Dai Sesshin, August, 2021

Tonight I head off to Sesshin and will be away from all email and phone contact until the 22nd of August. I will be doing a week of preparation then a week of Sesshin (beginning Friday week). I’ll post an update on how it went here.

Here is the approximate schedule we will be following. Zazen is meditation:

DAI-SESSHIN – TYPICAL DAILY SCHEDULE

First Night: Arrive by 6:30pm. Trainees to be dressed and in the zendo by 7:15pm

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7:30  Opening of sesshin (in zendo).

7:45  Sozarei (opening tea)

8:00  Daza (zazen)

9:15  Sosan (interview with the Roshi – mandatory for all present)

10:00  Sarei/Kaihan/Kaichin (tea/striking the han/formal lights out)

10:15  Group meeting in the dining hall. Optional snack available.

10:30  Yaza (mandatory solo zazen practice, inside or outside) until 11:45pm.

12:00am  Sleep or continue practice.

Typical Day 

4:30am  Kaijo (wake up)

4:50  Baito Sarei/Daza (umeboshi tea/zazen)

6:00  Dokusan (interview with the Roshi)

6:30  Choka (morning chanting)  

7:15   Shukuza (morning meal)

8:00  Samu (work period, indoor and outdoor)

10:00  Daza (zazen)

11:00  Saiza (mid-day meal)

12:00pm  Suiza (free sitting)

1:00  Sarei/Daza (tea/zazen)

2:30  Dokusan (interview with the Roshi)

3:00  Kaiyoku (wash)

4:15  Daza (zazen)

4:45  Yakuseki (evening meal)

6:30  Daza (zazen)

7:00  Kaihan/Kentan/Daza (striking the han/zendo inspection by the Roshi/zazen)

8:00  Dokusan (interview with the Roshi)  

8:30   Teisho (lecture)

9:00  Daza (zazen)

10:00  Sarei/Kaihan/Kaichin (tea/striking the han/formal lights out) Afterward, optional snack followed by yaza (solitary sitting practice).

12:00am: Sleep or continue practice.

Final Morning

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4:30am  Kaijo (wake up)

4:50  Baito Sarei/Daza (umeboshi tea/zazen)

6:00  Sosan (interview with the Roshi – mandatory for all present)

6:30  Sozarei (closing tea ceremony)

[Clean up, group informal breakfast at 8am]

Family puppies: Newton & Nimbus

After much nagging from Matt, Katie, and I, Mummy and Daddy finally got some puppies in October last year! They are called Newton & Nimbus! 🙂 These are roughly chronological of their first 9 months.

Some images + videos. Near the bottom are them playing with bubbles which is particularly cute.

At the farm where we got them from 🙂
At the farm we got them from 🙂


In our garden
On their first trip
They destroy everything in their path
Attention seeking with Mummy
My first Skype call with them. They were not impressed by me and mostly slept.
They sleep cuddled up 🙂
They enjoy destroying everything
Cuddling my sister
They found toilet roll…
No comment…..
They meet a football for the first time…
Chewing a toy bone together

Learning to sit with Mummy
Another day, another theft.
My first day with them. Playfighting! They bit my hand like a velociraptor.
Tug of war with me
He fell on the floor whilst doing tug of war with me…
Playfighting again
They love the fireplace
Matt giving them a clean after a walk
Nimbus is very handsome
Not sure what this face expression means but Nimbus does it a lot
Cuddling me whilst im on a zoom call
After playing tug of war
Dad taking them for a walk
Sleeping 🙂
On a walk behind our house
Nimbus with a football he destroyed at the Euro finals
Nothing is safe from them…
They still play fight even as grown ups….
They love bubbles

Dai Sesshin 2021 – Preparation log [Updated 3rd August]

[Update/Edit post-Sesshin 21st August – Two major comments. The first is that the schedule below is less strict than the schedule we followed. The 2nd is that my main mistake in this preparation was not to focus on being absolutely still during meditation. I moved and shuffled about, which is not allowed in a training schedule. I will write later on this.]

As I recently posted, I’m doing Dai Sesshin this year. I’m going to track my preparation to keep myself accountable. First, a summary of Sesshin I wrote in the previous blog, then i’ll post short daily updates on progress, as I’m worrying I simply won’t be up to it without doing more intense training and I hate giving up.

Film about Sesshin: http://www.folkstreams.net/film-detail.php?id=175

Here is a typical Sesshin schedule in west (Zazen = meditation):

Earlier blog post: Zen meditation – Doing Dai Sesshin annually, starting this august (restrictions permitting)

I’ve long been fascinated by monks (‘Into Great Silence’ is one of my favourite films). I became very interested in zen buddhism in relation to my unusual visual disorder. I’ll blog on this soon. 

I’ve visited a monastery but never spent significant time there – one of my dreams is to spend a few months in a monastery, and may do in the medium term. Over the past year I’ve been corresponding with Meido Moore, Roshi of Korinji Monastery in Wisconsin, one of the few Rinzai Zen training schools in the west. Sadly due to restrictions I’ve been unable to go to Wisconsin despite various trips being planned, but I’m hoping to become his student more formally.

I’ve got into a good habit of meditating 30 minutes a day. But for various reasons/motivations its a helpful challenge to do more. In a monastery, they work toward doing Sesshin, which is the most intense part of a zen monk’s schedule. Sesshin involves near continuous meditation for a week, with 5 hours of sleep a night. I figured if I am to go beyond ignorant babbling about this, I should commit to doing it myself. I recently got an invite to do this in August, and decided to go for it. 

But I’m also daunted by it and worry I’ll make excuses. So to avoid wimping out, I’ve decided to commit publicly! It will probably be the hardest thing I’ve done but now I’m getting old I need to challenge myself to stay young!

There is an explanation of Sesshin here (wikipedia), and its also covered in this excellent documentary: 

Meido has written two detailed and excellent introductions to Rinzai, available here.

7th July 2021 – Wednesday

I paid for the trip, so fingers crossed travel restrictions do not kick in. And I’ve setup this blog/accountability page. I’ve been doing an hour a day prep, but meditating almost all day, every day, will need more intense prep.

I leave for switzerland 7th July, which is slightly over 4 weeks away.

My target is to do 3 hours a day meditation, every day, until then, and record log here.

I’ll do this training schedule:

  • Wake at 4.55
  • 5am: Meditate for an hour
  • 6am: hour of exercise
  • Midday, or as close as possible with work meetings: 1 hour meditation.
  • 6pm: or immediately on return from work: 1 hour meditate, 30 minutes exercise

I bought a Lacquer Oryoki Jihatsu set to use, and a white cloth and utensils. The guidance is strict on size and even cloth colour. Each zen monk has their own in the monastery.

Lacquered wooden bowl set with 4 or 5 bowls. This set is the traditional Rinzai Zen set, which is also used by many Soto Zen groups and the Shambhala sangha for oryoki practice.

Today: wrote the plan today so will start fully tomorrow, but a good hour of meditation.
Meditated 5:30pm-6:30pm.
First 30 minutes excellent, though puppies kept disturbing me as I had to child mind them for mum. Knees hurt a bit by the end – I’ve been sitting cross legged all day to practice for Sesshin. Ended up lying down for last 10 minutes.

8th July 2021

Poor start – woke too late, too much caffeine last night watching england game…. but will aim 2 hours today which would still be a personal best for this year!

Did 1 hour in the end, so a failure. Tomorrow we start again…

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9th July 2021

1 hour of meditation

10th July 2021

1 hour of meditation.

I need to make meditation the first thing I do, or other things get in the way. However, I find on waking I am not in the right space for this. So, like in the Rinzai monastery, I will do some QiGong-style exercises to get my mind moving ahead of meditation.

11th July 2021

1 hour meditation, but also 1.5 hours of exercise before and this made meditation a lot easier. So an improvement.

12th July 2021

Failure – no meditation though did an hour of exercise.

13th July 2021

Did one hour of meditation on the train to Oxfordshire. Tomorrow I must do two hours……

14th July 2021 – 2 hours/day for first time

Morning: 1 hour of meditation in morning, divided in two. 30 minutes exercise.
Afternoon: 1 hour of meditation, divided into two. I focussed a lot on abdominal breathing.

15th July 2021

1 hour meditation so far.

My eating bowls arrived 🙂 Lacquered wood, from GreatEasternSun on Etsy

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16th July 2021 – 2.5 hours!

2.5 hours meditation!

17th July 2021 – Saturday

1.5 hours

18th July 2021 – Sunday

45 minutes so far

https://buddhaimonia.com/blog/zen-master-rules-to-live-by I read this, maybe my next project after Sesshin is to turn this into a Franklin journal…..

Pulling an all nighter to reset my sleep cycle……

19th July 2021 – Monday

Up at 5am, by virtue of pulling an all-nighter… off for a jog, then exercise + meditation….

Did only 30 mins meditation as I missed my usual evening meditation, but got to sleep at 7 to make up for lost sleep 🙂

20th July 2021 – Tuesday

Sleep reset worked 🙂 Woke at 5am, now off for a job, then meditation 🙂 Today I will do 2.5 hours come what may, hopefully 3….. There is a heat wave in the UK and we don’t have air conditioning in the UK….. I might use this as a bit of a living diary also. Right, the puppies are complaining they haven’t been let out (im at my parents) despite hearing me wake up and get water, so off I go….

This is Newton & Nimbus being woken up and having their breakfast….

They then spend the next 30 mins or so wandering around aimlessly wagging their tails seeking attention and being mischievous, every single time….

25th July 2021 – Sunday – a confessional

1 hour meditation today.

So, a confessional, I failed in my meditation training so far, and going to 3 blocks of 1 hour straight away was too much. Doing a single hour plus 4 half hours seems much more attainable.

But I realised that my inability to wake up early was a key problem in getting 3 hours a day in, so I focussed on solving that, and I did! For the first time ever I’ve succeeded in waking up between 5 and 6am every day of a week, minus one very late after a social event. So now for a redoubling of effort….. Getting up early means you get a solid chunk done, get ahead of the day, and succeed.

This past week I’ve reliably done an at least hour a day, but now I will push to 2 hours every day then in the final week 3 hours.

26th July 2021 – Monday

2 hours meditation!

31st July 2021 – Saturday – 2 hours

Last 4 days not great…. but did 1.5 hours so far today and will try to make it to 2 hours before sleep.

Did 2 hours 🙂

2nd August 2021 – Monday

1.5 hours. Says a lot that this is considered failure by me. I didn’t start until too late in the late. Will try to sneak in another 30 mins before bed… Sesshin doesn’t start for over a week, as there is an intro time etc, so I’ve still got time to hit my 3 hour target. Not sure how I will do 3 hours meditation on the day I spend 11 hours on a train (saving the climate innit).

3rd August 2021 – Tuesday

1 hour so far, aiming for 1.5 hours today.
Note: today I actually looked at a western sesshin schedule and realised its not as strict as Japanese ones I’d been expecting, and 3*1 hour blocks was too ambitious to aim for. I’m much more on track than expected by hitting around
Sesshin starts 1 week Friday….

To do list of things to buy and check off:

Organising travel:

Still to do

For Sesshin and Zen retreat please bring:

  • Hakama and gi or black pants and white shirt
  • Warm socks (if the floor is cold)
  • Jihatsu set (for formal meals) with cloth if you don’t have, please bring 3 small bowls (diameter 10cm to max 15cm) different sizes even better for putting them together
  • Chop sticks
  • Korinji Okkyo book, if you possess one
  • Appropriate outdoor clothing (rain jacket, solid shoes, hat, sunscreen) for samu (outdoor work practice)
  • Water bottle
  • Eventually sleeping bag (beds with mattress are available)
  • Pajamas
  • Toiletry and personal needs: please no strong smelling parfume or deodorant!
  • Shower towl
  • Flashlight
  • NO electronic devices (mobile, personal computer,…)
  • There will be an emergency phone number
  • Zafu: meditation pillows (zabuton: floor cushions are provided)
  • For Shugendo please bring: Tradition is to wear white during Mountain Training. Please bring white clothes suitable for hiking in all weather conditions (top layer should be white if possible).
  • Hiking gear (rain jacket, solid shoes, hat, sunscreen, hiking poles if needed)
  • Daypack with extra clothes
  • Water bottle
  • Small towel
  • Bathing suit or similar for takigyo (waterfall training)
  • Sandals or other footwear (for takigyo)
  • Eventually sleeping bag (beds with mattress are available)
  • Pajamas
  • Toiletry, and personal needs: please no strong smelling parfume or deodorant!
  • Flashlight
  • NO electronic devices (mobile, personal computer,…)
  • There will be an emergency number The Shugendo mountain training is also a very intensive form of spiritual training in and with nature. A lot of hiking, little sleep and getting by for many hours without food is challenging and therefore suitable for students in good physical health. You do not need to be in top athletic condition for this event, but you should be prepared to hike on uneven, rugged, and exhausting terrain.

Quirky and enwondering things I’ve seen recently online – #1

Thought I’d gather some of the lighter side of what I read. Installment 1! Not all time on the internet is wasted….

I want to meet Stoffel, the genius Badger:

This is what happens when an underground nuclear test is done underneath a cow (don’t worry, the cow is fine):

2020 – ‘Bunker years’ and the use of time: lessons from a year-long medical semi-isolation

Note: this was written originally in March 2020 for a different blog.

You are probably just beginning a long period of isolation.  I spent 2017 largely alone in my family home preparing for and recovering from a surgery to fix a serious illness, which ultimately took years to recover from fully.  I thought the lessons I learnt might be useful to others now.

What I found is that ‘free time’ vanishes like a pile of sand gathered through open, welcoming hands. You only realise it is gone when a few grains are left. Twitter consumes. 

Da Vinci’s words apply well: “Art breathes from constraint and suffocates from freedom.”. We may have dreams of how we will use our new found isolated freedom, but, if you are like me, your will will be captured by clickbait and the time will vanish without conscious countermeasures.

I suggest four simple habits and goals for the bunker:

  1. Create a virtual bunker: work via long-periods of deliberate isolation, not scattered, interruptible time (deep work).
  2. Create targets at different time scales, to provide milestones to move toward (distant stars) .
  3. Create a clear work/personal divide and ‘mindset changes’ via routines (organising the paintbrushes).
  4. Develop a non-work skill such as meditation to provide balance,  an escape from work, and fulfillment.

Create a virtual bunker: deep work

‘Evil is whatever distracts’
Franz Kafka

We structure our bunker time for maximum quality of effort. The divide between ‘personal’ and ‘work’ is unclear, and so we shift between the two modes both incompletely and briefly.

The Deep Work phrase comes from Cal Newport’s book of the same name. Deep work is a sustained period of isolated concentration, without distracting influences. Newport argues that we have lost the ability to do this, instead spending our time consumed by the ‘shallows’ of email etc, and our productivity has quietly collapsed because of it.

Newport tells of famous (and non-famous) achievements made by deliberately cutting oneself off from the world for a specified period of time: no internet, no email, no phone calls, no social contact. Historically, Carl Jung worked in a tower for almost the entire day, cut off from distraction. Mark Twain had an isolated hut for writing, and would be summoned for dinner by a horn. Today distraction is far worse than then.

The essence of deep work is that an hour of continuous undistracted work is worth 3-4 hours of distracted, fragmented time, or of eight 15 minute blocks of undistracted work. It gets you ‘in the zone’, keeps your mind on task. 

Crucial to deep work are two key things:

– Set aside deliberate blocks of time, say 2 hours, to work on something.

2 – Cut off all contact with the outside world during this time. 

This may sound simple (it is), but when did you last do it? Set your day to be composed of around 1-4 blocks of deep work, depending upon length (when I met Newport he suggested that sustained intense deep work of more than 4 hours per day is challenging, which matches GH Hardy’s advice in ‘A mathematicians apology’). When distraction comes, say you are in ‘deep work’ – a polite f-off to ‘whatever distracts’.

In my experience, this is far more important and useful than expensive productivity apps. It also acts as a ‘free organisational tool’, forcing you to  structure time and prioritise by picking your ‘deep work targets’ (see below).

To get a better sense of this, see this video which is an excellent summary of deep work by a youtube blogger who has interviewed Newport.

Something I have found very useful for ‘deep work’ is to play ‘coffee shop sounds’ – see this  example (on spotify/apple music).

Two useful apps – freedom & self control. Freedom shuts the internet off, self control blocks specific sites. It will educate you about how quickly you reach for the twitter dopamine hit. 

Note added 18th April 2021 – ‘E-mails ‘hurt IQ more than pot” – CNN

Create stars of varying distance: ‘compass-like’ targets at different timescales

“He whose gaze is fixed on a distant star will not falter.” Leonardo Da Vinci 

It’s easy to lose sight of the distant star indoors, especially for the infinite labyrinth of the internet at our single-click-away disposal. Deep work without direction will lead to piles of semi-finished things. Time becomes amorphous without targets at different timescales.  

This sensation only gets worse without active countermeasures. What I found in my bunker year was that without clear weekly targets, weeks blurred into one another, and nothing ever got ‘done’ – books were left half read, essays begun and half forgotten. I did many things, but never finished them: I was a slave to momentary wills. Weekly targets give you clear ‘weekends’.

Targets must be used to create a sense of timescale, a sense of time as a resource to be used. Targets act at different timescales. I was fortunate enough to be educated in the Oxford tutorial system. A ‘hidden routine’ in this system is the weekly essay, which gives you a target and a ‘focus’. The weekly essay gave you your ‘local purpose’, the ‘stepping stone’ to the exams and, more importantly, to being a scientist.

Without this weekly essay as a PhD student, I found myself wandering. I lacked the productivity of my undergraduate stays, spending much time dithering. I only realised what I was missing in the final year of my thesis: clear weekly targets, very few in number. This is a difficult thing to do as cleanly as when a mentor sets them, but it’s a skill I have since consciously worked on. In essence, this is about being mindful of the goals you have, rendering them explicit, rather than simply aiming for vague notions of productivity.

The Oxford term system also provides a mental scaffolding of time – I can still remember what I was doing each term of Oxford, and I used to be able to remember individuals week (3rd week), because they were placed within the structure of 3 terms with holidays. Each term is 8 weeks, with long vacations, meaning you have a total of 6 divisions to the year. It is likely we will be bunkered for a year on-and-off: divide that time up. I follow the oxford system now using an Oxford diary.

Likewise, without clear daily targets, it is easy to find yourself at lunch having done nothing but ‘deep work’ on whatever came up in the morning’s emails. Setting targets is a simple way of prioritising. For this, ZenHabit’s MIT’s is very useful: Zen Habits on MITs – identify 1-3 of the most important tasks for the day and structure your time around it. Note that having a long conversation with someone often is an MIT – today I tried to sneak a call in and ended up with so much to follow up on that I had to schedule a deep work session on it. 

Your work time therefore becomes a hierarchy of targets. 

Pick daily, weekly and termly targets, and remind yourself of them daily. I put the weekly targets in my diary so I see them everyday. Think in the future – where do I need to be? 

A nice phrase is ‘a year is shorter than you think, 10 years is longer than you think’ – I read it on twitter some time ago and can’t find the source, but it is not original to me.

The painter tidies his paintbrushes: habits, routines, and the structuring of time

States of mind are something that we find ourselves at the mercy of in our isolation, as it is easy to get ‘stuck’ in a mindset without external cues to nudge us out of it, or even point out that we are in a maladptive mindset. We assume what 16th century zen master Takuan Soho calls right-mindedness, that our mind is free to deal with what it needs to deal with, rather than stopping in distraction. Yet our state of mind depends greatly on surroundings, and we usually only realise we have gone astray some time after it happens.

Monasteries use chanting, rituals, daily schedules to keep the monastic mind focussed upon its higher calling. They also use the physical environment, a topic for a later blog. Our work environment, for better or worse, sculpts this also. You may find, as I did, that the sudden removal of  the cruxes and stimuli of our work mind reveal the very existence of those cruxes and stimuli. Freedom reveals the benefits of constraints. The trip to work in the morning tunes the mind for what’s to come. Seeing the boss reminds you of the importance of deadlines. Travelling home at night helps ‘switch off’ – somewhat reduced by the curse of chronic connectivity.

In the eastern arts, the frailty of will is recognised and deliberately honed. In Zen in the art of Archery, Herrigel tells of a master of painting preparing for and executing a painting in front of pupils:

“A painter seats himself before his pupils. He examines his brush and slowly makes it ready for use, carefully rubs ink, straightens the long strip of paper that lies before him on the mat, and finally, after lapsing for a while into profound concentration, in which he sits like one inviolable, he produces with rapid, absolutely sure strokes a picture which, capable of no further correction and needing none, serves the class as a model. A flower master begins the lesson by cautiously untying the bast which holds together the flowers and sprays of blossom, and laying it to one side carefully rolled up.

………But why doesn’t the teacher allow these preliminaries, unavoidable though they are, to be done by an experienced pupil? Does it lend wings to his visionary and plastic powers if he rubs the ink himself, if he unties the bast so elaborately instead of cutting it and carelessly throwing it away? And what impels him to repeat this process at every single lesson, and, with the same remorseless insistence, to make his pupils copy it without the least alteration? He sticks to this traditional custom because he knows from experience that the preparations for working put him simultaneously in the right frame of mind for creating. The meditative repose in which he performs them gives him that vital loosening and equability of all his powers, that collectedness and presence of mind, without which no right work can be done.”

I can try to distill this down into two simplest parts: first, have strict work hours, and non-work hours. Second, when you are to work, try to have a consistent place for it, and a routine to start/end the work. For me, it is to shut everything else down, remove all distractions for the task at hand, and set a timer. Then I think for several minutes about what is to come, which acts as a ‘work meditation’ akin to the organisation of the painter’s studio Herrigel describes.

I also recommend spending 25 minutes in the morning on a planning/tidying session. For example, today I took out my small notebook, reviewed my projects page of my notebook, and identified three priorities. I then simply thought about those priorities, visualising how i would do them, what I would need etc. When it came to do them, my mind was ‘ready’.

Deliberate rest is an important concept, relating to the divide between personal and work. Being on an iPhone looking on instagram is not rest, it is a reward seeking behaviour and stimulating. I strongly recommend setting strict ‘work hours’ and ‘personal hours’. Experiment in the benefits of cutting yourself off in the evenings, deep-work style.

Develop a skill: meditation, drawing etc

The single most important thing I did in my year of isolation, except for having a huge operation and eating lots of food to recover, was to begin meditating. The meditation that I focussed upon is Hakuin’s Nanso meditation, about which much of my book is centered, as well as more standard ‘clear the mind’ meditation. 

An exceptional piece of writing on meditation comes from Dogen, effectively the father of the Soto school of Zen: ‘recommending zazen to all people’.  I say more about this in the long-form version.