Guest blog post by James Blachly.

Editor’s note: James Blachly joined a Zen Leader program in February, 2013 and, inspired by that, came to the much more vigorous form of Zen training known as sesshin. Here he recounts learnings from both experiences. For more information on the Zen Leader program, visit www.institutezenleadership.org/programs)

In German class the day before we left for IZL, we were asked to describe our heimat (homeland/birthplace) and our idea himmel (paradise), and I said that the latter would be a place with true silence and great natural beauty. I was being rather pointed with this comment, because the class was rowdy and because I wanted to subtly alert my young Deutschprechlich aspirants to my awareness of the situation, and my desire to change it. Halfway through that first weekend at the Dojo, I realized I had somehow stumbled upon this very heaven.

During Sesshin some months later, there was no conflict about the convergence of having my most desperate night only hours before saying that I was happier than I had ever been in my life. There was no contradiction in the fact that I slept less than I ever have in my life over a week, and also had the best and most focused energy, that I took part and became a part of the most rigorous ritual and formal structure I had ever seen, and also felt the freest I had ever been.

I first encountered Zen during a winter weekend in February shortly after having had foot surgery. I drove a rental car with a special left-foot pedal, and picked up Rebecca, my wife, in Madison. Rebecca was the reason we were headed there; she had trained in Hawaii several times, and wanted us to train together for this IZL weekend. We drove through a strong blizzard, arriving slightly late, and got stuck in a snowbank on our way to the Dojo. A neighbor pulled us out with his tractor, and we were carried up the circular drive by Greene Roshi on his ATV with my booted foot hanging off the side and crutches clutched in my hand.

I had never before sat Zazen, and did not know what I was doing there, except that it was important to my wife that I come.

As I reflect on both that weekend and on Sesshin, which we did together in June, I think that my lack of knowing what I was doing there was actually a great asset. I spend my life with a lot of purpose behind my actions. Not knowing why I came made it easier to let go of any attachment I might have had to a particular outcome.

The experience of Sesshin was much larger than I can put into words, and it eclipsed the IZL weekend in the depth of training. That said, I still marvel at how 3 days in the winter in Wisconsin could so fully change and focus thirty-odd years of learning and thinking, and become such an important part of not only my daily life, but my inner dialogue and sense of self.

Those few days transformed my sense of leadership, and ended up guiding my large organizational initiatives for the next many months. But rather than try to summarize these weeks of training, or glean the larger lessons learned, I thought I’d write about three experiences in particular.

At IZL, I remember hiking, with particular flourish, up the snow-filled path to the most beautiful meadow that may exist in all of creation and sounding out our kiai across the fields. I had hiked up in my medical boot and crutches, which seemed to impress the group, and Scott, the jiki for the weekend, pulled me behind him on the way down in a sled. Allowing myself to be helped, not trying to prove something needlessly was a good lesson that day.

At Sesshin, I was stretched to the breaking point. It is difficult to write about one’s experience while sitting, because it either sounds like a war story or an old football glory story. It becomes about something other than the actual experience, and more about how someone else will hear it, or perhaps be impressed by it. It is removed from the context of Zazen, of training, of focus and the many-layered hours of sitting that precede such an experience.

Along those lines, the stripping away of ego was fairly far advanced by the time either of these things happened. It is also hard to reflect on pain, because once it’s gone, it really does vanish. There are parts of my body that went through a complete transformation during that week. I sit differently now. I am able to sit some form of half-lotus–and that happened only because Ginny one day spoke to me about my posture and the cushions, and step by step had me shift my legs until by some miracle one leg rested on the other. I still can’t get over that feeling. What was truly impossible, I thought, had just happened. But it was preceded by the worst pain of my life (I think this is fair to say), when Scott the Jiki came over and adjusted my back. Before that, I had found a posture that was relatively pain-free: it involved a kind of hunched-over posture with my shoulders curved and down, but it let me get through the sittings. When he shifted my back and I tried to keep that going, I found that all the previous ten sittings came right back at once, and tears flowed down my face in pain.

After Ginny’s correction, though, this strange thing happened. I was in such a state of desperation that I had no choice but to find my breath. I remember this experience of finally releasing a muscle by my coccyx bone, and in some connection I found that that muscle was the same thing-not an embodiment or metaphor, but it actually WAS my ego. I let it go, I let the breath come from down below everything, and I found that the pain went into the background. In the foreground was this solid liquid river of breath, and it flowed straight up my spine. When I found that river of painlessness, it didn’t matter what else was happening. I was aware of it, not in denial, and experienced it, but the pain didn’t own me.

The other experience was the night before. Honda Roshi played Shakuhachi for us, and I remember feeling completely trapped by the sound, unable to escape it, controlled by every note, and also completely absorbed in my own pain. All I thought about was my hips, my legs, my back, my neck, and that every fabric of the music encircled me, and would not end. It was slower than usual, and also somehow violent. When he left, Honda Roshi said, ‘Change this kiai.” He could feel that the energy of the room was poisonous, and he tried to break it up in some way with his playing.

The next day, he asked me two questions. One was “do you conduct better when your feet are rooted in the earth.” Yes, I answered (I am an orchestral conductor). Second, he said, “did you hear the voices of the forest last night?” I asked him to explain. He repeated the question. I remembered the pain, and the music, and the energy. No, I said, I had not.

As a conductor, my job is to hear. To hear everything, to be attuned to every player, every sound. To hear the music internally before it is produced, to remember everything that happens in order to rehearse it. To envision sound and then enable it being created in performance. I have spent my lifetime developing my listening skills, and it was devastating to realize that I had focused so intensely that I had left out visionary hearing altogether.

That night, as he played, I listened beyond his music to the forest outside. There were trees rustling in the wind, birds calling, animals moving somewhere in the forest. And I started to feel the energy outside of myself. In the room, with other people. That night’s Teisho was about compassion. We should consider ourselves lucky, Greene Roshi said, if we knew one person who was truly compassionate. What a statement! That night as I heard the forest, I thought myself around the room and wondered at what each person in the dojo was going through. What kind of pain, what kind of inner thought process, what kind of history and hopes and what had brought them here, and what had they been through. Somewhere in the middle of that sitting I began to cry, big streams of tears falling down my face, and realized how important it is to wipe tears away, because the fluid mixed with sunscreen and bug dope, and it all caused my eyes to keep watering, long after I had stopped crying. I had to keep my eyes closed for twenty minutes or so until the tears were fully dried.

At some point during those twenty minutes, I got over myself a little bit. I got over the feeling that my pain was somehow unique or worse than anyone else’s, and also that it was in any way more important to my understanding of myself than other things. It was not. Pain is just pain. It’s bad, it’s not as bad, it’s been worse, it could be worse, it will be worse, it feels better now. There’s information in it, quite often. But some of the information is just like a baby crying. Loud, compelling, speaks right to your heart. But there are no words for it. You can’t only feel compassion, you can’t only feel bad. You realize that there is some information in there. And you listen beyond it.

I’m not sure I’m a better person for beginning to study Zen. And I often wonder what it does for me, or why I want to sit nearly every day. Will it help me with my work? I wonder. Will it solve my problems? How can I measure this, I wonder. Then I remember that I didn’t know why I came to IZL, and I didn’t know why I came to Sesshin, and that that seemed to help. I don’t need to know the answer to everything.

I do know that it’s been important at key junctures. Before a big conducting audition with a professional orchestra, with ten minutes in my dressing room, breath and posture were there for me. Before a big concert, before going on stage. After a crazy day. First thing in the morning, when I didn’t know what I’d be facing at work, but knew it would be crazy. A long sit on a Sunday morning. Laughing when the cats pushed pause on the timer without me knowing it.

At this point in my life, I’ve grown weary of claims that my life would be transformed, changed, improved. Ginny said that she was told by Tanouye Roshi that sitting 20 minutes a day would change her life. I wonder whether I would have had the same experience if I had come in with the expectation of having my life changed.

I know that one weekend at IZL has done more for my leadership and sensory awareness than I could have imagined. And I realized recently that all the planning we had done during that weekend in February had taken place, down to the dollar amount I had planned to raise for a concert in July, and the relationships that I wanted to strengthen and the actions I wanted to take. We embodied them enough that I didn’t have to consult my notebook. I just brought them into the world.

This is all to say, Thank you, Ginny. And warmest greetings to all of the beautiful, strong people we trained with in February and in June.

James is an orchestral conductor and the founder of the Sheep Island Ensemble, which brings audiences and excellent performers together in a celebration of music and often intertwined with social gatherings. www.sheepislandensemble.com