Shattering the Great Doubt
I have just returned from a quite beautiful week in Wales.
Still very much re-entering the space we refer to as ‘normal’.
It seems anything but.
The retreat I attended was called ‘Shattering the Great Doubt’, also known simply as a Koan Retreat.
For those you unfamiliar with the term ‘Koan’ it is a short story, statement, dialogue or exchange between master and student, that is used as a form of practice in the Rinzai tradition of Zen. We are asked to meditate on , and merge with the koan, observing how it ‘triggers’ us or prompts and provokes habits, patterns and ways of being.
It is something that must be experienced to be truly understood but that is a brief and simplistic overview.
I met with 18 other curious souls to investigate and come face to face with ourselves in a rustic, electricity-less farmhouse in the middle of the welsh countryside.
The schedule would involve a week of silence, meditation, great food, working for the benefit of the group in maintaining the property, and of course, contemplation.
Each individual experience would unfurl entirely uniquely to the next. For some the week would provoke old wounds, pain, discomfort. For others it would be the catalyst for joy, love, opening…but for most it would be a combination of both.
As is life.
The week would be run by a retreat leader, cook, and two wonderful assistants that would mediate and make sure everything ran smoothly. Together they would create an environment that would facilitate whatever needed to arise for the group. A safe, nurturing, space for all.
As someone that runs retreats it is rare that I get the opportunity to be held and concentrate solely on being on retreat. Often it is my job to do the holding and I am well aware that the difference between the two experiences is huge. I felt that I owed it to myself to take some time for my own reflection at the end of a year that has taught me much.
It was wonderful to have nothing to do or worry about. Simply to be present with the unfolding process and bear witness to whatever might arise for me to look at.
The last retreat I went on with this particular organisation very much prompted what is referred to as a ‘great shattering’. A complete collapse of the framework I had previously relied on to construct my ideas of myself and reality.
This time round it was far more subtle but equally profound. It served as a reminder and as a benchmark for where I am currently at. The fruits of a years worth of life lessons well learned.
We begun the retreat in earnest, spending the best part of a day ‘preparing the mind’ with lots of sitting and getting used to the surroundings that would become home for the week.
The day began at 5am and we would go to bed at 10pm. The workings of the house and surrounding countryside would become intimately part of each of us and vice versa.
On day two we were offered the choice of one of seventeen koans chosen by the teacher. We were advised to go for the one that had the greatest pull for us. That might include an aversion to or dislike of as well as a harmonious or favourable reaction. As the teacher read through them many stirred my curiosity but none grabbed me. Until about two thirds of the way through he read out the following question.
“Freedom, or Love – which one do you choose?”
This one had hooked me instantly. It resonated deeply with my journey of the past twelve months. In that moment I knew that, in fact, this had been my koan for some time. I had just not heard it this simply put.
Funnily enough I was also aware that in years gone by I might have been pulled to explore the more complex or abstract koan in order to satisfy the mind that wanted to ‘solve’ it. This koan, simple as it appeared, spoke to my heart and so I went with it.
So for the rest of the day we were invited to ‘pick up the koan’. To be with it and see what it delivered in terms of a reaction. To see what it said to us. Often the first response is to intellectually dissect the statement. Read into the definitions, meanings and so on, of the words. Opinions arise, abstractions, beliefs, concepts.
What is love? What is freedom? What are the pros and cons of each? How do I feel about them? Is one more valuable than the other? If I must choose then which one might benefit me most?
This process can drive one deep into what is referred to in Zen as ‘the Secondary’. The conceptual, linguistic realm of thought and thinking about something. The abstraction of Reality that we consider to be real but is merely a cardboard cut out in many ways.
Surprisingly, this didn’t really happen for me: I might add, the last time I worked with a question such as this, it did. I went deep into the conceptual realm, bringing up much pain, confusion, delusion, angst and so on. This time, the pull to do so simply wasn’t there. Instead the days unfolded with the koan present in my awareness but no falling into such wonderings.
There was a openness in my heart that I kept coming back to. Anchoring me in the present. This was a strange sensation given that all those around me looked troubled, with furrowed brows, intensely examining the koan. I smiled, laughed and felt a light heartedness in the process but was fully aware that the mood around me was not so light. This mood had to be honoured and acknowledged and would be a huge part of the koan for me.
I want to add at this stage that the koan is a tricky and quite unpredictable beast. It lures you and leads you, it becomes part of you. I recall on my second day with the koan it was the first thought in my mind when I awoke for morning exercises, beckoning me toward the day and what it might offer.
We would then be invited for interviews with the teacher to share our insights and he would skilfully guide us, inviting us to explore unseen avenues and delve deeper.
On my first interview about mid way through the week I felt a sense that the koan was stable, that I was totally happy with where it had taken me. That it seemed to be just there. My mood was good, I felt present, content, alive and that perhaps this would be a very unspectacular week for me. The teacher, quite rightly, suggested that I just stay with the koan and see what might happen. I could see the twinkle in his eye.
As soon as I left the interview room it struck me that my premature sense of resolution might well be misleading. I was still missing something in the koan. Something was alluding me. The rest of my meditation that day was stale and arduous, flat almost. A frustration grew with sitting. Outside, eating, working, sitting in front of the fire, I was alive and engaged with the moment but as soon as I sat on the cushion, there was discomfort, boredom, wandering. I pushed through and saw out the day, welcoming bed and some much needed rest.
What might tomorrow bring?
It’s a funny thing, the extent to which people connect and meet one another in a silent space. The bonds that grow quietly, the revealing of vulnerabilities, the openness, all building toward something quite unique and beautiful. Coming together and being, behind the stories of who we are, the identities, the opinions. Instead there is a presence and love that develops. This would hit heights that would take me a back as the week progressed.
The next morning I awoke with that strange drip at the back of the throat that inevitably signals an oncoming cold.
‘Uh oh!’ . I was starting to feel a little beat, tired. This morning my koan seemed a million miles away. I had to recall it and bring it back to my consciousness. I asked myself aloud by the stream, ‘Freedom, or Love – which one do you choose?’
The fog that covered the grounds was thick, I could barely see into the valley down the hill. The fog felt like my mind, it felt like the cold brewing inside, slowly building regardless of how many oranges and kiwis I was eating between sitting.
The afternoon walk had arrived and the voice in my head piped up and suggested I went and slept. It felt like a good idea but something else propelled me up the steep hill behind the meditation hall. My breath was short as I struggled up the hillside. The wind was picking up, swaying the trees around me. The presence of the previous days began to return. Each step feeling like my first and last. Each breath alive. Very much here, but still thought trains would charge through my mind, trying to drag attention away into the past or future, into the secondary.
I simply noticed and kept climbing the hill
Eventually reaching the peak I stood beneath a tree and, arms outstretched a gust of wind blew straight through me.
In that moment the koan clicked. The piece I had been missing fell into place. I started roaring with laughter. The sheer hilarity of the situation overwhelmed me. I could not stop laughing. The cosmic joke had hit home. Then, the koan evaporated.
I was struck by a profound freedom. I was laughing like I had lost my mind, in many ways, I had.
Then I was overcome by an equally profound sense of love and compassion. While I was opening up to the humour of the moment, my heart went out to those that were struggling with their koans. Compassion welled up inside.
Freedom AND Love. I fell deeply in love with each and every person on that retreat.
After about 20 minutes or so I noticed a thought train approaching the empty mind. Seen clearly, I watched it come and pass without engagement, noticing the subtlety of it’s hooks. How it grabs us.
It’s allure was gone.
I then returned for the next session of sitting, feeling re-energised, invigorated, ready to explore this heart space that had opened up. My heart felt it might burst at times. Tears of joy and love. Not an abundance, just two or three rolling down my cheek. A simple awareness and openness. An innerstanding. I felt a real sense of love and freedom in my way of being. Present to the group and to what was arising for me. My heart open and available.
I wrote my name down to request an interview to share my insight with the teacher. Again I roared with laughter. The koan had resolved itself and, in doing so, affirmed much of what my journey of late has been revealing to me. A presence of heart. A change in the tone of my own life. The next step. An expanse beyond anything I could foresee.
Again, the teacher asked me to remain with the koan.
My sitting became easy and pleasant. Beaming from ear to ear in spite of the cold getting worse. I had a sense that the cold would become my next koan as I would have to navigate the foreseeable sittings and early starts with this new challenge looming. But at that moment it didn’t matter a single bit. I almost welcomed it.
Next day I awoke. Well, I say awoke. Waking would have required me sleeping, which I didn’t quite manage for any prolonged period. I couldn’t breathe, my head weighed a tonne, coughing, spluttering, sneezing, sniffling. My new koan had arrived. I would spend the next day in and out of sitting sessions, napping, and generally resting. It struck me that to be held in the space and allowed to be ill was such a wonderful gift. The team running the retreat were understanding and kind, the cook would drive to the shop and buy me some lemsip max, as regular strength wasn’t cutting the mustard. I spent times on my own in front of the fire whilst everyone else gathered to meditate. I managed a few sittings still and found it interesting to play with the limits of discomfort I was able be with. Sometimes it was just too much but at others the soreness of my throat and thumping headache was met and would somehow dissolve into a moments peace and emptiness.
Fortunately for me, the next day saw a marked improvement and I was able to get back into the routine and pick up some momentum in sitting.
I also looked forward to participating fully in the Aum meditation (chanting the sound, Aum). The previous night saw my voice wavering and cracking, my breaths were shallow which meant short, sharp, husky chants. Always on the edge of fully immersing myself in the practice. A practice that I genuinely love and really touches me.
The group would really go for it in chanting. It’s very much a practice that gives back what you put in.
We would continue for what seemed like ages. All finding our note: Harmonies, octaves, dissonance, all creating this beautiful cacophony of sound that would fill the room and my awareness. I always chose a dissonant note to add something to the sound. My reason for choosing this note was that it was placed in my heart space and resonated deeply. I stuck to it and it felt natural and well placed. We would keep going round. Some would drop out early and listen but a core few just kept going, on and on. The cadence would shift, the softness or hardness of the sound would see-saw. It was alive, pulsating, dying down then roaring forth once again with new vigour.
At the end of the last night’s chanting, as the sound died down I could feel this space opening up, like my heart might burst with Love. I was upright, sturdy, strong. There was a distinct clarity and peace. Then as the last person finished we were met with a tremendous silence. The stunning stillness of the room. All of us, Buddhas, sitting like mountains. Within the silence, every sound was like a cascade of music. The breath, the wood fire crackling, the wind outside, creaking chairs, even the subtle beating of the heart , all present and heard. All here, right now.
I could barely contain myself, just energy rising. Smiling wide. A surge of joy once again bringing tears to my eyes. I thought I might explode, even if I had, in that moment it would have been completely fine. I was deeply contented.
As the sensation subsided I was aware that I felt infinitely large and infinitely small at the same time. I was without location. Everywhere and nowhere. Time vanished. I was everything and everything was me. There was a very familiar feel in this. A truth that transcended all descriptions. There was a feeling of equal fullness and emptiness. There was no paradox or contradiction in these seeming opposites because they all resolved into one. Though, not a numerical one. As you might imagine, I am incapable of describing the experience. I am skirting around it using words but none of the words are ‘it’.
For the first, and only time during the retreat, I sat through the break. I was so content that it seemed unnecessary to move so I just sat there until the next bell rang and we sat again.
I slept well that night.
A funny thing happens over the course of a retreat in that your concept of time dissolves completely. At the beginning time drags, and then it accelerates. Next thing you know it’s time to go home.
I felt sad at the thought of leaving everyone. All the faces I had come to be so familiar with. The three rocks that sat opposite me all week. Unflinching.
I had fallen in love with each and every one in a special kind of way.
Throughout the week I had caught the eye of various people. As they looked up from their angst, there I was waiting to see them. This brought a smile to many. A meeting of two beings both sharing this illuminating experience together.
But alas, all things must pass and so it was time to say goodbye. I hugged the one other guy that had picked the same koan as me. We had bonded through the koan. Our experiences vastly different. It felt special to finally embrace him and laugh together.
My reflections on the retreat itself are that I am hugely grateful for the experience. I am grateful to have been prompted to sign up and lent the money to do so by a friend that recommended it. She too cancelled which freed up a space for me to take, again I am grateful for such grace.
All the people that I met and shared the space with touched me and taught me about love and freedom in tandem with the koan and my own innate wisdom.
As I said before, the retreat did not shatter me. Despite my descriptions, in many ways it felt ordinary. But in this ordinariness there was a profoundly extraordinary experience. A reminder that the mind can work in subtle ways to deceive us. That in being here now, we are alive and there is something quite beautiful about that recognition.
The simplicity of it all. The complexity we must seemingly go through in order to see the obvious. All so wonderfully perfect.
Today, a little more than 24 hours after leaving, I am still sensitive. The stillness is still very much present and working through me. My senses are heightened and there is a caution in being too quick to step back into ‘normality’.
I have cried today at the sun rising and setting, an embrace with someone that I have never really connected with but today saw with new eyes and i have cried at nothing in particular other than a moving gratitude for life and every single event, person, circumstance and situation that has brought me to this point right here, right now. Including every pain and hardship.
My koan until the next time is simply, Life. The ultimate koan.
<3 <3 <3
NOTE: I wanted to reserve special thanks to the teacher, cook and facilitators that made the experience so smooth and nurturing. I also wanted to recommend to anyone that is interested to make a point of experiencing a silent retreat next year or in the years to come. As many of you know I host weekends in the UK and will be extending to week long retreats in France but if you are keen to experience a koan retreat or any other retreats in Zen tradition, then I would highly recommend the Western Chan Fellowship. www.westernchanfellowship.org
Please consider it. It might be one of the best decisions you make and might open up a realm of possibilities as yet unknown to you. If you have any questions please don’t hesitate to contact me and I will try and offer you some answers.