On Monday, we arrived back in Kyoto after a six day monastic retreat at the Toshoji Soto Zen Monastery in Okayama. It was an incredible experience but also one of the most challenging weeks I have ever had. Here are some tidbits from my experience.
On our first full day at the monastery, I was sitting in our first zazen of the day (at 4:30 in the morning). It had been a bit of a rough night and my anxiety levels were fairly high. Suddenly, I felt this cramp in my side and here are the thoughts that took place probably within the span of three minutes: My side really hurts. I must have appendicitis. We’re going to be in zazen for the next hour and a half. I’m in a monastery on a mountain in the middle of nowhere. I’m probably going to die before this is over. (In case you haven’t picked up on it, I’m a very paranoid person)
Anyway, I realized that what I really wanted at that very moment was to be back at home in my room snuggled up by myself. I wanted to be at home with my parents cooking downstairs, so I could hear the sizzle of the stove and smell the food and hear the chatter of my mom trying to talk over the commotion in kitchen.
So there you have it. My apparent dying wish.
After a while I actually managed to calm down and although I didn’t exactly meditate for that zazen period, I did a lot of thinking and it came to me that this was a really surprising desire. I’ve spent a long time trying to get as far away from my family as possible. There was a point in my life when I had started to associate being at home with stress, tears, and anxiety. But it’s also the place that has always been there for me to come back to no matter what and that’s something that I hadn’t fully realized.
A lot of my blog posts have revolved around my search for happiness, something that I’ve always found to be quite elusive. And over the past year, I’ve searched high and low for this, but I haven’t quite found it. And I’m starting to think that maybe I didn’t have to look so hard.
And that’s a thought that kept coming back to me over and over this past week.
Let me tell you something about eating in a zen monastery. It is probably most stressful meal you will ever have in your entire life. Oryoki is no joke. Here is a website with some instructions, but because it will probably take an hour to read all of them, here’s a summary. You are given a set of four bowls and a bunch of cloths and utensils. The meal begins with chanting, laying out your set in a very specific order, more chanting, a very complicated serving process, and more chanting. Then you are given what I’m guessing is about eight minutes to eat before everyone else is done and you have thirty people very intimidating faces and an abbott staring you down (I’m fairly certain monks inhale their food). Seconds are served and then eating resumes for about another five minutes. Depending on the meal your bowls are cleaned a slightly different way, but typically, tea is served in your bowls and you drink it to wash down the food. Then the boiling water is poured and you use a utensil called a setsu to wash down the rest of the bowls. You drink everything that is in your bowls and then put your set away in yet another complicated ritual.
I bring this up mostly because the eating process caused me a lot of grief at the monaster,y and I need to complain about it (If you are a slow eater you basically end up starving). But the first night we returned to Kyoto, we ended up going to a restaurant that we had previously frequented quite regularly. This time though, we ended up sitting there for an hour and a half, taking our time and savoring every bite. I don’t think I’ve ever had such a wonderful meal.
If I wanted to wrap this post up with a bow, I could conclude that while at the monastery, I also reached enlightenment. But to be quite honest, I spent half of our zazens not meditating. The experience did mean something though. Being out of your comfort zone isn’t just to help you grow. It’s also to help you gain perspective. Even helping you see what is literally in front of you. Maybe my happy is sitting right in front me, but I just can’t see it.
Being so far from home, especially right now, is really hard for a whole host of reasons. Over the past few weeks I’ve had some really ugly thoughts bubble up that I haven’t even seen since high school. But now I think I’m on the path to getting grounded again. I’ve caught a glimpse of the happy and even just knowing its out there is good enough for me.