by Julie Honmei Snider
I was asked to write about sesshin. Well, what about sesshin? There was a time when I might have been overflowing with things to say. The energy of the group coming together. The inspiration of everyone pushing hard. The relief of having to take care of just this one thing, the practice, without fear of messing up something I think is important like my work or what people think of me. The incredible struggle to really do the practice and to make the right effort. The exhaustion. The bouts of despair. The deep, pervading sense of peace.
Sesshin is not different from my life in that I try at all times to maintain continuous practice. It is true for me that to maintain my practice at all, I need a formal and regular sitting practice. And there is no substitute for sesshin.
Sesshin is a safe place for me to really try and see what happens. One of my big fears is letting go of my thinking mind. I think to do a good job, I have to be able to judge that my work or my effort is right effort. I run into this all the time, especially in sesshin. Roshi told me a saying of Yuanwu’s that keeps coming back to me: “Our practice is to relax and release.” I am learning it is okay to relax and let go. When I do it, I can see that my thinking doesn’t add anything -- it’s like a fog in the way of what I am doing. I function better without it. Sesshin never fails to demonstrate that fact.
I am often stunned that something as simple as sitting down, relaxing my crazy mind and releasing what comes up can completely change me. Even when I don’t think it’s working, or when I don’t think my effort is good enough it’s there. I remember when I first started someone asked me about my practice and the changes in my life. I answered, but I felt unsure. I couldn’t separate changes that were the result of my practice from those that were just the course of my life. I later realized my practice is my life.
Roshi once said enlightenment is a life perfected. I feel like I have been trying to get there always and now that I have a practice I am starting to realize that the Zen saying, “Take care of the root; don’t worry about the branches,” really might be true. Just practice.
Roshi says if you give the practice an hour it returns an hour, if you give it a day, it returns a day, but if you give it a life, it returns so much more. Sesshin is six or eight hours of formal practice a day, depending on how you count. It still surprises me that even an extra ten minutes of practice makes a change, and the benefits keep going.