My First Zen Retreat: Asleep at the Wheel

“Then Jesus cometh with them to a plot of land called Gethsemane; and he saith to his disciples, ‘Sit ye here, whilst I go yonder to pray’…and he cometh unto the disciples and findeth them asleep, and he saith to Peter, ‘Could ye not then watch one hour with me? Watch ye and pray, lest ye enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.’”
St Matthew 26: 36-41

Well, I couldn’t even watch for five minutes, let alone one hour. The whole four and a half days were a battle with sleepiness and torpor, like an endless car journey trying to keep from falling asleep at the wheel. Over the period of the retreat we meditated for over forty hours, and for a mere 20 minutes of this did I experience any clarity. The rest was a struggle to stay awake.
Anyone who has tried to stay awake late in the evening so as not to miss their stop on a bus or train, or to avoid careering off the road will know what an exquisite form of torture that is. Every fibre of your being just wants to slip away to bobo-land, and mustering up the resolve to stay awake is an agony.
At one stage I decided to count my pulse for one minute to entertain myself. I made five separate attempts, but never even got as far as fifteen seconds, before slipping into unconsciousness. (My pulse was running at about 48 beats a minutes, as I estimated later.)
It seems my mind didn’t like the utter boredom of just sitting there for hour after hour, with me trying in vain to make it stay attentive to my breath or the feeling of my body sitting there.
And during the brief intervals that I wasn’t assailed by stupor, it raced and ruminated over nonsense. For example: on one day I took a second helping of food at the meal before being granted permission to do so by the teacher. The cook took me to one side and gently pointed out my error. Well I got 72 hours out of that one. Was she getting at me? Had she singled me out? I was going to have to keep an eye out to see if she picked on me again. And then the self-justification: I hadn’t done it maliciously. How was I to know the rules? What did the teacher think of my transgression? Were they talking about me in whispers? And of course, because the retreat was silent, I couldn’t run it by my roommate at night. So I had to keep it to myself, and fester and ruminate and project all sorts of motivations onto the hapless cook who was only putting me right.
So the whole time was an alternation between sleepiness and pointless loops of negative thinking.

I had come to the retreat with high ambitions. Nothing less than full enlightenment was going to do. I had no idea what that might have been, but I knew I’d recognise it if it happened- there would be an amazing overwhelming realisation that this was ‘it’ and that all my problems and worries would be swept away at a stroke. That sort of thing.
So I was setting myself up for disappointment. I’d heard of a guy, Kenneth Madden (there’s an interesting interview with him on, who had ‘awakened’ after three days at a Buddhist retreat, and I wanted some of that.
So as the retreat came towards an end, and the fog of sleepiness still hadn’t lifted, I began to see the enterprise as an utter failure. Which of course it was, by my own expectations. And then I remembered something I had read in Hubert Benoit’s The Supreme Doctrine (probably the Carlsberg of books on Zen). Of course I didn’t remember the quotation, but I had grasped the gist of it. Indeed in reading it again in the light of my experience I understand it more fully:

‘Self-observation reveals that I am instinctively striving to succeed all the time; that, whether my actions are egotistical (winning, enjoying, gaining admiration, etc) or altruistic (supporting someone else, becoming ‘better’, eradicating my ‘faults’ etc), there is this continual instinctive struggle to achieve a ‘good’ outcome, striving towards some ‘higher’ objective. I am continually agitated by ‘upward’-striving tensions, like a bird beating its wings without pause in order to climb, or to prevent the wind from forcing it to the ground. I behave as though my ‘hopes’ were valid, as though the true good I really need (Realization, satori) might be found by fulfilling them. But the opposite is true; my hopes are deceptive and are part of an infernal circle in which I struggle uselessly and exhaust myself. All my efforts to lift myself up are just ignorant acts of resistance against the joyful, spontaneous transformation which my Principle is always ready to bring about. Perfect Bliss is not waiting for me on high; it is down below. It is not waiting for me in any seeming triumph: it lies in what at present looks like disaster. Perfect joy is waiting for me in the total annihilation of all my hopes.’

The Light Of Zen in the West: Incorporating The Supreme Doctrine
By Hubert Benoit. Translated by Dr Graham Rooth; pp108-110.

He goes on to point out that we shouldn’t try to engineer disaster to liberate ourselves, as that would be as manipulative as striving for success.

Rather, it is in understanding that success has never freed me in the past, and that each failure, each humiliation, if properly understood, moves me one step closer to letting go of my life.

In any case, once I realised that my so-called ‘failure’ to meditate properly had just rid me of one more cherished illusion, I relaxed a bit into my life as it was just then.

And in the meanwhile, the experienced meditators were just sitting there, watching the river flow.