Megan Rundel describes our Great Autumn Retreat
CityZen Retreat
A group of us are just back from sesshin, a traditional Zen retreat. In case you've ever wondered what sesshin is like, I thought I'd share some pictures, descriptions, and vignettes from this recent retreat.

This sesshin lasted for five days and nights, and was held in the forest-fringed hills of western Sonoma County, at Lydia House, St. Dorothy's Rest, a lovely old retreat center perched at the crest of a bluff. Our sesshins are held in conjunction with CityZen of Santa Rosa, a sister group lead by Rachel Mansfield-Howlett, Roshi. At St. Dot's we had a zendo overlooking the golden hills, a great room with a roaring fire in the mornings and evenings, a big kitchen, simple but comfortable lodging, plus miles of trails for wandering during breaks. It's a beautiful and serene setting, and a place some of us have been coming back to for decades. Not to mention a welcoming and mature group of practitioners.

Sesshin is a very structured environment; almost every minute is accounted for. People often think this sounds hard, but it's actually incredibly liberating; you don't need to make many decisions about how to spend your time, and you are completely free to focus on what is happening right now. We keep silence, which means no chatting, no social greetings, though we do talk as needed to do jobs, ask questions, or to speak with the teacher about our practice. Here's a walk through the typical sesshin day.

We rise at 4:30 am, and are seated in the zendo (meditation hall) by 5 for tea. Early morning meditation may be my favorite time. We begin with only candle light, and watch as the dawn slowly breaks over the hills. It feels really silent and still and dreamy. We always alternate rounds of seated meditation with periods of walking meditation, to stretch our bodies and keep the energy moving. By the time breakfast is served at 7, magenta clouds are streaked across the sky. All our meals are in silence, which offers an opportunity to really savor the food. After each meal,there is a break, during which we may nap, shower, walk, write, paint, or do work practice.

A word about the food! We are fortunate to have a wonderful tenzo (head cook) Vikki Kath, who sources fresh local produce to provide delicious vegetarian meals. No sacrifice, no macrobiotics! There is plenty of great food, and yes, you can get a cup of coffee! Most of us work in the kitchen at some point during the day, helping chop veggies, cook, and clean up, Kitchen practice is a great way to extend meditation into activity, and is  a highlight of sesshin for many of us.

We gather again at 9 am, and start the mid-morning by chanting our sutra service. It's mostly in English, so quite accessible, and is a lovely way to touch into the key teachings of our Zen tradition. Our chanting and singing is accompanied by guitar and drums. It feels great to use our voices and really sing out! After the sutras, we continue to alternate sitting and walking meditation until lunch. There is also an opportunity for dokusan (individual meetings with the teacher to discuss one's practice). Most of us have dokusan once a day during sesshin.

After the lunch break (a great time for a hike!) we begin the afternoon with a dharma talk by a senior student or teacher, often followed by a conversation. Then we settle in for more meditation. Late in the afternoon we take a long outside walk together, taking our walking meditation into nature. There is more opportunity for dokusan in the afternoon as well. By the time the shadows start to get long, it's time for dinner!

In the evening, after the dinner break, we gather by a roaring fire for a dharma talk by the Roshi (senior teacher). It's a chance to get inspired about the practice, to bring questions, and to learn more about this Way. There is more meditation before our evening closing ceremony, which is a lovely mix of bells, chants, bows, and words. We are done for the day by 9 pm, and most of us are in bed shortly thereafter!

So, that's the outer form. What's the inner experience like? That's different each time, and for each person. Many people experience great silence. Sometimes old wounds come up to be healed. And sometimes people catch a piece of the light, the light of our true nature, which we already have but can feel elusive in everyday life. If you're curious, come sit with us on a Sunday night, and ask about our next sesshin in May!

Fall at CityZen

We have a number of happenings at the zendo this fall. Check out the calendar on the right to see what we're up to. You can also click on the tabs above to learn more about us.

Watercolor - Autumn Apples - RMH

Great Spring Sesshin – Lydia House – St. Dorothy's Rest

Main Altar
Kitchen Clappers
End of Day Ceremony Ritual Gear
Calligraphy practice supplies
Carrot by Brian Howlett

Freesia and mums
Lydia House kitchen

Dining Hall
The hills surrounding St. Dot's

Han – Call to meditation
Kitchen Ritual Gear

Outdoor Walking Meditation Line

Lydia House
Handmade Pasta drying

Tea Strainers
Pasta al pesto
Dust Mop Pasta bliss
(Not compost)
Tea bowl

White mum

Buddha's Birthday Garden Party May 2015

Earth, my dearest, I will.
Oh believe me, you no longer need your springtimes to win me over — one of them, ah, even one, is already too much for my blood. Unspeakably, I have belonged to you, from the first.

— Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies

Reclaiming the Fallow of the Year

adjective: fallow
(of farmland) plowed and harrowed but left unsown for a period in order to restore its fertility as part of a crop rotation or to avoid surplus production. 
uncultivated, unplowed, untilled, unplanted, unsown, unused, dormant, resting, empty, bare.

In our northern climes, before the advent of artificial sources of light, the months of winter were a long dark time. Nature too, took her rest and for our farming ancestors, there wasn’t much to do on the land. Long nights and cold days meant folks got a break from the busyness of life and entered into a more timeless time, where the stillness without, encouraged a slowing down, uncovering a stillness within. It’s the place before the formation of ideas; before an opinion or comparison arises. It's the origin of intuition, inspiration, improvisation, and creativity.

What did our ancestors do during the long winter months? Told stories, stoked the fire, made love, slept, painted, played music, cooked something hearty, and bundled up and took walks.

Modernly, the lights are always on, figuratively and literally. Some agree that we have lost something important to our well-being when we convert all of our time to the activities of the light.

Practices for the Dark of the Year

Slowing down.
Doing a single task with all of your attention gives you a needed break from the jar of constant distraction. Doing a thing, wholly, brings its own kind of joy and you can learn to rest again in the gentle peace of everyday things. When you’re sitting with a friend, give them your full attention. If you are walking, just walk. If you are sautéing onions, notice their color and smell as they cook, the rhythm of the spoon in your hand.

Give yourself time to do nothing.
This winter sit in candlelight, stare into a fire, go outside and watch the moon and stars, listen to the rain falling, sit by the ocean and watch the waves roll in and out, sit on a bench and watch birds and passersby, sit by a lake or a river and notice the insects and trees.

Put down your electronic devices.
Of course. Of course! A couple hours before bedtime, or for a period of time early in the morning as you are waking, put away your devices and the sounds they make to alert you of emails and phone calls.

Sweet sleep restores our bodies and allows the mind to rest, to dream, to let the intelligence of all things find its way into our consciousness.
Anywhere. A short nip out, or a long walkabout, it’s what our bodies are meant to do. It reminds us of the true pace of life and shows us the aliveness of the world.

Make Love.
No explanation necessary, right?
Be quiet and listen. Notice when judgments and opinions arise, when you are comparing yourself to others or complaining about unimportant things. Then, just return to the place where you are standing and keep listening.

Cook simple meals and share them together.
Find a local farm, bakery or supplier and and gather some things that look good to you. Learn to cook a few seasonal meals that you will enjoy making. The simpler, the better.

Notice what has already been given to you.

You are given this life as a human being, each of your senses, this fine body, the moon and the stars, the green leaf and watery sea, and each other.

You may notice that I didn't mention meditation once. That's because when we pay attention, all of these things are meditation.

May you truly enjoy the blessings of this season,