There is a place we can go, when we allow our minds to go silent, a place full of delight and joy. I have glimpsed it before, mostly walking in nature. But in this case, residing for four days in the foothills of the Sierras, it comes to me in spades. Because here, beneath cobalt blue skies and between bosomy hills draped in dry yellow grasses and peppered with pines and manzanitas, is where my Zen retreat is taking place.
I soon learn this state of joy can happen anywhere, even facing a blank white wall. For there is an essential joy residing in our natures as well as in nature herself. That joy is waiting patiently beneath and within every move we make, every sight we behold, every breath we take and every word we speak. It is ours at any moment we choose and, if I understand Zen correctly, it is our surest path to a sense of fulfillment.
Even though Buddha lived centuries ago, he arrived at a realization whose truth exists in a form as actual and as primal now as it did then. And that is, basically, that it’s all inside of us; everything we need is inside of us. All we need to do is remain present to it, to remain aware. To remain conscious of the essence of being alive, which is in fact joy.
In the past, I had experimented with various stripes of meditation, often quipping that I was the Tigger of meditation practice. A taste of Tibetan, a dash of Hindu, a slice of Tantric... Even swam in a soup of aurally enhanced brain wave syncing. And yet nothing stuck, nothing came across as what Tiggers really like. I came to the conclusion that I was simply way too Western (and juvenile) to get it.
Then I heard a Zen monk named Cheri Huber speak for an afternoon, and some new sense of the possible flooded my body. I felt a sudden urgency to learn more of what she seemed to understand and express effortlessly. It truly seemed she possessed some secret about life. I signed up for a silent retreat. The idea that I would not have to utter a word seemed incredibly attractive.
Upon arriving, I climb a small hill, walk under an enormous pine, through a variety of tiny cultivated maples, cross a tiny wooden bridge spanning several small ponds filled with reeds and lotus blossoms. My first glimpse of the main Monastery reveals two long, low, Mission style buildings separated by a breezeway looking West, over the hills. The roofs are made of Spanish clay tile and, I later learn, the walls are of pressed earth. There are rows of mullioned casement windows framed with dark burnished wood. I take a very deep breath, inhale the fragrance of sunbaked life and feel an instinctive urge to bow.
We will be bowing a great deal from here on in... pressing our palms together just above our hearts as we lower our heads in deference. Gassho, it’s called. It means my heart and your heart are one. We bow when we pass each other, we bow to the Meditation hall upon entry, we bow to our cushions, we bow again to the room... After a while, it seems odd not to bow to almost everything.
So the silence element... in fact it is not total. We are treated to numerous talks by the gifted Cheri Huber, and in turn are allowed to ask her questions and share experiences. We also engage in a variety of fascinating and revelatory exercises - mostly visualizations and processes of self-inquiry - the results of which we then share with another partner or sometimes the entire group. And these exercises can be at times cathartic. Yet throughout, we never respond to our fellow retreatants and always keep what is called ‘custody of the eyes’ - our eyes downcast slightly to allow each of us to experience our selves beyond the gaze of ‘the other’, beyond the need to return to our socialized personae.
Now I have never consciously been in the market for a teacher, but listening for four days to the workshops of Cheri Huber leaves me with the feeling that if I were, she would be the one. Skip the fact that her physical self is adorable - a diminutive, sprightly woman with a silver-haired pixie cut and an easy grin - what creates her real charm is her steady grasp on all the things that really matter. This must be the result of 30 years of Zen practice. I see her almost as a gardener; she’s done the hard work, plowed the fields of the human psyche and is on an intimate basis with the dirt from which we spring. Which means she knows the weeds - how and where they grow, and how to free ourselves from their tendency to steal life from our intended crop - our true selves. And of this wondrous species, it is very clear that she has a stellar awareness. And it appears to be a mission of hers (she is a bodhidharma), one she cherishes, to help us discover that awareness for ourselves.
Of course, then we get down to the nitty-gritty of sitting... Hmmm. It takes me more than a minute or two to get my body aligned, which entails bravely repressing infernal urges to fidget. Am I the only hyper-kinetic child here? When finally I do, I am now faced with the larger task is aligning my mind with that experience of pure existence, with the conscious awareness which is the grail of Zen. And this, I am quickly made aware, could take me a lifetime. We are meant to count, up to 10, at the bottom of each exhale. If, however, somewhere along the way thoughts have intruded, we must return back to 1. After a few sessions where I never got anywhere near 10, I asked Cheri... ‘So what happens if I don’t make it to 10, or even to 2? Do I just keep counting 1 at the bottom of each exhale?’ She smiles. ‘That’s right!’ ‘And if I were to do that for the rest of my life... I guess that would that be okay?’ ‘That’s right!’
There is a word that recurs frequently in the short recitation we read before each morning sitting session, and it is ‘suffering.’ Now I am used to thinking of suffering as something acute - a serious, damaging condition - one belonging to the disadvantaged of the third world or to the mentally ill. But in Zen, it becomes clear that we are all suffering on some level, until we become truly aware. And one of the lines from the recitation is: ’We are here to use everything in our experience to see how we cause ourselves to suffer, so we can drop that and end suffering.’ When I suffer, then, it is only because I choose to experience life as suffering. Why would I do that to myself? I can imagine a few reasons, such as suffering becoming part of one’s identity - but I think: it shall not be part of mine.
The happy news in Zen is that conscious awareness is a practice that just begins on the cushion. This is an immensely empowering practice. The whole point is that life itself is the vast workshop in which we learn to be present. In between Cheri’s talks, our exercises and the sitting, many of us take long walks through the wooded, hillside acreage of the Monastery. During these, while maintaining that heightened sense of awareness we are beginning slowly to understand, we find ourselves noticing the utterly profound grace of Nature. Things that might have gone unnoticed suddenly spring forth like messengers from the deep; I spot a dandelion, poised to release its silken seed parachutes; its head describes a perfect dymaxion sphere built by each translucent filament connecting another at a precise angle - a heart-stopping instant of bio-geometric perfection. Next to it, a hot yellow dandelion blossom widens; nestled into it are two different species of insect, sharing without issue the rapture of golden life within.
So much knowledge seems to bubble up during these four days, I feel like a bottle of shaken Champagne. And I notice a more pronounced experience of what Cheri calls the ‘dropping in’ of insights; it happens so easily when we are unguarded and open. We are continually urged to examine the ongoing dialogue between our ‘conditioned minds’ and our authentic selves. Actually, rather often we discover it is instead an incessant monologue on the part of our hyper-active egos, which is what impedes our access to true insight and causes our suffering. But we are encouraged to cut ourselves slack; Cheri points out that our egos are survival systems, the manner in which we manage to squeak through childhood without being sent to our rooms for the duration. Alas, those systems perdure as we mature, and soon we are being guided solely by (and beleaguered by) these defensive strategies and not by our own true natures.
The aim, or work, of Zen is to dissolve the conditioned self and reveal and release the true self, which is in the flow and is eternal and is goodness itself. By the fourth day, my psyche finds itself stretching out on a couch the size of the universe. My inner child is having a blast. Gazing at the towering, magisterial pine that stands at the entrance to the Monastery and, listing slightly to the right just as it does, I swear I have learned to understand tree. And I'm sure it sounds absurd, but I think, or rather I sense, that I can even talk tree. It's a different timeframe altogether. Curiously enough, I later learn that in Greece, just before Plato’s ascendance, people sat around giant Oaks and somehow received wisdom. It’s no wonder that people like to quote Heraclitus, who predated Plato and Socrates, when it comes to understanding the nature of time...
I hesitate to cajole into words what is in fact a visceral, sensory, deeply integrative experience. Coming to it with ‘Beginner’s mind’, this experience of the conscious, compassionate awareness that is our authentic nature is world changing. I recommend interested readers read my interview with Cheri. None of this can really be understood rationally, or through language. And this is why retreats are so essential.
What I learned at the Monastery is that it is, in fact, never too late to arrive at oneself or, shall I say, never too late to experience the merging of the ‘small I’ with the ‘big I’, to drop into that sweet zone where the true self cohabits with that larger presence, which is Life, the amazing force which flows between and connects all beings one to another. Never too late to really know what we seem to be here to know, the radiant beauty of pure being.