Nick sent this heartfelt note after October 2009 sesshin! A few words in parenthesis were added for more continuity or clarity.
At the end of this last sesshin, someone passingly said to me "You know sometimes I just wonder, what am I doing here?" I must acknowledge that this thought occurs to me from time to time...even now after many years of practice.
Excerpt: "Everyone around me seemed so still, balanced, deeply concentrated and full of compassion, and I was just screaming inside my head, trying to survive. I felt unworthy because I didn't feel grateful when we were eating food. I felt like a bad person for not being able to bow wholeheartedly. I felt bad for not being able to sit for the entire half hour without moving, and disturbing others. I felt bad for not working like everyone else after lunch and dinner because I was so tired. Everything just seemed to point out my flaws. I really started to resent being there. I couldn't help but think .. "what am I doing here?" ."
I think there are several reasons why one can feel this way, and it's very important to explore the root of these thoughts. I've come up with a few reasons that apply to me, and perhaps some of these thoughts which might be of use to others who have had a similar experience.
I remember going to my first sesshin. Back in those days, nobody told you the rules on the first night as they do now. Everything was a shock to the system. Well, it still is even though you know the rules! By the second or third day, I think I had pretty much lost all sense of propriety. I felt so different than the person I thought I was supposed to be. Everyone around me seemed so still, balanced, deeply concentrated and full of compassion, and I was just screaming inside my head, trying to survive. I felt unworthy because I didn't feel grateful when we were eating food. I felt like a bad person for not being able to bow wholeheartedly. I felt bad for not being able to sit for the entire half hour without moving, and disturbing others. I felt bad for not working like everyone else after lunch and dinner because I was so tired. Everything just seemed to point out my flaws. I really started to resent being there. I couldn't help but think .. "what am I doing here?"
It's interesting that when things don't go our way, we tend to be attracted to the opposite extreme. During that sesshin, I saw zen as something very painful and even evil, and couldn't wait to re-enter the world where I could finally be myself. This is like a crisis of identity, which is bound to happen I think at some point in our practice. It's very easy because the environment is so different at sesshin, and you really cannot help but feel inadequate. Another scenario which is just as likely is to assimilate and act the part, but not be free inside. This too will cause resentment toward practice. These are just 2 sides of the same coin. It is important not to confuse zen with being compassionate, sitting without moving, helping during lunch and dinner etc. These are very important qualities. But they are just the visible qualities of a zen mind. Now I increasingly think/believe that the real zen is inside us, and nobody can take it away! Even if one feels one is being rude, it is still there! So, one should not be discouraged if one cannot live up to the expectations [that one sets up from oneself by looking at others]. If one can be compassionate and let go of the idea that "compassion means I'm good," then that is of different quality all together. That is a free mind which is not obstructed by ideas of good and bad. It is the difference between zen and the idea of zen, which is why we probably say "if there is even a trace of this and that, of right and wrong, the mind essence will be lost in confusion." But until then, I'll try to be free to be myself and [try to] let go of expectations.
Ghosts from the past
I remember the first time I came in for a sesshin. Reciting one of the afternoon sutras truly scared me and almost sent me wanting to run home! I came from a background [Hindu-Indian] where my family didn't take time to explain the reason behind their rituals and religious customs. It was always "do this" and "do that" and the tone was always condemnatory [frowning and demanding tone which made you do things out of no joy or gratitude, but instead just out of plain compulsion, "blind faith" and fear of not accepted by society] . Nobody ever bothered to explain why we needed to do the things we were doing. Eventually, I came to equate "the path of worship [ religion and rituals]" with "the path to run away from." So imagine my surprise when I was sitting there on the cushion during sesshin , ready to embark on the great path to self understanding, and we end up reciting verses like ".. and finally we pray that when the time comes for us to die, we may have a minimum amount of sickness and suffering. After our bodies are lifeless and have been thrown away, we pray that we may be accepted in the Buddha realm where we will see countless Buddha beings whose teachings are one with the buddha dharma." It may be hard to spot, but there is a strong element of worship [ faith that Buddha realm exists? whom are we praying to?] in that verse. I couldn't help but cringe when I read this out loud. Every part of my mind and body just wanted to get up and leave. I felt so betrayed, and I couldn't figure out why. It was like this new experience which was supposed to be my salvation just ended up being the same old thing in disguise. I couldn't help but wonder, "what am I doing here"?
When this happens, one has to stop and ask yourself - is it zen that I am running away from, or an experience from the past which is causing me to misinterpret what is happening right now? This is actually what this practice is all about; this is what it probably means to have karma. Because of our life experiences, we have a tendency to see things in a prejudiced way, which is very different from the way things really are. This is what it means when we say "the moment" in zen - it is a reality which is unobstructed by past experience. It takes time because everything you have learned goes against it. I don't think we should ourselves for where one is now. This is the only place where one can be. This path has not been totally easy, but it has become my closest friend. This is true because in its simplest form, what are you really doing? You are just sitting there on a cushion with yourself! The only thing which can haunt you is what is already there within you. So it is not the practice [or elements of practice like sutras] which is the problem! Kurt always says to have faith in your true self. This itself takes a lot of time. But [I am beginning to feel] that true self is really there.
Over time, I have to come to gain a deeper understanding of why we have this element of worship in our practice. Many times, it seems quite natural now. It is simply an expression of gratitude for this moment. Nothing more, nothing less. But it takes time for that to sink in.
So, I hope this helps the person who was wondering about "what am I doing here?".