Over at Dalai Grandma, the author of that blog writes about her experiences studying with Zen teachers who are male and how that can and sometimes has become slippery given the patriarchal history of Zen. It is a problem for most religions, as far as I can tell, but perhaps one encounters it in Zen even more so since the intimate experience of working face-to-face with a teacher is so integral to the practice.
To help shift the balance a little, here is my distinctly female take on sesshin, such as I have experienced it.
When I was in labour with my firstborn, I was scared. I was scared of the pain, the promise of pain and of the whole thing that loomed ahead - the experience of being a parent, a mother. I would go so far as to say that I was so scared of all of it that I was able to will my body into drawing out labour as long as possible. I say this now, in retrospect. At the time I am pretty sure that I thought I wanted it to be over with as quickly as possible but the events of that time seem to suggest otherwise.
I remember hitting a point when things were getting a little hairy and I got into the hot tub at the birth center. This was about 24 hours into labour and after Dan's terrible foot cramp. It is so hard to see the one you love suffer in pain but fortunately he was able to breathe through it. But back to the story...suddenly I realized that, deep down, I had been harbouring a notion that, so long as I promised - really promised - to come back the next day, I would be allowed to go home and take a little rest and then come back and finish this thing up. As I lay in the tub with the contractions hitting me hard I fully and completely realized there was no possible hope of going home, of getting a little rest, of finishing this thing up on my terms. I was there and it was happening. Once I was able to really and truly dispel the idea that I had an out, I was able to just be in my body and ride the waves. I even managed to fall asleep between contractions. Not surprisingly, two hours later, we had a baby.
My experience at my first sesshin was a lot like that. About 24 hours in, as we began the afternoon session, I found myself feeling backed against a wall with nowhere to go. I realized that I had been keeping a little escape plan in the back of my mind the whole time and the moment had come to face it - I could give up and walk out (this is where the metaphor is a little weak - technically I could have left the sesshin whereas in childbirth, one is truly stuck there) but for me, walking out wasn't really an option. I had looked too long and hard for this place and I knew it was the right one for me. So I had to do just what I did in labour - face it full on, no holding back, no escape routes. Ride the waves. I might have slept a little there too, but don't tell anyone.
This past sesshin I had another childbirth/zazen metaphorical experience, along somewhat similar lines. Again, I had been struggling and finally settled down to really be there, really see what was there. What I found reminded me of that moment right before the baby's head comes out. It sometimes is called the Ring of Fire, although I am pretty sure Johnny Cash has nothing to do with it in either instance. That moment in childbirth was one when I felt strongly and powerfully connected to something so profoundly human that it felt almost animalistic. It touched on the thing that makes us human, not in an intellectual sense, but a full body and mind sense. Sitting with the breath and bringing awareness to the hara touched that same place. Only, you know, with less body fluids and no baby at the end.
Amazingly, it was there the whole time, just waiting for me to find it (again).