“When you have nothing to do, do nothing.” ~ Frederick Marx
I recently had a wonderful seven-day Zen meditation retreat.
My Hollow Bones teacher wasn’t there, but I listened to podcasts with wonderful Buddhist teachers Stephen Bachelor, Sylvia Boorstein, Robert Thurman, Sharon Salzburg, and others.
I wish I could have practiced with 20 of my fellow Hollow Bones sangha members, but they too were unavailable.
I did the whole thing in my home.
I set up a rigorous schedule which closely followed our typical sesshin (retreat) structure, though it wasn’t quite as strict.
I got up “late”—5:30 a.m.—then hit the cushion by 6:00 a.m. for Morning Service and my first Zazen period of the day. I largely alternated walking and sitting meditation periods all day until 9 p.m., with time out for meals, morning yoga and stretching, afternoon exercise, evening chi gong, and two half hour sessions of work.
I didn’t bother to move any of the few appointments already on my schedule, including twice weekly online sangha meetings where I give meditation instruction and dharma talks.
So the retreat wasn’t totally silent as it normally would be. I also didn’t keep to the schedule 100 percent. Those ever-present temptations at home got to me. I violated the traditional five precepts, which, in brief, are: no killing of living beings, no sex, no intoxication, no stealing, and no lying.
I had a glass of wine with dinner one night and a beer on another. In further violation of strict retreat codes demanding elimination of any possible mental distractions, I read a bit during afternoon rest periods, and in the final two evenings, I watched movies.
But I didn’t talk to my girlfriend all week, socialize with others, or do any writing or filming, and I meditated on average six hours a day. So I’m proud of what I accomplished.
I needed it.
In the prior weeks, I noticed myself sliding toward depression. The internal voices of self-criticism are my worst demons and they were working overtime. They tend to come on during fallow periods—when I have little pressing work. I notice them most when I start losing patience.
I found myself getting short with my girlfriend. When self-condemnation leads to suicidal ideation, it’s time to reach for the fail-safe button and hit the cushion. Meditation retreats have never failed to re-right my internal gyroscope and restore mental balance.
Previous standard practice for me meant doing at least one sesshin a year. Given the present state of the world, I think two or three are in order.
It worked. I felt a lot calmer and clearer. Not only was I no longer frustrated with my girlfriend, when I saw her again, I was overjoyed. I resolved to continue practicing and do up to a half day of the same schedule each and every morning, including yoga and stretching.
The key for me is getting up early. If I allow myself to stay in bed too long, it’s only too easy for me to begin the day with thoughts like, “What’s the point of getting up at all?” That is not a mindset conducive to a happy day.
When I’m up at 5:30 a.m., even though I’ve hardly done a thing by noon, I feel like I’ve already done a lot. I’m taking care of myself. My mental frame is equanimous and balanced.
The whole point of meditation is to gain acceptance for all things. It’s not that all acts—large or small, painful or pleasurable—get equalized. They don’t all have identical measure or emotional impact.
It’s that they all can be faced with a framework of acceptance—a welcoming state of mind. Ah, this too is part of life. That welcoming state of mind both produces and is a product of equanimity. It is one of the building blocks to awakening, also known as enlightenment.
What constitutes enlightenment is a question of much speculation and philosophizing among Buddhists.
“Enlightenment, don’t know what it is,” Van Morrison sings on his 1990 album of the same name.
Most people would agree.
I have spent a good number of my waking days imagining that I know what it is. Like most experiences I’ve never had, I always believed I could imagine my way into an experience of it. Certainly, Tibetan and Theravadin Buddhists, at least, have mapped the terrain of awakening; they’ve articulated all the intermediate steps that must be taken—the thresholds to be crossed on the path to enlightenment.
Zen Buddhism is more about the endgame, making it more of an all-or-nothing proposition: Just wake the f*ck up!
I’ve certainly had numerous different, what I would call openings, especially on meditation retreats. In one, I saw myself hovering far above the meditation hall, quietly surveying all in my purview—the deep redwood siding of the center’s shaded buildings, the gentle surrounding hills, the low whistle of wind, bird calls from far away. I was this large expansion.
What I could “see” and hear and feel—this was the extent of my very self, my own being. I became a great field of awareness. No more, no less. And there was an expansive lightness, and breadth, and peace in this knowing.
This is the renowned “field of pure awareness” that Buddhist teachers regularly point to. The field can be as small as our physical bodies. But if we’re really attentive and open, it can be as spacious as the furthest reach of our sensory capacities.
“Then, with each moment’s arising flash of our normal feelings and thoughts, we will simultaneously recognize within us a field of pure awareness, wisdom, compassion, and skillful means.” ~ Master Torei Enji, Awakened One’s Vow, written in 18th Century Japan
I’ve also had numerous dramatic heart openings. I would simply weep at the holy magnificence of life. A blade of grass. A caterpillar. A caterpillar eating a blade of grass. A caterpillar eating the blade of grass it’s standing on.
I’ve spent parts of whole days in this paradisaical state. I wouldn’t call it bliss. It’s extreme gratitude. There’s so much splendor, it can actually become too much. There’s so much to be grateful for, it can be overwhelming—almost painful.
It seems entirely suitable to lie an entire day in the sun on one’s back making googly eyes at the passing clouds and drooling. I highly recommend it. Just take sun block.
I’ve also had what Buddhists like to call an experience of “no self.” That was fun.
One particular episode happened during a week-long Hollow Bones Zen sesshin. My teacher had stipulated that the screen door to the meditation hall be left open. He said mosquitoes were not present during the day, so none would attack us. He himself was outside sitting under a tree, holding dokusan (a meeting with yogis—giving advice, encouragement, and teachings).
It was a cool, sunny day and he preferred being outside. The rest of us were indoors meditating—backs straight, heads erect, eyes open. Two half circles, facing each other in our Zen robes. Seventeen men in all.
There is no hell for me quite like the hell of sitting in meditation with a mosquito buzzing about. I’ve always hated mosquitoes. My aversion dates to my youth. After I woke her up to complain, my mother, bless her, used to come into our room at night, turn on the light and sit, tired, waiting patiently for any mosquitoes to light.
She’d scan the walls, as would we, and once found, she’d whack them with a rolled-up newspaper or magazine. Eventually, we almost always found the little offenders. I never fell asleep in my life again with quite that same quality of serenity.
Back in my Zen sesshin, I spent the better part of one 30-minute meditation period alternately cursing my fate and cursing my teacher. When the bell rang and it was time for walking meditation, I closed the screen door to stem the flow of mosquitoes into the hall.
While walking, I thought about how I would defend myself for this subversion. It clearly was the “right” decision to make, but so what? I found myself caught again in a tendency of mind I call “Defending My Life.” I’m sure you know this one. Whatever action I take (or don’t take, it doesn’t really matter), I’ll spin out dozens of impassioned arguments for my defense. “But your honor, I was nowhere near the scene…!”
Say what you will about a childhood spent being afraid of getting into trouble, I have the adult mind of a defense lawyer.
Then it hit me. So what if my teacher admonishes me? What difference does it make? Eventually we’ll work it through, come to an understanding, and make peace. If he gets mad, or doesn’t get mad, what possible difference should it make to me?
It can’t retroactively change my behavior. I was taking a simple action, doing what I thought best, so the rest is effectively immaterial. Who gives a sh*t? I grew giddy. I started giggling. There’s nothing I can possibly do to alter the outcome of subsequent events. So relax, dude. And I did. I realized all I could ever do was do my best (on my own best judgment), then relax and see what happens next.
I grew light. My body somehow became evanescent; it didn’t matter what happened to it—to me. What could possibly happen to make a difference? I experienced equanimity that was boundless. I felt like the air—unflappable. How can the wind disturb itself?
The bell rang and we hustled back to our sitting postures. I had a huge shit-eating grin. I sat. I breathed. I thought, what’s the difference? Pain, no pain, who cares? Mosquito, no mosquito—bring it on!
I watched these thoughts and others. I thought hell, they could torture me, what difference does it make? It’s only my body. Yes, I’ll feel feelings. Yes, I’ll feel pain, but what does it matter? Is it me that will suffer? Who is me anyway?
How can I suffer when there is no me? I can only suffer as long as I’m invested in a “me,”in something that lasts, that goes untainted, unchanging—and what does that? Nothing. There literally is no material thing like that. There’s only experience after experience, one after another in endless succession. I had to restrain myself from breaking into huge guffaws. As we say in our sesshins, when someone does exactly that—falls into a puddle of uncontrollable laughter and delight—“I got the joke.”
I sat there grinning and breathing. The feeling stayed with me for most of the rest of the day. It didn’t last, but, hey, nothing does, right? And of course, neither my teacher nor anyone else ever said anything about the mosquitoes or the screen. All that drama was entirely my mental creation. Why waste time with that? Why not hang out in no-self? In bliss? “Just turn on delight!”
That opportunity is ever-present for us.
We can focus on everything that’s happening now and formulate it in terms of me—how it’s affecting myself. “Woe is me, I don’t have much work. Woe is me, I can’t get my films into festivals, on TV, or on Netflix. Woe is me, I can’t change the ManKind Project.” Those are some of the usual verses in my song of woe.
What’s the song of woe you’re singing to yourself these days?
Let go of that strict identification with yourself—that small, contracted sense of self—“the body of fear,” as Jack Kornfield calls it, and “the hysterical-historical,” as my teacher calls it. It’s a figment of our imagination anyway.
There really is no separate self.
Step out into that field of pure awareness. I’ll meet you there.
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase ‘each other’
doesn’t make any sense.”