Ango is a three month intensive time of study in zen. It stems from the rainy season in Japan when the monks would retreat to the caves to deepen their practice. Part of the promise of Ango is to attend a sesshin. Sesshin is usually a week long silent period filled with hours of sitting zazen, much chanting, oryoki style eating, and pain. I say that because, as a beginner, my last memory of sesshin was of muscle spasms in the back that lasted two weeks after the close of the sesshin — and I only did a weekend! There is a lot to be said for learning to sit with a straight back in proper alignment. Oh yes, and for those of you who have heard of people getting hit on the back with a bamboo stick at the monastery, it is true, but not for the reason you are thinking. This is an act of compassion as it is actually hitting near the shoulder blades to relieve tension. This sesshin was much better for me and I only had the spasms for two days after the close. You might wonder why I would put up with the pain, but it is well worth it to really see the mind at work. When you just hear breath and not your own inner dialogue, it is really an amazing thing.
Something else that happens during sesshin is doing work practice. This is when you are doing a job in a mindful way without talking (the opposite of the insane multitasking we usually do;) ). So, you might pull weeds in the garden, chop carrots in the kitchen, or write name tags for people’s zazen places. I was clean-up crew for dinner, and it was so interesting to see how I was eager to clean and do a good job. In fact, I found dirt on the front of the oven that looked like it hadn’t been scrubbed in a year, so I spent time really making it shine. I thought this was good until the cook walked over to me and reminded me that, “I could scrub as much as I wanted, but work practice had ended”. It wasn’t until later that I realized that my attachment to perfectionism had made me do something that wasn’t really required. In fact, as a group at the end a few people mentioned perfectionism as a problem, and one person described it as a “f**k you” sort of thing. I took that to mean it is trying to outdo someone in a silent way. Most people are competitive — I mean we live in the U.S. where that is a good trait in business. You may even joke that you are better than someone else. However, there is the other way of doing it. To know that you are better than someone else by doing an extraordinary job to make yourself feel higher, but without rubbing it in the other person’s face. There is nothing wrong with doing a good job, but my lesson is to be careful for what reason you are doing it. This sounds obvious, but how often do we catch ourselves in the act? I suddenly remembered being really disturbed by something in 4th grade — a runner in my tights. How funny now that I look back on it, but yet here I am still learning that perfectionism shouldn’t drive us crazy. Life is not a point system, and I need to remember that.