Why I Stuck With Zen (And Why I'm Happy I Did)

At the end of my first Zen retreat, I was convinced it would be my last. As a friend drove me home I told her, “It’s just not my style.” I was being PC. The fact is, it had felt like five days of relentless torture. To give you some background, I already had three years of mindfulness retreats under my belt. One of them had lasted a month! So I was no slouch. In fact, I was so confident about making the transition with ease that I didn’t bother going to the orientation they recommended. I figured I’d just pick things up as I went along. No biggie.

And then there was my career as a musician. A few days before the retreat, I got a call from my producer at the time, Ethan Johns. He was making an impromptu record with Ryan Adams, called 48 Hours, and he wanted to know if I was available to sing on it. Of course I was! Plus Ryan wanted to do some writing. Double awesome! Well, Rock Star Time means staying up until 4 a.m. and rolling into the studio around noon. Zen time means waking up at 3 a.m. and going to sleep at 10 p.m. So, by the time I hit that first day of Zen time, my clock was completely reversed, not to mention the transition from making a record among an inner circle of ego inflation to a black-robed, cog-in-a-wheel, ego deflation. Yes, it was a perfect storm.

Add to that the fact that the monk who was the Jiki Jitsu on the retreat, which is the authoritarian role, happened to really relish his position as taskmaster. Remember how I didn’t bother going to orientation? As I learned the hard way, every moment of your day on those retreats is ritualized with militaristic precision. There are a million little rules about when and how to bow, how to hold your hands, how to ring the bell, where to place your chopsticks, bowls and cup, and on, and on, and on. This is actually a brilliant device, because once you learn all those rituals you have very little to think about, so you can more easily drop into deeper and deeper states of concentration. If you’re just starting out, though, it makes things doubly challenging. Not only are you dealing with sleep deprivation and hours upon hours of sitting, but you’re also trying to learn all the little rules and regulations. On top of it all, it's the Jiki Jitsu’s job to reprimand you when you get it wrong, with anything from a “tsk” to loudly correcting you in the silence of the meditation hall. By breakfast of the second morning, I was toast. Then I crumbled.

The sleeves of Zen robes are like long pockets, and it’s common to store things in them, like tissues or hair clips. This weights them. So, there I was at breakfast, seated across from a hot, bald monk. Yeah, I thought he was cute. I was passing food down the line, when my sleeve swung like a pendulum knocking my orange juice clear across the table.

In that moment I had a flashback of my father reprimanding me when I knocked the OJ over as a kid. I burst into tears, and as can happen in those moments, snot came flying out of my nose. As I curled my head into my lap, to the distant sound of the Jiki’s “tsk,” my world got very quiet. I heard a gentle, matter of fact voice in my head label the experience: “Humiliation.” When I popped my head up again it was like rising to the surface after being underwater. I don’t know how I survived the whole retreat, but I can tell you I white knuckled it the entire time.

Three months later, I was walking through a field of tall grass with a friend. As I watched the grass move back and forth in the breeze, I suddenly felt the benefit of that retreat, powerfully and unmistakably. I realized I would return. That was 13 years ago and I continue to practice Zen to this day.

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