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Zen Almost Killed Me – Randall Jay Sokoloff – Medium

“You know what you are in for right?”

He was my cabin mate. A seventy-something-year-old banker, with wide eyes, from San Diego. I could tell he asked me this question in a concerned way after I told him this was my first time at the Mount Baldy Zen Center.

“No, not really,” I said.

“Think of this more like boot camp,” he said.

“Oh great,” I thought.

“I have been practicing Zen for almost twenty years and I no longer have hallucinations,” he told me.

“What do you mean by hallucinations?”

“Hallucinations are being lost in thoughts about anything that is not occurring now. Most people spend their entire lives hallucinating. This no longer happens to me as a result of Zen practice.”

“I see. That is impressive,” I said.

I immediately knew what I wanted to achieve from my rigorous weekend on the mountain.

This past weekend I was on a Zen meditation retreat at the Mount Baldy Zen Center. It is the same center that Leonard Cohen trained at. I wanted to sit in the same meditation hall and walk down the same pathways as Leonard once did. Little did I know that my experience would not be at all romantic like this. In one of Leonard Cohen’s poems he talks about the baldness of Mount Baldy. I never understood why Mount Baldy was called Mount Baldy until I was standing broken and beaten down, staring at the mountainside. In that moment I noticed the absence of grass on the mountain.

The retreat was from Friday morning until Sunday afternoon. It was a silent retreat so I would not be talking. I am not a big fan of talking so I was fine with this. Buddhist monks gave Dharma talks and some instructions were given but beyond this there was not much talking. All kinds of people attended the retreat. A young CEO from the Headspace app. A professional fashion photographer. An ex navy seal. All of them were very impressive meditators. I had no idea what I was in for. My closest experience of boot camp was graduate school. And graduate school was a luxury compared with this.

The first day of the retreat was one of the hottest on record for Mount Baldy. Everything was hot. The rocks, the dirt, the trees, the bunkbeds, the eating utensils, the gravel, the door handles, my black baggy pants- all hot. The cabin I was staying in with four other Zen victims was a sweltering sauna all day and night long. I would not sleep my first night on the mountain, even though I was exhausted.

We were all given some instruction, fitted in the traditional Zen attire and then the practice began. The zendo at the Mount Baldy Zen Center is beautiful. It looks like a traditional Japanese meditational hall. All the meditation cushions aligned along the wood walls. The wood floor and high ceilings. The smell of cedar and sandalwood. If it were not for the bald mountain, trees and the dead boring boulders outside the window, I would have thought I was in Japan.

The meditation bell wrung, we all assumed the traditional Zen meditation posture and the weekend retreat officially began. The meditation sessions generally consisted of twenty-five minutes of sitting meditation and fifteen minutes of rigorous walking meditation. These sessions would last for two and three hours depending on the time of day. Friday there was a total of five hours of meditation. Saturday there was a total of ten hours of meditation. And Sunday there was five hours of meditation. I know because I was feeling every minute of it.

Meals were eaten in silence. Just about everything was done in silence. You were given three plastic bowls, a cloth napkin, a white dishrag, a spoon and chop sticks. These were the eating tools you would use for the weekend. You cleaned your own bowls and utensils with water, fingers and the white dish rag provided. The bowls and utensils had to be in alignment while eating. They had to be kept in a certain order. Everything in Zen is structured to bring a person back from being lost in thought. Zen knows that we are always slipping away from the present moment. Constantly lost in thought. This is why there is so much bowing, structure, form and organization in Zen. All these things serve the fundamental purpose of continually bringing us back into the present moment.

We woke up at 5:45am each morning and started meditating at 6am. A traditional tea ceremony was done and then the days meditation began. By mid-morning Saturday, I was in hell. In one of the Buddhist monk’s Dharma talks he spoke about the six realms in Buddhism. These six realms represent states of mind. On one side is the hell realm and on the other side is the heaven realm. When we are thinking about our upcoming vacation we maybe in the heaven realm. When we are thinking about how much we do not like our work or our partner, we are in the hell realm. Technically people oscillate back and forth between these realms throughout their day. That Saturday, I seemed to be going deeper and deeper into the hell realm.

Normally we live with so many distractions. When we remove these distractions and just sit with ourselves, everything comes up. This is why meditation is often seen as a form of depth psychology. All that we distract ourselves from feeling and thinking arises when we remove distractions. It all came up for me. Underneath all these surfacing feelings and thoughts was the immense physical pain that I was experiencing (a result of having to hold the meditation posture for so long). The pain was so bad at times I became worried I was doing permanent damage to my body. But when I painfully and slowly got up to do the walking meditation, the pain would gradually decrease. Everything passes, even the most horrible pain.

There I was on Mount Baldy, hot and in immense pain. I was pissed off that I was being tortured like this. “What is the point of this?” I kept thinking. I could feel my body working harder than it should. This did not seem right. By the time the meditation bell sounded on Saturday afternoon and we were told to go to the dinning hall for lunch, I was angry at everything. All my years and years of repressed anger seemed to be coming up. I ate my lunch in a kind of pissed off silence and when I returned to my cabin all of my cabin mates were sprawled out on their beds trying to recover from the mornings brutal meditation session. “To hell with this, I am not doing this anymore,” I thought to myself. I silently packed my bags and left.

But I did not leave. I almost left. As I put my stuff in my car I told myself to stay. I wanted to prove to myself that I could get through something this hard. If it killed me, so be it. We all have to die sometime. I left most of my stuff in my car just in case I changed my mind in the middle of another brutally hot night and went back for more. The torture continued.

There was a period where you could meet privately with the head Buddhist monk. While we all meditated in the zendo, one by one a person would leave the meditation hall and go meet with the Buddhist monk. When it was my turn I felt tremendous wave of relief move through me. I could get out of the tormenting meditation posture for a bit.

The Buddhist monk was a white guy from Venice Beach. He was the real thing. Dressed in flowing black linen gowns, he had a tremendous quality of presence, stillness and awareness to him. When I sat down in front of him, I could feel his presence filling the room. I told him that I was being tortured. That this was a horrible experience for me and I was considering getting in my car and leaving. He said, “Welcome to Zen!” We both laughed. Then on a more serious note he began to break things down for me. He told me that he appreciated my honesty and understood what I was going through. He had been there once himself and even gets back there from time to time. He told me that being stuck in the hell realm was a normal part of the practice. “We all go through it. Everyone in that zendo is experiencing it to some degree,” he said. “We are learning how to work with it so we can suffer less.”

The gist of what he told me was that it comes down to cultivating the trunk. Just like a tree has a trunk which keeps it stabilized in a storm, we have a trunk that often remains uncultivated. Zen is about cultivating our trunk so that storms do not blow us away. We deepen our trunk with the breath. Over time, our trunk grows deeper and deeper. “Your trunk is that place where your heart and mind can find rest and that place is your home,” he said. I felt tears in my eyes when he said this to me. Something deep within me knew this to be true. The place where the mind and heart can find rest, this is home. At that moment something turned in me. I got a second wind. I thanked him, bowed with deep gratitude and a renewed sense of purpose. I wanted to find my home.

For the remainder of the meditation retreat I was no longer in the hell realm nearly as much. Things were still incredibly difficult but the more I worked on deepening my trunk, the more and more my mind and heart were able to rest. That night, I slept.

When the meditation retreat ended I was limping, aching and every turn of my neck and spine hurt. I was wounded but survived something I did not think I could. I shook some hands and introduced myself to people I had already gotten to know through the silence. We all seemed to share a mutual respect and appreciation for one another for accomplishing something we all knew was difficult. A few people left the retreat early. Like myself, Zen was not like what they thought it would be. At around 2pm Sunday afternoon I got in my car and drove down the bald mountain.

In his fifties, Leonard Cohen studied and practiced at the Mount Baldy Zen Center for years. Now, I have a newfound feeling of respect for him. I don’t know how he did it for years. I barley survived a weekend but with practice I presume the rigorousness of Zen becomes more familiar and easier. In my mind now, Leonard Cohen is more than a musician, artist, poet and writer. He is an athlete. Zen is a very rigorous sport. Especially at the higher levels. Those Zen monks you see walking around, they are serious athletes.

I once heard Leonard Cohen say in an interview that he would come home from the Mount Baldy Zen Center and spend days in bed just watching television. I now knew what he meant. I came home from the retreat and did not get out of my bed till late morning the next day. Even as I sit here at my computer writing this, I can still feel the pain and the aches. But I can also feel the transformation that occurred. Not large. Just a seedling now. I know that I can handle immense pain. That the pain will not kill me. I can let the pain be here, just like I can let all the other difficulties of living be here, and get on with the work of returning home by deepening my trunk. Meditation practice is slow medicine, but when I practice this kind of deepening, I notice the hallucinations disappear.


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