Zen and the art of sanity maintenance
Article: Christina Harnois
When I tell people I am going on a silent meditation retreat their reaction is usually ‘I could never do that!’. My response is ‘Of course you could, in the right context you would and maybe you should’.
So here I am in the Alsace region of France attending a 4-day silent retreat at the Soto Zen Monastery Ryumon Ji. This is a very special retreat or sesshin celebrating the birth of Buddha and the 20th anniversary of the temple itself.
These retreats are open to the initiated and uninitiated alike. Resident Zen Buddhist monks and nuns share their practice with those looking to ancient wisdom for ways to improve their lives today.
Be prepared this is not a vacation where you will spend your time relaxing and smelling the roses (although the grounds of the temple are filled with beautiful flowers), the schedule is rigorous to say the least. The wake-up bell sounds at 4am, an ungodly hour in day to day life but in the context of this retreat a perfectly peaceful and appropriate way to start the day.
The day begins with the first of six hour and a half long meditation sessions. In this Japanese Buddhist tradition Zazen, a seated meditation, consists of sitting silent and still and becoming a witness to your thoughts. The posture is precisely defined, with clear instruction on how to hold your body, arms and how to angle your gaze.
The zazen sessions are punctuated with traditional ceremonies, imagine a room of 70 people chanting sutras to the beat of ceremonial drums, bells and Tibetan bowls. The atmosphere is electric, the vibrations create a collective energy that is heavy in the space and lingers within.
Each day the group takes time to do communal chores, known as samou, for the upkeep and daily running of the temple. Free time is usually spent enjoying the grounds and resting, there is little time for superfluous tasks that often take up so much of our daily lives.
Every activity is structured and ritualised, the meals themselves are an exercise in mindfulness with chanting, choreographed movements and almost synchronised eating.
Remember all the above is done in silence.
If this all seems austere and suffocating I assure you it is quite the opposite. The structure is there to support you and allow the ego self to fade into the background. The environment creates space to rest our minds from the mundane din of thoughts and sensory overload experienced in the modern world.
When you feel like you need a mental, emotional and spiritual reboot a meditative retreat such as this is definitely a jump-start in the right direction.
We tend to identify ourselves with our thoughts and emotions. This form of mediation practice teaches us to dissociate the self from these thoughts, take a step back and become aware of them as an external construct. Allowing our internal dialogues, images and sensations to flow past us and we become the observe of your own stream of consciousness. This creates a space of stillness allowing the light of oneness to shine in.
As Zen master Kodo Sawaki Roshi said ‘Zazen is to tune into the universe’.
So Well So Zen So Edited
For more information on Zen Buddhism and the Ryumon Ji Temple itself please have a look at their website. Subscribe to their youtube channel (some of the videos are subtitled in English)
Soto Zen Temple Ryumon Ji: www.meditation-zen.org/en
youtube channel: www.youtube.com/user/Kankyo2308
Staying positive, healthy, focussed and self-aware, both internally and externally.