My friend Laurence Platt sent me a piece “Zen Bland.” [See Laurence’s website: Conversations For Transformation: Essays By Laurence Platt Inspired By The Ideas Of Werner Erhard, And More]. He makes a strong case that simple and unembellished language is the only authentic way to describe deeply moving, transformative experiences. His essay was not a bland piece at all but very juicy. What a really radical notion—living life here and now, speaking about it simply, not altering our experience trying to make it into something else! I think that it applies to meditation practice, and living, as well as writing.
As you may know, I have been a committed meditation practitioner for more than 35 years, the last twenty plus in a rather disciplined Zen practice. And before that, I was a Jesuit for eleven years, which in the first years of training, is a disciplined, formal spiritual practice.
At the beginning of January this year, I was on retreat in Santa Rosa where our group, the Pacific Zen Institute, rented a former catholic convent for the week. The Angela Center had been the California mother-house for a congregation of religious women, the Ursalines. The few remaining nuns have turned their property into a retreat center. The buildings themselves are rather bland institutional architecture, working with very basic, simple materials, characteristic of most buildings put up to accommodate the large numbers of men and women who were entering religious life after World War II. As I unpacked my bag, I thought to myself that my “cell” was just a slightly less Spartan, more feminine version of the one where I was isolated from the outside world for two years as a Jesuit novice. That period was for me an extremely difficult initiation into religious life, exactly the way that St. Ignatius, or his successors, designed it.
My Zen retreat at the Angela Center might have re-stimulated both the ecstatic and painful memories of my novitiate. Like clockwork, floods of memories and other mental stuff occurred in silence and meditation from 4:30 AM to after 9:30 PM–a schedule slightly more demanding than in a Jesuit house of formation where we got up an hour later and went to bed a half-hour earlier.
After breakfast on the morning of the 4th day, as I was walking back to the room that we had set up as the meditation hall, I noticed that my perception of the building had suddenly shifted. It was not dramatic, there were no flashing lights of insight, no angels descended from heaven with all the answers that I had been so hungry for, or had told myself that I really sought. I was just walking on a linoleum floor that was just a floor, the walls of lightly plastered-over cinder block were just walls. Nothing more. Nothing added, no sounds but the sound of my feet and no visions but what I saw through my eyes – just walls, just a door, just a room, just a grey carpeted floor with black cushions. Rather bland for a mystical experience.
Three cheers for bland Zen!
Dedicated to Chris Wilson, head of practice at Spring sesshin, a generous, guiding spirit and friend