us chant every morning Kanzeon with Nen [attention]

BO NEN KAN ZE ON       Every evening Kanzeon, with Nen!

NEN NEN JU SHIN KI      Nen, Nen arises from Mind.

NEN NEN FU RI SHIN     Nen, Nen is no separate from Mind.

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