In Zen, much of the focus is on doing Tanden energy work. Please see my article on Tanden to learn about it. The Tanden work is huge and never ending, but with time and experience, it becomes apparent that we are also doing heart energy work, the long healing process of working out our emotional blockages. And just to note, in this article I am not describing ideas, but actual experience. Many people think Zen is a mental game, and that is a big mistake.
This post is partly a response to a question I received recently from a Zen monastic person about dealing with energetic blow ups in her system. I am lucky to still be connected with some monastics, and it brings me a lot of joy to be able to be an older brother to some of these newer practitioners, helping them through some of the more difficult aspects of Zen’s internal alchemy. My blog has become a place to articulate some of the processes many of us go through.
This practitioner referred to specific energy directed at her by the Roshi (Zen Master) which sent her into overwhelm at certain points during the week long retreat called Osesshin. Not being familiar with the Japanese terms for such energetic communication, she described the process as something like the Hindu word Darshan, in which, for example, specific holy energy is directed at someone to help them open up the chakras.
She described how at certain times, the Roshi would direct energy (Kiai in Japanese) towards her in a helpful way to help open up her energetic system. And how the power of it kind of blew up her system, like having an atomic bomb go off in her body. This atomic bomb caused burning sensations in her chest and general overwhelm. She felt the need to escape from everyone for a while and run out into the bamboo forest while everyone was in sanzen (private interview with the Roshi). She wrote me to talk about it, and probably to just share it with someone who would know what the heck she was talking about and not judge her.
Keep in mind that this is person who is sitting every day, at least five hours a day. And up to 18 hours a day. This is not just someone who is sensitive to energy, but someone in the midst of an energetic transformation.
I thought it would be helpful to write a bit about this type of experience and help clarify it for the ten or twenty obsessed people out there who know exactly what she was talking about because they’ve walked that path, or are going through it, or will go through it.
As far as this energetic explosion happening during Osesshin or just Monastery life in general, well, I can say that I had this happen all of the time the first couple of years at Sogenji. The Zen training is largely an energetic alchemy process, where we open up to reality cell by cell, rather than a mental or intellectual endeavor. Sometimes in the middle of this process, it is just that our own ki (life force) has gotten to an overflowing point, and then the Roshi skillfully tips it over the edge in sanzen or the golden hour*.
I’ve written about this before, but in our energetic Zen practice, we are like an electric wire which gets stretched, broadened, which allows us to take more and more energy, more voltage in the future. But having it stretched is often unpleasant. It opens, then gets caught in our emotional stuck places (often the chest), and often slams shut, contorting us physically or just emotionally. I know this situation well, and was plagued by it for years.
With time, we can take more energy, are not so volatile. This energy can move through us. We are not moved around by it. We know it and tame it, are not blindsided by it. I personally feel that this process is wonderful and the most important aspect of training, being honest and allowing ourselves to open up more and more to this energy. We’ve got to have the courage to face this process and keep going. This is the cellular process of Zen training. It’s normal for the very few partaking in this training. We are doing energy alchemy. Some people simply cannot face themselves, close down the energy, and their training does not develop.
I had a kind of mantra of “dozo, dozo, dozo” (Please go ahead) for a few of years, basically praying for this energy to be able to move through me.
So, as we are sitting all of those hours, opening up physically and emotionally, working with our Tanden, as the energy opens, it begins to open up our whole body. And this includes the heart energy. Where the Tanden energy is rooted and spacious and deep, the heart energy is loud and expansive and volatile! It opens and shuts abruptly, especially at first.
I remember after a couple of years in the monastery, the Roshi told me to be careful when going home for a two week visit to the states. He knew the volatile phase of training I was in. With the heart energy in full expressiveness, I was like an exposed nerve. It was like I was in the middle of open heart surgery. No escape!, a bundle of wild emotions. All of my trauma exposed, in the middle of healing it, opening it, settling it. One moment, pure bliss, the next, accidentally running into walls or verbally abusing someone or just acting like a maniac while grabbing the goddamn tsukemono pickles at lunch. It was a hot mess!
I went home to the states to couch surf at my brothers, only to alienate everyone and cause problems in general. Who was this bald skinny scared wild eyed maniac?! Not the calm buddhist monk everyone imagines. Not in the middle of that process. It’s an intense ride, navigating and getting out of the way of the primal forces of the universe!
And in the midst of the heart opening, the rising ki (Kofun) all of us sincere monastics felt, where we’d gotten immensely energetic, really genki during Osesshin, and then had to go out on a free day and try to function with all of this energy moving through us. Face red, no ability to sleep, too pumped up.
These experiences are part of this process involved in lots of training, hours of zazen. The sitting accelerates this process. As the energy grows through the body, it naturally opens the heart. It opens up our stuck places, and we get to know them intimately. It is like the energy turns up the volume so we can hear it, allows one to interact with our stuck places, demands it. Otherwise, these stuck places just stay lodged in our energy body. And unlike the tanden, the heart is volatile, emotional, wild.
Gradually we are able to interact with these stuck places, find the internal momentum involved in dissolving them. We know the yield and the leading involved in using this energy, and the process matures and ripens. Our internal language deepens.
Actually, the big energy comes through the heart. The Tanden energy is not as big, more settled, not as powerful. So we need to open our hearts in the training. The transformative juice moves through the heart. Without it, the training becomes dull and stale. People who think Zen is all about control often fall into closing the heart and just focusing on the Tanden. Their practice lacks true vitality.
And in our training, we all knew we needed to work with our stuck places, or we’d get sick in some way or another, like balloon animals all tied up. We knew we needed to face ourselves, we could literally physically feel where we were not free. We cannot escape these stuck places. All of this wild energy is not bad, this pressure cooker, it is just part of the process of internal alchemy involved in this energy work of Zen training.
At some point, sometimes Zen people have big openings. Kenshos, Satori, etc. They see something huge. Another way of experiencing everything. Their heart energy opens in a great healing. Their small self is blown apart, the universe takes a step, blasts through them and everything else. It is a kind of love explosion.
After kensho, the long embodiment integrating process involved in learning to wield that flaming sword of prajna, is the energetic healing work of advanced practice. I was recently reading a book in which someone had an enlightenment experience, and then went home and became severely depressed. This often happens as we open up ourselves to the main line of the universe. It is why the work of integrating is a long slow process of healing and embodying. And why Zen is so body based. So we can handle this whole energetic opening process.
Ultimately the system will settle, but that might take a long time. Many of us have to become completely raw and bare to our experience for a time. If you think that navigating the energy before kensho is intense, wait until the whole shebang has gone through you! Truthfully, many can have a big realization, but few can walk around and function freely from that place. But we must keep moving ahead, knowing there is no other way. It’s the ineluctable life that brought us to training. And the long slow opening of the heart in Zen.
The people honestly facing themselves in this process, doing the Tanden and Heart work, realizing their true nature, are heroes and warriors. It takes such courage to do it, to live wide open. It’s all extremely humbling. Deep bows and keep going though the process. ** It’s not new. It’s part of the deal. The patriarchs went through it. Keep going. And for those who’ve done training, and are now carpenters or stay at home moms or psychotherapists, gradually integrating all of this in your own unique way, you are my heroes. I’m right beside you in my goofy way.
Mostly, there are a few out there who need to hear that it is all part of the process, and it is tough now, but with honesty and determination, you will come through it transformed. Lots of love!
*Golden hour is a humorous term at Sogenji Monastery when each night during Osesshin the Roshi walks around the zendo during a period and gives everyone the keisaku (encouragement stick). For many of us, it is an energetic tidal wave of intensity.
** Intense Zen training is not for everyone. If you are concerned about your mental health, please seek a physician.
Kiai: Penetrating energetic focus
Ba: a field of energy. For instance, an enlightened person would have a field of energy which everyone likes to be around.
Kyogai: A particular signature energetic flavor. An owl, for example, would have a signature owl Kyogai.