First sesshin

The first sesshin I attended was run by Dave and Ken Jones at Chester. I was apprehensive about it but took the leaflet home with me from the table over there. Jez Lovekin was taking bookings and the leaflet said if you have any questions ring Jez. I called Jez and explained my situation, that I was a newcomer and unsure about signing up. Would I be able to hack five days of sitting? The imagined physical pain was daunting, let alone spending so much time in close proximity to other people I didn’t know – my personal space compromised.

Jez reassured me that the Chester retreat was, as he put it, “a doddle” compared to Crosby. This just goes to show how different perceptions can be. Apart from the fact that the Crosby retreat was a day longer – there was no difference in schedule at all. In fact, the Chester retreat adhered far more to the rule of silence than Crosby, and this made it feel all the more daunting at the time. However, I didn’t find any of this out until much later. So, reassured by Jez’s comforting words I signed up for the Chester retreat and sent off my cheque.

I didn’t know how to couch it to my family and friends that I was going on a Buddhist retreat. I was afraid they’d think I was a crank. When I did tell people I was going on a retreat for a week that involved a lot of meditation, most of them replied, “Ooh, that sounds lovely – you lucky thing. Enjoy your retreat.” Which didn’t quite match the actual experience of it – at least not at first.

There was an initial high having taken the plunge to go, paid the money and got booked on. Now I felt as though I was really making progress along my spiritual path. I entertained fantasies of profound satori and enlightenment experiences.  However, on the morning of day one, packed and ready to go, I suddenly felt a sense of dread accompanied by thoughts of, “What have I done? This is a precious week of annual leave I’m using up. What if I don’t come back?” I literally felt as though I were going to my death. All my creature comforts including alcohol, television, private space, food would be left at home for five days, and I felt bereft.

So, off I went to Chester with my case packed. I had a travel kettle, a 6 x 2 litre pack of mineral water, chocolate, nuts, fruit (in case they didn’t give me enough to eat and wouldn’t let me out to buy anything). With a heavy heart and a big bundle of anxiety, I arrived at Chester to a flurry of activity. I hastily bagged myself a good room, and started to unpack and make it as homely as possible. Unfortunately, it wasn’t en suite which disappointed me somewhat. Little did I know that the Chester venue was the lap of luxury compared to other retreat experiences people have.

The first night was an informal evening and I went out to dinner with some people, drank some wine and relaxed. At this point I hadn’t seen the schedule for the next five days. That was up on the zendo wall when I got back. I stared in disbelief at what was laid out before me. Certain activities leaped off the page at me: 5.20 Wake up bell; 10.00 Samu (Work Period). Work period? What was that – I’d paid two hundred quid for the privilege of being here, like hell was I about to do any work. And breakfast, where was breakfast? It seemed an awfully long way down the page.

That first night I slept little – aware of every noise. I was full of anxiety that I wouldn’t wake up on time and everyone would have gone into the first sitting without me. I did wake up on time and make it though the first day. I got a job cleaning bathrooms which was a relief. The kitchen seemed far too daunting for me at that point. I went to bed that night thinking I’d cracked it – this was me now, sesshin happy, now it must be all downhill from here.

But you’ve guessed it. No! During day two I was beset with a mixture of very powerful feelings from sadness to joy to terrible rage. To be honest I didn’t know what was going on. I was very resistant to samu and being organised by a leader – I have a streak of anarchy in me that rises up in certain situations and sesshin is one of them. Because there’s nowhere to hide, one’s true nature is exposed and I was faced with myself in a way that I hadn’t been before, and I didn’t particularly like what I was seeing.

The notorious day three arrived, and my discomfort reached its peak. I hated everyone, I was never going on sesshin again, and Dave was a son of a bitch, these people were all mad, and yet I stayed. I could have easily gone home but for some reason I didn’t. Maybe it was just stubborn pride, but it’s as if even with all this going on, a part of me knew that there was more. By the evening of day three, I was so full of panic that I didn’t know whether I should skip the evening sitting. In the end I decided, “I’ve come here to see this through – either I walk out of that zendo or I’ll be carried out, but I’m going in.” Needless to say, I did walk out – much to my relief. I spent a restless night grappling with stuff – existential stuff. Then suddenly in the early hours it was as if a fever broke. I suddenly felt calm and drifted peacefully off to sleep. In the morning, I was calm and ready for the day ahead.

This time when I walked into the zendo I felt love for the people in it. They all appeared as vulnerable as I felt myself. A sense of peace came over me and I sat quietly and seemed to have surrendered to the whole experience. Finally, I could say that I’d cracked it – or perhaps more accurately, it had cracked me. By the fifth day I was sad that it was ending, and yes, I would definitely be coming again.

I can’t explain exactly what took place inside of me that week, except that during the first few days there seemed to be a battle going on. I liked the idea of sesshin but the reality of it was presenting me with something else.  A massive swell of resistance arose in me to everything about it. Doing everything together with these people was eroding my sense of individuality and the small self was feeling threatened.