photo courtesy of Dharma Rain Zen Center, Portland, OR

I’ve never been on a formal meditation retreat before that’s longer than a few days, but this Sunday evening I’ll be participating in a week-long sesshin, or Zen meditation retreat. We will wake at 4:30 the morning in Noble Silence to begin the first of eight total hours of silent zazen, or sitting meditation each day. There will also be kinhin, or walking meditation, work meditation, as well as formal meals in silence called oryoki. There will be chanting and bowing, a time for rest or exercise, and time to ask our teachers questions about our practice in a private interview process called sanzen. Each evening a Dharma Talk is given by the abbot of the temple, followed by a tea ceremony; an evening vespers chant wraps up the day before lights out at 10pm. Then six and a half hours later, the bells will ring and we’ll wake up and do it all over again, for the next seven days.

At this point you might find yourself asking, “Why on earth would anyone want to subject themselves to the physical and potential emotional misery of sitting silently with their thoughts and sore back all week, with a bunch of other people also sitting silently?!”

It’s a fair question to ask, though I don’t know that I can fully answer it in a way that resonates with what I feel in my body when I think about the experience. What I do know is that I have rarely, if ever, given myself the permission to just be without having to do for such an extended period of time. So much of my identity is wrapped up in what I think, do, achieve, create…particularly in a professional context. Most midwives talk about their work as a calling or vocation, not just a job. We think it of it as an intrinsic part of who we are.

But for the next week, no one will care at all about my work as a midwife. Nor will they know the extent of my time as a graduate student, earning two different master’s degrees. They won’t know anything about my family, the various political causes I think are worthy, the satisfaction I take in knitting and sewing, or the pleasure I experience in mastering a new chord on my ukelele–some of the things that in sum, I’ve come to believe are me.

Everything that we think of as “personality,” or “identity,” or “the self,” will be gently set aside for the week and perhaps I might experience for a brief moment the Zen concept of non-duality. One of my favorite Zen koans, attributed to the Chinese Chan Buddhist monk Huineng, asks “What did your face look like before your parents were born?” Another translation offered says, “When you’re not thinking of anything good and anything bad, at that moment, what is your original face?”

My heart skipped a beat when I first heard this koan. As an adult adoptee, I’ve never walked through the world looking like anybody else I knew. It wasn’t until my son was born that I had the experience of looking in another person’s face and seeing my eyes, my cheeks, my nose. It took my breath away. The question, What did my original face look like? sat quietly beside the longing I have felt my entire life to experience that physical immediacy of looking like at least one other person in the world. Upon encountering Huineng’s koan, that longing loosened its grip and slipped free. I took comfort in knowing that I will never know my birth parents’ faces, or their parents…nor my “original face.” It is larger than any one human DNA lineage, species of plant or animal, or element of matter. The self is always transforming and will continue to do so even past death. This body I inhabit will eventually cease living and slowly decompose, becoming the soil and trees and animals. I’m just in this particular human form for a short period of time.

It’s both disorienting, but liberating also, to know that I am not my thoughts. They certainly dictate a good portion of my day and are a source of pleasure, satisfaction and deep connection, but also sometimes grief, anger, and resentment. When I can take a moment to pause and notice that I’m thinking, it gives me an opportunity to observe how I am relating to my thoughts. Am I ruminating on something in the past or future that I have no control over? Am I replaying a conversation I wish had gone differently? Am I telling myself the same story about why x, y, or z plan isn’t possible and will never work out? As a humans, we are a story-telling species; we tell stories to create meaning of the events of our lives. But stories are slippery: they can be our prison just as easily as they can be our healing or our liberation.

I’m grateful for this seven day space I’m giving myself to experience what happens when I pause the stories and listen for what else might emerge. I have no idea what will unfold, which makes me both nervous, but also curious. If there’s anything I’ve learned about being a parent so far, it’s the mileage you can get out of loosening the grip on the story in your head and just staying curious to the moment and child in front of you. So many times, it’s turned out I was nowhere near the mark of what was motivating my son to do, think, or say whatever it was he did, thought, or said. It is my son’s fearless, loving curiosity that will be my inspiration, strength, and guiding light as I embark on this sesshin.

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