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Breaking Through to Zen

I did one of these retreats a couple of weeks ago - and it felt quite powerful. Perhaps you should do one too. So, how does it work and why should you do it?

These Zen retreats are highly distinctive in that they make a very big claim: that using their own innovative method, they can get 60% of participants to kensho – a glimpse of enlightenment - in a weekend, instead of the 3 years or so that it generally takes Zen monks.

Usually, this sort of claim would set alarm bells ringing – the world of spirituality is full of charlatans and deluded narcissists making implausible claims. And I would imagine that 60% is indeed putting it a bit high. But after doing the retreat, my tentative conclusion is that, yes, this method could dramatically accelerate one’s progress to kensho. So, I’ll be doing another one ASAP.

And what is this mysterious method? I won’t go into all the details, but essentially it’s koan practice, supercharged through the use of dialogue. You look into your partners eyes, they ask you a particular question that you’ve picked to work with over the course of the retreat, and then you vocalise whatever emerges in your mind and body. And repeat, over and over again.

This works because, as Daizan (the Zen monk who runs the retreats) says, solo meditation is only about 5-10% efficient, because of the extraordinary difficulty of keeping your mind on the job. You focus on your koan for a few seconds, and then the mind wanders. You focus again, and then the mind wanders again. So, if you sit for an hour, you are probably fully focussed on the task at hand for only about 5 minutes of it. Which is why Zen monks usually spend months counting their breaths in meditation before doing anything else – they need to train the mind to focus. But, in Daizan’s method, you inquire into your Koan in dialogue with someone else, and this serves to keep your mind on the job.

And….it works! It really does seem to be the case that when you’re gazing directly into someone else’s eyes, you stay fully focussed on the task in hand. So, you can clock up the same amount of focussed koan practice in 3 minutes of dialogue as you would in an hour of meditation. And it’s not just about the gross quantity of kaon practice, but also its intensity, because, as Daizan also said, using koans to get to kensho is like rubbing two sticks together to get fire: if you rub a bit, then stop, then rub a bit more, and so on, you will never get there. Whereas if you can keep on rubbing steadily, without interruption, the fire will catch. So, a consistent, unbroken focus on your koan will get you to kensho much faster than an intermittent focus.

Another striking feature of the retreat is the emotional impact, and this is something that anyone considering taking part should be aware of. For some strange reason, looking a silent stranger dead in the eyes while reflecting on a koan can evoke powerful emotion. On 4 or 5 separate occasions, I found myself in tears while describing some past or present situation that wouldn’t usually move me to tears. Arguably, this is a good thing – Freud would probably have thought so, and Daizan seemed to suggest that in excavating affect-laden memories we were clearing the path to kensho. But it’s intense, and potentially embarrassing, if you feel funny about crying in front of others.

And quite apart from any tears you might shed, the retreat has the potential to be highly embarrassing and shame-inducing, because the instructions are that when reflecting on your koan, you should vocalise whatever comes to mind. Shameful memory? Tell your partner. Weird fantasy? Tell your partner. Crime you’ve committed? Don’t tell your partner, because they’d have to tell the police, but do tell Daizan, who is exempt from that legal requirement.

I suspect that most people didn’t quite follow that advice, and were censoring themselves pretty heavily, because most people didn’t reveal anything too personal. But, who knows, maybe they held themselves back on the path to Awakening. So, if you are going to do one of these retreats, be prepared to grapple with that particular dilemma.

So, all in all, a very powerful experience, and maybe one that has the potential to be transformative. I am certainly convinced and intrigued enough to do another one (or maybe two) of these and see where it takes me. I will report back on what happens…


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