I was comforted by the words of a Sensei (teacher) during a Zen retreat at the Dominican Retreat Centre in Tallaght, Dublin over the weekend. She invited us at the beginning of the retreat to ponder the “bursts” (or opportunities of ‘bursting’) in our lives. In Buddhism, we often hear about enlightenment and we are told that when a person becomes enlightened it is as if heaven and earth crumble before their eyes. There is a sudden burst of newness that can transform the person’s life for evermore.
But the Sensei was suggesting that we can experience many little moments of enlightenment too. I rejoiced at dinner, for example, when my perceived cold mince pie turned out to be crumbly hot! I was grateful when my sudden drop of blood pressure during meditation re-awakened me with what seemed like a mild electric boost. Even the potted ‘Christmas Cactus’ in the photo seemed to want to burst out in praise in the midst of winter.
I practised zazen at the retreat – the act of straight-backed sitting and rhythmic breathing which help unify and control the mind through sustained concentration. I sat in a smallish room along with a group of about 15 people on the third floor of a building overlooking a garden and surrounded by howling winds.
It took me courage to do zazen in the first place. I responded to the invitation of a wise old man, Roshi Robert Kennedy SJ, but I hadn’t a clue what it was about. “Come and sit,” he said, “and see what happens”. So I came last October and sat in a meditation hall with others. Everybody had different ways of sitting – cross-legged sitting, sitting while kneeling, and chair sitting. I tried it all… and it hurt! My back ached after the first while but I kept going. The American Jesuit encouraged me by noting that it can take months before a person finds their ‘sweet spot’.
Those who have sat in silence for more than five minutes will know that I was not foolish to persevere with zazen; the fruits of meditative practices are well known. Despite the bodily discomfort, I was able to connect with a deep peace within myself. Thoughts, emotions and images came my way which were potentially disturbing, but the more I sat with them while focusing on my breath, the stronger I became. I processed the experience in between sessions and received an insight that was pivotal for a balanced life.
Last weekend was a bit different as I found my own way of sitting more or less comfortably. I told the Sensei that the first half of the retreat had been easy with comfortable sitting and little stimuli of the mind. I was able to focus on my breath and I experienced the moments of bursting. I struggled more during the second half of the retreat with some bodily discomfort and some lack of stillness in my mind. But once again the deep peace that I felt encouraged me to sit and persevere. I finished the retreat with gratitude for increased mental strength which I know will benefit my life as a whole.
The personal prayer of Pedro Arrupe SJ, former Father General of the Jesuits who lived for many years in Japan, seems to express my desire for coming to Zen Buddhism in the first place: “Grant me, O Lord, to see everything now with new eyes, to discern and test the spirits that help me read the signs of the times, to relish the things that are yours, and to communicate them to others. Give me the clarity of understanding that you gave Ignatius [of Loyola]”.
The fruits of zazen can be seen outside the meditation hall by letting my thoughts almost sink into my body on the way home from work. Or by the capacity to deeply listen to others and not to jump in with my own agenda. Zazen brings an alertness that helps me to engage more fully in the world. It gives me a readiness to see the people who come my way in the day so that I can say hello when the opportunity arises, rather than missing out on an encounter due to my eyes being fixed on the ground.
Deep peace is a wonderful gift. No doubt it will diminish at times, perhaps due to the normal experience of relationship difficulties at Christmas time. But it is available to be tapped into as I live in the moment, for example, by returning to my breath while sitting, connecting with my body when walking and mindfully eating my meals.
Zen helps me to discover the bursts of loveliness in each day. It is delightful to see it in food, in my body and in plants. It is also lovely to see it in my bursts of joy during a conversation. Perhaps we can remember that we all have the capacity to burst out in praise this Christmas.