The Hermitage up the mountain at Sogenji
The Hermitage up the mountain at Sogenji
The Hermitage up the mountain at Sogenji
Hi everyone!  Recently someone in the group I run sent me some reflections on a recent solo retreat (dokusesshin) they did.  I’ve left out names (Call them PK), but wanted to share some of the dialogue we had about it, to show how a solo retreat can help deepen our practice.  Enjoy! And please share this with anyone who might find it useful. Thanks! 
Hi Corey,
Hope you don’t mind me throwing my post-retreat reflections at you a bit. It’s always great to hear your thoughts. The six days were tough! I think jumping from having to figure out a move/helping my girlfriend’s parents also move, to diving into a solo retreat was a difficult transition. I struggled intensely with literally just not wanting to be there. I felt like I was forcing it, but at the same time didn’t want to just stop when I had set aside the time. I really tried to just stay open to that feeling of resistance, which was exhausting, but kept me honest I think. I ended up really investigating and exploring my practice. It really became a place of exploration.
What I felt by the end was a sense that there was a subtle pressure to push in my practice, and that even though I wasn’t noticing it consciously my body was really rejecting it. Sometimes I feel like I can’t “rest” in the practice, that I’ll fall into an empty state, or a passive acceptance of where I’m at. But I think, knowing myself, that perhaps what I’m thinking of as “resting” might actually be a deeper way to actually relax and be open, and I’m not allowing myself to do that.
Those are some thoughts, but it’s hard for me to fully understand. I had this fear that maybe I was just sick of this whole practice. I don’t know if you’ve ever felt that way. It’s like you love something, and then you force yourself to be with it so much that you want to reject it. I don’t feel that way so much now after the retreat, but at the time it was confusing. Again, my sense is it probably had to do with a form of pushing in my practice. But still curious what your experience has been with that.
I’d also love to hear more about your experience doing solo sesshins at the monastery.
Oh final thought – my energy was going wild by the end. So much that I was basically doing the last part of the 8 fold brocade after every sitting period.
Hi PK:
I hear what you are saying about your process, especially the part about effort, and I think it is a big part of Dokusesshin.  I can say that just in my own process, the first time I went to Dokusesshin, I did not really know how to sit.  It was like I was practicing for someone else.  In the monastery I went to the zendo because I was supposed to.  I didn’t really like zazen. I did it because it was good for me and to of course get enlightened.  So the practice was one of real struggle.  Osesshin (weeklong retreat) was really tough for me for a couple of years.  I had real pain, resistance, etc… You name it…
So, in Dokusesshin, a big part of it is finding a way to do practice all of the time. To use the kufu (creative problem solving) to get into the practice in our own way. To have it be what we want to be doing. To have it be seamless in the way that we are practicing because we want to.  Or rather, to find a way for the practice to be exactly what we want. Not like, I’m doing this even though it sucks because it will end up doing good. But like, I am feeling this with my current existence in this moment, and my way of interacting with life is practice.  I am walking and that is an inquiry into the thing that is most important, most vital to me. I am sitting here or standing here and it is the thing itself. So no ma ma desu.  Like, I do not need to go somewhere else to practice. Practice can never leave me. I am practice. There really is nowhere to go. So dokusesshin can give us that realization that we can’t go anywhere. Our practice is right now and it can’t ever be somewhere else. If that’s walking or eating or sitting in the best posture, it really does become the thing I am doing. We have to find our own way to that.  And then we see that the struggle is really a struggle against the thing that is happening, which is practice.  We see that anything I encounter is guiding me deeper into my process. We become what we are doing and that is practice. We see that our mind and practice are the same thing. The way we relate to everything we encounter is exactly the way, the same experience, as what we do in zazen. We see that the present moment is framing us to become it all of the time. So we can’t leave practice.  This is huge!  
Of course, we mess up, but we see it as an aspect we can become better. We don’t have to be perfect. I of course still mess up.
So, it sounds like to me, if you do another dokusesshin, stop practicing. Stop trying. Stop making it happen. Maybe sit there but don’t do zazen. And what flourishes out of that? What is there before we start practicing? What is happening that is bigger, more innate than anything we are making happen? I think what you will find is that as we stop diving out, practice will blossom out of that. And then it will never leave.  And then see how that fits into practice. How they become the same thing. How there is a bigger energy there when I am not trying to make it happen… Rather, the focus I have developed through my training can then be dropped into through the present moment. And then the focus of letting it through us as it drives us deeper and deeper.  See if true sussokukan emerges out of that. It may be much more subtle at first than we had imagined. Like we were accidentally running past it with our effort.
See if the environment does not invade you if you stop.  You know how they say, the birds all start coming to you, the squirrels, etc, well, it’s a description of that environment invading us.  The present moment invading us. This is how it feels. 
You’ve done so much practice.  You have the sharp edge (shikkari) of effort and a lot of experience! I know you know most of this stuff.  I know I am telling you what you already know.  I am totally impressed with you and want to be helpful. I hope anything I said was helpful.
P.S. I might turn this into a blog post.  I won’t use names.
Also it’s got to be hard to do dokusesshin in an apartment in the City! I was impressed by your determination!
First of all, please do turn this into a blog post because I think this was really fantastic. I’m still pondering it. I’m not sure I’ve fully processed it, but feel like responding anyway.
I think the phrase that really hit me was “what is there before we start practicing?” I feel like my energy wants to go in this direction. It feels like all the effort I’ve put into practice is old news, like I already know how that works. And everything real that’s come to me through practice points to that.
It also accords with a turning point I had last fall during the October intensive, when my energy disappeared. And when I just stopped trying and opened to what this moment was, the energy came into me for no reason at all. It was the most natural, the most honest, the most right I’ve felt. Somehow I lost touch with that and I’m not sure how or why. But hearing your thoughts makes some part of me want to jump back into the retreat mode just to see.
I created a really strict schedule for the sesshin and I wonder if it would be smart next time to try to honestly follow my instincts instead of a strict schedule. Is that part of what you mean? Like, rather than scheduling x number of 40 minute sits in the afternoon, say, just sitting until I need to get up and walk, or stand, or just stop completely. Because I wonder if the schedule itself is part of this mental habit of “creating” practice. Which isn’t to say structure isn’t important, but perhaps in a dokusesshin, for me, this structure is serving the wrong purpose…
I’m sure I’ll have more thoughts on all this but thanks for all these comments. Grateful to have people to share with.
I actually wasn’t in the apartment, I was at my parents’ house! So it was pretty comfortable. I have done a dokusesshin in a city apartment though, and it’s not the best. Loud noises, little space to move, generally uninspiring surroundings…
Hope you have a good visit to see your family! And thanks again for your thoughts.
I think for the next dokusesshin, maybe say, I’m in this retreat, and everything in that retreat is the retreat.  So some structure would be good, of course, but also the feeling that it is a container to absorb into. Make it your own.  I remember one time for me on dokusesshin, I still had to go to sanzen every day, and in one sanzen the Roshi told me “You are in the samadhi of kufu”.
So how to make the whole thing this question?  I think walks or movement can be a part of it if that works for you.  For me they were helpful. Or sometimes just sitting there in a normal position, not on the floor in lotus for some of it. Find how zazen just happens.  I did that. I found that having that space to explore completely changed how I interacted with practice, and I came back from the mountain with a totally different practice.  I knew how to do zazen, finally!  LOL!  
Inspiring stuff!  Makes me remember my own process, and gets me excited to keep going. Thanks!
Hi Corey!
I think that all makes sense. I think this emphasis on making everything the retreat is helpful. I think when practice is something that extends forward in time, you end up getting lost. But when your practice becomes going straight into each moment, with no other moment left, everything opens up. This has been guiding me the last couple of days. Master Sheng Yen made an interesting comment on this as well, that it might seem like giving yourself totally to each moment seems hard, but it’s actually easy, because what you’re really doing is giving up having to think about every other moment.
There’s something about giving up to the moment where, if you can accept that, what’s left already is practice. That’s at least my understanding of what you’re talking about. Sometimes that process is very elusive though. I’m glad it’s some inspiration anyway!
Love it. Thanks so much. Honored to be working with such talented sincere people.  
*One thing to note for readers: If you are thinking of doing a solo retreat, it think it is important to find a qualified teacher to help guide you, and a Sangha with people who you resonate with. Who are not moved around by you and who understand where you are in your process. Good luck! You can do it!