It’s not difficult to imagine the Zen center’s main sanctuary as an old-timey classroom like the kind in Little House on the Prairie where kids of all ages sit together. At one end, where a chalkboard might have hung, sits a simple wood altar with a statue of Buddha. The school desks have been swapped for cushions, offering occupants a shift in perspective, one in which the windows on both sides look exceptionally tall and the ceiling far away. The floor seems to stretch endlessly and must be from an ancient Red Wood tree because it glows a rich rosy patina.
Today will be the longest I’ve sat in meditation at one time, though the hours will be broken up by periods of walking. What’s in store is nothing compared to the agenda of some retreats, which can go on for days but, for me, today is a challenge because I’ve never spent so much time cross-legged as I have these last couple of weeks. You wouldn’t think sitting could be so physically demanding, but doing it with nothing to lean against requires a surprising amount of strength in the muscles of your back and belly. I’ve realized this the hard way—by discovering my core is extremely achy. By the end of the first hour of the retreat, I’m eager for the part where we get up and move around the perimeter of the room in a line.
In the middle of the second hour, my spine droops and I begin to question whether I can sit upright for much longer. An older woman across from me has dragged a folding chair to her spot and I consider doing the same. The discomfort becomes so acute that I even think about getting up and leaving—just walking out the door and not looking back. Forget trying to watch my thoughts, I’m just struggling to stay seated; I’m barely holding on, inching from one painful second to the next. Then I remember a tip the Zen master told us in the meditation instruction a few days earlier. He said when your energy flags, sometimes it’s helpful to imagine a hose—a big one like the kind firefighters use—going into your stomach. He explained that this shouldn’t be too difficult if our arms are in the traditional stance with the tips of our thumb and fingers of one hand lightly touching the tips of the thumb and fingers on the other; this forms a loose circle that rests just below the belly button. He told us to picture this as a feeding tube of sorts, one that can nourish us with energy from the universe. In my moment of desperation, I try it. I imagine it like a pipe pumping fuel. I breathe in a tiny bit of strength. Slowly, I feel my spine straighten and a second wind blows into my core.
The Zen master isn’t in the sanctuary with us. He’s in a small room that shares a wall with this one, accepting his consultations. When a person returns, the next goes. In the meantime, the rest of us continue our meditations. At some point, I begin to notice a crashing noise that sounds like a two-by-four being dropped. At first I think there must be construction going on nearby. But, no, it’s perfectly silent in the space between crashes. No hammering. No buzz saw. Just, “thwack!” out of nowhere. It dawns on me that the crashing might be coming from the room where the meetings are taking place. If this is the case, I hope it is a technique reserved for the most advanced students. As people reappear, I surreptitiously study them for signs of trauma.
My turn arrives. I bow to my cushion upon standing and again to the altar as I leave the room. I enter the dark hall, where I open the meeting room’s door. The Zen master is sitting cross-legged on his cushion. I scan the area for a two-by-four but see nothing. I walk in and perform the “sandwich bow” that the abbot showed me earlier. It is comprised of two bows at the waist with a single prostration of forehead to floor in between. Although it is optional, I was told it is the traditional way of greeting a master. I am hoping this lessons the severity of my beating should one be in store.