They were in sesshin, an intensive multi-day Zen practice session, and I was very disappointed. My wife and I had stopped in Santa Fe on our way home from vacation, where I had hoped to sit with others early one morning at the renowned Upaya Zen Center (a photo of their beautiful meditation hall is on the left). But they were already several days into a sesshin according to the schedule on the bulletin board outside, and I rather doubted visitors would be allowed to drop in. I was about to leave when a very nice young woman welcomed me, heard my request, and quickly ushered me inside.
She whispered that while I wouldn’t be able to sit in the main meditation hall where the sesshin participats were sitting, we could sit in the sun room, a room next to the main hall. We found a couple of empty spots, quickly bowed to our mats, and settled on our cushions.
The nourishing richness of that stillness and silence! I have participated in sesshins and know that the first days are usually filled with snuffling, coughing, sighing, and much squirming on the mats. Over the course of several days, or a week or more, the entire room or hall begins to calm down, go still, and deepen. First, physical activity slows and grows into stillness, then the nervous, almost audible humming energy of mental activity slips away. That’s the point they had already reached in this sesshin – a world so vast and gloriously, peacefully empty, yet containing everything. I felt completely unbound, as if I were floating. And it was not created or manufactured – wherever we are, whatever might be going on with us, it is already there, within and without.
At first I felt like a boorish party-crasher: relative to what I sensed all around me, my body felt wracked with spasms and my breath sounded like loud hiccups. But after some ten minutes or so, my body and mind expanded into that silence, and my breath became one with everyone else’s. I know of few more powerful, nurturing experiences than a shared silence that enormous. When the bell rang, I was very sorry to leave.
But of course, leaving the meditation hall is what we have to do, and back out into the messy, noisy, restless world we go. It was the same with running during my vacation in the dry, cooler temperatures and spectacular scenery of Colorado – and then back to dodging cars in my roasting, humid neighborhood. But that same boundless personal freedom – the kind of palpable peace we can realize during an intenstive Zen practice period, and the serenity and solitude we can find running trails in the mountains – is actually accessible anywhere we go. “Practice-realization is not defiled with specialness,” Dogen wrote. “It is a matter for every day.”
For me, that’s the reason for running and sitting – no matter who you are or where you are, no matter what is going on with you, the most awesome peace and serenity are always right here. Sure, it may be hidden under many crusty old layers of noise, anxiety, misunderstanding, anger, and that nagging vague dissatisfaction with your lot in life, but it’s there all the same. Running and sitting are two of the most helpful ways I know to uncover it. And then there’s the real trick: not having to uncover it again and again. Still working on that one – the failed work of a lifetime, a happy failure that begins anew each day, each breath.