Kathy Murphy, Ph.D.

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To Zen or Not to Zen….That is the Question

I had an eerie feeling as we twisted and turned up the gravel road to the top of the mountain where the Southern Dharma Center is tucked away.  We were arriving for a five day silent retreat. So we thought.    Actually, we had no idea what we had signed up for.

But climbing up this isolated road, for some reason, I was already thinking about an escape plan.

Little did I know that this experience was about doing zazen (Japanese sitting meditation) for over eight hours a day. (Check out this video on zazen meditation).

Now try that morning, noon, and night for five days.

We’ve had quite an education in Zen Buddhism. We now know there are many different teachings and practices. This retreat was the real deal – a formal Japanese Sesshin. No watered down, Westernized Zen here.  I’ve never seen so many bells, gongs, chimes, bows, and rules.   And the language,  I feel like I’ve learned a new foreign language.

Our day began at 6am, being awakened by a gong and getting to the meditation hall by 6:30.  In the predawn, we did gentle movement and our first morning round of zazen before the gong called us again for breakfast.  We chanted a blessing for our food. Michael and I just followed along.

After breakfast,  there was an hour for working meditation..  It’s quite calming to see 20 people working mindfully and peacefully. I was assigned ironing. Michael chopped vegetables in the kitchen.

The morning session began at 9:30 and lasted until lunch at 12:30. In addition to the sitting rounds, we did intermittent walking meditations (hinkins), chanting, and dharma talks.  The teachers talked. We did not.

At first,  I sat on my mat in a half-lotus position and thought “I can do this”.  Then the afternoon session lasted from 2:00 til 6:00 with only a break for dinner followed by an evening session of sitting and walking from 7:30 until 9:30.  Lights out at 10pm.

The Inner Journey

By the end of the first day, I thought I was going to die.  Everything imaginable in my body and mind hurt.  

I don’t think it would have been better if I had known more about this retreat. I might not have come.   It wasn’t that it was five days of silence.  I’ve done  longer silent retreats.  I love silence.

It’s wasn’t about the deep meditation.  I have meditated daily for two decades.  Michael and I meditate together most mornings. I was looking forward to deepening my practice.  But this was intense.

Day 2. I broke the rules by the end of the second day.  I went into Michael’s room  and I actually cried. “I can’t do this.  I want to leave. Now.”  He said, “This was your idea.  You wanted this.  So let’s stay and see what happens.”  I was livid.

Day 3. I woke up with my body rested.  I knew I was stuck on this mountain so I decided to get with the program.  In the meditation hall, I conceded and moved off the floor into a chair  (which helped some, but nothing feels good after eight hours).

I decided to  focus on the practice of emptying my mind completely.  Mind you, I never achieved a completely empty mind but I did achieve more of a present mind.  I could see how resistance shows up in my life.  In the moment, I could see how I act mad when I’m really just feeling vulnerable.  I got to see how I like to run when things get hard. I had clarity.

But, by the end of the day, I was angry again. I was cursing the teachers (under my breath), Michael, and the mountain.  And I wasn’t the only one.  When I arrived in the dorm  for bedtime, another fellow female retreatant looked at me and mouthed “I’m miserable”.

Day 4.   I  gave up.  I was tired of being upset. This day my early meditation practice was a graceful prayer. I found myself chanting “Let Go and Let God.”  Slowly, I did feel an inner shift, an inner opening, a release, and a letting go.

Lo and behold, at breakfast it was announced that there was an upcoming snowstorm and we would have to take our cars down off the mountain or else we’d be stuck.

I can’t prove the metaphysical connection between my internal release and being released to go down the mountain a day early but I do believe the universe is kind and compassionate. The Powers That Be know I’m no Zen practitioner…never will be. But I had gotten what I had signed up for.  I had touched something deep in myself that changed me. I could go now.

From My Point of View

This is going to be an interesting journey!  I say that with a smile on my face and joy in my heart.  Kathy wanted to start this trip out by getting grounded and deepening our spiritual practice. She picked a five day silent retreat outside of Asheville and then a week of meditation and yoga at Yogaville in Virginia. It sounded great to me.

What have I learned this week?  I’ve learned that we need to explore and learn as much as we can before signing up for an experience with the understanding that no matter how much effort we put into picking our experiences, not all of them will turn out as expected. But if we just pay attention and stay with it for awhile, we can learn a lot.

There are more practices of Buddhism than flavors of ice cream.  The Zen practice that we went to was very structured and precise on how and when to do everything.  Our teachers were ordained by Roshi Phillip Kapleau, the author of The Three Pillars of Zen, which is considered the best book in English that has been written on Buddhism.

Both Lawson and Sunya, our teachers, have practiced Zen for over 40 years. The dharma talks that they gave each day were inspiring. What puzzled me was how this wonderful wisdom apparently came from their practice of sitting for hours, facing the wall, back straight, and counting one’s breath.  For me, after four days of this, my body ached and my head was filled with numbers. This practice obviously works for many people, but let’s just say, it’s not my flavor of ice cream.

I was amazed at Kathy’s ability to manifest a storm. We left a day early and drove through three hours of bad weather to get to Roanoke, VA.  I don’t even want to think about being snowed in on that mountain, sitting in the mediation hall, facing the wall…and Kathy.

Coming Up…

After a couple of days in a hotel where we could get internet connection, do laundry, and watch Dancing with the Stars, today we leave to go to Yogaville.  Every time I tell someone we are going to Yogaville, they giggle. It sounds like the Disney World of Yoga.  However, the Satchidananda Ashram-Yogaville community is diverse and spiritually rich, fostering the simple and powerful teachings of Yoga.  Check out the in-depth programs and the daily practices. We’re scheduled to stay for eight days.  We’ll see how that goes.

Come and Join Us on The Journey

We hope that throughout the year you will keep clicking through to see where we are. We are requesting input and feedback from all of you. Tell us where you’d like to go.  Make suggestions for us. Ask us to check some places out for you!  We are also hoping some of the places we visit and the experiences we share will ignite your life and maybe even set you off on your own spiritual journey.  We’d love to hear from all of you.


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26 Responses to “To Zen or Not to Zen….That is the Question”

Cathy says:

Kathy..I know this was a spiritual experience but I laughed so much as imagined you manifesting the snow storm. I could almost see your smile when they announced it. Michael’s description was priceless. I love following this journey with you!

Asma says:

What an amzaing challenge of patience and focus. I am deeply impressed that you went through it. I had only done two hours in the morning and one hour in the afternoon of Dhikr after prayers at the retreat on “Tazkiyah tun Nafs or Purification of the heart” and had difficulty initially, but then it became a time for mental travel to higher planes.
If you can go to the Airondacks in the week of June 8, the retreat on “Purification of the Heart: is beautiful and is a mix of talk, no talk a lecture by the chapel on the lake by Sheikh Mokhtaar Magraoui and getting to know an interesting mix of people. he is mesmeric and insoiration and gentle. You can check it out on jannah.com. Looking forward to following you with your travel and insights and thank you for sharing.

Brenda Whitlow Craig says:

Good morning My dear friends, I trust you are getting massages today…. I am sitting here in my comfortable CHAIR enjoying the sunrise. Could never do that Zen sitting !!! Reading your blog and thanking you for taking that OFF my list. I can just see you both.WOW
Kathy , now I understand why you were so on my heart this week. Here is a quote from Jesus Calling I read this morning. ” to increase your intimacy with Me, the two traits you need the most are RECEPTIVITY & ATTENTIVENESS to receive my glorious gift : My perfect peace.
What a great journey to follow…love your honesty …looking forward to hearing more.
Love, Brenda

Barbara Melton says:

You made it 4 days longer than I would have …. it IS amazing how you can ask the universe for what you need and get it though (i.e. snowstorm)!

At least that part of your journey is under your belt! The rest should be a breeze (rather than a tempest)!

Kumar says:

The journey continues! Thanks for taking us along. Interesting for those of us who are stuck in the “real” world.

Barbara A Brown says:

So glad I read this. Have to admit I get so many emails I do not read them all, all the time. But your description of your Zen experience is so personal. Thank You both for sharing. You know I always have a story. Actually, other peoples stories help me learn from my own experiences. Once I sat for 6 or 7 hours with out moving from the spot, well same spot, but I did lay on my side some of the time. It was in the sunny Florida Keys, in probably 1978. So, being much younger then, neither my back nor bones ached. But I sat on a sandy stretch just in front of some grass and scraggly trees. (We were camping – in a tent even.) Back to the story, I just sat there, thinking of nothing, sometimes looking at the sky, the ocean, and sometimes consentrating on the warm weather. But I did watch the ants around me. When I first saw them I figured I would have to get up soon because they would surely bother me. The never did. They moved everywhere except on me – whether I was sitting or laying down. I really just comtemplated on those ants. How busy they were, how purposeful they seemed. Some carried food, some seemed to check out new routes. Some just moved along slowly. Seemingly I felt I was going to stay there until they bothered me. I finally gave up. One idea that has always stayed with me is how we share this planet with other living things. Most likely we never know how we impact them. ANYWAY… your story is great. You seem to tell it as if it is our story also. It’s nice to just share your life and that in itself is pleasant for others. Keep sharing! HAPPY JOURNEY!

Mo says:

“Mountains fall, and seas divide before the one who, in his stride,
takes a hard road, day by day, sweeping all obstacles away”…
(From “The Power Within”…)
No such thing as knowing too much about yourself!!
Enjoy Yogaville… Sending love your way!

Shari Stauch says:

Ha ha ha ha ha ha… Lord, girl, I could just see you sitting there fidgeting!!! I’d have lasted an hour, maybe… I couldn’t imagine not being connected to my laptop at the very least… Kudos for the effort and to Michael – well done keeping it all sane! Much love, Shari

Amanda Sullivan says:

Kathy, I’m so glad I read this because as I told you I have been thinking of taking this retreat as well (albeit a shorter version.) Such an eye-opening post. Makes me second guess whether I could even do it for a day. Probably only if sitting in the presence of Eckhart Tolle:-) You should have driven down that mountain and right up to Highlands so we could pamper you Old Edwards Style:-)

Kathy Murphy says:

Thanks for all the sympathy….we have completely recovered and I can’t wait to tell you about this placed called Yogaville…that’ll be next week.

Just wanted you guys to know that the Southern Dharma Center is fabulous. It has a myriad of retreats throughout the season. The lesson we learned is that you need to get real specific information on the format of the retreat because they do vary…not all of them are like the one we attended. Also, there were so many seasoned Zen practitioners that were having a glorious time….they must have been sitting for years…some did not leave for the snowstorm…. So, if you want to go, call and get the details about the “sitting”. ..I wish I had….but I did learn a lot about myself and I am thankful.

Nancy says:

Good to hear your thoughts. I have been thinking of you and of Michael.

Each day was so completely different. A very accelerated journey. Day three after the moving of the cars “off the mountain”, there was a shift. AND after deciding that physical pain did not have to be a part of the retreat, I found a comfortable chair, took your spot at the window (thank you!) and became very comfortable with the sitting times. After realizing what exactly it is that the seekers were looking for, I also realized that due to the way I make my living, I already experience the connection with the universal energy and do spend each moment living in the present.

It was good to complete the acts of discipline, was good to complete the retreat, was surprising to find that the continuous joy and happiness that exists in my life was largely missing from the retreatants who were searching for that joy.

On a personal level, what fun to find a friend and share the beautiful silence and bounty of spirit that is available to us all.
Nancy (only momentarily miserable) 🙂

Carole King says:

I cannot imagine the physical pain of sitting still for that many hours…. I understand letting go and trying to relax into it., but dance is still my way….

Kyra says:

Dearest Kathy
Thank you so much for letting us tag along on your journey. I was so inspired 🙂 by your post that I decided to try on a little Zen for myself. I headed out to the pasture with the horses, dogs and cats to pick up stones in preparation for the spring planting.I am always amazed how many there are (considering I pick up hundreds of them every spring.) I am creating a stone walkway to my meditation rock by the stream.
Sooooooooo off I go totally convinced that I will spend this time in silence.
HA……… ten minutes into the process I was chattering away to the animals and did not even remember my plan. oh well we got a lot done even though my plan fell through.
Looking forward to the rest of the journey with you and Michael and our 2014 women’s retreat at
Old Edwrads Inn & Spa.

Richey says:

I woke up this morning, needing a fresh cup of coffee. I checked the email messages and saw the follow up of the ZEN experience. Let me tell you….talking about a wake up call..lol All i have to say, i was complaining about how i needed to learn so much in embracing my abilities and learning to meditate more effectively. Needless to say your email brought a smile to my face and reassurance that i am on my way in the right direction. Why? you ask…because i finally am seeking guidance and surrounding myself with those of like mind.Meeting you that day at “Affordables” and keeping up with your travels, I KNOW i met you for a reason!!!!! THANK you for making my morning…lol 😉

Jeannie says:

And I was worried about the silence. Not once did I think you would have to sit for hours on end. I am sure I could not have done that. Compared to me you were a very good sport!

Ryan from The Rarebit says:

Good for you and Michael for sticking through all you could before that serendipitous precipitation. I can only imagine what it was like and you should be extremely proud of yourself for experiencing what you did!

Bonnie Compton says:

I’m loving living vicariously through your spiritural journeys …although this part of your journey, I’m not so sure about…the part about having to iron really got to me! I guess the saying “no pain, no gain” might apply here! Kathy, I know your need to flee kicked in big time, and good for you (with Michael’s gentle insistence) for hanging in there. Sounds like there were gifts to be uncovered.

Miss you girlfriend, but am so happy for you and Michael!

Love ya,


Andy Anderson says:

I am glad you mentioned each retreat is different. Having lived in a Zen Monastery for two years I do understand not many are ready for such a long sesshin. However, I would also add sitting in a chair is a very good option for many people. You don’t have to live in physical pain the entire week. I enjoyed your blog very much as I am writing a book on retreat centers having lived in six. ( So Far ). For all your readers I hope you would consider a retreat, just find out exactly what they entail , they are a wonderful experience.
Thanks again for this fun blog and blessings to you. Andy

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