Reflections on my Western Zen Retreat in October 2018 at Dharma Drum Retreat Center (by D.S.)

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.

Reflections on my Beginner’s Mind Retreat (J.E.)

This was my first retreat, a 40th birthday present to myself.  Life has a way of building clutter, complications and jumbled thoughts.  I was feeling spread too thin, too impatient and too distracted.  I knew the problem, but didn’t know the solution.  Somehow the subject of meditation seemed to be surfacing more regularly.  I wanted to experience it with full guidance and ended up at this retreat with only a month of short, irregular, app guided meditation sessions under my belt.

The only thing required for this retreat is an open mind.  While I could describe the grounds, the buildings and schedule (all have a simple beauty), there are no words to describe the atmosphere – The sum is greater than its parts.  As I sit here trying to find a way to describe the experience, I realize it is a labor in vain as everyone likely experiences it differently.  While I can’t say my introspective ‘moments’ will be the same for others, I do believe if you arrive with the above requirement you will leave with a new sense of calm and appreciation.

Time stands still while on the retreat…I could have been there two days – or two months; could have been a stranger to the fellow retreatants– or known them my whole life.  I was different when I left than when I arrived…could it really be less than 48 hours later?  Upon leaving the retreat though, the memories fade quickly.  Effort is needed to continue the practice and maintain a sense of presence and calm in a world which is not cooperative towards such undertakings.  It is not an impossible task though – you will realize the tools have been there all along, the retreat just helps you realize it’s worth the effort to learn how to use them.

Reflections on my Beginner’s Mind Retreat (by S.A.)

I’m not sure exactly what I expected from the retreat at Dharma drum. I definitely wasn’t ready for the quite visceral effect it had on my body and the overwhelming emotions that followed. As I look back on my time there I find it hard to believe that only 2 days passed during this experience and as much as the first day was difficult and overwhelming, the second was all opening and I wished I could stay for longer.

I reflect often on Rebecca’s analogy of a twisted hose pipe moving frantically in every direction until the block is passed and the water can run smoothly. There are surely many decades of blocks and knots in me! But where as in the past I believed that I had to go back and examine each twist and knot in detail to move away (something I NEVER wanted to do) now I can just acknowledge them and let them go, looking forward to the time when the water runs smoothly. And already it feels a little calmer.

I come away from my time at the retreat feeling changed.

Changed in a way I don’t quite understand. Changed in a way I can’t express using words. I have a sense of beginning to understand something that was right there in front of me but which I never took the time to try to comprehend.

I feel simultaneously calm and strength. I have a notion of clarity, as if I just know what to do, not for anything in particular but just a general sensation.

I will take all of this and establish a daily practice and make it my priority. If I can make that happen, I’m sure that family, work, relationships, health in short everything, will benefit.

Reflections on my Western Zen Retreat with Rebecca Li, Simon Child and Hilary Richards at DDRC, October 2017

I had a powerful experience at the retreat. Asking the question “Who Am I” taught me a great deal about meditating and about myself. The process was intense, but also forgiving and freeing. My mind had time to notice and follow thoughts. Continue reading “Reflections on my Western Zen Retreat with Rebecca Li, Simon Child and Hilary Richards at DDRC, October 2017”

Reflections on my Foundation Retreat in November 2016 with Rebecca Li

In the past, attending retreats has been both challenging and very rewarding.  My anxieties and habits reliably seem to show themselves at retreats, and this time was no different.  Throughout the day on Saturday, I realized that something was bothering me.  It was only later that I realized that I was holding on to the expectation that on this retreat, I should be “over” these anxieties because I had already dealt with them.  I was expecting myself to be better at being present, and was judging myself for struggling with the method.  This was that old familiar perfectionism or high expectations creeping in again.  Having to do things right.  Having to succeed.  Getting stuck on mistakes.  Feeling guilty and beating up on myself.  What made it hard to detect is that it wasn’t quite clear to me at first.  It was more of a subtle creeping up of it.  But then of course once I realized what was going on, it was so clear.  And even clearer right now while writing this and reflecting back.  So this retreat was helpful in getting to see this pattern emerge again and hopefully be able to recognize it sooner going forward.  I don’t have expectations of it going away, but I do see my work as to continue to be more aware of it.

Continue reading “Reflections on my Foundation Retreat in November 2016 with Rebecca Li”