Sesshin: A Day of Contemplation
Background: In the yearly calendar of an active Zen monastery, there is a period dedicated to intensive meditation called sesshin. During it, the monastics focus all of their energy on spiritual practice.
This extraordinary outing requires planning: identifying a suitable place, bringing a seat that will make the extended period of time dedicated to meditation possible, nourishment, and insuring that this time will beundisturbed and your absence causes no problems. (See: Ocean/Beach Meditation)
The work and practice is the same as the shorter outing for meditation. But to keep the mind and body fresh, it is best to add breaks for walking meditation and/or the yoga corpse pose.
Going On Pilgrimage
In the world’s religions, pilgrimage attracts many devotees to leave their homes and home life behind to visit an extraordinary place. Many locations are in exceptional natural setting: mountaintops, rivers, (especially river confluences), springs, and caves. Devotees go to these places, sometimes taking up to a year out of their normal life; they do so to earn good karma, please a deity through offerings and recitations, and/or absorb the spiritual powers around the pilgrimage center.
The “ultimate pilgrims” on the planet may be Tibetan Buddhists. One way to go with extreme ritualism is to prostate, body length by body length, all the way to the pilgrimage site…and back! Devotee’s doing this go from Lhasa to Mount Kailash (in western-central Tibet), prostrating this for 985 kilometers each way.
Your practice ned not be so arduous!
The beautiful and the sacred have a subtle but powerful interconnection in human experience. This is doubtless due to multiple causes: universally biochemical (mind), essentially human (E.O. Wilson’s biophilia), inflected by cosmological doctrines. This explains why once most people start going to nature to generate sparks of spirituality practice.
Parameters of the Practice
- Cultivate and extend your awareness of your immediate proximity as well as to your region’s scenic natural places.
- Consulting /guides to get your bearings and specific plan(s).
- Gather the provisions of food and drink for this pilgrimage
- Assemble spiritual supplies such as rosary, incense, fire source, text … (Hint: Make a checklist that can be re-used for other outings.)
- Do one of the favored spiritual practices, as listed in this OUTINGS section, at every notable place you visit.
- Walk around the central place to gather blessings and absorb the natural power of the site. Limit talking and listen to the place.
If the Daoists in ancient China had not mostly lived inland and among the mountains, it is nearly certain that they would have seen in the ocean and its sea shores vivid sources of inspiration. There is the relentless surging in and out of the tides as well as the endless breaking of the waves that reflect creation’s primal power, the Dao. The Ocean is likewise a vast reservoir of life in nearly countless forms, a place where humans can directly merge with nature’s fundamental life forces.
In Islamic mysticism and monistic Hinduism, the ocean is recognized as a metaphor conveying how a seeker should merge the individual soul into the divine, like a drop of water merging into the sea. The Sufi Inayat Khan works this self-ocean metaphor in a compelling and related image:
When I open my eyes to the outer world,
I feel myself as a drop in the sea;
But when I close my eyes and look within,
I see the whole universe as a bubble raised
in the ocean of my heart.
– Divine Symphony
Parameters of the Practice:
An uncrowded sandy beach with breaking waves is the best place for this practice. Find a center where sand can be moved (and altered) to suit the body’s comfort for sitting. It should be as close to the water without being subject to incoming waves. A mat or towel can be laid down to cover this contoured seat.
Lots of liquids, and sun protection (umbrella) are also essential supports for this practice.
The goal of this meditation is to end the ego-chatter of the mind, so as to allow the sensory experience of the ocean’s edge to flow freely through one’s consciousness. The sound of breaking waves can be the anchor, returned to when the mind wanders (to the sounds of birds, people, etc.). If the sound of waves is not adequate, focus on the breath also an effective anchor.
Another direct experience of nature’s power can be found by immersion in the shore waves: these are the summation of the earth’s wind and water power having formed moving swells that break upon reaching the shore.
The Full Practice is then to break up periods of sitting with intervals going into the ocean to move with the waves according to one’s capacity while staying safe in the specific conditions at the beach.
Use a timer (stick of meditation, rosary counting, mechanical device) to break up periods of sitting with periods of swimming.
Set a fixed period of time to define the beach meditation overall; committing to this period is helpful.
[Note: Body surfing takes the practice further; one can also imagine more ambitious surfing using boggie boards or surfboards. Surfers have for generations spoken about the spiritual experience of “feeling stoked” after riding a wave. This aspect of surfing is wonderful, of course, and can be deeply spiritual; but the complications of using the boards and the ego-centered allure of attachment to personal performance can also be serious distractions from the spiritual practice above.]
Zen: Outdoor Tea Ceremony
Background: In medieval Japan, drinking tea became popular in small houses that were designed to suggest a secluded mountain retreat, with a garden laid out supporting the teaching’s separation from normal social life. In silence, guests observe the tea master doing a simple preparation of powdered tea. From heating the water to putting tea in the bowl, whisking it, and presenting it (usually with a sweet), tea ceremony became a spiritual break from normal life, a time of quiet absorption in a unique moment.
Parameters of the Practice
Assemble in a backpack the basic single ingredient: powdered tea, cups, whisk (chosen), tea scoop, kettle, stove, water in container.
It can be simpler to bring a thermos of boiled water.
Some may prefer brewing teabags or leaf tea; for it a pot with interior strainer is brought instead.
The norm for the brewing and drinking tea together is to savor the company and the preparation process in silence.
Winter Spirituality: Snowshoeing and Cross-Country Skiing
The conditions of winter can deter many people from going into nature for months, avoiding the cold and inconvenience. This is a mindset that need not be accepted, as the blessings of going outdoors into the woods are also found in the winter. One can learn to dress with suitable boots, socks, jackets, and gloves to stay warm; when the snow is deep enough, one can head to the woods using cross-country skis; with heavy and deep snow, one can likewise put on snowshoes to move effectively staying on the top of the snowpack.
Many people head out into the winter for the quiet and beauty, as well as for the extraordinary physical exertion and fitness benefits. The result of such exercise in itself can be a source of pleasure through the production of endorphins and other psycho-biological processes. Using snowshoes is relatively easy to learn; basic cross country skiing can be mastered after a few hours of effort.
The extraordinary spiritual outing of winter passage on skis or snowshoes is an extension of such outings during non-winter months. It can take advantage of the warmth the body generates through these activities. After 30-40 minutes of snowshoeing or skiing, the human body will be well-heated to the core; it is this period of warmth that allows a person to sit still in a place and meditate… until the cold returns.
So snowshoeing and skiing can have a spiritual purpose: meditation without a meditation hall, face to face with nature in winter.
Parameters of the Practice
Having learned to use snowshoes and/or skis, explore the place(s) where you go, and find places that are suitable for meditation such as trail vistas, along a stream, or beside a lake.
If possible, place a log or bench to provide a seat at this site.
Go when there is snow, sit, meditate as long as heat endures.
Quiet, still sitting can result in wildlife coming close.
Don’t be put off when it is snowing or there is a blizzard: skiing out and sitting in a winter storm is an extraordinary immersion into the powers of the wild, natural outdoors.