It was with some abandon that I hopped on a train bound for Strasbourg on Friday to go and sit for two days. Sit, really sit, Buddhist kind of sitting: Zazen. More exactly, in the world of such life philosophies that I refuse to call religion – even if religion is man’s attempt to organize conscientiousness and give meaning to life – the kind of practice that I have stumbled upon is from Rinzai Buddhism. I always find it amusing that Buddhism was invented in India, developed in China, and brought to a new height in Japan. Rinzai was a Chinese monk who lived during the the 8th or 9th century (really! I do not know when he lived).
Early, like on Friday morning at 2 AM I decided that it was time to go to bed… but just before doing so I did check my diary for the 26th of January. Yikes! I had it on my mind that I needed to leave for Strasbourg around noon, and then saw with great great surprise that I was supposed to be there by noon!
Between 2 and 8 in the morning on Friday I got a few hours sleep, and packed. For a sesshin one packs a zafu, zafuton, three bowls, chopsticks, napkin, sleeping bag and dark somber clothes that will keep one warm while sitting. Knowing the Strasbourg Dojo well, this meant packing enough thermal underware and clothes that can be layered as the temperature never gets above 18 C if it gets there at all. Still this is a Dojo that somehow is home for me and going there is always like returning home although one is told that you can not return home. Perhaps not, and I dare to disagree, one can return home.
This distraction with my diary also meant that I arrived in Strasbourg not rested, not showered and without a towel. First adventure was to get a towel in Strasbourg as I did not feel like imposing on either my host or my Aikido friends in Strasbourg about borrowing a towel from them. It would have been no problem, and it was a silly thing of me, but I felt that way and gave in the whim of chasing a towel in Strasbourg. Surprisingly enough, it was easy to find and I had enough time to look for it. When I rolled in to the Dojo I found the whole crew on the roof shoveling snow off in what I assume was an attempt to keep us dry when the snow melted as there are a few leaks on that roof. A leaky roof is always a good place to call home.
When the sesshin began, I was ready for it, that is, sort of, as ready as anybody with three hours of sleep can be for such an experience. I can now just imagine how my son would look at me and would say something about how I like beating myself over the head. Uhm… damn right, this sesshin was for me about that.
While packing although I forgot a towel, I did pack magnesium, vitamin C, and multivitamins. Before I left I was already feeling a sore throat and I treat such little inconveniences with vitamins. The magnesium has to do with the fact that I train a lot, and do need to take supplements otherwise the cramps are much too frequent. My anticipation was correct about the magnesium depletion, on the first two sittings my calf muscles, one leg after another, cramp up. Ah, this is when I would have rather scream, but somehow that is not quite the cool thing to do when in silentium, so I just grinned and bore out the pain as best as I could. Yes, breathing does help, although on such occasions it is not easy to think that straight.
Then on Saturday afternoon during one of the sits I was shivering all over, my hands were cold, my feet were cold, and there were all these knots inside of me most clearly expressed by the fact that my bowels were the the ones expressing a knotted up state and although food was going in, nothing was coming out and there was nothing that I could do, including breathing, that was relaxing my lower abdomen. I started shaking all over and somehow it felt like a mixture of childbirth and orgasm and there was nothing that I could do other take deep breaths, exhale as slowly and conscientiously as I could and let it come out, whatever it was that was coming out. I could also not sit, I bowed forward and and let my head rest on my hands on the floor. There prostrated with my head bowed to the floor and sitting on a half lotus position I lay for what seemed like a long time while my body was dealing with whatever it was it was dealing with and that had it trembling, shivering and in tears. I was carried at that moment by the Zen master – Genjo Marinello – who was almost right in front of me and my two neighbours – Thierry and Sébastian – on either side who were breathing calmly and sitting like rocks. Actually I felt that the whole room was somehow just letting me be, whatever it was that that being was. It is not one hell of a great sensation, I also would not call it anything fancy, it is just surrender to what is. Is it a feeling? Is it a sensation? Is it a thought? For whatever it was that my body, mind and spirit were going through, there was something about belonging, being at the right place, and being accepted. I suspect that it has a whole lot more with me accepting myself than anything else, and that it was in feeling connected and as a part of a whole that somehow my little self could expand and accept itself.
After this episode there was the evening meal, and I just could not eat. If there was one thing that I was clear about at that moment, it was that I could not eat. It was rough on me to not eat the food in view of the fact that due to my dietary restrictions there was special food prepared for me. Not eating it felt like not being grateful for the care and love of others. I almost felt that I had to eat after all the effort put into accommodating my sensitive body. I couldn’t eat, I communicated that, and I sat with all the others during meal time and kept on shivering. In the dokusan that followed I went in for a talk with the Zen master. Told him about it – as though he did not know – and told him about my sore throat and state of exhaustion. He offered his wisdom and at the moment I was not thrilled by it. I listened and I tried to see what that had to do with me and what it was that I was doing there, and who on earth am I. Among his words of wisdom there was the offer to not sit and to lay down if I needed to, and Genjo made it very clear that it was my call, and all that I had to do was to inform him.
On Sunday Alex who was in charge of waking us up at 4 AM overslept, and we were woken up just 10 minutes before the first sitting was due to start. I had slept right straight from shortly after 9 PM to 4:50 AM. I do not know if I dreamt or not, certainly do not remember anything. After the first sittings, tea and the morning meal, it was clear to me that I was still exhausted and that whatever was going on in my organism, it needed rest and more sleep. My wonderful little ego would have rather looked good in the picture and kept on sitting like a brave little soldier, however I – whomever this I is – needed rest and more sleep. At that point it was clear to me that there is something called going past the comfort point and another it is to torture oneself. I am not much for torture at this point. There is another side to discipline that has nothing to do with pushing one’s body beyond a certain point that is way past and beyond the frontier of one own self expansion. I had reached that point. Before the next sitting I told Genjo that I would not be sitting, retired to the women’s dressing room and into my sleeping bag. I fell asleep immediately to be woken up by the two clacks of the wood clappers signaling the break after that sitting. Yes that was the right thing to do. After that my bowels started to relax, and I started to feel warmth return to my body during the next sittings.
To me there was a lot about trust in this sesshin, it is about trusting myself, and it is about accepting myself. It seems so damn obvious, but to get there it has taken one whole lot of discipline that I thought that I would never came up with! Thoughts can be wrong, and thankfully enough, they are not always wrong.
There is something between me and Strasbourg, something that I can not quite explain, but this is a place that has been on my mind since the age of fourteen. When I say that I am returning home when I go to the Strasbourg Dojo – transformed into Zendo this past weekend – then I am returning to that place in my life when I lost sight of my dreams, dreams that were alive and well when I was fourteen.