I was tired of the both subtle and obvious ways my mind caused me pain. I was eighteen-years-old, confused by life, depressed, socially anxious, and searching for ways to alleviate these pains. In the years to come, I would discover ways to cope with life’s difficulties, seeking alcohol, drugs, travel, food, and other addictive behaviors. I’d been caught in the delusion that I needed something outside of myself to feel better in life, but ultimately saw that it only created more pain. Even though I was eighteen when I discovered Buddhism and meditation, it would take me several more years to more regularly apply the practice to my daily life and, more notably, to the mental anguish I’d felt.
Buddhism spoke in a rational, sensible, and coherent way about how to overcome the mind’s suffering in order to live a calm, grounded, awake life. By using your breath in meditation to learn about the mind’s natural state, we can observe thoughts, emotions, and sensations from a neutral place without getting attached to them. Repeatedly returning to our breath when our minds are inevitably carried away, allows us to see the impermanence of all things, even states we sometimes take to be fixed: the thoughts in our minds, the pain in our bodies, the way we feel. The attachments I had to mental, physical, and emotional things in life served only to delude me further and increase the suffering I felt. Everywhere I looked, I saw myself and others caught in the trap of our reactive minds, always grasping for pleasure and avoiding pain. Buddhism offers a way to let go of these deceptions of the mind, and simply be with things as they are; a way of relating to the truth of things with fundamental kindness instead of fundamental aggression.
In the 14th year since I was first introduced to Buddhism and meditation, I decided that I was ready to take my practice a step further and partake in a 3 month intensive Zen Buddhist retreat, called an Ango (pronounced AWN-go), or Practice Period. For 3.5 months, from January – mid-April 2019, I lived and practiced at the Crestone Mountain Zen Center in Crestone, Colorado. ‘Practicing’ meant that I was learning how to put the Buddhist teachings into practice through the every day necessities and challenges of living in a monastery, which could, then, be carried over into every day life.
I needed to learn how to make peace with my mind in order to make peace in my life. More importantly, I knew that I wanted to be able to help others who are also suffering. As one of my teachers, Zentatsu Baker Roshi, said to me one time, “If you want to be able to help other people, you must first help yourself.”
Something I want to clarify before moving on is the use of the word “suffering.” We all suffer in various ways, and it doesn’t have to be that intense of a thing to be true. For example, you’re waiting in line at the grocery store and you’re in a hurry, but the person in front of you is chatting up the cashier. You immediately start creating a story in your head about how ignorant, selfish, and annoying the person in front of you is, and impatience and anger grow as a result. It can be said that that is a moment of suffering, as a result of your mind. We are all entangled by our minds in these ways, victims of thoughts, emotions, feelings, and expectations that seem outside of our control. For myself, I knew that I had a lot of work to do in this realm, so I sought further practice.
“Ango” literally means “peaceful dwelling,” and it is the 90 day intensive Zen Buddhist ‘Practice Period’ I completed in the winter of 2019. It hardly felt like a peaceful dwelling, as the name suggests, but I suppose that it can only feel that way if your mind feels that way. My mind initially felt peaceful until time set in and, with it, the inevitable unveiling of deeply-rooted habit patterns, neuroses, and difficult emotions.
Notes: In this writing, I will refer to this 90 day period as ‘Practice Period.’
The scope of everything I’ve gleaned from this experience cannot be covered in such a short writing, so I will just touch on a few things.
Digging up the Shit
The Practice Period schedule was rigorous and inflexible, but for good reason.
Our day began at 3:30 AM and ended at 8:35 PM. (In actuality, it was more like 3:00 AM to 9:30 or 10 PM, depending on various duties you may have that week.) I was told that I would get used to having only 5-6 hours of sleep. Sure, I got used to it…I got used to feeling increasingly more and more sleep-deprived. The schedule was so demanding and our breaks were so short, I found that there was not enough time to do anything that could be truly nourishing to my exhausted, overworked body and mind. Every day we sat between 3-6 periods of zazen (pronounced ZAW-zen), which is sitting meditation, between 30-55 minutes each. There were also two major work periods (for several hours each) during the day where we performed various duties to keep the monastery running. Meals were oryoki style, which is a formal Japanese serving and eating ritual with chanting, chopsticks, and way too many beans and cruciferous vegetables to the distress of my digestion system. There were traditional Japanese Sōtō Zen ceremonies, rituals, and chanting in Japanese (which easily became the highlight of my day). And to keep one’s focus and minimize outside distractions, we were to remain on monastery grounds without leaving for the duration of the 3 months.
With the full and demanding schedule, my old habits and coping mechanisms ran rampant as an attempt to comfort and console me, as well as provide a sense of control when I felt imprisoned to the intense Practice Period schedule. I had never been physically or mentally more exhausted in my life. My friend Marc suggested to me what’s called the “spiral of learning;” that is, lessons return so that we take them into deeper or more sublime levels of healing or of knowing. Elements of lessons or obstacles return like the seasons, so we advance and test whether or not we’ve really learned them. It became apparent that I had not yet fully learned the lessons I thought I had before those 3 months.
What Practice Period does beautifully with its strict and painstaking schedule is that it illuminates precisely the things on which you need to work by breaking you down with tiredness, constant work, meditation, and activity, leaving your mind naked and exposed. This is done so that you may practice applying the Buddhist teachings, and let go of the things that no longer serve you. There is no room for distractions or nonsense or anything extra. It’s just you and your shit.
Eventually I learned that in order to feel nourished, I needed to practice finding contentment in any activity, especially if there were aversions to doing it. This opposition created a resistance that made the duty that much worse; a perfect example of ‘suffering’. Generating a set of preferences for the things you like / dislike and limiting yourself only to things that fit your desires, will only leave you empty and drained as you run on an endless hamster-wheel in your mind, never actually getting anywhere. So instead, you eventually have to make a choice: Do you cling to this resistance for what you prefer or do you release the contracting you’ve created around it and just simply be present for what ever you’re doing? This doesn’t mean to abandon all preferences in your life. If you prefer chocolate instead of vanilla ice cream, by all means, have chocolate! Rather, when the state of your preferences reach such an excess as to make you throw a temper tantrum when the ice cream shop is sold out of chocolate ice cream, then maybe it’s time to reassess the hold your desires have on your life.
My initial self-created enemy during Practice Period is something called ‘tenken.’ As tenken, you stand outside at 3:45 in the blasting cold Colorado winter morning (and again up to 5 more times throughout the day), and in specific time increments at a specific rhythm, you hit a wooden board (called a ‘han’) with a mallet. The sound it produces pierces through the frigid air and the dark sky. Or you may hit a densho bell for lectures. Essentially, your job is to call people to the Zendo (meditation hall) to sit meditation, or to attend a lecture later in the day. Tenken creates a rhythm that acts like a clock for everyone, so they know when to go to the Zendo. I’m surprised by how often I chose to suffer through being tenken, to bitch about it to myself, to wish I were warm inside, to curse the sleep I’d lost to perform the early-morning duty, and even to cry because I was so fed up with the seemingly pointless duty (since we all had clocks, were grown ups, and could get ourselves to the Zendo on time without the tenken). Much like Mr. Miyagi in the movie “Karate Kid” assigning mundane tasks to Daniel-san, like painting a fence and waxing his car, the point is not in the activity, but in how you mentally choose to respond to the activity. Do you hate, loathe, despise, and curse the activity, or do you proceed without any judgments and just do it for what it is? Which one do you think brings about more contentment in life? You have a choice. What you resist, persists.
When we’re aware in each moment (or in as many moments as we can), time becomes denser. Depth of awareness increases, and time seems to slow down and become richer. Sitting in meditation, time S-L-O-W-S. An hour in meditation feels very different than the distractions of an hour on your couch perusing social media or watching TV. Sometimes in meditation your mind may start catering to petty thoughts without total awareness, and time passes by quickly. Though when you are able to concentrate on just this moment, just this breath, bringing your mind quickly back to your breath if a thought arises, and continue with this awareness, then time almost seems to stop. Sitting with this stillness can be anxiety-inducing, as the brain scrambles, trying to find something to entertain it. Because the Practice Period schedule allows for only the bare minimum in breaks, and because you cannot leave the area, there is really nothing you can use to distract yourself from what’s happening in the present, except for your mind. When you’re sitting alone with your mind for so long, it begins to feel absurd to witness the ways your mind will carry itself away into stories, fantasies, projections into the future, and dwellings in the past, almost without your consent to even do so! I began to see how life felt like it was slipping away from me when I catered to the distractions and reactivity of these mental mirages. By contrast, the moment I would bring awareness to my mind’s wanderings and redirect my attention onto each inhale and exhale, using my breath as an anchor, life seemed to open. Where my mind was once a cacophony of chaos with thoughts ricocheting around in a tiny room, the simple act of noticing the thoughts, emotions, and sensations, letting them go, and returning to the breath, set me free in a wide open field with an endless horizon. The present moment is freer than anything I’ve ever known.
You may be thinking that your mind isn’t tumbling around with thoughts and emotions, but try sitting cross-legged in meditation and watching your breath for a mere 15 minutes. How hard is it to stay with your breath? Now try 30 minutes. Now try an hour. And now don’t move at all; don’t react by scratching an itch, by stretching your legs, by trying to relieve the burning in your legs or back – don’t react by doing anything. Sit perfectly upright and still, and watch your breath. Then the truth of your mind will be revealed.
Viktor Frankl, a Nazi concentration camp survivor said, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
Language, Stories, & Identity
We all create stories about ourselves that enliven our sense of identity. Look at social media, for example: Typically people only post the things they want others to think about them. They create and edit their stories so that other people will see them however they want to be seen. Similarly, we may tell ourselves stories that cast our actions in a negative light, being hard on ourselves and showing ourselves little compassion. This sort of discursive thought is only a fabrication of our minds, but we take it to be the reality of the situation. In a culture of ‘not enough,’ we tend to live in a state of deficiency through our fears, guilt, and shame. For me, I saw this coming through during Practice Period regarding perfectionism. For years, because of my upbringing, I wanted others to see me as being perfect, so that’s the story I created. To myself, it’s not so pretty, as there’s no way to live up to personal expectations of perfectionism without inevitably being let down. In this way, Zen practice was triggering for my perfectionist tendencies. In Zen ritual, ceremonies, and general practice, things have to be just so. When they’re not perfect, you are told and corrected by multiple people. When they are perfect…silence. Rarely you receive positive feedback. My internal narrative reflected the judgments, opinions, preferences, and expectations I was experiencing. I kept suffering because of the monological feedback loop in my head that said, “You suck. You can’t do anything right. You’ll never be good enough,” and all of that fun banter. Eventually I realized that no one expected me to be perfect except for myself. And maybe ‘perfect’ is really just the way things are in all of their perceivedly flawed brilliance. So I slowly began to drop the expectation to be ‘perfect,’ and instead focused on doing things well and accepting things as they are.
For example, I was in the kitchen with one of my teachers, Zenki Roshi, and I grabbed the large bath towel on which we put drying dishes. At the end of doing dishes, the towel has to be flung up onto a high-hanging rod to dry. Often when it’s catapulted up into the air, it lands on the rod all catawampus, so you have to pull it off and try again. So there I was, so nervously wanting to be the perfect Zen student with my teacher watching me, anxiously hoping for the towel to land perfectly flat on the rod. Ready, set, whoosh! Alas, a section of it was folded over. Zenki Roshi was watching me when I asked him, seeking approval, “Is that good enough? It’s so dry here in Colorado that it should be able to dry.” He paused and said, “When you begin to practice doing your best, you’ll settle for nothing less.” This was not a testament to doing things ‘perfectly,’ but rather, to doing things well, with intention, with mindfulness, with care. So I pulled off the towel and kept trying until the towel landed flat on the rod to dry.
Be careful with the stories you tell yourself and others. What pains might they be perpetuating in your life? What insecurities might they be concealing?
Without your stories, you open yourself to vast expansive awareness and acceptance.
Running from Life
I had become proficient at running from the things in my mind, and this proficiency played out in the physical world through constant travel, moving from place to place to place, numbing myself with drugs in my youth, and distracting myself in various ways. That’s not to say that the travel was not also in the name of adventure, exploration, and fun, but that when it came time to ‘settle down’ somewhere, I was anxiously chomping at the bit for the next big thing, the next hit.
As I mentioned, though, I was not allowed to leave the area of the monastery during the 3 month Practice Period, which wasn’t a big deal until I started to suffocate from the pains in my mind: boredom, anger, desire, aversion, sadness, loneliness, impatience, stress, anxiety, restlessness, doubt, tiredness, bitterness, insecurity, misery, utter suffering. So one day, a couple weeks before the end of Practice Period, I’d had enough. During one of our longer breaks, I left the monastery and started running down the mountain for miles until I got to the valley floor below that I’d often gazed at as a daily reminder of how trapped I felt. I ran with all of the anger and fury and excitement and pent up rage of a caged animal set free! When I finally reached the valley floor, I stood there feeling high from the bliss of running, in awe at the view of the mountains, elated that I’d been set ‘free,’ pleased at having escaped, and feeling humor at how easy it was to leave the monastery! And then it hit me: the mental pains I’d been trying to escape by running away were all still there. They were still with me, there at the valley floor. They were still with me, as I began the long trek back up the mountain to the monastery. They were still with me, for the final couple weeks of Practice Period. And they were still with me, when it all ended and I went home to be with David.
Once I acknowledged and experienced firsthand (a key point here) that I could not change my external circumstances in order to bring about peace and equanimity in my mind, I began to truly see what real practice looks like. I began to stop feeding the reactive stories of the emotions I was feeling that kept me feeling stuck in life, and instead to simply become aware of them as they arose. All of the years I’d spent sitting on the cushion in meditation, watching my breath, thoughts, emotions, and sensations without judgment – this was the key. By simply observing these things like a scientist looking through a microscope, we can see them for what they are; no more, no less. I had become so intent on believing the stories of my pains to be the ultimate truth that my view of the present moment was clouded and cluttered and muddled. Sitting in the calm awareness of this moment, right now, however it presents itself, the muddy water began to settle, I could see things clearly, and nothing was overwhelming. That doesn’t mean that desire, aversion, torpor, restlessness, worry, or doubt never arise anymore, but that when they invariably do arise, I can see them simply for what they are without always stirring up the mud. And if I do succumb, as humans are sometimes wont to do, then mindful, non-judgmental observance of the emotion tames it quicker than any long run. This, of course, takes constant practice.
Having the courage to simply sit with things in all of their beautiful, disgusting, wonderful, boring, pleasant, sticky, stinky glory without perpetuating the thoughts in our minds is the only way to true freedom and true release in life. The hard work has to be done though; it cannot be simply intellectually understood, but needs to be felt at the level of bodily sensations and awareness. Being able to free ourselves from reactive stories and emotions frees us from the bondage of fear that keeps us feeling stuck in our habitual patterns. When we start going toward our fears, we start seeing that we’re larger than them; that they don’t actually exist.
The only way out, is through.
As Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki Roshi said, “Leave your front door and your back door open. Allow your thoughts to come and go. Just don’t serve them tea.”
— Written & photos by Virginia