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The Mystery of Staying Put: Reflections on Sesshin at Home by Anusha Enryu Fernando


Every January, I have a ritual of sitting down with my calendar and selecting which sesshins at Great Vow to attend for the year.  Over time, I have noticed that sesshin-practice has moved from being something peripheral to the central activity from which my life flows. This precious time, free from responsibilities and identification, has become a powerful way of refreshing myself. In order to engage my life fully, it seems necessary to prioritize these periods of letting go. This involves leaving home, being unavailable, and turning off my computer. Taking a long journey away from home connects me to all those people, throughout time, that left home in order to deepen their spiritual life. As I travel from Canada to the US, crossing the border, I feel like a pilgrim on an epic adventure, far from what is familiar, voyaging into the unknown.

At first glance, an on-line sesshin seemed to meet none of the requirements for my usual sesshin experience.  I would not be leaving home, so I would still have my daily life and responsibilities to deal with.  I would be connecting with Great Vow through a computer, something I usually turn off when I meditate.  I would be relating to my teacher through a screen, which seemed to be the exact opposite of the visceral intimacy of Sanzen. And, the wonderful breathing bodies that support my practice would just be pixels on a computer screen.

So, why did I decide to participate? 


I found it moving that the residential community and teachers at Great Vow cared enough about the larger sangha to try to reach out and support us during these anxious times.  I have been practicing alone for many years, so all the new opportunities to stay connected felt novel and heartwarming.  Having struggled with isolation in my own practice, I could see the benefit of continuous support.  I also realized that I may not be able to visit Great Vow for a long time. Maybe, it would be inspiring to see the Zendo and sangha, even virtually.  Moreover, the necessary renunciation of the pandemic had already simplified my life. I was enjoying some time to reflect upon what was really necessary.  It felt like this unusual sesshin may provide an opportunity to support the streams of creativity and attention that were already flowing in my life.  And, I had a feeling that this sesshin would be interestingly different, with the emphasis not on letting things go, but on making things vivid.  Although there would be a schedule, my attitude towards it would have to be flexible in order to be available and present at home.

As it turned out, I was able to align my schedule to the Monastery schedule. So, I benefited from hearing the bells played in the Zendo, the beautiful chanting voices, and the guidance of the teachers. I found that my practice associations with Great Vow were so strong that when I closed my eyes and listened to the sounds of the Zendo, I felt transported there.  It was a surprisingly intimate experience. Sometimes, the birds chirping in the Zendo seemed more vivid than the ones outside my own window. In order to not indulge in memory, it felt necessary to turn the computer off at times. My intention was to use the sesshin to inspire my home practice. I did not want to feel like I needed to tune into Zoom in order to sit deeply or feel complete.

There were many powerful situations that arose during my home sesshin. On one occasion, I was seated on my cushion, eagerly anticipating Hogen’s dharma talk, when I heard a disagreement breaking out in the next room.  Despite wanting to stay seated, it felt important to take my listening ears from Hogen to the disagreement.  It felt like walking into the room, having participated in formal sitting and wearing my Rakusu, had a positive impact on the situation. On another occasion, I was excited about joining the monastic community for their all-night sit.  My plans were foiled when my dog’s stomach became upset; I did stay up all night, but not in the way I had  planned.  It was interesting to note that there was less irritation in my mind. When lonely people in my life would reach out for support during the week, I would often have to make the decision, “do I talk to them now, or phone them back after this sitting period?” It allowed me to look at the balance between committing to a formal schedule and being open to the unscheduled needs of life.  And, on the very first day, when I overslept my alarm, I got to see a person strongly attached to making it to sesshin on time. Why did this matter so much?  Couldn’t I feel compassion for my sleepy self?

I was most moved by feelings of appreciation for the vast sangha that was supporting me.  I was surrounded by all the residents at Great Vow, holding the form so diligently and putting up with projector noise so I could feel included; and the strangers in boxes on my computer screen, who quickly became comforting friends ready to touch hearts in the group meetings. And, there was my home-sangha, the beings who give me reasons to practice in the first place.

And, when the sesshin ended, I did not feel the usual disorientation that occurs when you return home from being so far away and have to pick up your life again.  Doing Home-Sesshin provided a great opportunity to make vivid all the mystery and energy that comes from just staying put.

“After twenty year of walking right past it on my way to chores in the meadow, I actually paid attention to a certain gnarly canyon live oak one day. Or maybe it was ready to show itself to me. I felt its oldness, suchness, inwardness, oakness, as if it were my own.  Such intimacy makes you totally at home in life and in yourself. But the years spent working around the oak in that meadows and not really noticing it were not wasted. Knowing names and habits, cutting some brush here, getting firewood there, watching for when the fall mushrooms bulge out are skills that are themselves delightful and essential. And they also prepare one for suddenly meeting the oak.”

Gary Snyder-excerpted from the essay, Kitkitdizze: A Node in the Net