Saturday, May 4, 2024

Zen Bland!

Originally posted December 21, 2011, revised during the Coronavirus lockdown, March 25, 2020.

In the Spring of 2011, I did an eight-day, totally silent Zen retreat at a former Catholic Convent, the Angela Center, in Santa Rosa California. As I was unpacking 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 45 years earlier, the same bland institutional architecture thrown up to accommodate the large numbers of men and women who were entering religious life after World War II.

In a Jesuit house of formation, we got up at 5:30 and went to bed at 9. During this retreat, my 10-hour meditation day started an hour earlier and lasted an hour later, but it seemed to re-stimulate both the ecstatic and painful memories of my novitiate, a period that was for me an extremely difficult initiation into religious life. For the first few days, I couldn’t stop a flood of memories, tastes of prayer, study, and feelings that soon included my 11 years of Jesuit indoctrination as well as the aftermath.

After breakfast on the morning of the 4th day, as I was walking back to the room, my actual perception of the building suddenly shifted. 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. No sounds but the sound of my feet, no visions but what I saw through my eyes—just pictures on a wall, just a door, just a room, just a grey carpeted floor with black cushions. There was nothing else in that moment but the moment. This was not the dramatic, flashing-bright-lights insight, no angels descended from heaven with all the answers that I was hungry for, or had told myself that I really sought. Rather bland for a mystical experience.

But then I began to notice something very powerful open up inside me—every burden that I had been carrying since my Jesuit training was gone. It was extinguished, not conceptually but actually. My past life as a Jesuit was gone, completely gone. Not that it didn’t happen, not that it had no effect on me, but I understood in a non-intellectual way that anything I carry into the present moment was for me to carry. It doesn’t drag itself along. There’s nothing there. It’s not real.

Suddenly in that moment of bland Zen, I was totally and irrevocably free—no one, no thing, no outside authority, no god, no doctrine, no experience could ever enslave me.

Three cheers for bland Zen!

Outside My Window

The light rain
clears momentarily.


A bird's three bare notes—
infinite variations
flood over me.

Red Camilla blossoms
upside down.

*The title of this reflection comes from a piece my friend Laurence Platt wrote, “Zen Bland,” which was not at all bland but very juicy. He argues that simple and unembellished language is the only authentic way to describe deeply moving, transformative experiences—living life here and now, speaking about it simply, not altering our experience trying to make it into something else!

Dedicated to Chris Wilson, head of practice at Spring sesshin, a generous, guiding spirit and friend.

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