First, a little background. I started investigating Bhuddism almost a year ago, and started meditating regularly about 6 months ago. So I am very new to this practice. Last week I attended my first sesshin (7 days). I am sharing my experience here as it may be useful to other new practicioners considering sesshin.
This sesshin was organized by a Rinzai lineage sangha, and as such, most of the practitioners were working on koans. I considered doing koan work, but I did not yet feel I had mastered shikintaza (whatever that might mean), so I decided to just sit for the duration of the sesshin. The daily schedule in sesshin:
4:30 - wake up
5:00 - 7:00 meditation
7:00 - 9:00 breakfast/break
9:00 - 12:00 meditation (sometimes a yoga break)
12:00 - 2:00 lunch/break
2:00 - 5:00 meditation
5:00 - 7:00 dinner/break
7:00 - 9:00 meditation/dharma talk
The meditation periods were 25 minutes of sitting meditation followed by 5 minutes of walking meditation, repeat. Also, each person has a work assignment which took 1 - 2 hours out of the meditation schedule each day. So a typical day included 6 - 7 hours of meditation. There was no pressure to participate in every meditation session, but I did (that's what I was there for). In addtion, I took an hour walk each morning and evening, and a short nap during the lunch break. I attempted to "be aware" during all waking hours.
Sunday (day 0): got there Sunday afternoon, did a couple of hours meditation Sunday night. That was the longest I had ever sat at one time, and it went reasonably well (meaning not too much pain/boredom!).
Monday (day 1): By mid morning my knees and back were aching, and I couldn't imaging doing this for 6 more days (of course, I shouldn't be imagining the next 6 days, but that's a different issue). By the end of the day I was counting the hours until I could go home (I traveled to sesshin with four others and had no way to get home on my own).
Tuesday (day 2): The pain in my back and knees was a little better today, and my ability to sit and focus was improved. Still, there was little reason today to enjoy sesshin, and I was still looking forward to going back home.
Wednesday (day 3): Subtle change today. My knees and back still hurt. There was not an appreciable difference in my ability to focus during meditation (still spent a lot of time lost in thought or nodding off). But (for no apparent reason) there was a background of joy? happiness? I was for some reason very satisfied with the routine of sesshin.
Thursday/Friday (days 4 and 5): These were truly highlight days. Although my knees and back still bothered me while sitting, I laughed easily, thoroughly enjoyed my walks, and was almost giddy with happiness at times. I spent most of my waking time easily staying "in the moment". Sure, thoughts still appeared, and sometimes took root, but easily drifted away when I brought up awareness.
Saturday (day 6): A truly disappointing morming. Thursday and Friday had inspired me to sit with even more focus and the meditation was coming much more easily. This led to expectations (that wicked word) that each day would be better than the last. While I felt fine Saturday, it was nothing special. However, for some reason, I discovered that I was just fine replacing the elation of Friday with the steady acceptance of Saturday.
Sunday; Half day meditation and a return to home. Thoughts of work, chores, etc. begin to intrude. I wondered how long the "glow" from sesshin would last.
So, now it's Tuesday - my reflections on sesshin:
- Zen is an experiential phenomenon. I've been reading and studying Zen for almost a year, and have gotten a rudimentary intellectual understanding of Zen concepts. But 7 days of sesshin contributed more to my truly understanding those Zen concpepts then all the book pounding of the previous year.
- Zazen is truly as simple as it is described by Jundo, Taigu, Suzuki, etc. If you're like me, you spend a good part of your time wondering if you are "doing it right". Don't worry - you're doing it right. It's not that complex.
So, if you are a newbie and are considering sesshin - should you go? IMO - absolutely. But I will say that if I had gone to a 2 or 3 day sesshin, I might been gone before I got into the swing of things. Just something to think about.