Friday, August 24, 2018

Kyol Che: My Month of Silence and Meditation

Diamond Hill Monastery, Cumberland, RI
In July I attended a month-long silent retreat. Tonight someone asked me if my retreat was worth it, or whether it was it just “some hippy shit I already knew.” Kudos for calling all of Eastern philosophy hippy shit, but even more kudos for asking a question so directly. In response I thought I’d write a blog post about the retreat experience. Partly for myself--I was contemplating this post for the entire retreat--and partly because I know there are people out there interested in retreats, in spirituality, or in hearing a story about me in pain. Whatever floats your boat.

Retreat Basics

The retreat was right outside Providence, RI on the grounds of the head temple of the Kwan Um School of Zen, a Korean style of Zen that made its way to the US in the 70s (I think). The temple where most of the retreat was held was in the middle of the woods, abutting a small lake that was teeming with frogs, birds, insects, and even fireflies. It was hot, but you really felt like you were in nature. The retreat had about 20 people on average and lasted 4 weeks. People would enter and exit twice a week. Most people stayed a week, but a few of us (7) stayed for the duration.

The Typical Day

The dharma room (not full), where we meditated
Each day consisted of a combination of bowing (15 minutes), chanting (2 hours), sitting meditation (a million hours) (okay more like 8), walking meditation (2 hours), work period (like chores, 1 hour), formal Zen meals (1.5 hours), and rest (3 hours). Wake up at 4:30am (1:30am Pacific time) and lights out at 9:40pm. It was tough in the beginning but you settle into a routine, and then it was tough at the end asI was anitpicating going back home and counting the hours. The bowing is not a deity since Buddhism doesn’t really concern itself with a deity and is different than a typical devotional religion like classical Judeo-Christian religions. The entire retreat is held in silence except for formal Zen “interviews” with teachers. The interviews are opportunities to ask questions and deepen your practice with koans, which are kind of like riddles that you can’t answer with normal thinking. You have to go beyond (or before) thinking to answer them. That’s a whole other story.

Formal Zen meals are held in silence and are very prescriptive; they’re almost like a ceremony with tons of forms and rules to abide by. Kinda stressful at first but you pick it up quickly. The food was roughly the same every day, although the soup we ate for lunch and dinner every day changed from day to day. The food was actually pretty good, even though it was basically the same. In formal Zen meals, you have to eat everything you take, and you don't take anything yourself, you're served food from others. It's actually quite beautiful to see a "you first" mentality instead of the typical "me first."

So What the Fuck Did You Do?

Founding Teacher and 78th Patriarch,
Zen Master Seung Sahn (d. 2004)
Well, a whole lotta nothin. But nothing is a lot different from what we’re normally doing, which is making noise and being distracted. Let’s break down the goal of Zen practice and the means of achieving that goal.

Zen Buddhism starts with the Buddha trying to find a way out of suffering. But the goal of Zen Buddhism isn’t just happiness, but also purpose and meaning and wisdom. All of these come from quieting the mind and investigating the nature of your identity and whether or not it’s truly separate from the rest of the universe, or just a part of it, in the same way that black and white parts of the yin-yang symbol are a part of a greater whole. (That’s not just an analogy; it’s the origin and meaning of that symbol.)

To get to a place of non-thinking, we can apply certain techniques, but we have to be careful with techniques, because if we apply a technique with an expectation of a result, we find ourselves back in the domain of thinking. It’s like a rat wearing a little hat and carrying a clipboard trying to tell you that you have a rat problem--your solution just reintroduces the problem.

So instead, we take the approach of non-attachment or the Middle Way, where we drop all expectations of changing and making progress and try and face what’s already happening right this very moment without thinking about it or analyzing it or evaluating it. We just watch what’s coming into our experience--whether sounds, visuals, smells, tensions in the body, the breath, or even thoughts. They’re all coming and going and we don’t really futz with them. We just watch them come and go, like a breeze blowing through a window. We’re the window, watching things pass through. It’s almost like we’re not applying any technique at all. I sometimes like to ask myself “what is it I’m trying to run away from?” and then just sit with that, letting it all just happen without interference.

This technique, if we can really even call it that, takes some time to really understand. And in the end, it’s not really an understanding at all, since that’s just a form of thinking. It’s a practice. After a while of not engaging the mind, the mind starts to slow down and your awareness of whatever’s already going on becomes heightened. You feel more present. Sounds and visuals become amplified. It’s not magic; it’s because that’s all that’s really left in your experience because you’ve subtracted the thoughts out. The present moment and your sense of being in it is just the remainder.

What Did You Get Out of It?

Porch for walking meditation
When your thoughts aren’t pulling you every which way and distracting you, you naturally start to feel more aware of your present situation. But it’s a lot more than that, because you realize how your excess, wandering thinking really impacts your experience. You can see how without excessive thinking you’re calmer. You have less anxiety and self-doubt. You’re more optimistic and you can see things working out and not falling apart. Not because you’re naive, but because you’re just not so negative. You feel more authentic, more yourself. You can relate to people more authentically and have a desire to connect to anyone. You have a desire to help and care for them--anyone, not just people you know. You don’t want to sacrifice yourself, but you want to be kind. And you feel happy. And you start to feel other people starting to feel happy by being around you. I think that was the most inspiring part.

You develop insight into people and situations, not because of your thinking but actually because you’re not thinking. Situations seem more clear and solutions appear naturally--solutions that lead to balance and harmony.

You also start to make connections between meditation and your daily life because meditation becomes a kind of template for everyday life. You see how your approach to meditation and frustrations with it are symbolic of the same frustrations and problems you encounter in your relationships with others, job, and in your relationship with yourself. For example, I got to see clearly how I tend to find problems with situations and people and myself in the same way I find problems with the quality of my meditation. I’m always fixing and working on everything instead of letting it be. And the fears I have of disconnection and failure arise in my relationships (I’ve had social anxiety since forever) the same way they do in my meditation.

My Experience: Overall, Highs, & Lows

Overall, it was tough but not impossible. I was tired and my knees and back and shoulder hurt for most of the retreat. I would vacillate between frustration and release/surrender, until one teach showed me that all of those evaluations were just more thinking.

Highs included moments of deep, deep quiet, moments of extreme self-love, laughing and crying harder than I have in years, moments of insights, friends, and something that, I hope, will never go away. There was a moment where we were eating in silence, in a dimly lit room, in the pouring rain...that was one of the most beautiful moments. The other was at dawn, where the sunlight painted the dharma room a warm orange and made the trees outside glow. I wrote a few poems, a few jokes, and a whole bunch of short ideas on meditation practice.

Lows were body pain and fatigue and the heat.


I started practicing years ago but went on this retreat to investigate some parts of myself, my direction in life and career, and my experience. I went in with questions and got some answers, but they didn’t really take the form I was expecting. It’s like solving an equation in an unexpected way, and with only a part of the answer, but you know you’re onto something, I guess. I can’t really say more than that because there are parts of my experience I’m keeping private and am still processing.
If you’re interested, I encourage you to go to a class or find a Zen center in your area and talk to a teacher. Be brave and go on an adventure. It’ll change your life.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

How to Keep the Sex Drive Alive

Hi Edahn,

Not sure if you still reply to stuff, but I guess I can still try. I found you through your responses on Psychcentral and you seem very knowledgeable. I am 30 and I've been on a relationship for about 4.5 years with a girl. We did LDR for about 2 years.

In all my relationships, I can kiss and think about (or have) sex with the girl at the beginning. After a while, I feel repulsed. As if the girl was family. I think my girlfriend is beautiful but something blocks me from seeing her as a sexual person, though I have sexual desire for other women. Once things get serious, I just don't feel aroused.

I did some online research. I feel like it is a Madonna-Whore syndrome. I also thought this could be some kind of asexuality (fraysexuality to be more accurate). I saw your answer about the attachment disorder (avoidant type), but I can't really see myself as an avoidant. Also, I was religious until my very early 20s, protestant, which means I had my first sexual experience quite late (mid 20s). I grow up hearing sex is for married couples, and even kissing without commitment should be avoided, which is why I avoided teenager parties and stuff like that when I was young. I do believe all this could have some impact on my problem.

HERE'S THE THING. You go around life thinking other people have got something you don't. It's a syndrome that applies to people--not just you, not just guys, hell, maybe not just people. It's ubiquitous. You think people can do something that you can't, because they have something that you don't. "They're wired differently. They had a different mother and father. They grew up in a different culture."

It's bullshit. We're all the same and we're all struggling with the same shit. Some people find ways out, some don't. You just haven't found your way out yet.

Every guy deals with that you're experiencing because of genetics. We're wired to mate, not to be in relationships. You have to think about things from the standpoint of biology and evolution, and from that standpoint, what's most important is the number of potential kids you're having, not the quality of of your long-term relationship. Read more about EXACTLY WHAT YOU'RE EXPERIENCING here (forget the Madonna-Whore stuff).

If you want to have a long-term relationship you need to figure out how to work around the biological barriers. The barriers are the boredom that you're experiencing, the lack of sexual motivation, the attraction to novelty, the feeling of being alone, of routine and responsibility, and the loss of your personal edge, which is connected to your sexuality. All that stuff is how evolution makes sure that you go and have more children with more people. (We're personifying evolution here; it doesn't have any real motivation.) It's the internal mechanism that makes you turn off.

Your job is to hack it. Find a way to get your edge back, and to get your happiness back. Find a way to outsmart your own body. Not by being a fake--we never pretend. But by finding what, in your relationship, satisfies you. Being open, being intimate, having a go-to person, being sexual without being cringey, being independent and non-needy while still trusting and enjoying companionship. 

Right now, take a deep breath. Picture yourself in a relationship. Maybe it's with this person, maybe it isn't. But I want you to picture yourself happy. Picture going through your relationship with someone you trust. Picture sharing. Picturing being funny and witty and having that mirrored in your partner. Picture having new experiences, exploring new places, trying new things (obligatory not just anal) and fucking up and laughing about it. Picture getting through arguments and returning to your baseline of closeness. Picture interesting conversation. Picture bad jokes and people rolling their eyes but secretly loving it. Picture having sex, not because it's Sunday morning at 10am (I'm looking at my neighbors as I write that) but because you feel close and want to express your closeness. 

Make that vision of yourself personal to you. Internalize it and keep it somewhere sacred. Trust it and work towards it by being the person you want to be in a relationship. Make room for your partner to be the kind of person you want to be with--not just qualities like "nice" but behaviors that create and sustain chemistry like humor, intelligence, creativity, adventurousness, and attentiveness. Don't demand that she be that, just allow it to come out, and if it doesn't come out, move on. Good luck.

Got a question? Email Posts are kept anonymous.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Finding the One

Neo thinks he's the One
Hi Edahn,

Recently, I feel as though my thoughts and actions are taken over by the need to find a person that I can connect with at some capacity. It's mentally exhausting, and I don't believe/enjoy online dating so much. I mean, don't get me wrong, I try using them then soon after get disappointed and immediately delete them. Right now I am on a "no dating" hiatus and I would like to think it's very empowering. People ask me out and I politely decline. It feels great (not rejecting people, I'm not that cruel lol) because I have the ability to somehow have time to do the whole self-improvement thing. Yet, I'm still controlled by this societal pressure of having a significant other or just the natural longing for human connection.

I'm rambling. I'm feeling held back because I may have met the said "one" - a person that I can connect with deeply. When we're together I feel as if he knows everything I am feeling and vice versa. All the stars in the universe align. I know I sound a bit crazy but I never felt that feeling with anyone else before, it truly was a beautiful thing.

The problem is my friend was and may quite possibly still be interested in him. I never could make a move in fear that I would lose my friend. To add to it, he's moving to another state in a few months. Dare I say, he is going to become my very own - "the one that got away." 

What do I do?! Accept that maybe we were kindred spirits that passed through each other's lives for some purpose and leave it to rest? Do I tell him how I feel? 

I'LL TELL YOU THE absolute honest truth, something I really haven't told anyone: for a short period of time, I think every person I meet might be my soulmate. Girl at the bar? Check. Barista? Double check especially if she ignores me. Friend's friend from Europe? Czech. It's automatic, even though I'm pretty sure I don't even believe in soulmates (although I have my own definitions).

It's a residue of the same genetic and social pressure you're describing. It's also the product of the desire to end this eternal lonely existence for companionship. The need to find someone distorts our perception so we see what we want to see; we see the solution to our problems. In my experience, the stronger my need for companionship, the stronger my projection of "soulmate status."

Conversely, there are moments where I'm not projecting anything; I'm just taking in what's there, and I know that if it doesn't work out--whatever. I'll go on. What's different? It's the desperation that's gone. The desperation to find someone, to mate, to get your life in order, to rid yourself of loneliness, to fit in, to check someone off your life list. What the cause of the desperation? Now we're getting into esoteric territory, but there's no other way out. The desperation is exactly what Buddha meant by "desire" being the cause of all suffering. The desperation is a product of thinking too much and getting lost in your thoughts. All you need to do is reconnect with your body and heart and you'll see it melt right away. (More posts on meditation here if you're interested and have 17 hours to kill.)

Onto your situation. I'm not in a position to say whether this guy is a great match (I really don't believe in soulmates) or whether you've just projected soulmate status on him. And truthfully, you might not know that either. My advice: go answer that question. Find out who he is, and do it with respect and care toward your friend. Approach it delicately and in person by asking what type of connection they share, and let her know what kind of connection you shared with him. Tell her how you would feel if you were in her shoes, wanting her to be happy and letting go if it wasn't special enough. If she feels the same way about him, maybe you back off, but if he's just the infatuation of the month, then ask her to let you pursue him, and to support you as only she could do. Give her the option to say no so she doesn't feel cornered. If you get the green light, I would just come out and ask the guy if he felt a similar connection, and if he did, if he'd like to come over and watch Netflix hang out sometime, hopefully within the next 3 months.



Friday, October 21, 2016

Friday, June 24, 2016

My Involuntary 3 Month Vow of Silence

So on Monday I had surgery on my throat. Following a wicked cold when I got back from Thailand (pics here for the stalkers), my throat got inflamed and never really got better. It turned into a granuloma, which sounds worse than it is. Hopefully, right? Biopsy results coming in todayish.

To prevent people with granulomas from getting another granuloma, they Botox your vocal chords so you can't talk. For. Three. Months. Technically, I'm not even supposed to laugh. So naturally I thought I'd go Harpo Marx on this, but my doctor said whistling transforms your vocal chords, so I can't do that either.

So now I have to figure out how to communicate without speaking. "You're doing it right now, idiot!" you all say. True, but oral communication happens at a much faster clip. Got a witty comeback? Oh no you don't. Because by the time you finish writing it out and having someone read it, 9 other things have happened to respond to.

So I may just end up taking a vow of silence for a little while. Reflect on things. I've been wanted to do that for a while, as I sometimes feel like I've drifted too far from my true direction in a bunch of different ways. Mostly, psychologically and emotionally. The best person I am is the person who's vulnerable, emotionally available, nonjudgmental, raw, and principled. It's not that I'm none of those things, but certainly not to the degree I want to develop.

These last 10 years I've been somewhat of a tracker tracking his own footsteps. We take some many steps without realizing where we've traveled. But we end up getting to places that inspire us and give us a feeling of purpose. The next task is to trace our footsteps and see how we got there.

Meditation seems to do it, but only when I'm not trying too hard to meditate. Listening, in general seems to do it too. Drumming can kind of do it too. It almost seems, though, that the more effort one makes to be peaceful, the less peaceful they are. And yet if we don't try at all, we just end up drifting.