Mirror Zen retreat at Noddfa, Penmaenmawr, Wales. November 2021

I know every wrinkle on my face, every scar, indentation, valleys and rises as I stared in a mirror for 5 consecutive days.

I went to a Sesshin last month, a meditation retreat in the Zen tradition. During this period of intense practice (meditation practice), one follows a very rigid schedule; sitting meditation, walking meditation, working meditation, eating mindfully, mindful movements, chanting and silence, lots of silence. And, it was from the shadow of this silence that I got to see very clearly what was going on in the mind when I attended the various scheduled activities. I could not distract myself by chatting to someone else but I had to live totally with my own thoughts, feelings, emotions. Resistances, likes, dislikes, wanting to move, scratching, rushing to get some food, not considering others, getting upset because food run out…… In silence, all these things are clearly seen, they are clearly heard like a scream in the dark, one can’t pretend to not have heard it.

Don’t get me wrong, there is also great beauty in spending so much time in silence, especially for a person like me that feels at times inadequate when being around people. I didn’t have to talk, I just had to get on with the various tasks, my own inner stuff and my face reflected in a mirror, not such a bad thing after all.

At the Noddfa centre, around 30 people moved inside the boundaries of the rigid Sesshin schedule, focussed on themselves; noticing their thoughts, emotions, likes and dislikes. Noticing without reacting, that is one of the qualities of a mindful mind. Noticing what arises, allowing space without grasping. The more I allow, the more there is a sense of space expanding (well, that’s what it feels like). In the moment I try to grasp a thought, for instance, the same space shuts down around that thought, I am caught, my attention is caught. Is there anything wrong when the attention gets caught? No, nothing is neither wrong or right for that matter but I am limiting myself within claustrophobic boundaries whilst missing out on the actual experience that is unfolding around me. I am holding on to something, not letting go, fixated on a concept or an idea, very intellectual and not really experiential. Of course, there are times when I need to focus on thoughts, I need to analyse or work something out or when I speak to someone and I want to know exactly what to say. However, when meditating we want to allow thoughts to arise without us ‘disturbing’ them. Thoughts are not a problem at all but what we do with them can create the conditions for some potential disharmony with how we deal with situations, people and ourselves too. We all know how one thought leads on to the next one and the next one again in an endless thread that carries us down the spiral of our own creative, corrupted, conditioned, individual story about how things are. This spiralling is what we call the world of separation, our story versus what is out there, the ‘hostile’ world. Rather than experiencing things, we think about them, what we like or don’t like about them, how we can twist them to try to ‘gain’ something, how to avoid or how to have more. Thoughts are gauging the actual experience of life, they are not the experience itself, they are ideas about it. My experience with Zen is that we are practising to break down this illusory wall that separates us from the ‘hostile’ universe. Once the wall is down, there is no separation, we are the universe, there is neither hostility nor no-hostility, we are just what we are. However, why did we stare in a mirror for 5 consecutive days then?

The Mirror Zen Sesshin is based around the practice of sitting and facing yourselves in a mirror. Practice which was developed in a Japanese temple called Tokei-ji in the Kamakura period by female Zen master Kakuzan Shido. Kakuzan Shido would meditate before the mirror to see into her own nature. In the same way, later generations of nuns and us at the Noddfa centre have been meditating on various koans associated to the mirror image and reflections. I can kind of imagine Kakuzan Shido walking towards a mirror; thoughts must have popped into her mind whilst she was getting closer to it. As she got very near to it, she must have clearly seen that those thoughts were not reflected in the mirror, they were reflected by an inner mirror which we commonly call mind. Possibly, she saw the reality that laid in front of her reflected in the mirror and the reality of her own thoughts. Two separate realities. There were thoughts about how she saw things, how she believed things were. Clearly, she realised that the 2 realities were not matching. What was seen by her own eyes was different or corrupted by what her mind was saying. The mind had ideas about what she was seeing and these ideas were clearly subjective, conditioned, dependent by factors such as mood, lightness, darkness and so on and so forth. For that reason, I guess, she carried on with this Mirror Zen practice, she refined it and passed it down to other students. This is my reading of how things went which I am sure is very far from what really inspired Kakuzan Shido.

Is the mirror showing the content of my own mind? Where in the mirror are the thoughts which appear in my mind? Can I see them? These were some of the questions that naturally arose and sustained me during my practice of seeing into my own nature. If thoughts are not in the mirror, where are they coming from? These questions help breaking our logical way of seeing things and open up to a different way of experiencing life in general; not so much an intellectual endeavour but rather an experiential experience, a moment to moment experience, from a philosophical approach to things to a more practical one, from an intellectual way to relate to things, to a more intuitive one.

What did I take home from this retreat? I am not sure that I took home something specific from the retreat. Definitely lots of inspiration to keep practicing and admiration for all of those who practice. Gratitude towards Kakuzan Shido and 22 generations of practitioners after her who kept this specific practice alive. What was apparent in the mirror of my mind were those thoughts of inadequacy that at times take over. Being able to let go of those fears and of that sense of me, personal me, separate me, that illusory sense of separation in general. That is what showed up very strongly at the end of the retreat. So ‘full speed ahead’……