Thursday, 2 February 2017

Hermitcraft: Solitary Sesshin, Pt. 2: Planning

(For an overview of solitary sesshin, see Part I. For meal planning tips, see Part III.)

Planning is the difference between a sustaining sesshin and wasted time. Plan well, and you'll "touch the mind". Don't plan, and you'll touch frustration.

It's a good idea to start a week in advance. Though slapping a sesshin together the night before becomes doable after you've got a few under your belt, in all cases a longer runway makes for better practice.

Take that lead week to:

• Plan your menu (specific tips here).
• Procure supplies.
• Prepare time-consuming dishes in advance.
• Print out Net-sourced study materials; multiple copies of your sesshin schedule; and your meal plan. This allows you to avoid computers and other soma-screens on show day, which is a major prop to concentration and mindfulness.

On Sesshin Eve:

• Prep your tea pot so all you have to do next morning is heat and pour water.
• Ready zafu and zabuton, and any other paraphernalia such as timer, bell, tuque, etc, in the zendo (meditation room or spot).
• Post your schedule around the house. (Zendo, bathroom, kitchen, garden, hall, work room…)
• Set up incense or scented candles*, if used.
• Straighten up and vacuum.
• Turn off your phone. (Completely. No vibrating. Lock it in a drawer.)

*Incense is useful to set up mindful, contemplative space, even if you rarely use it other times. Scented candles are a Roman Catholic approach some may prefer. As ever, spend money on the good stuff.

Preliminary thoughts:

• Prioritise sitting. There's a tendency to fudge on the meditation; to cut it down with too many work or study periods. But meditation is what sesshin is all about, and if you stiff yourself, you may not realise the benefits you seek. A half-hearted sesshin can even exacerbate unhappy states. When in doubt, err on the side of sitting.

• Morning meditation always sucks. You're sleepy, grumpy, lonely; the place is dark and cold; you have no clue why you thought this was a good idea. (This is just as true in the monastery. Aloneness is not the dependence of this co-arising.) But those morning blocks lay the foundation for the whole day. Sit them faithfully, regardless of mood.

• Work and study are also important. Have a minimum of one hour-long period for each. (Hygiene breaks and after-meal clean-ups don't count.)

• Recordkeeping is an ancient part of Zen practice, and it's important to log your own sesshins: what worked, what didn't work, any noteworthy divergences from the printed schedule, stuff to do or not to do next time. Don't forget to note significant moments, even if they're not relevant to future efforts. "Brilliant sunrise." "Fabulous sit after dinner." "Eggs have hatched in the nest by the garage."

• During sesshin, write notes on paper. If your sesshin log is on computer, transfer the comments to it next day.

• Keep old schedules and menus on file, whether hard or digital. (Ideally both.) This makes planning future sesshins a lot easier and serves as additional historical documentation.

• I find a formal nap productive. Always schedule the nap immediately after a sit. Sometime before lunch generally works best for me. You'll need a 10-minute passing period afterward to get dressed and wake up. Don't schedule a sit immediately after a nap; do something else between, even for 20 minutes.

• Work is generally best when it's simple and physical. (Cleaning up your actual desk: good. Cleaning up the desktop on your computer: bad.) Avoid work that requires communication, such as correspondence.

• Though it may appear physically undemanding, sesshin is hard on the body; by bedtime you'll be racked. You'll have better luck (and better meditation) if you schedule shorter sits than normal. My daily sits are forty to sixty minutes, but I limit them to thirty during sesshin.

• Back-to-back sits should be separated by ten minutes of mindful, low-effort movement, such as kinhin (walking meditation), yoga, tai chi, or stretching exercises. The point is to loosen up those joints without scattering your mind or stirring up your endocrine system.

• Be comfortable. Have a good cushion or chair, regulate light and temperature, deal effectively with hunger, fatigue, and thirst, so they don't disrupt the task at hand. Machismo and indiscipline are manifestations of the same delusion.

• The best study texts for sesshin are formal and classical. Commentary on the sutras or koans is perfect. Avoid stuff about Zen politics ("The Zen response to teacher misconduct") or worldly application ("Practice with pets"), unless they address challenges that prompted the sesshin. "Meditations" – lists of unanswered questions on a given theme, such as forgiveness or acceptance – are also good.

• A major difference between solitary and group sesshin is the need for sound. When you sit with others, there's a conversation going on, whether you hear it or not. Alone, the silence can become oppressive. To remedy this I listen to a podcasted teisho during work period (same rules as written study), and supportive music – chanting, singing bowls, shakuhachi, whatever works – while preparing a meal. Figure out what works best for you.

• End the sesshin on a sit, after evening hygiene and bedtime tasks. Go straight to bed afterward; if you futz around between, you may experience bad sleep or depression next day.

• Finally, don't give up. A difficult day often leads to a good evening. And a hard sesshin may lead to a good next day. You've lit a trash fire inside your skull; whatever happens next is not going to be uncomplicated.

But I've consistently found that a good sesshin, well-planned and carried off, is a rebirth. Even if you're a few days in labour.
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