I had searched for a retreat opportunity off and on for six months when I came across the Dharma Drum Retreat Center online. I registered for its Western Zen retreat after reading positive reviews but not exactly knowing what to expect.
The Western Zen Retreat ended up being a unique experience. It combined communication exercises with sitting meditation, daily dharma talks by retreat leader Rebecca Li, as well as some meditation “in action” activities and exercises – walks, a daily work contribution, and an evening activity that three out of four nights involved creative movement or dance.
There were various highlights. The meditation and communication exercises utilized a method that was familiar for me as a practitioner of vipassana-style meditation yet completely novel. They involved a form of inquiry – dropping a question into my mind that triggered the process of meditation itself. “Who am I?” was my question. It became the framework for the physical and mental subjective experience that followed during the formal seated meditation. I observed all of my mental, physical and emotional phenomena within the context of that question.
In some ways this was the same as other methods of meditation that I had used. Watching my breath, either with an intense or light focus, “just sitting” or shikantaza, a Japanese Zen style of meditation, body scanning, and mental noting (using labels such as “thinking”, “seeing in”, or “feeling” to mark the arising of various forms of subjective experience) were all styles of meditation that I had used to frame the perspective of a non-judgmental observer to my own moment-by-moment experience.
Inquiry was a kind of meditation I was familiar with, but this was the first time it formed the basis of highly focused meditation. Daily sits, about four times a day of silently observing everything that arose as if to provide an answer to the question of who I was. I found a rewarding experience from what you might call the question of being and identity and an excellent framework to get into the meditative zone.
At times, I saw it as a rhetorical question or device. At other times it engaged both the spiritual and philosophical roots of my own personal existence. Was “who am I” what I did? What I was? What I experienced or perceived, who my family and friends were, what I was proud of, ashamed of, my role my family, or my connection to the universe? Did it matter?
I soon learned that while most other participants had the same question, some, those who were repeat participants at the Western Zen Retreat, had other questions such as “What is my true nature” or “What is love”. In many ways these questions overlapped with mine and pointed to the less literal uses of the method.
The other revelatory part of the retreat was the communication exercises. For six, alternating five-minute intervals that amounted to 30 minutes in total I participated in a kind of dialogue with another “retreatant,” up to four or sometimes five times a day. With a new partner each time, we started by finding out each other’s names and our question. The bell rang and one of us asked the other our question. “Dan, please tell me, who are you?”
My partner or I then had five minutes to answer the question by saying whatever came to mind. As the first person talked, the other listened in a stance of non-judgmental attention, neither assenting to nor questioning anything that was said by their partner. Just being present. The bell ring and roles reversed, back and forth for a total of six times.
This was revelatory for two reasons. Number one, I was given a glimpse into the core subjective experience of my fellow retreatants. It felt like a glance into our mutual humanity. We all live quiet lives of desperation at times, questioning our identities, what we’ve done to ourselves or others, and our sufferings are so similar it can be eerie. What we hear when the other opens up in a context of trust blows away our inevitable prejudgments of whom we thought the other might be. Gender, race, age, physical appearance – none of that matters. It is one thing to believe that we were all similar but quite another to have it proved again and again over the course of a day.
The other revelation was to talk about myself for upwards of one hour or more each day to strangers, again and again confronting, at least to start with, the worst aspects of what I saw about myself. For reasons I perhaps cannot explain, on day one of the retreat I started with a deep need to talk about the parts of myself that I had the toughest time confronting.
But that changed as the days progressed. Within the context of confidentiality, I accessed deeply honest feelings about myself and found, even during the course of a single day, that I could gain a different, broader, more nuanced appreciation of various parts of my personality and history. By day five, I became less convinced I could label myself as one thing or the other and reached a point where, much different than where I started, I felt open, honest, and comfortable about the answer to my question.
Making all of this possible were the daily instructions and Dharma talks by Rebecca Li on method, the communication exercise and related topics, two meetings that I had with her during the retreat and one with her co-leader, Simon Child, and the overall manner in which she helmed the retreat. Rebecca was detailed, empathetic, at times injected humour, and spoke a common sense level and one that had a deeper resonance. Her instructions on how to employ the inquiry (or “huatou” in Chinese) method of meditation and the communication exercises made them easy to deploy and meaningful. The retreat grounds, buildings and vicinity were beautiful, the food generous and satiating, the dorms spare but clean.
There was also a daily morning service that involved Buddhist liturgy that, for the most part, had no references to any theological references. To the degree that there were any – to “deities” or taking refuge in the “three jewels” (the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha) – I saw this as symbolic of a confidence or leap of faith in the process that helped me fully engage with the retreat methodology but did not necessarily take it literally.
In some ways what I accessed at the Western Zen Retreat was a greater sense of ease with myself. In others, a closer look at what starts with but goes well beyond words.