Never Check Facebook on a Zen Retreat

I’m leading a retreat this week at Benediktushof, a retreat center in Southern Germany. While I’m here I’ve been working on the talk I’m going to give to the people of London soon (see below for details, you’re welcome to join). As part of preparing for that talk, I needed to know about the way a certain word is used in Japanese. The best person to ask is someone I only ever communicate with via Facebook. So I sent her a message.

When I opened Facebook to check for the response, up popped several of the kinds of truly dumbass things people post about American politics these days. It’s really disheartening to see how deeply stoopid everything has become. Was it always this bad? Did social media just allow everyone to express their most idiotic thoughts to the world? And get a zillion “likes” for it. The dumber the comment, the more “likes” it seems to generate.

At any rate, this threw my brain into activity which did not relent for the rest of my day of sitting and staring into nothingness.

Maybe you’d think that after thirty-odd years of meditation practice things like this should not affect me at all. Maybe you think that a real Zen Master would always remain perpetually calm and serene in the face of absolutely anything.

Sadly, that is not the case. Not for me and not for anyone else. I have gotten a little better over the decades at letting things like this go. But it’s never gonna be perfect.

Unfortunately for me, the kind of work I’m doing leading retreat after retreat after retreat while traveling through various countries means I have to keep checking my emails every day even while on retreats. And I have to keep up my other job, providing articles for this blog and videos for YouTube. Zen retreat fees alone ain’t gonna pay my water bills! I’m worried that people sometimes see me on my damned laptop and think this is OK behavior on a Zen retreat. It is definitely not.

A lot of Zen retreats have very strict rules about this sort of thing. Not only are you forbidden to go online, you’re not allowed to read, you’re not allowed to talk, at a lot of retreats you’re not even allowed to make eye contact with anyone.

I never make rules like that for the retreats I lead. I figure that the people who are there are adults and they can make their own decisions.

But, from now on, I’m going to start telling the groups I lead that, if they want a good Zen retreat they ought to follow the ancient customs about not putting unnecessary stuff into their heads. There’s not a single Instagram story or Twitter thread that can’t wait for a few days.

One of the most frequent complaints I hear during dokusan — private meetings with students during a retreat — is from people who feel they’re not making progress in their practice because they’re always thinking about things as they sit. They can’t concentrate. They can’t reach that serene state they’ve read about in so many Lion’s Roar articles.

The brain is a very sensitive instrument. Every time you read a Facebook post or a news story or even a book, you’re poking your brain. And your brain goes, “Ouch!” It’s already very sore and tender from you poking it constantly all day every day for years and years. 

Just like if you poke any sore part of your body, the initial “ouch” moment is followed by an aching and tingling sensation that can take a very long time to subside. The only way you can make it stop hurting is to do what your mom always told you, “Stop picking at it or it will never get better!”

Same deal with your brain. When you poke it with some new stimulus it is going to react to that stimulus. And the reaction will take as long as it takes to subside. There’s no way to speed up the process just like there’s no way to speed up the process when you poke at an already injured limb or pick at a scab. It just can’t happen any other way.

The reason some Zen Masters are able to be so serene is that they deliberately cut themselves off from unneeded stimulation. I just read an essay by Koshu Uchiyama Roshi in which he said that he hadn’t seen a newspaper in years (this was written long before the internet existed). He said that because of this he didn’t have much to talk to people about, so he was often alone. This didn’t seem to worry him very much.

Zen retreats are spaces where we can get away from unnecessary mental stimulation. That gives us a little time to recover from all the unnecessary mental stimulation we’ve been gorging ourselves on before we got to the retreat. The reason most retreats last for a few days is because that’s how long it takes for the throbbing in our brains to begin to settle.

If you do something stupid like I did — look at social media, read a book, have an unnecessary conversation with someone on the retreat, etc. — you’re poking at your already sore-as-hell brain.

Don’t expect it to settle down right away. If you do stuff like that, you’ve only got yourself to blame when you find it impossible to get that serene state you’ve been hoping for.


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June 24/25, 2019 TALK Nijmegen, Netherlands

June 29-July 2, 2019 HEBDEN BRIDGE RETREAT, England

July 4, 2019 TALK in London, England

October 5-6, 2019 RETREAT in Toronto, Ontario, Canada

October 11, 2019 ZERO DEFEX at Jilly’s Music Room, Akron, Ohio with The Tufted Puffins and The Psyclones

November 8-10, 2019 ZEN & YOGA RETREAT Mt. Baldy, California



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