Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Intensive intense zen retreat

This weekend I've been up in Inverness at a retreat centre called Anam Cara for a 3-day intensive zen retreat led by Daizan. Going to Inverness for just 3 days seems a long way to go - especially when you decide (for financial reasons) to take the MegaBus (12hrs one way) - but it was well worth it. I was asked if I wanted to be Jikijitsu for the retreat - the master of ceremonies if you like, the person in charge of making it run as smoothly as possible - and I felt honoured. The retreat followed a slightly different format to the other more formal zen retreats (sesshins) I've been to. This time we paired up and sat opposite each other. During the meditation session one partner asked the question (koan) to the other "tell me, who are you?" and listened passively without judgement or expression to the other responding. We swapped every 5mins after the bell sounded. This, Daizan called partner sanzen.

The retreat timetable left very little time for idle thinking, and this was the whole point. Our time was scheduled from 6am through to 10:30pm with periods of partner sanzen, exercise, walking meditation (kinhin), and meal times - all in silence except for when you were responding to the question. And the kinhin was also slightly different - free form walking where you please, in the meditation hall (zendo) or around the grounds, sitting, standing or walking (not lying down!).

This retreat format (known as an "enlightenment intensive") was based on the work of Charles and Ava Berner an Australian meditation teacher from the 60s who supposedly worked out the ideal retreat format to create the conditions for awakening - to allow people to find their true nature as fast as possible. And I must say it seemed to work. I think pretty much everyone had some kind of break through! The schedule balanced periods of intense questioning followed by a more relaxed exercise or walking meditation period. This seemed to be the key. And the vocal emphasis in the partner sanzen meant that thoughts/feelings had to congeal to an extent that they could be expressed. This meant that what normally would be a sea of half-formed impressions and thoughts came vividly into focus as the layers of delusion peeled away. Who am I? Clearly "a human being" is not sufficient an answer, etc etc.

It's interesting that on a retreat like this, the reasoning, scientific mind is really what's in retreat. Trying to reason out the answer only hinders progress. Thoughts that usually help you piece together a view or solution from the available evidence stop coming! And when I try to remember what was coming up during those sanzen periods I find it very difficult. It feels like the memories were laid down on a different strata and to access them I need to return to that strata, that level of openness, maybe the beta or theta brain wave states. To begin with it felt like a certain amount of reasoning was needed to express the thoughts/feelings that formed in words, but as the retreat went on it became obvious that language formed directly from those beta wave thoughts (for lack of a better way of describing it) without needing the alpha wave state. I became utterly stupid! This feels like the reverse of what happens when you're reading a particularly difficult scientific paper...!

Anyway I've come back all ready and fired up to make and launch my website, write a CV and get out there to look for some more classes. My first two regular ones will be starting at ZenYoga in Camberwell on 8th and 9th May. Bring it on!

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

A busy practice

Well, I feel like there's an awful lot bouncing around in my head at the moment - it was a busy weekend, moving into our new flat, realising all the things we don't have, meeting up with people, teaching some yoga...

What is the best way of practicing when you feel like there's no time, you've got no energy, and when you do get to do some practice you're stopping every 5mins to jot something down that you've just thought of or remembered you have to do? I guess you just have to be with it. Be busy 100%, be knackered 100%, acknowledge all those thoughts that busy around in your mind, watch them coming and going, coming and going - but just watch. Nari kiru as my zen teacher's teacher (Shinzan Roshi) always says - be 100% the situation.

On Sunday we went to meet some friends to watch the London marathon. Since we'd just moved in and everything was still in boxes I was quite keen to get on with the unpacking, but it was beautiful and sunny, and the marathon's not on every day, so I went. I was due to cover a yoga class at 3pm, so at about 2 I motioned to my girlfriend that we should be heading off if we were going to have enough time to get home, have something to eat, then get to the class in time to set up and have a few moments of quiet. But since we were there with friends, the gathering of our things and the saying goodbye took some minutes. I found myself with feelings of stress - come on, let's go, I don't want to be rushed before the class, I need to have lunch - but at the same time I knew it was important to say goodbye to our friends and be 100% present with them in those moments. It's difficult to find that balance. I think I have a tendency of getting too stressed and anxious about leaving enough time to get places, but it's also important to realise that it does no-one any favours to arrive late, hungry and flustered at a yoga class you're about to teach.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Yoga and zen

Just before I went to university I got interested in target rifle shooting - the lying down, round paper targets, single-shot super-accurate rifles kind of shooting. It turned out that UCL had a pretty good shooting club and I started taking it pretty seriously, with long training sessions and regular trips down to a big outdoor shooting range in Surrey called Bisley. Anyway, one training book I read suggested that a physical practice like yoga or alexander technique would be very beneficial. Target shooting is very meditative with a strong emphasis on the breath, so the connection is obvious.

So I started going to a yoga class in the university gym. I can't remember what style it was, but I loved it from the start. The teacher - I think her name was Judith - was impressive. Calm, soft, supple, and present. I remember her distinctly. For the next few years I went on-and-off to classes, until an extraordinary teacher took over the university gym classes called Julian Daizan Skinner, a Zen Buddhist monk and accomplished Zen teacher. His classes had a feeling unlike anything I'd experienced before. At some point he mentioned that he was starting a meditation group over in Earl's Court, west London, and I jumped at the chance. Śavāsana (corpse pose, generally yoga's relaxation pose) had always intrigued me and had been one of the main reasons why I kept on going back to yoga classes(!); I felt quite keen to explore the meditation aspect more.

Daizan's meditation classes were at the same time incredible and scary. This was before I'd started my psychotherapy, and looking at myself like he was asking me to was at the limit of (sometimes beyond) my comfort zone. But somehow I kept on going back. We did things like meditating sitting looking at ourselves in the mirror, doing Tai Chi, doing stupid things like walking like a bear or stalk, or sitting quietly watching the breath. It was about 6 months before I realised we were actually practising Buddhism - and I got a shock! I'm not religious... What if he's a crackpot? What if he one day asked us all to commit ritual suicide or something...?! What if he wanted lots of money? Will he ask us to believe something, have a faith?

The place we met on those Sundays was weird. It had been refurbished very nicely to be a women's gym, but the owners had run out of money before it could open, so now it was lived in/looked after by a few guys who smoked weed, didn't clean, and worked out on the old machines. A snake skin on the wall, a guy who made Berimbaus, stinky rubber mats, sanzen on a dirty carpet, and a stifling heat in the summertime are some of my lasting memories! Still, his practice drew me back and my Sunday afternoons became filled with yoga and zen meditation.

In 2010 we had to leave this "gym" since they wanted to renovate again. After a brief stint at the Chinese Community Centre in Bloomsbury, in May 2011 Daizan founded the ZenYoga centre in Camberwell, or the Yugagyo Dojo in Zen language (see picture), and moved all his Zen practice there.

In 2007, Daizan started running yoga teacher training courses, and I knew some people who went on the first one. It hadn't even once entered my consciousness that I would want to train as a yoga teacher, but those that I knew that went on the first course raved about it so much that I must've started thinking about it seriously. At this point I was practising yoga regularly, with Daizan and teachers like Raphan Kebe, Jonathan Monks, and Norman Blair, and I decided to sign up to Daizan's second Zenways teacher training course - just to learn about yoga in more depth, not really to become a teacher... On the first day of the course we did a CBT (cognative behaviour therapy) exercise to confirm that we absolutely wanted to become yoga teachers! Ha! Well, I wasn't so sure, but by the end of the 2-week, 200hr retreat/course I was convinced. We had to teach five classes after the end of the retreat course in order to become fully certified, and after those I have never looked back.

I think the teacher training retreat was one of the biggest milestone events of my life. To spend two weeks in such close company with a group of people wanting to become yoga teachers was special beyond words - I had never laughed so much, been so open, so shiny(!) as I was by the end of that course. In the world of yoga I started meeting people of the like I had not met in any other part of my life previously.