This retreat was a practical learning experience for me. I learned about the effects of emotional pain, how emotional storms rage in the mind and how they can lead to potentially insane actions. I learned however that these storms pass. I learned to deal with the storm, by firstly acknowledging it, and then by bringing my attention to my breath.
I learned that the mind can only fully concentrate on one thing at a time. During an emotional storm my full concentration is on the endless circulating thoughts, thoughts about difficult or unpleasant past experiences or thoughts anticipating future difficulties. As each bad thought arises I experience emotional pain, and the emotional pain builds up. These thoughts, if not seen and arrested, can drive us almost mad. I learned however that if the mind comes to its senses, by fully focusing on a sense object, the circulating thoughts are quietened and the storm starts to abate.
I learned that when sitting meditating on the cushion, the most powerful sense tool we have is the breath. I found that the mind can be calmed by concentrating fully on the sense experience of breath Feeling the air going in, feeling the lungs expanding, and at the top of the breath, ONE, then releasing, feeling the air escaping, feeling the lungs relaxing, and then at the bottom of the breath TWO, and then on. Outside, at end of the sitting I notice that the storm has passed.
But what did the storm teach me? Well three things, firstly that they pass, secondly that they are the result of my mind concentrating on something unpleasant , and thirdly that the mind can be stilled by shifting its awareness fully into the sense world, or to use the popular expressing “ coming to my senses “, and this is most simply done by following the breath, in and out.
On the way home from the retreat, my mind once again started to drift towards a difficult family situation, my mind started to dwell on it and once again I started to go down the emotional hole. At this stage I remembered another important everyday practice which is “don’t dwell in the drama”. But how do we stop dwelling in it? Again, come to the senses, follow the breath!
So, what is Zen practice, both formal and informal? What is a Zen life all about? For me, the object of a Zen life is simply to awaken to life as it is, as it is without a story. Zen practice is that set of tools I use to pluck me out of mind and to bring my awareness back to now, to awaken me to the present moment as it is without a story.
During this retreat four of us took Precepts. Thomasz took his first five. Johannes and Kevin took their next five, leading them into their lives as a “Dharma Teacher in Training”, and Ron took his next six as a “Senior Dharma Teacher”.
Since taking my next five Precepts, life has turned into a Kong-An, continuous Kong-An work in progress. And as with trying to solve a Kong-An, I keep finding out NOT THAT, and the Kong-An gets presented again.
This was a very strong retreat. Fifteen of us walked out after the four days of formal practice. May life bless us all with the lessons we need, may we be awake enough to see them, and may we learn to keep coming to our senses.