Zen Buddhism

So, in the spirit of, ‘Doing-Things-I-Have-Always-Secretly-Wanted-to-Do-But-Never-Did-in-Australia-Because-it-Didn’t-Seem-to-Fit-into-My-Lifestyle-And/Or-I-Thought-People-Would-Laugh-At-Me,’ last week, I went to a Zen Buddhist retreat.
I still kind of feel like pinching myself or slapping myself in the face after saying that.
I went to a Zen Buddhist Retreat.
Please don’t hate me or call me a middle-class, pretentious wanker.
For those of you who watched Safran vs God, you may remember Zen Buddhism as the ‘fashionable’ religion of lefty pink-o scum that John Safran went to try out, and consequently, spent many days being beaten with a paddling stick and attempting to answer the question, ‘Who are you?’ whilst wearing black robes. My retreat was slightly less terrifying, as there were no existential questions or paddling sticks, but, happily, I thought, there were still quite a few black robes.
The retreat was something I have been looking forward to for a few months. 6 months of looking after someone else’s children in the middle of the Irish countryside has left me with a patent sense of unease and uncertainty in my life, as anyone who has read some of these blog posts will have recognised. Thinking back to high school days and my goals and ambitions, I remember expressing a desire for a ‘unique life’, whatever the hell that meant, and have gone to the opposite side of the earth attempting to find it, being confronted with millions of other travellers (most of whom were Aussies) doing exactly the same thing. I was supposed to be having an ‘experience’, which I was vaguely conscious of believing to be a ‘Good Thing’, but not entirely sure why, especially when it seemed to be in direct opposition to my stated aim of the past few years (to give acting a ‘real go’ and see if I could make a career out of it. In which case, I really should have been back in Australia, having my teeth bleached, weighing myself 2 times a day and getting my bikini line waxed for auditions on ‘Home and Away’).
So, in conversation with my parents over dinner in April, I expressed a feeling of needing some greater guiding principles in my life, a sense that there was a bigger plan out there, where career success and home ownership did not signify your worth as a human being, and that gave value to everyday, ordinary existence (an existence, I was beginning to realise, that most people have to confront most days, in most places of the world – no matter where you run to, you will still be stopped, still be butting heads with the everyday, ordinary existence. You will still need to find food. You will still need to find a place to sleep. To wash. If possible, it is easier to do these things in the same place everyday. There will be moments in every day where you are bored, or at a loss for things to do, or have to do things you don’t want to. This is being an adult, and having a mature outlook apparently. It kind of sux).  I wanted to find something that was going to make me happy and keep me happy even when those ‘Home and Away’ auditions weren’t flooding in (and believe me, they weren’t). It was suggested that, perhaps, I should look into religion. I had considered this option myself, and had been running over my choices in the months that I had been away. I didn’t feel at all comfortable with any of the newer forms of Christianity, as they were either linked, in my mind, with happy-clappy American Baptists or Born-Agains; tightly-laced and dour-looking German Protestants nailing long lists of rules to doors; or King Henry VIII wanted to chop his wives’ heads off. It was probably the influence of the Western media, but I didn’t think I could turn to Islam, and despite being in a Catholic country, I also had deep predjudices against the majority of those in charge of the Catholic faith. For some strange reason, I had always felt a great deal of interest and affection for Judaism, but, I also felt that attempting to become a Jew whilst actually slightly resembling a member of the Nazi Youth was possibly distasteful, plus, I didn’t want to become a Zionist and lend my support to Israel. This left me with Orthodox Judaism, and, despite the many fascinating rituals that would have involved me learning, I didn’t think, in all honesty, I would be able to sit down and do nothing in the name of the Sabbath all day, every weekend. Hinduism seemed interesting and brightly attractive, but majorly confusing and I was very much on the back foot, with my knowledge of Hindu Gods stretching to Krishna and… and… some of the other ones mentioned in Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children”, that I can’t remember right now without the use of Wikipedia. SO, like any other good, university-educated, middle-class, raised-in-an-atheist-household-with-social-democratic-leanings young lady, I turned to Buddhism as my only reasonable option.
Of course, there are many different types of Buddhism, and I happened to stumble upon a form that is less colourful and more often preferred by men than, say, the form you would have encountered in ‘Eat, Pray, Love’. This was pointed out to me on one of my first days at the retreat by one of the men who had been practicing for several years. He asked, ‘Why did you choose Zen Buddhism?’ which may as well have been, ‘Why did you choose Ireland?’ because I had absolutely no good reason why I chosen Zen Buddhsim over any of the other forms. To be honest, I hadn’t even thought about the different forms of Buddhism until he brought it up. Of course, when he mentioned it, I realised I was aware of different forms – Chinese, Tibetan, Indian, Japanese, Thai – but hadn’t taken it into consideration when I was choosing. In all honesty, I think I was attracted to this retreat because the dates fit my holiday schedule and because it was on the Aran Islands, and I really wanted to visit the Aran Islands. Plus, I liked the idea of a retreat on an island – it seemed more authentically ‘retreat-y’ – and I relished the idea of going somewhere very tourist-y, but staying far away from the tourist trail (perhaps not even meeting tourists at all – joy of all joys!)
Anyway, enough of the preamble and my reasons for choosing this retreat (which, as you can tell, were few and far between as well as possibly completely superficial). The man who had asked me why I had chosen Zen told me that often people are drawn to a particular style of Buddhism without realising why. This is a response I’ve been getting to a lot of my actions and decisions over the past 6 months – ‘Oh, I’m sure there’s a reason,’ ‘Oh, maybe the people you need to meet are in Cork,’ ‘Even if you don’t know why, there’s a reason you came here’ – which both fills me with feelings of great joy and wildness, that I am so footloose and fancy-free, following my intuition, and using, ‘it must be fate’ type phrases; as well as provoking within me a huge amount of anxiety as I desperately turn over every metaphorical stone in my mind in an attempt to hunt down and identify said elusive reasons for my mad-cap schemes and adventures.
So, I was really looking forward to it. I really was, until about a week before hand, when I decided that sitting in a room still and quiet for long periods of time was probably too much effort. This gives you an idea of how worked up and anxious I was, because the idea of attempting to sit still, not talk, not move and not think too much was such an overwhelming task that I didn’t even know where to begin. By the time I was in France, taking out all my stresses through the good ol’ quick fixes of too much red wine and cheese, I thought it was ABSOLUTELY too much effort to attempt to sit quietly, and by the time I was in Galway, buying my ferry tickets to the island, I was convincing myself that it might just be a better idea to go straight to the hostel on Inishmore, book myself in for 5 nights, and never turn up to the retreat, after all, I hadn’t paid any money, and none of the people on the retreat knew me from a bar of soap.
But, much as I was terrified, getting off the boat, I decided to attempt to find the lodge that the retreat was going to be on at. I told myself if I walked up there and everyone seemed strange, I could always leave. If I turned up and nobody knew what I was talking about (‘Zen Buddhism? What do you mean, Zen Buddhism?’), I could always leave. This is what I chanted to myself as I began to walk towards the lodge. ‘I can always leave, I can always leave, I can always leave, I can always leave…’
I actually had no idea where I was going. The lodge had a very bad map on its website and basically no directions, so I had set out down the road, hoping to find a sign somewhere that pointed me the right way. I was also planning on taking ‘couldn’t find the lodge’, as a reasonable excuse for not turning up, if I completely lost my confidence and turned around. I gave myself 30 minutes to find the place, and then I was heading back to the hostel (Not long, I know, but I had been travelling since 6am that morning, from Paris, to Beauvais, to Dublin, to Galway, to Rosseveal, to Inishmore, and then, finally, on foot to Killeany Lodge. It was 7:30pm. I was exhausted. I was giving the lodge 30 minutes to appear, and then I was going to the hostel). Luckily, a local taxi driver passed and asked if I knew where I was going. Just this simple question was enough for me to admit total ignorance, though I had been determined to seem independent and in-control only moments before. The man offered to drive me for 2 Euro, which seemed a reasonable price, and then he also picked up the guy I had been walking behind – I had been following him on the off chance he was also going to the retreat, and it turns out he was.
One of the other reasons I was so worried about going to the retreat was not just the meditation, but attempting to interact with the people that I would encounter there. I had images of maddeningly serene and/or sombre people, wafting about the island and whispering to each other in soft, melodious, sing-song voices, offering extra pumpkin seeds to each other and taking my cynical, sarcastic, anxiety driven, verging on Bridget Jones-esque comedy stylings as a defence mechanism against a deep inner saddness and attempt to hold me in group hugs and chant to me. Or something like that. I was, at the very least, worried about whether or not I would be able to laugh outside of meditation. Or even talk. I didn’t know if these people would drink alcohol, or if I would be looked down on for drinking alcohol. I wasn’t sure if everyone would wander around in a meditation-induced haze, closing their eyes serenely in the sun and frown at me for loudly tapping away at the keys of my computer and interrupting their serenity.
So, in other words, though I was very much looking forward to some peace and quiet, some good, old-fashioned, serenity, I was also absolutely terrified of it, and not certain I could keep up the act of a serene person for 4 or 5 days.
I’m hoping that, by now, you will have realised that the reason I’m mocking these fears so much, is because they were completely unfounded and ridiculous. The people I met at the retreat were just a bunch of ordinary people, all with their own interests and ways of interacting with the world. All of them were fantastic, easy to talk to, and great ‘craic’, as the Irish say. Our breaks were held in the gorgeous garden of the lodge, drinking tea, eating biscuits and laughing long and loud (so much laughing was had, that sometimes, thinking back on it during meditation, I would be in serious danger of snorting out loud, breaking into helpless giggles and disrupting the lovely silence of the group zazen).
Here is the daily schedule. We would wake at 6am, to the ringing of bells, if the sunrise hadn’t already woken us up. Half an hour to get ready, then into zazen (meditation in the dojo) at 6:30. Zazen is a specific way of sitting for meditation, on a zafu, which is a hard, round pillow. We would sit for 40 minutes, then do a 5 – 10 minute slow and silent march in the dojo, then sit for another 40 minutes, before doing morning prayers. We go for a short ‘promenade’ – a 10 minute walk outside – then head back to eat breakfast together. Breakfast is a specific food – guenmai – which is ‘Buddha’s food’, a warm rice soup with vegetables, energy rich and healthy. We pray over the food and then eat in silence, in the dojo. We have a rest, then we complete the first ‘samu’ of the day. Samu is work done for the community together. So, it could be cleaning, helping prepare the next meal, weeding the garden etc. This followed by lunch (again, eaten together, in the dojo, in silence), another rest, another samu, then back to zazen. Another rest, dinner, another rest, zazen again and then to bed.
When its written out like that it seems a little boring, but I assure you, it was wonderful. Having the day broken into little, digestible chunks like that meant that you never got bored, things were always changing. The samus were wonderful, a chance to talk to everyone else on the retreat and to learn skills. I did a lot of gardening to begin with, as the weather was so lovely, and then, as it turned colder and wetter, came inside to do kitchen work. There is a real pleasure in these chores when you feel that everyone is pitching in and doing their bit to making the retreat a success. On the final few days of the retreat, things got a little more intense – it was known as ‘sesshin’ – but I didn’t attend these days. I only attended the beginning, the preparation, as it was my first experience of Buddhism and meditation. This was partly because the man organising the retreat had said this was a better idea for a beginner and partly because I had already planned to meet friends in Dublin at the end of the week and actually couldn’t stay for the whole time.
The zazen, was, of course, for me, the most important part of the retreat, and the reason that I had wanted to go in the first place. After so many months of hyperactive children, I had relished the idea of sitting still and quiet for long periods of time. Of course, its not as easy as all that when you actually get down to it. Many of the people on the retreat warned me that it could really be ‘jumping in at the deep end’ attempting to do the whole schedule having never practiced zazen before.
There are a variety of different positions that you are able to sit in for zazen. Traditionally, you should sit in lotus position, or half-lotus, but you can only do this if your knees touch the floor. Mine don’t, so I had to sit, kneeling, over the top of the zafu. This was quite comfortable for a little while, but after, say, half an hour, you begin to feel the pressure on your knees and ankles. My gammy ankle, in particular, was not happy, and I shoved a blanket underneath it, to attempt to ease the pain. This really only succeeded in making me sit slightly lopsided, so that the pain was transferred mainly into the opposite knee from my gammy ankle. By the Monday night, every time we stood up to do the march at the end of the 40 minute zazen, I felt like I was crippled, or a small child attempting to learn how to walk, due to the fact that my ankles and knees had so completely gone to sleep and morphed into their new zazen positions. By the Tuesday morning zazen, I was thinking that I couldn’t possibly get through another day of zazen sessions, let alone Tuesday AND Wednesday. By Tuesday afternoon, I was staring at a tiny black dot on the wall, chanting to myself in my head over and over, ‘This is my pain, this is my focus, this is my pain, this is my focus,’ which I don’t even understand now that I’ve written out and am not high on adrenaline, but I think it was something to do with attempting to minimise and objectify my focus on the stabbing in my knees and ankles and stop the panicked feelings that welled up with every accidental emotional connection to the pain. These panicked feelings consisted of ridiculous phrases, like, ‘I’m going to throw up! I’m going to faint! I’m going to die! I’m going to die! I AM, I’M GOING TO DIE!’ At these points, I would take a deep breath and let the rational, calm side of my brain explain quietly to the hysterical, emotional side that nobody ever died from meditation. At which point, the emotional side would scream, ‘Well, I’m going to scream! I’m going to kill somebody! I’m going to shoot them all, or hit them over the heads, or strangle them if they don’t let me move right this minute!’ Rational brain would then remind me that no-one was forcing me to sit still, I could move/leave whenever I wanted, and, in all likelihood, I would not scream or commit mass-murder in the dojo. After the Tuesday evening march, during which I actually shed tears, heading back for my final 40 minute zazen of the day, the emotional side of my brain got the better of me, by acting like an hysterical 4 year old child, screaming, ‘No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. You are not putting me back in that position. You are not. You are not. I am not doing it. I’m not. Leave me alone. I’m not doing it. Go away, I hate you. You’re mean, I’m not doing it. I’ll do anything else in the world, but I am not sitting back on my knees on that cushion and sitting quietly for 40 minutes.’ I figured it was probably time to listen to the voice and just sat, curled up on the cushion, glaring at the wall instead ,whilst everyone else completed the zazen.
It was at the end of this session that I began to think that Zen wasn’t for me. Whilst I loved how I felt during the day, working together with the other folk, praying over my food, I even loved the feeling after Zazen, but, the pain during the sessions was too much. I hobbled out to the kitchen feeling emotionally and physically wrung out, attempting to find a hot water bottle to place on my aching joints. One of the more experienced men came over to me and asked if I was ok, and I replied that I was just tired and ‘in pain’. He was sympathetic and worried but did mention, slightly gently, that the pain ‘was part of it, you know’. This made me feel irrationally defensive and emotional, and instead of asking what he meant, I said I did know, and feeling weak and pathetic, I hurried into my bed, lay down and fell asleep straight away for a solid 8 hours.

View from Killeany Lodge dorm window

The next morning wasn’t quite so bad after a good night’s rest, but I still wasn’t sure I was going to make it through the day, when one of the other younger guys suggested that I attempt a different sitting position. If I turned the zafu on its side, he said, I would be raised higher off my ankles and knees, easing the pressure on the joints. I attempted this at the next session and found it much more comfortable. If anything, I found it too comfortable. Sitting still for 40 minutes no longer seemed a chore, or an achievement, but just delightful. I wasn’t sure I was meant to find it so delightful after the conversation of the night before. But, I also had a sneaking suspicion that it only felt so delightful in comparison to the previous position. In any case, I let me brain wander, knowing that I should be focusing on some sort of breathing or mantra, but as I didn’t really know any Buddhist precepts or philosophies at the point, and because I was only a beginner, I figured I was allowed to be a little kind to myself and just focus on sitting still. I’m sure some of the thoughts I had during those sessions were not at all appropriate for a Buddhist retreat, but they kept me amused and entertained.
The last day I was there was the Thursday, and it was a half day, so I had intended to sneak off in the afternoon and see some of the island on my own. But, it turned out a lot of the people on the retreat were intending on going on a big walk that afternoon, so I decided to stick around a bit longer and head to the hostel that night instead. But, after a lovely big walk and some afternoon drinks in the pub (I was allowed to drink alcohol!), I was convinced by the group that I shouldn’t have to go to the hostel and that I would be more than welcome to stay at the lodge for another night. So, we all walked back together for dinner and had a lovely evening, laughing and gossiping and swapping stories on topics as diverse as Muji pens, ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ and bromance movies. As much as I was looking forward to seeing my friends in Dublin, I was really sad to be leaving the lodge and all these wonderful people and the sense of community that I had found for those 4 days. I got up at 6 am with everyone the next morning and was almost tempted to go in and join them for one last meditation, but decided to leave it and head back to the ‘big city lights’ of Galway and Cork.
Still, it was a wonderful experience and there is much that I would like to take away and use in my everyday life. Apart from the meditation, I particularly loved the approach to their food – you are grateful for the food, respectful of the food and mindful of the food. These are three things that you lose (and I have lost over the years) when you struggle with eating disorders. If you are anorexic, you are not respectful of the food – you hate it, and you resent the small amount that you eat, thinking you shouldn’t eat it. If you are bulimic, you are not grateful, you throw everything up. If you are a binge-eater, then you are not mindful of the food, you eat and eat and eat and eat and eat to create some sort of sugar-induced haze, not realising until you feel physically unwell and look around you at the empty biscuit and chip packets on the ground how much you have actually consumed. So, I think I could stand to be more grateful, respectful and mindful. The food tastes better and satisfies you more when you do these things as well.
But, we’ll see what happens. I’m trying not to pressure myself. I’ll try to get to the meditation group in Cork when I can, but I was given some advice by one of the more experienced practitioners before I left, which was not to ‘try too hard’, not to try to force myself into it. I can understand this, as there is a tendency, when I want to do something, that I want to do it ‘right’ or ‘well’ or ‘perfect’. This creates tension and anxiety around the activity, and then, when I avoid the activity to avoid the associated anxiety, it creates guilt. To take a practice that is meant to be all about creating calm and being confident and self-assured and turn into a tense, anxiety-inducing and guilt-ridden activity instead would be a real shame. So, I’m going to be easy with myself and see what I can practice in my everyday life without getting too anxious, and, in the meantime, read up more on what Buddhism means and get some translations of the prayers we were chanting.
But, its 1:30am here in Dublin, and I really should get to bed, as its the end of the holidays tomorrow and I’m back to Bandon….
Post tomorrow about my Dublin weekend. Promise.


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Filed under Introspection, Ireland

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