I’m writing this blog one day after returning from my 4 th Zenways ‘Breakthrough to Zen’ retreat with Zen Master Daizan (see www.zenways.org for more info about this work).
My main motivation for writing this is because I believe many more people could benefit from doing this sort of spiritual
work, perhaps even you.
Having said that, there is a word of warning: this is not likely to be a typical easy-going, relaxing, blissed out retreat experience. There may be some truly incredible and blissful moments, but that’s not the main focus. Instead, the whole process is geared towards making a breakthough, a shift in
perspective often referred to as awakening or enlightenment.
I don’t like the term enlightenment much because it carries an idea of a far-removed perfect unattainable ideal which doesn’t seem to actually be the case. However, it is the term which is often used, and one which gives us an idea of where we are going. In many ways, I think it was the somewhat audacious-sounding possibility that enlightenment might exist and actually be available to us humans, perhaps even to me, that drew me to these retreats in the first place.
From my own experiences across 4 retreats, I can say that shifts in awareness definitely do occur, but not in ways I could ever possibly expect at the outset. In my first couple of retreats, I did not find what I was searching for, but I saw many other people get it, right there in front of my eyes, and I did benefit in many other ways, letting go of a whole ton of things which were holding me back.
On my first retreat, at a very deep level, I saw that my feelings of general inadequacy, of not being good enough because I was somehow defective or faulty were simply not true. It’s hard to describe in words how liberating this was. Floods of tears poured down my face. On an intellectual level it made perfect sense, but feeling this from the core of my being was quite another thing altogether. On breakfast of the final day of the 64-hour retreat, this deep understanding suddenly came to me, seemingly completely out of the blue. I had been searching for enlightenment, but found this instead, and I wanted find out more.
On the second retreat, I learnt to look after myself more, grow my self-confidence, reside more happily in the present moment, let energy flow through me, and find my voice, but still I didn’t make the breakthrough I was searching for. Nevertheless, I had the inkling that it might just be around the
Finally, on my third retreat after searching and searching, I saw that it was shame holding me back. I learnt to let go of this too, and then, after seeing so many others do it, I was able to make my first real breakthrough. I cannot actually say anything about it which does it justice, and nor do I want to.
Giving other searchers pre-conceived ideas of what they might find, would probably hinder them more than help them get there. Daizan describes it as ‘a happiness which nobody can give you and nobody can take away from you.’ Whatever you find, it will be yours, and yours alone, and the less
expectations you have about it, the better.
Returning to do my 4 th retreat just now, I can also say that expecting further breakthroughs to be like my previous one did not help me either. Instead, I had to let go of my previous experience, or at least, hold it less tightly, so I could be open enough for further shifts to occur. I also thought it would
be much easier this time, and it certainly was not.
Each retreat, to make progress, I have had to go through a lot of pain – something akin to walking through the valley of the shadow of death – and this is a deeply uncomfortable walk to take. Facing up to the darker sides of our lives seems to be the only way we can push beyond them, and in fact
find liberation from them.
The retreat format is all geared towards this, so if you are not yet ready to look into the darker depths of your being, then something a bit gentler might be a better option. But if you are ready to at least make a go of it, you will find incredible support from Daizan, his assistants and the other
retreat attendees, to help carry you through to the other side.
In this final retreat, at times I was in complete and utter agony, seeing no way out, no escape. Sometimes this materialised as a physical pain, like being ripped apart, limb from limb. An element of this destruction seems necessary, to create the space for the new insights to find their way in. When I found my way through this pain, there was immense joy and relief, as well as an incredibly liberating sensation of entering into a deep communion with those around me, those who had been
present through my pain, and sat with me. The experience was deeply personal, but also somehow shared. The ecstasy that followed was like bathing and swimming in pure consciousness, frolicking incthe beauty of it all. All pain was gone, and a new dawn had arrived.
The garden had been cleared of its weeds, so new flowers could blossom and grow.
I’m sure the weeds will come back again, and there will be further gardening work to go, but somehow I see the weeds differently now. It’s like they’re no longer my enemies to be scared of, but instead they might be my friends, showing me the path forwards to find something, something which I do not yet know.