staying awake

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This is the first talk given by Nona Strong Roshi at the June 2022 zen sesshin at Mercy Center Burlingame.

“To have it all stripped bare, just experienced directly, naked: this is sesshin.” (Roko Sherry Chayat, Rinzai Zen master, Syracuse, NY, in Sitting with Koans, p. 337)

This means staying awake while we sit – and not just not falling asleep, either! It means not thinking about staying awake, or doing it this way or that, or curating our thoughts or curbing them. It’s about actually staying awake, having direct experience, letting ourselves go naked into whatever is happening. This is sesshin. This is what we’re here for. This is what it’s all about.

If our minds seem to be wreaking havoc on any stillness we seek, we just notice that. And be with the havoc. Or, be with our preconceived intention to seek stillness if that’s what we brought with us to our chair or cushion: have we created a built-in obstacle to direct experience by bringing an intention? I don’t know.

If we seem to lose focus as we sit, we just notice that. Maybe that loss can become our focus. But here again, are we creating a built-in obstacle to direct experience by focusing on keeping focus? Too many questions.

One way to do direct experience is to let our attention flow to our breathing. Following the breath. Or for some, counting works. One-two-three… Whatever our practice is, we just notice that we’re doing it. No force, just consistency. Determination to stay with it. Moment to moment.

Suppose in one moment or another it looks as though nothing is happening with your sitting; you’re not getting anywhere or making any progress. You’re just there, like a bump on a log, worrying about how bad things are on the cushion. Maybe you’re playing tapes of activities off the cushion: yesterday’s trip to Mercy Center or today’s meeting with the teacher or next week’s push to finish up what you started last week. Your mind is all over the place, chattering away. What do you do? Do you try to stop it? Quiet it down? Why? That’s really just more chattering, isn’t it? Just breathe. Just count. Just do whatever you do. Engage what’s happening in the moment.

Suppose in one moment or another everything seems to stop. You have one of those sparkling flashes of clarity that seems to freeze everything. Your eyes get wide, or you start grinning and mouthing Wow! Or maybe you just get that stunned, deer-in-the-headlights look. Or you want to write it down so you can share it or relive it. And there’s nothing wrong with that; relishing an experience is satisfying and can be fun. But in the process of responding, you may lose the very clarity that flashed in. What you’re reliving and relishing is gone, over, kaput. But even then, you can still have direct experience, can’t you? You can experience being a deer in the headlights, or a grinning, wide-eyed fool mouthing Wow. You can lament the letdown you feel when you see that it’s gone. Direct, naked letdown. Sigh… Engage what’s happening in the moment.

Direct experience is always available to us. In fact, it’s really all we have. It’s just what’s happening in the moment. Our practice is about realizing what – or maybe thathappening is happening. This moment is happening.

And maybe even harping on “realizing” is taking us out of direct experience. Asking ourselves to realize something is a way of distancing us from just what is happening, isn’t it? It’s creating a separation between us (the realizers) and the happening (what gets realized). Too many words. A vicious circle. When we try to quantify or explain all this, we just get all tied up. Like the entangling briars that the National Teacher spoke of in the On Zen verse.

So, let’s just get this over with. Recite our vows, walk, sit back down, breathe. And let what happens happen. Direct experience.