I’m reading Eat Sleep Sit: My Year at Japan’s Most Rigorous Zen Temple.* I’d been describing my own retreat as “rigorous,” but now, that seems like a laughable description considering what the Eiheiji monks endure for their training which includes frequent verbal assaults and beatings, poor nutrition (trainees suffer from beriberi symptoms) and sleep deprivation (in bed at 22:00, up by 01:30. Yes, 1:30 AM.) Every mundane daily task from eating to shitting to sleeping requires a strict adherence to instructions written by the Zen monk, Dogen. All these symbolic but also kind of arbitrary rules reminded me of orthodox Judaism or Islam. Except more hardcore. Because a zen monk isn’t doing this for god, or a better afterlife. Nor do senior monks entice trainees with the promise of any kind of spiritual deepening.

I think people have this idea about zen meditation that’s relaxing and I’ve had more than one person express misgivings to me about meditation practice because they’re concerned they’ll lose their edge and become too sensitive. Truth be told, I’ve had those misgivings myself. Concerns about losing my mental sharpness and my rapid fire reactiveness in emergency situations which have served me very well (as well as undermining me when I did not size up the situation accurately) in the past. I remember eating at a vegetarian restaurant run by students of an Indian guru and thinking that they all seemed lobotomized. Way too calm and slow to run a restaurant. My spacey waitress forgot the water. Three times.

My training is nowhere near as severe as what goes down in Eiheiji, but relaxing is really a poor description of the endeavour. Fears of replacing my structured thinking mind with a soft tofu mind have proven to be unfounded. I can stay present in all kinds of conflict now that before would have reduced me to tears. I am more ok with not understanding something, being in the unknown, not needing to pin something down and trusting, surrendering to profound processes that evade my comprehension. If anything, I think zen’s made me a bit more hardcore.

* The title, by the way, is not a riff off of Eat Pray Love; it’s a very close translation of its original Japanese title which is Ku Neru Suwaru: Eiheiji Shugyoki (the first three words are the infinitive forms of verbs and the last two are the name of the temple). Ku Neru Suwara was published in 1996.

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