Woodpecker tree, Ashuelot River, Keene, NH

Today our Zen group is having a one-day retreat at a Catholic contemplative house in Manchester, NH. Since Chris and I lead the group, we need to go early to attend to planning details: we need to set up the room, see to lunch preparation, get people oriented, and basically makes sure that everything goes smoothly.

Sometime last week I talked to my mother in Ohio, and somehow today’s retreat came up in conversation. (For the purpose of clarity I should mention that my parents are Catholic and don’t understand this whole “Zen” thing at all.) “Oh, that’s nice,” my mom said in reference to today’s retreat. “It’s nice you’re taking some time to relax!”

“Um, well, no. I’m helping lead the retreat, so it won’t be very relaxing.”

“That’s nice. I hope you have a relaxing time!”

Now, I’ve sat (and organizing) more retreats than should ever be tolerated by a living creature, and I’ve never found Zen retreats to be “relaxing,” even when someone else is leading. Zen retreats are relaxing in the way that marathon running is relaxing: after-the-fact. While you’re doing a Zen retreat, there’s so much going on in your body & mind (if, of course, you’re actually paying attention to your body & mind, which is the whole point of practice, rather than spacing out on some sort of bliss-trip) that it’s not exactly what most folks think of when they hear the word “relax.” In my mind, sitting on a beach sipping a margarita is “relaxing.” Sitting a Zen retreat, on the other hand, is like volunteering for a stint of mental boot-camp, except the Drill Sargeant screaming orders in your ear is none other than yourself.

This isn’t to say that Zen retreats are hard. Zen retreats, like anything in life, are neither hard nor easy: they are as hard as you make them or as easy as you make them. If you try to be strong and macho on a Zen retreat, you’re going to have a difficult time; if, on the other hand, you try to surrender yourself to the schedule, to the teacher’s guidance, and, yes, to the physical pain of sitting cross-legged for most of the day, you’ll have an easy time. Since I tend to have “strong and macho” karma, it usually takes a while for me to settle into a retreat. Eventually, though, I remember the greatest lesson of any retreat: the way to sit a retreat is to stop trying to sit the retreat. Instead, just show up for practice and see what happens.

Shady spot, Ashuelot River, Keene, NH

When beginners ask about going on retreat, the standard answer we give them is “Retreats are a great chance to see your mind.” To most folks, this phrase has an intriguing allure. “Ah, a chance to see my mind! That means I’ll find myself, or attain oneness with the Universe, or get enlightenment!” This phrase “seeing your mind” is actually a big trick. “Seeing your mind” might sound like finding yourself or attaining oneness with the Universe or getting enlightenment, and it’s certainly possible to do all three at any given moment. At the end of the day, though, “seeing your mind” means exactly that: seeing your mind. When you sit a Zen retreat, there is absolutely nothing going on for 99% of the time, so all you have to do is sit there and watch the way your mind bounces all over the place like a monkey on heroin trying to entertain itself.

“Ah, I must be going crazy!” you think to yourself. “My thoughts are all over the place!”

No, you’re not going crazy (unless, of course, you stopped taking your psychiatric meds right before starting the retreat, which occasionally happens. This is why leading a retreat isn’t necessarily relaxing, unless of course you think checking someone into a psych ward is “relaxing.”) No, you’re probably not going crazy on any given retreat: instead, you’re waking up. You’re finally slowing down to realize the psychic static–the interior background noice–that’s in your head all the time. Most of the time, we keep so busy we never notice the particular patterns that our minds follow (in Zen, we call these patterns karma). On a retreat, though, there’s nothing else to do than watch these patterns play themselves out over and over and over again ad nauseum, like listening to the same record skipping in exactly the same place over and over again.

Noticing this skipping isn’t the definition of craziness. Instead, ignoring this skipping, which is what we spend most of our conscious life doing, is the definition of craziness. Sitting a retreat and seeing your mind, you see, is the first step out of craziness, and for good or ill that first step involves seeing exactly how crazy your mind can be.

So, I’ll be spending today sitting cross-legged, watching the pain move from right knee to right hip, then into my back, then setting into my left leg. When I’m not fixating on physical pain, I’ll obsess about my own repetitive thinking: I’ll drive myself nuts with thoughts of how much work I have to do, what so-and-so really meant when they said such-and-such, what we’re going to have for lunch, what I really want to have for lunch, why the person sitting next to me is breathing so loudly, etc.

Relaxing? Not really. Boring? Yes. Strong? Definitely. The reason for sitting retreats, ultimately, is the same reason for running marathons: until you push yourself beyond the limit of what you thought you could possibly endure, you have no idea how strong you can be. You’re stronger than you think–in fact, your strength is precisely identical to the strength of the Universe. And just as the Universe doesn’t need to relax in order to find itself, neither do you.