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Sesshins: Exhaling and Inhaling – Sarah Kokai Thwaites

When I thought about the subject of sesshins past I was a little surprised that the memories of sesshin that came up weren’t of any particular sesshin or of the the long hours in the zendo, much as I honestly love the sitting. Instead what popped up were other accompanying moments. Wandering leisurely through the woods, doing yoga balances on top of tree trunks, the way the light lands on the ground between the trees, enjoying the cold air while doing the morning wake up round,  climbing trees, the aromas in the kitchen while I chop vegetables, shared grins in the corridor, conversations in quiet corners, ice creams in the courtyard, being mesmerised by the stars after the evening sitting, the post-retreat hugs. Really? Were those little moments the reason I’ve used almost all my time off work in recent years on retreats? Precious though they were, were they really what I came away from sesshins with?

On reflection, I think yes. Not just those moments but what they represent as times of just doing something, anything, intimately and with immediacy, really noticing and feeling the experience of the moment, opening up to it without the usual narrative. It seems that this is what practice helps me to do. Sesshin, being our best opportunity for intensive practice, helps me with this the most.

It occurs to me that the sitting on sesshin is a bit like exhaling. A letting go, a releasing, a big sigh even. But exhaling can’t be separated from the inhaling that follows. Exhaling makes space for the inhaling and, the more deeply and completely we exhale, the more space there is for the inhalation that follows. Exhaling and inhaling only work in partnership. And so for me with sitting and non-sitting time on sesshin. I need and learn from both. The sitting, the letting go of the storylines (sometimes with a lot of resistance and difficulty) allows me to more fully appreciate the liuttle ordinary but special moments in between that make up my life on sesshin. And if I can practise doing that with my life while on sesshin, when there are fewer distractions and life feels simpler, I have a better chance of doing so when life feels more overwhelming.

So while I’m looking forward to future sesshins, to sitting with you all, to more veg chopping, more star gazing and more hugs, for now I can use the experience of those sesshin moments to practise the immediacy of this moment, my life now. Thank you StoneWater and sesshins for giving me that.