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Why am I missing Sesshin? by Guro Shoshin Huby

I miss Sesshin! Trying to write down what I am missing and why, and what I can learn from this has helped me make sense of things. 

We had been thinking about the April trip from Norway to Crosby since the end of October sesshin. Then by March it was clear that the trip was off and I began to feel a bit lost. That feeling has grown. What am I to do with myself now? 

Sitting sesshins once or twice a year in Crosby or the Lakes has become a part of our yearly routine. Not being able to go I have come to realise that I take much of “my Sesshin experience” for granted, without reflecting on what it means to me, or does for me. 

The force of my feeling of missing out has come as a bit of a surprise to me.  My practice is a mixture of appreciation and resistance, fuelled by compulsion, and I would have thought that I might have felt more of a sense of relief of not having to go through a long journey and some inconvenience to get to a quiet and still spot for a couple of days. But I think maybe this tension between appreciation and resistance is one reason why I miss Crosby. I have no clear idea of why I sit, only that I have to. After 40 years of practice, I still have great difficulty explaining why I sit to other people. I still can’t always explain it to myself. But when I sit sesshin I know. And I don’t have to explain it to the people around me, because they too know, without having to or being able to, explain. For all I know many may be as baffled as I am as to why we are sitting, and all share my appreciation for the opportunity to be doing it. Sitting Sesshin, whatever that is to each of us.

To me, my Sesshin experience has a shape. The experience begins before we set out on the journey to Liverpool from Norway, which after we decided to stop flying, is two full days. It leaves a lot of room to think. I ask myself WHY am I doing this? Why am I exposing myself to pain, confusion and effort at a not inconsiderable expense, when I could have gone to our cabin, to sit in the Easter sun resting against a warm cabin wall, sipping a beer and thinking back on my ski trip through a  white silence and blue skies over my favourite mountains? Feeling deeply grateful that yet again I made it down off the mountain without breaking anything.

And the first two days of Sesshin I often say to myself. “Yup!. I was right. This IS madness. I should never have come. I am not up to this. My practice is woefully inadequate.  I want to go home. I shall join a spiritual practice that is less tough on the knees. I hear Stoicism is very fashionable and, as far as I understand, is practiced in cafes drinking coffee, eating croissants and discussing deep and interesting thoughts, including how much you are really allowed to enjoy that croissant”.

Then around the third-day muscles and mind begin to give and the world settles and opens. I slow down, I take things as they come, my body has learned to do Sesshin over the years and I let that knowledge take over. The dharma talks and interviews bring into view many aspects of the dharma and practice I have not thought about or realised. I write a diary of each Sesshin and looking back over my notes from previous Sesshins is very instructive. It makes me marvel at how much I know and how little I understand, or vice versa. 

Then on the last day, I am beginning to feel ready for a brush with the Absolute, only to find that the Sesshin is over. “Oh no!” I say to myself. “I am just getting into it!” (I know, it is time I did a longer one). But we have organised a get-together with our friends in Edinburgh, probably in a pub, and I can’t wait to see them. I look forward to the train journey north, looking out of the window. The world opens up and is different after Sesshin: The colours brighter, the light both softer sharper because I am attuned. 

That is the general shape of my Sesshin. Then there are the many details I appreciate about it. One of my favourite moments is the morning Verse of Atonement. I know some find this a bit heavy, and I suppose it can be seen this way. To me, however, it reflects what the practice is about: getting the pain of repentance over and done with first thing before we move on to more important matters, including of course The Great One. Thirty to forty people sitting in the dark early morning or dawn candlelight, chanting this verse is a powerful expression of Sangha to me. 

These are some other details: 

Shared glances after a long session: “Wuha. THAT was a tough one!” 

Stretching the rule of silence: whispered jokes and suppressed laughter in the corridors, 

Chatting in the yard sunshine. Catching up with everybody. Trying to understand Lacan with Lorena.

Sarah’s ice creams.

The FOOD!!!

Brodie’s altars.

Dharma talks and discussions.

Trying to learn the form.

Interviews (not the least because they often save me from certain mental and physical scarring from the pain of kneeling for long periods. How the teachers manage to sit for so long I shall never know, but I am very grateful!)

All these are things I miss. 

And I am stuck here, half in and half out of, my every day without the form and framework of Crosby to take me somewhere I can experience my life and the world from another perspective. This year due to the Corona lockdown the Easter cabin experience is closed to me as well, so there really is no escape and nowhere to go. Like Emily said in the Zoom session last Thursday: “The only way out of this is through it” and what better opportunity than this to focus on integrating practice with daily life. 

We are lucky to be two persons doing this, and the Zoom link to sitting, talks and discussions, together with interviews and koan practice by email help enormously. Perhaps the most valuable lesson I will take from this is the important role of the Sangha in keeping the practice alive. Living in Norway we are cut off from regular contact, and although Sesshins give us a concentrated dose that lasts for quite a while, it is not the same as smaller regular doses. For example, Karen’s comment on living in the present to live in peace gave me a welcome push out of a seriously stuck place with a koan I have been banging my head against for quite a while.

I have come to realise how I value the Liverpool Sangha, the true home of Zen. Blending discipline, reverence, deep concentration and equally deep appreciation of the more absurd aspects of human existence, not forgetting compassion and fun, in a perfectly balanced dance that carries me through the 5 days of Sesshin and beyond. I will try and make sure I make use of the digital links that have been established to sustain me till the next time we meet. 

Stay safe, see you on Zoom and hope to see you in the flesh in October!