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One Hundred Days of Solitude

In splendidly candid and beautifully written volume, “One Hundred Days of Solitude: Losing Myself and Finding Grace on a Zen Retreat,” Jane Dobisz, the guiding teacher of the Cambridge Zen Center in Massachusetts, takes us on a deeply personal introspective journey of self-discovery during her 100-day solo retreat in the wintry woods of New England. Imagine a place where there’s no electricity, no phone, and no visitors – just the raw elements of nature and the depths of one’s own mind. This captivating memoir chronicles her experience undertaking a rigorous 100-day solitary meditation retreat, a practice traditionally undertaken by Zen monks.

A Search for Meaning Leads to the Zen Path

Dobisz begins by sharing her quest for a spiritual teacher. This search eventually leads her to Zen Master Seung Sahn, a Korean Zen patriarch. Their first meeting left an indelible mark. His spontaneity, infectious laugh, and brilliantly streamlined teaching convinced her that she had found her teacher. Even after years of study, she acknowledges that she has only scratched the surface of his wisdom. Inspired by his example, she resolves to undertake the same discipline he once faced: a one-hundred-day solitary retreat.

One Hundred Author

Finding Grace in One Hundred Days of Solitude

Jane Dobisz’s retreat is no ordinary escape. It’s a deliberate plunge into solitude, a quest to explore the profound questions that echo within her: What am I? What is life? What is death? These questions, like tigers stalking around in her mind, drive her to seek answers in the quietude of her secluded cabin. The setting: a simple abode nestled in the northern New England wilderness, three miles from the nearest road. The snow blankets everything, and the biting cold seeps through the cracks. Here, Dobisz grapples with the essence of existence, much like the Zen monks who have walked this path before her.

Stripping Bare the Mind: The Challenges and Rewards

The book “One Hundred Days of Solitude” delves into the raw and honest realities of solitary meditation. Inside her cabin, Dobisz confronts the constant chatter of the mind, aptly described as a “puppy” bouncing from thought to thought. The mind alternates between congratulating her for her spiritual practice and accusing her of insanity. Self-doubts, fears, memories, and fantasies flood her consciousness. Drawing parallels to Vipassana teachings, she navigated the persistent commentary of her inner “Judge” with humor and resilience. She chops wood, bows, and meditates, all while the snow piles up outside. The wooden fish, the seamless monument, and the chickadee sermon become her companions. Each moment is both mundane and profound, a dance between the ordinary and the sacred. 

Grace Rediscovered

In moments of solitude, Dobisz confronted her deepest fears and insecurities, finding solace in the repetition of her mantra. As the days pass, Dobisz discovers grace in the simplicity of her existence. She washes her bowls, splits logs, and gazes at the moon. She employs relatable metaphors and insightful reflections from Zen masters and Buddhist scriptures to illuminate the path of meditation practice. Her solitude becomes a mirror reflecting not only her own mind but also the universal human condition. The Zen path is not about escaping life’s challenges but diving into them fully, embracing the rawness of experience. Her experiences shed light on the transformative power of surrendering to the present moment.

  1. The Power of “Just Doing It”

The book emphasizes the importance of action over intellectualization. Dobisz highlights the Zen principle of “Just Do It,” encouraging readers to embrace the practice without overthinking it. Much like quenching thirst with water, true understanding of Zen comes from direct experience.

  1. Living Simply, Finding Joy in the Everyday

Dobisz’s minimalist lifestyle during the retreat, coupled with occasional fasting, provided fertile ground for introspection.  She describes her daily routine: bowing, chanting, walking meditation, and the essential practice of sitting meditation.  She reflects on the profound value of living simply, with limited food and basic necessities. Through these experiences, she explored the nature of desire and its hold over the human psyche.

  1. The Unexpected Beauty of Silence

Contrary to popular belief, Dobisz finds the silence of the retreat to be a source of richness and peace. She describes a newfound appreciation for the natural world, from the intricate patterns of woodchips to the symphony of sounds in the forest.

The Return Home

After one hundred days, Dobisz emerges from her retreat. She carries the wisdom of solitude back to the sangha, the community of practitioners. Nature’s genius and the wild fox spirit accompany her. Peace isn’t luck; it’s cultivated through practice. And in her words, “Very soft is true strength.” She invites us to sink into this world, to find our own grace amid the chaos.

Beyond the Retreat: Bringing Zen into Daily Life

While the specifics of Dobisz’s retreat may seem extreme, the book’s true message lies in its universality. She encourages readers to cultivate a sense of “rapture” in the everyday moments – the scent of fresh air, the chirping of birds, or the simple act of washing dishes.

One of Dobisz’s most powerful takeaways is the concept of “Everything just like this is Buddha.” This reminds us of the inherent sacredness of every experience, motivating us to approach life with mindfulness and appreciation.

The book concludes with a haunting poem, “The Human Route,” that ponders the impermanence of life while hinting at a deeper, unchanging reality. It leaves the reader contemplating the enduring essence of our being.

Epilogue: The Great Dharani

As the retreat concludes, Dobisz recites the Great Dharani, a sacred chant. Its syllables resonate through the woods, echoing the interconnectedness of all beings. She returns to the world, forever changed by her hundred days of solitude.

In the end, Jane Dobisz’s journey becomes an invitation for us all: to venture into the unknown, to find grace in simplicity, and to embrace the tigers of our minds. Perhaps, like her, we’ll discover that everything just as it is – every moment, every breath – is Buddha.

And so, dear reader, may you too find your own hundred days of solitude, where the ordinary becomes extraordinary, and grace whispers through the snow-covered pines.

Frequently Asked Questions

  1. What inspired Jane Dobisz to undertake a one-hundred-day solitary retreat?

Dobisz’s deep reverence for her teacher and her commitment to spiritual growth propelled her towards this transformative experience.

  1. How did Dobisz cope with fear and doubt during her solitude?

Through the practice of meditation and the repetition of her mantra, Dobisz found inner strength and resilience in the face of adversity.

  1. What were the key spiritual practices followed by Dobisz during her retreat?

Dobisz engaged in a daily routine of sitting meditation, chanting, bowing, and walking meditation, which formed the foundation of her spiritual journey.

  1. How did Dobisz view the significance of nature in her spiritual journey?

Nature served as a source of solace and inspiration for Dobisz, offering moments of profound connection and reflection amidst the tranquility of the wilderness.

  1. What lessons can readers derive from “One Hundred Days of Solitude”?

Through Dobisz’s experiences, readers are reminded of the transformative power of solitude, self-reflection, and the pursuit of inner peace.

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