In “The Mirror,” writer and runner Ed Brickell writes, “It’s not like I’ve never finished a sesshin before, or that my practice isn’t good. Right? I’m good at this, right?” His story, which we present as part of our Winter Retreat Series, a collection of responses to Wisdom's call for submissions on Spiritual Retreat, gives meditators of all walks—and runs—something to relate to. And, in the end, that is precisely what Brickell’s story is about—not the moment of enlightenment, but pain and doubt and finding refuge in the strength of ourselves and our fellow practitioners. If “The Mirror” doesn’t make you think, “Oh I know that feeling,” then perhaps it will make you want to. Look for the next post in the Winter Retreat Series next Wednesday, January 29 and check out our previous entry "In the Sanzen Room". Also, stay tuned for The Wisdom Blog's upcoming Spring call for submissions!
“The Mirror,” by Ed Brickell
My lower back pulsed with pain, and my legs were going numb. My head throbbed. I tried to focus on my breathing as a tiny face appeared and disappeared in the plaster folds on the wall in front of me. The monitor sounded the bell to begin yet another 25 minutes of stillness and silence.
Two more days to go, and already I wanted to go home.
I run for exercise and participated in many races for over 35 years, from 5 kilometer urban “fun runs” to 100-mile ultra marathons on forest trails that took me over 24 hours to complete. One of the reasons I identified so closely to Zen practice initially was because, like running, it was a very physical practice, focused on breathing and proper body posture. But during sesshins—extended silent meditation practice periods lasting two to three days or longer—I found that the physical aspect, and the mental discipline required to transcend its inevitable limits, could be tested to the breaking point.
A sesshin has much in common with an ultra marathon. I always feel an adrenaline rush when the bell sounds for the first sitting period on the first morning, a feeling that this will be the sesshin where my awareness remains unbroken, my attitude unfailingly positive, and my body strong. But as the bell signaling the start and end of the sitting periods drones again and again, and the blank wall in front of me warps and wavers, and pain and stiffness steal over me like the shadows lengthening on my mat as the day inches forward, I realize no choirs of angels are going to descend from heaven. It is long, it is often boring to the point of despair, and it hurts.
As with an ultra marathon, it takes more than my body to finish a sesshin. I had always been able to eventually just watch my personal demons materialize and fade without following them—usually because I no longer had the energy to care where they were going—and hang on for the blessed sound of the bell ending the last sitting period on the final day.
But for the first time during a sesshin, I was seriously thinking about leaving and going home. I’m guessing most sesshin participants have similar thoughts at one point or another; elite ultra marathoner Dean Karnazes described his own occasional moments of self doubt during a race as “having a dark moment”—but this time, the dark moment had enveloped me and would not dissolve.
The throbbing numbness in my legs and back, coupled with the intense feeling of what I can only describe as the oppressiveness of nothing, had reached a point of no return. It was growing darker, literally and figuratively, and I felt as if I had drifted into a vacant place, a no-man’s land of suffering without relief or distraction. At the end of the next sitting period, I resolved—adding guilt to the dark emotions already swirling inside me—to quietly slip out of the zendo, get in my car and go home, back to the familiar comforts of my wife, music, books and bed.
There will be other sesshins, I thought as I rose, stiff and hurting, from my mat as the bell sounded for us to stand for kinhin, or walking meditation. I’m just too tired and sore this time. It’s not like I’ve never finished a sesshin before, or that my practice isn’t good. Right? I’m good at this, right? My ego sought reassurance, reinforcement, but all it found was exhaustion and a nagging sense of shame. Yet I had made my decision, and I was too tired to change it. In less than sixty seconds, I would reach the exit to the meditation hall, slip out the door, and head for home.
The day had turned into evening, and I stepped slowly with the others in a big, dimly lit circle as we began kinhin. The heavy dark grain in the wood floor, worn uneven from years of shuffling feet, seemed to faintly vibrate in shifting psychedelic patterns. As I turned the corner nearest the door and began to prepare for the bow that would precede my exit, a face looked up at me from the floor.
I barely had time to do a double-take as we continued our shuffle: someone else was in enough discomfort or pain that he couldn’t walk in kinhin, or even sit upright. And yet there he was, lying on the floor on a makeshift pallet of meditation cushions as we continued shuffling past. Later I learned he had been suffering from severe back spasms. But I continued in kinhin because I had to see him again: looking up at some point past all of us, body still as a stone, face relaxed and focused.
In that brief moment I was reminded of a moment in my first ultra marathon, a 50 mile trail race held in the cold, rain, and mud. Using all of the strength I had, I trudged up a slippery embankment and finally stood on its narrow crest, wavering. On the edge of a flat, featureless plain, I stared up into a vast and
indifferent gray heaven, like an insect pinned feebly squirming against a giant blank specimen board. There was no me, there was nothing but my pain. And because there was nothing but my pain, I saw it clearly for the first time.
Making it to the next race aid station, I looked into the faces of some of the other runners huddled and shivering under a dripping tarp, and for the first time that day, I realized they shared the same pain I felt. It was mirrored in our eyes, reflected from one to the next under the enormous sky. Strengthened by this realization, I felt oddly at peace, and was able to finish the race.
I felt the same when I saw the face staring up at me from the meditation room floor, and realized it wasn’t just his face. It was my own face, all of our faces. When I circled past the door again at the end of kinhin, I did not leave. The bell rang for us to return to our mats and I sat down on my cushion yet again, knees and back aching intensely, to continue the sesshin with all of the others, all of us breathing, sighing, hurting together.
Ed Brickell is a runner and Zen Buddhist. He’s been running for over 30 years, and practicing Zen for eight. A few of his short essays on the crossroads of Zen and running have appeared in Tricycle, Shambhala Sunspace, and Buddhist Geeks. Readers can find his “running and Zen practice journal” at his website, runwithmu.com.