The first time I attended a sesshin—a weeklong Zen meditation retreat—I spent the entire week wanting to escape. We sat on our cushions from 3:30am until 9pm; the only break from meditation was for chanting (when we’d kneel for maybe forty minutes at a stretch) and eating (again, kneeling). Sometimes, when the bell rang, I could hardly stand up. I was convinced that I wanted to leave because of the pain in my legs and in my back, but it was really the pain in my mind. It was the torture I put myself through, thinking about my legs and my girlfriend and the monk who seemed to be always watching me and my pride and my shame and my love of Zen and my disappointment in Zen and the unrelenting, searing question of Why am I here?
The second one was better, but not much better. Same for the third, and the fourth, and the fifth. I got tougher, but it never really hurt less, physically or mentally. I’d just learned to endure.
This went on for years until I found myself the leader of a Zen community in Alaska and we held our first sesshin. We called it the “midnight sesshin”—it spanned the new year, starting in one year and ending in another, and because it was Alaska, it was dark almost all day long. Outside was snow and ice and darkness, and inside, about twenty of us just sat and sat. I thought it might be my hardest sesshin yet, but it was the easiest. My legs didn’t hurt. My mind didn’t hurt. Sitting in all that dark and quiet and stillness was a pleasure.
The reason why it was so much easier—and this isn’t exactly earth-shattering—is that for the first time, I was responsible for everyone else. I was holding the container, taking care of people, making sure things went smoothly. I didn’t sit on the cushion any less; in fact, when we’d do dokusan (private interviews) in the afternoons, sometimes I didn’t stand up for three hours at a time. But my focus wasn’t on me or my legs or my experience, my success or failure. It was on the work. I was staff.
Being staff on a retreat is not an easy job. You cook and clean, you ring the bells to keep the schedule, you field complaints and offer encouragement. Many people on a retreat are experiencing it exactly the same way I did that first time—so if you’re staff, you’re guiding others through despair or seeing how they look longingly at their car out the window, planning escape. For some people, it’s just too much. Maybe they don’t leave; instead, maybe they just strain and strain until they collapse under the weight of it all. And while you hold all of these people, with their sincerity and their needs and their suffering, you also try to model the practice, sitting alongside them, saying constantly—not with your voice or even with your eyes, but with your posture—we can do this, together.
Right now, the world is on retreat. We’re at home—some of us with our families, some of us alone—and at times, the container may be feeling pretty tight. It’s easy, even natural, at a moment like this to feel trapped. Time feels different. Our usual patterns and rhythms aren’t there anymore; things have lost their clear edges. If you have a job, you’re working harder than ever to keep it, and if you’ve lost your job, you’re trying to figure out how to survive this moment—and what will happen next. We’re trying to hold it together, because what choice do we have?
My simple advice to you—and for myself, believe me—is to choose, in this moment, to be staff. If you’re at home with your family, take care of them first. Sweep the floor, make the sandwiches, and watch. Just like on a retreat, the person next to you may be suffering more than you know. They’re trying to hold it together, the same as you, and that may feel like too big a job. Watch. Listen. Show them, in all the little things, we can do this. And if you’re alone, the job is the same—reach out to others who are alone, with the mindset that you are the staff on their retreat. You’re the one they turn to. You’re available. You’re on the job.
No one signed up for this, but that doesn’t mean we can’t show up. Your name is on the staff list. It’s your turn to ring the bell.
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Zen Nova Scotia; his talks can be found on the ZNS Podcast.
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