Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Hot Stuff

Last week, I was upstate at the Monastery for sesshin - my first ever summer sesshin.  What's the big deal?  This is the big deal: student robes are made from 70/30 poly-cotton and they cover you from neck to ankles to wrists.  It was a giant sweatiest.

See?  Robe after sweaty robe...
When you are given a practice for your meditation, whether it is the beginning instruction to count your breaths to ten and then start over again or a koan or shikantaza, it is easy to think that anytime not spent doing this is time spent not practicing.  It is especially easy to fall into that thinking during sesshin where the whole environment and schedule has been arranged to be perfectly suited to doing your practice all day long.  What I have been learning - ever so slowly - is that those practices are designed as a means of noticing our minds and so we can begin to learn about ourselves and our habits and patterns.  The goal isn't actually to count to ten and then start over.  I think the goal (if there even is one) is to notice what comes up when we try to do that.  We live in a goal-oriented society and I am certainly a card-carrying member of it so the frustration of getting lost from my practice is usually interpreted as failure in my mind.  I suspect that I am not alone in that.

For reasons that I don't understand, when it was the hottest and most humid, I also experienced an almost non-stop series of hot flashes for the first 24-hours of sesshin.  I was cooking from the outside in and the inside out.  Truly, it was a special version of hell.  I wanted to run away.  I wanted to cry.  I wanted to float in a cool lake and never step foot back in that zendo and I definitely wanted to toss that stupid polyester robe in the trash can.  And so like that, hour after hour.

Good times.

Finally on Tuesday evening, drenched and exhausted, I had a thought that maybe, just maybe, the practice I needed to do was not to fight what was happening quite so much.  Added to the physical discomfort and feelings of being trapped in a hefty bag were the feelings of failure that I was "not doing my practice" and frustration that I was so pathetic at this thing that I have now devoted myself to for years.  It's like a little extra special pain on top of the regular pain - a kind that I invented just for myself.  So, I thought maybe I could skip that extra pain that I invented just for myself and look at the regular pain, which in this case, was the heat coming at me from all sides, including inside.  I tried to be curious about what exactly was going on during a hot flash - they are quite curious things after all.  I noticed that they start in my arms and back simultaneously and, after one passes, there is a kind of beautiful moment of peace.  I am evenly coated in sweat but now it is cooling and the strange sensations are over.  It is a quiet moment of calm.  I am not sure it is worth the price one has just paid but it was nice knowing that it would appear at the end if I could just stay with what was happening and not go down the road of opinions and ideas about what was happening.

Oddly enough, or perhaps predictably enough, after that, things settled down.  The hot flashes were fewer and less intense.  On Thursday night, the heat broke and the rest of the week was warm but pleasant enough, even in our hefty bag robes.  On Sunday, a new monk was ordained and it was a time for celebration.  I still found ways of inventing new extra pains to add to any regular pains but - and here is the beauty of sesshin - I had the time and space to notice them before heading off into crazyland.  And that, my friends, is a beautiful thing.

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