I’m at the airport in San Diego, waiting to board my flight home after a wonderful week long retreat at the Zen Center of San Diego, which was capped off by a 3-day sesshin organized by ZCSD at the Questhaven retreat center, located in the chaparral-covered hills of northern San Diego county. This was my first time at Questhaven, where ZCSD has held their June sesshins for the past 12 or so years. What a wondrous, beautiful place. As you can see, lots of trails perfect for gatha walking meditation, which was a formal part of the daily retreat schedule (there were even some optional gatha walks at night, done without any artificial light: the deep darkness really heightened one’s awareness of the environment–the texture of the ground, the smells of the vegetation, the sounds of one’s fellow walkers both in front and behind). Schedule permitting, I hope to be back here next June. If anyone’s looking for a sesshin to do next year, I recommend this one warmly. Below are some pics I took before and just after sesshin. The final two sittings were held outdoors, in the shade of a tree.
As part of my discussion of “just sitting” this past Tuesday evening (May 28), I read the first twenty-four lines of “Relying on Mind,” a Dharma poem written by Seng-ts’an, the Third Ancestor of Ch’an. I wanted to share the complete text of this amazing poem with you, so here it is. This translation comes from The Roaring Stream: A New Zen Reader, edited by Nelson Foster and Jack Shoemaker. This anthology of Ch’an and Zen Buddhist literature is incredible, well worth the purchase price. I plan to read and discuss some more lines from “Relying on Mind” during the next “Intro to Zen” class (on June 11), when I’ll continue my discussion of “just sitting.”
The class will still be free, still open to any and all. Nothing about the group will change except the location.
Tasha Yoga has a wide selection of cushions, mats, yoga blocks, and chairs to meditate on, but because it’s a yoga studio, there won’t be as many of the traditional Zen-style zafus, zabutons, and seiza benches that we’re used to having in the College meditation room. So, if you have a favorite zafu or seiza bench of your own, I recommend you bring it with you. But don’t worry if you don’t own a cushion or bench of your own: we’ll have something for you to sit on!
Class will begin, as usual, at 7:30pm, but I’ll open the doors at 7:15. I encourage everyone to come a few minutes early to set up their seat, so that we can begin promptly at 7:30.
I look forward to seeing many of you soon at Tasha Yoga!
[Note: The following is an email I just sent out to the Williamstown Zen Group email list, but I thought I’d post a copy here as well.]
Hello Zen Group friends,
I have a favor to ask of you. I’ve just agreed to teach a new course this coming fall — “ENGL 277: Meditation and Modern American Life (Cross-listed as REL 277)” — and because pre-registration at Williams has already come and gone, I’m hoping those of you who are part of the College community (students in particular, but faculty and staff too) might help me get the word out about it (students, perhaps you’d be willing to forward this email to your friends or share it on Facebook?). As you’ll see, it’s a truly unique educational opportunity, and for the right student, it could be a transformative experience (at least that’s my hope!).
This will be a regular Williams course, but it’ll meet once a week at the Berkshire County Jail as part of the Williams version of the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, which bring “traditional college students and incarcerated students together in jails and prisons for semester-long learning” … in order to facilitate “dialogue and education across profound social differences.” This seminar will have room for 18 students: 9 Williams students and 9 inmates from the jail. The intellectual focus of the course will be the history of how traditional Buddhist meditation practices were transmitted to the West (and often altered during that process of cultural adaptation), but a key experiential component of the course will be an intensive introduction to the practice of meditation. Each class, the students in the course will spend a significant amount of time trying out (and reflecting upon) various meditation techniques, and it’s this experiential component of the course that excites me the most. The thought of having Williams students and inmates meditating together and talking about their experiences of the practices — thinking of how that shared experience could change lives: that’s what convinced me to offer this course.
The class will meet once a week, on Thursdays. I’ll drive the Williams students to and from the jail in a College van (dinner will be provided en route). We’ll leave campus at 4:45pm and return by 8:30pm.
For more info (and to see the full course description), please see the online course catalog entry, here.
(For those of you who might have been forwarded this email by a friend and don’t know me, you can learn more about my teaching and research interests here.)
Students who would like to take this course should email me a statement of interest by June 26 (at email@example.com). I’ll follow up to schedule interviews (by phone or Skype, or when possible, in person), and both the statements and the interviews will be used to make the final enrollment decisions.
Please email me if you have any questions about the course. I will be at a meditation retreat (and totally unplugged) from June 3-10, so please be patient if you write me during that time. I’ll respond to your emails as quickly as I can.
Thanks to those of you who are willing to help me spread the word about this class. I think it could be a wonderful experience for students. I just want to make sure enough students find out about it!
This is a guided meditation that combines breath following with some awareness of bodily sensations. (It’s not a full body scan [I’ll record one of those at some point this summer]; I focus on just a handful of spots in the body, mostly in the head region.) This meditation is a follow up to last night’s Intro to Zen class on practicing with bodily sensations. We ended the class with a 30-minute guided meditation that is pretty much like this one (I just decided to re-record it this morning to improve the audio quality a bit). So I’m posting this for folks who were there last night, who’d like to try that breath and body-sensation meditation again, and for those who couldn’t make it, who’d like a taste of what they missed.
In the second half of the meditation, I ask you to bring your awareness to some key spots in the body, places where we often (usually unknowingly) hold tension, like the jaw muscles, the lips, and the tongue. As I suggested to the class last night (and as I suggest near the very end of this recorded meditation), consider pausing once in a while throughout the day to do just a few minutes (or even just a few breaths) of awareness practice focused on spots like these… when you’re responding to email, for instance, why not take a break between writing two messages, to bring your awareness to your lips, or your tongue, or your buttocks, even for just a few breaths (or take a real pause and hang out with those sensations for a full minute or two!). It could be revelatory, what you discover about your mind/body: both about how your mind/body actually feels during the day, and also about how just a few minutes (or even moments) of simple awareness can transform those sensations. Incorporating mindful “pauses” like this throughout the day — pausing what you’re doing to bring your awareness to the breath, the sensations in the body, the sounds in the environment, or the feel of your feet touching the earth — can be as important to one’s overall practice as one’s daily sittings.
Here are instructions for a wonderful form of walking meditation, reproduced from Ezra Bayda’s book Zen Heart (Ezra originally learned this practice from Thich Nhat Hanh). This is one of my absolute favorite practices, and I often do it while walking around campus. I recommend it warmly to you.
I learned gatha walking, a form of outdoor walking meditation, from the Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh in the early 1980s, and I’ve continued doing it (with some lapses) for over twenty-five years. The term gatha means “verse,” and in gatha walking we silently repeat the gatha as we walk. Unlike affirmations, the gatha is not meant to change our emotional state; rather it is used to direct our attention in specific ways. Gatha walking was once described as the ambrosia of meditations, in part because it requires much less effort than most sitting meditations, but also because it is almost always delightful to do.
The instructions are fairly simple: In an outdoor space, walk at a very relaxed pace, as if you were walking casually through a park. Unlike sitting meditation, where the focus is inward, gatha walking encourages us to engage the senses—seeing, hearing, smelling, touching. To help avoid getting lost in daydreams, we silently repeat a verse, or gatha, over and over. The gatha is usually very short and simple, but the words are meaningful, and help keep the focus on really being here.
The gatha that I’ve been using for some time has four lines:
When I walk, the mind will wander.
With each sound the mind returns.
With each breath the heart is open.
With each step I touch this earth.
It is best to repeat the verse for the duration of the walk, even if you start feeling very open and spacious; otherwise, it’s easy to become more spacey than spacious. As we walk, we bring awareness to the environment, using the lines to direct our attention. For example, the first line—“When I walk, the mind will wander”—is a way of simply acknowledging the fact that our mind constantly wanders. There’s no judgment that the mind’s wandering is bad; it’s just an objective acknowledgment.
With the second line—“With each sound the mind returns”—we direct attention to the sounds, to help bring us back to present-moment reality. I live close to the ocean, so I have the good fortune to be able to regularly walk along the beach, where I not only use the sounds of the ocean and the gulls but also the presence of wind, the feeling of the sun on my face, the smell of salt water, and whatever other sensory input arises. Being in a beautiful place such as the beach provides a very rich sensory world to take in and appreciate, but we don’t have to be at the ocean or in the woods for gatha walking to be a rich experience; I have also had wonderful experiences gatha walking on the busy streets of New York City.
With the third line—“With each breath the heart is open”—we are not trying to maintain a disciplined focus on the breath. Rather, the breath is very lightly held as it is felt in the center of the chest. Sometimes, it feels as if the breeze goes right through me, with a felt sense that each breath provides food for Being Awareness. With this line, as with the others, we stay with it for the duration of a few breaths before moving on to the next.
On the last line—“With each step I touch this earth”—we can feel the experience of literally walking on the earth, feeling appreciation for the preciousness of the opportunity to be alive. There is an unmistakable sense of presence, of “hereness,” that is the essence of Being Awareness.
While gatha walking can be a delightful experience, the purpose of this practice is not simply to make us feel good. In fact, there is no “purpose” in the ordinary sense. In gatha walking, we are not trying to get something, nor are we walking toward a particular destination; rather, each step is complete in itself. Each step is of ultimate value. At the same time, with each step, we are cultivating a much larger sense of what life is.
In our normal walking, with the mind full of thoughts, we see the world only through the filter of our thoughts. In gatha walking, as the mind awakens, the shimmering pulse of life is revealed.
I’ve been getting inquiries from folks who are looking for recommendations for a good place to do a meditation retreat this summer. I’m delighted that so many people are considering doing a retreat! Retreats are an invaluable complement to a consistent daily practice. If you haven’t yet established a regular daily sitting practice, work on that first. But once you’ve been sitting daily for a while, consider adding a retreat into the practice mix. One or two multi-day meditation retreats a year will do wonders for your practice. And Williams College students: believe it or not, there are ways to get funding from the College to attend retreats! Both during the summer and during Winter Study. It’s probably too late to get funding for a retreat this summer, but contact me if you’d like some tips on how to get College funding to attend a retreat next Winter Study or the following summer.
But where to go? There are many good places around the country (and around the world) where one can do a retreat, but I don’t feel comfortable recommending a place unless either (1) I have some personal familiarity with the place and the people who teach and practice there or (2) I have heard good things about the place from other practitioners whom I know and trust. Given those criteria, below is a short list of places I feel comfortable recommending. If you know of a place that you think should be added to the list, please let me know.
- Blue Cliff Monastery (Pine Bush, NY)
- Green Gulch Farm Zen Center (Muir Beach, California)
- Insight Meditation Society (Barre, MA)
- Inward Bound Mindfulness Education (various locations)
- Providence Zen Center (Cumberland, RI)
- San Francisco Zen Center (San Francisco, CA)
- Spirit Rock (Woodacre, California)
- Springwater Center (Springwater, NY)
- Tassajara Zen Mountain Center (Carmel Valley, CA)
- Upaya Zen Center (Santa Fe, NM)
- Zen Center of San Diego (San Diego, CA)