My experience of a four day intensive koan based zen retreat

09/11/18

I’ve just got back from Noddfa, Penmaenmawr, in North Wales where zenways were running an intensive Zen retreat over four days. The aim of the retreat was to trigger a Kensho, Satori, or enlightenment experience.

I’ve already had a number of such experiences but was simply curious to compare them.

I arrived at 3:30pm on the Thursday with plenty of time to acclimatize and prepare myself.

The retreat took place in a rather large and old building I can only describe as a mansion run by catholic nuns. They were such warm friendly people they made me feel instantly welcome. It was like being looked after by a group of loving grandmas.

The main core of the practice was group zansen. This involved sitting facing a partner knee to knee, gazing into each others eyes and posing the question of a chosen koan. As a beginner to zen my chosen koan was “who am I?” the question was posed as “tell me who you are?”

Each full day ran from 6:00am ‘till 11:pm, a rather rigorous schedule. Each turn was for 5 minutes completing a block of 40 minutes. The group Zensen sessions were broken up with 5 minute loo breaks, tea breaks, a sitting meditation, a walking mediation, three periods of chi gung and a dhamma talk.

I usually find intensive retreats exhausting. In this case because of the frequent breaks, inclusion of chi gung and plenty of food I didn’t find it exhausting as such , but it was extremely challenging. Spending three days almost solidly asking yourself and unanswerable question does drive you a bit mad. I guess that’s kinda the point.

I remember Thursday as “Who am I?”, “Who am I?”, “Who am I?” which brought up the thoughts of “What is going to happen?”, “Am I doing it right”, “How will I know, if I’m doing it right?” , “Why is nothing happening”

As I retired for bed on the first night the question “Who am I reverberated” around my head preventing me from getting any kind of quality unbroken sleep.
The Friday was the bad day, the tough day, the rough day. The day I would have quit if I was that kind of person.

“Who am I?”, “Who am I?”, “Who am I?”. and the thought came “why is everyone getting images and memories when I was not. OfCourse I knew the answer straight away. It was because my mind was already settled because of the years of mediation practice.

“Who am I?”, “Who am I?”, “Who am I?”. Fear started to build. And why was I afraid? I knew that too. It was because the ego (whatever the hell that is) was aware that the process I was doing was designed to kill it. Just as it had been ‘killed’ before at the aya retreat.

I tried to deal with the building fear as best as I could and remember the aya practive. Breath through it and surrender to the process.
As far as I’m aware I was the first person in the room to have a “funny turn”, “an episode”, “a thing”, I don’t know. I don’t know what a “thing” is. Although It was to turn that they would become increasingly common as the retreat wore on.

It started as always with the question. “Who am I?” But the question was answered. A voice inside my head said “equanimity”, “Allow things to be as they are”. Simply this meant don’t resist the fear, don’t chase the joy, be comfortable sitting with nothing.

At this point a joy hand grenade went off in my heart. This began to spread out in my chest. My abdomen began to fill up with energy, with pressure. I felt like I couldn’t breath. A trickle of cold liquid metal began to flow down from my sternum to my solar plexus. Then the shaking started. First my legs, then my arms, then my whole body joined in. I was having a body quake.
I remembered I’d had this experience before. This had happened to me one night after the pub whilst sat at my laptop. It was the feeling of an energy pressure building up and the feeling I was going to explode.

I believe the shaking is an automatic response the body sometimes does to release tension. It was fucking scary all the same. And then I laughed and cried, or laugh-cryed or cr-laughed. I was a crying, laughing, shaking thing. I must have looked like a crazy person.

The bell chimed and everyone left for lunch. I however laughed and cried and shook onwards into the dinner break. Eventually I scraped myself of the chair and wobbled ungainly towards the dining area. At first I was unable to eat any soup because the shakes were too bad. In the end I was able to eat by holding the spoon with one hand and my spoon hand with the other hand to control the shakes.
Eventually the shaking stopped. I’m assuming now that the laugh-crying was also an automated response from the body to purge emotion. I began to notice some similarities with the way my body responded in the aya retreat.

I continued to try and engage with the process and answer the question with all possible answers although I fully believed the question to be unanswerable.
That night I did sleep, rather well actually.

The following day I continued to answer “who am I?” with everything I knew it was not, everything I thought it could be and everything that came up in me.
40 people poured their heart out to me without me being able to respond in anyway. I realized that we all suffer, and we all suffer in the same way from the same fears.
The question came again. “who am I?” and another insight came. the voice said “ you are not in control” “ don’t try to be, it is pointless”

And the wibble attack happened again. But this one was more intense. The person sitting opposite me had been talking but I was so confused that I thought that it was me talking. When it was my time to try and speak I found that I didn’t know who I was. Truly, for a moment there was just nothing. So I just laugh-cried.
On the saturday the wibble attack happened and just stayed. The energy balloon in my abdomen inflated and then leaked out its contents to the rest of my body which act as a calming agent. I became calm and blissed out. Fluffy pink clouds, fluffy pink clouds.

I realized that the worst had passed. Friday was the day of boredom, frustration and feelings of futility. On saturday there was still fear, but the tranquility made it ok.
On the walking meditation I wanted to skip and play like a child, but I didn’t. “who am I “
Saturday Night I slept well again but the energy bubble didn’t disappear. It stayed with me.

On my first group zensen of Sunday it said “hello I’m still here!”
I started to sense that reality perhaps wasn’t quite how I’d left it.
I didn’t remember the room being this bright and colorful.
When I looked into my partners eyes his spectacles were overly sharp.
I remembered the shimmering blue lights in the bathroom of the night before. Was that real?
Was I disassociating? Depersonalizing? the room had a glowy indistinct unreality too it.
The areas of unfocuse seamed fragmented, as if they were slipping out of phase.
3D reality seamed composed of layers of 2d superimposed on one another.
I felt an invisible coloured layer of pink and green in front of my partner that I wasn’t seeing.
His face fragmented. There was just an eye within an impossible sharp spectacle window. The rest of his face lay in separate out of phase layers waiting to jumble into position if I needed to look at them.
Who invited Picasso to a Zen retreat? Was I tripping balls and where was the fox?
Was I going to see the elephant? Was I going to see the elephant god dammit?
I was on a knife edge, a boulder teetering. Was I going to break through to the other place?
But my mind didn’t want to let go.

I knew the solution. Equanimity. Forget mr. Picasso face, forget fear, let me break through.
But do you see the problem? “Let me” is a desire, and a desire is not equanimity, and no amount of trying not to try is not trying.
And that was the last group zansen. The retreat slowed down. No more mental black smithery. Smashing the ego with the hammer of the question and heating up in the energy of chi gung.
It was time for settling, for grounding, for integration.

Slowly reality returned and I was left disappointed in myself That despite engaging with the process and breathing through my fear , my mind was unable to fully let go.
I find myself wondering whether the aya ego death was a benefit in that I knew what my goal was, or an impediment because aiming for a target is desire and not equanimity.
Another few hours of “who am I?” and I would have broken though. Oh well.

As an experience goes it was up there with the Aya and the Vipassana.

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