Why That Zen Retreat I Went On Matters

baldy I went to a weekend Buddhist retreat a couple of weeks ago. Not that I’m some kind of religious nut. Actually, I am a religious nut. I just don’t like to admit it because it’s embarrassing. I can’t help it. Hyper-religiosity runs in my family. I even have one of those insane spinster aunts that goes to mass every day and is always making brownies for the priests. The entire inside of her trailer is covered with icons. It’s really cool.

It’s not like God talks to me or anything. Although Jesus did come and sit down next to me on a pew once. But he didn’t say anything, he just put his arm around me. At least I think it was Jesus. I can’t say for sure that it was him since he was invisible.

I need some kind of religious practice. Without it I will slide into the psychic hellhole that is always following me around. I can almost see this hole. I’m not that afraid of the hole any more because I know I can function in there, but it’s not a good place to be. It’s dark and I spend most of my energy making sure I don’t hurt myself bumping into things.

But I’m also deeply rational, and an atheist. There’s just not that much out there for us — the religious nuts who are also deeply rational atheists. There’s Quakerism and Buddhism and a couple of other things that I’m less interested in. (I promised myself I would stop ranting against 12-Step and I’m keeping that promise.)

Years ago, I read something that the Dalai Lama said about how Westerners should practice their own religions and stay away from Buddhism. And he’s like their pope or something, so that settled it. I’m a Quaker.

For people who don’t know anything about these religions, there’s not that much to know. There’s not a lot of dogma. On some level it’s just a bunch of weirdos who sit around and attempt to connect with something greater than themselves through meditation, while also trying not to be jerks. At least that’s what it is to me, but I’m no expert. I never study any of it. In fact, I’m resistant to studying it. I just want to do it, not read about it.

Being a Quaker, I thought I might fit in with these Buddhists. These two spiritual traditions share an affinity for vegetarianism and healthy grains. But I don’t want you to get the idea that I’m some self-righteous cunt because I don’t eat animals. In fact, I sometimes suspect I’m a sociopath. The right thing to do is almost never obvious to me. Like, should I give that guy on GoFundMe money for his elderly dog’s chemotherapy or not? I can’t decide!

However, Quakerism and Buddhism aren’t really all that much alike. Quakerism is inherently value-based. It’s about figuring out how you should act in the world and toward other people. Buddhism, at least Zen Buddhism, is more nihilistic. It’s about how you relate to reality. Maybe…. I don’t know. (I should really read something, even if it’s just a Wikipedia entry.)

Buddhism also has this big lottery jackpot of enlightenment, which I imagine is like being on acid all the time only you never get paranoid and you can still drive and hold down a job if you have to. But that’s off my radar because Quakers aren’t supposed to gamble and I never win anything anyway.

And then there is Brad. I’ve attended zazen meditation sessions at a yoga center with Brad a couple of times. My friend M, who is my co-conspirator in religious nuttery, turned me on to these folks. I’m perplexed by Brad. What is Brad? Is he a teacher? A facilitator? A guru? A cult leader? Is he a secret right-winger, like I suspect? I can’t figure it out. Brad explains that he’s simply some guy who likes to meditate and if people want to come and join him, great. I like Brad. What’s not to like? He’s cute and nerdy and self-effacing.

But when it’s time for the dharma talk I quickly learn that this isn’t some spiritual rap session. Brad is the man. He’s the guy with the “transmission,” whatever that is. As a nurse the word transmission does not have positive connotations. It’s usually associated with things like multi-drug resistant gonorrhea.

We don’t have a Brad at the Quaker meeting. It’s one of the few rules that Quakers have — no Brads, or, maybe, all Brads. This is one of the reasons that Quakerism appeals to me. I have issues with authority, especially male authority. It’s practically impossible for me to take direction from a man. When I took ballroom dancing lessons the instructor had to remind me over and over and over again to let my boyfriend lead.

One of my patients who is a fitness coach told me I have too much testosterone for a woman. He said he could tell because I’m a hothead and have zero body fat. Maybe it’s as simple as that. Or maybe I’m still pissed off that I was born a woman in a culture that does not value women.

What do I know about Brad? Very little. Brad has written a couple of books, none of which I’ve read, including something called Hardcore Zen. The title does not intrigue me. I am not a sex-positive feminist. I’m a second-wave dinosaur. (Ladies, you can’t smash the patriarchy by selling pussy.) I think about a book titled Extreme Anal Penetration Quakerism. Would that be something I would be inclined to read? No, it is not.

But I take a closer look at the cover and hardcore doesn’t refer to porn. It’s almost worse. It’s a reference to punk rock. Punk-rock Buddhism is some kind of thing now. There’s Brad and this other guy Noah Levine, who might be worse because he’s covered with tattoos and is part of the recovery movement.

I like punk rock. I sustained multiple bruises pogoing in mosh pits. I just don’t get the connection to Buddhism. Like, why not glam rock Buddhism? Yes, Husker Du’s cover of Eight Miles High is totally bitchin’, but so is Roxy Music’s.

Maybe it’s just a branding thing, like “Buddhism isn’t just for hippies any more.” If that’s the case I wonder if these guys are aware of the contradiction inherent in using an anti-capitalism, anti-consumerism counterculture movement to market themselves to the mainstream.

I google Brad and up pops an article titled “Why Brad Warner Matters.” I believe this article may hold the key to helping me unlock the arcane connection between punk and Zen, but I can’t bring myself to read it because the title is such a stupid cliche. Oh, well.

So I show up for the retreat on Friday afternoon and at the reception they’re all, like, “Do you want a [Japanese word] with Brad?” I’m clueless. It sounds something like “sodoku” but I feel pretty certain they’re not talking about the math puzzles that are in the newspaper. I hazard a guess that it’s some kind of spiritual dialogue. I think, Brad should ask for a sodoku with me so that I can tell him that if he keeps stage diving at his age he’s going to break a hip.

I get settled in my room and we’re off: eating meditation, meditation, walking mediation, yoga, lecture, mediation, walking meditation, meditation. Repeat until Sunday. Did I enjoy it? I don’t think you’re supposed to. I have a natural tendency toward asceticism so the austerity didn’t bother me at all. And I loved that it was silent. I’m uncomfortable around strangers and I don’t like small talk. The only time I want to discuss the weather is if there’s a tornado on the horizon.

But a couple of things really irked me. One was a humble square of cloth. We had to use the same filthy rag to wipe out our bowls after every meal. I’m not a princess. Honestly. I’m a nurse. I change colostomy bags. I smell urine, on purpose. I squeeze the pus out of wounds. And then I go to lunch. But that rag quickly took on the aspect of an impudent turd, a turd that I neatly folded and placed on top of my food bowls following every meal. We would sit down to eat and there it would be, right where I had left it, mocking me. I wanted to strangle that rag. Because of that loathsome cloth I was barely able to choke down anything the whole weekend.

And then there was the soul-crushing discipline. I was told what to do and where to be close to 24 hours a day. This is what it must be like to be in jail or a psychiatric hospital, two places that I have somehow managed to avoid. (Hard to believe, I know.) I was enraged enough to pack up my shit and leave, but I’d already given these people $350 and I didn’t think they would give it back to me. So I started plotting revenge against Brad. During a work meditation, I recognized Brad’s shoes outside unattended and I could barely restrain myself from stuffing rocks and twigs in them. It was such a great prank. Brad would be, like, somebody hates me, but who? And no one would ever suspect me because I don’t look one-half as crazy as I really am.

Oh, right. I almost forgot something crucial. I finally figured out what Brad is and this is probably why I was focusing all my anger on him at that point. I don’t know if it’s just my natural stupidity or the fact that I’m self absorbed and don’t pay attention to what’s going on around me, but on Saturday morning I suddenly notice that Brad is wearing robes and chanting in another language, and there’s incense and prostrations and we’re bowing to … Brad. I start hyperventilating and having palpitations and I feel like I’m going to vomit and scream at the same time, which I don’t think is even physiologically possible. This is all so surreally familiar from when I was a confirmed member of the Holy Roman Catholic Church. Trigger. Trigger. Flashback. Trigger. Flashback. Holy Mary, Mother of God, Brad is a PRIEST! How did I not know this? I consider throwing myself on the floor and pretending to have a seizure so that they will take me back to my room, but I somehow manage to keep it together.

That’s most of the bad stuff that happened. Well, I also struggled with impure thoughts about the monks. Which one was hotter, the tall, grumpy one, or the short, nervous one? I still can’t decide.

It wasn’t all bad. Good stuff happened, too. During the meditations I tried not to dwell on anything, but something kept surfacing. I can never seem to decide if my job is killing me or if it’s just making me into a better person in a really painful way. And then there are all the ethical compromises I have to make as a cog in the machine that is the medical industrial complex. So I break down and sign up for a sodoku with Brad.

Brad doesn’t have any special insight and he doesn’t give me any advice, but I feel like he is giving me his full attention and really listening to what I’m saying, and that means a lot. And I’m grateful, even if Brad is a possible Republican.

And then there was lying awake in bed Saturday night, tossing and turning, which doesn’t sound that great but it was. That’s the night that I realize the depth of my ridiculousness. Like how I’m this tiny, ineffectual person who’s pathologically hostile and suspicious. I’m basically a Chihuahua with rabies! And how completely miserable I make myself, for no reason. This doesn’t seem tragic, it’s hilarious! I laugh out loud about it. I can’t stop laughing. I laugh so hard that I’m afraid I’m going to wake my roommates up. It’s like I have been playing this elaborate practical joke on myself for ages and I just let myself in on it and, even though I’m also the patsy and it’s a mean joke, I still cannot help but admire its diabolical genius.

And then something happened Sunday during the second meditation that’s too private to talk about it, even if I understood what it was, which I don’t, and could find the words to describe it, which I don’t think I can. But it’s right up there with ghost Jesus. I wouldn’t tell you about it even if I wanted to, because you would just laugh at me. Everyone is always laughing at me.

I’m different now, at least I think I am. Everything looks a little bit brighter and I notice things that would have gone right by me before. I’m acting differently: I’m not yelling at the kids as much and I’m not sitting in the car crying in the parking lot before work. People have noticed the change and remarked on it. I’ve been doing zazen mediation every day and I hope I don’t stop.

At the end of retreat. I feel all of this gratitude and affection toward Brad. I know it’s just as irrational as all the anger I focused on him earlier, but I want to make him brownies. And when we go around the room talking about our experience I try to convey how overwhelmed I felt earlier, but I can tell I’m being inarticulate. I feel ashamed of myself for having been so angry at Brad earlier, and I try to sincerely apologize. But when I confess to Brad that I wanted to put rocks in his shoes, everyone just laughs. I told you people are always laughing at me.

2 thoughts on “Why That Zen Retreat I Went On Matters

  1. Great essay. I was up there with you at this retreat. It’s always amazing to me how much is going on below the apparent calm of a sesshin. I never get it because I’m mostly dealing with being bored and following my stupid thoughts.

    By the way, for myself and at least one other person at the retreat, your rocks in the shoes comment was just too much fun. I was absolutely not laughing at you, it was just the most perfect thing to think about doing. I always end up at sesshin spending some time in my own type of paranoid state, wondering why all these people are doing this to me.

    Rocks in the shoes is a perfect expression of this feeling.


    Liked by 1 person

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