Reflections On One-On-One

What we call ‘one-on-one’ is one of the pillars of Zen practice, along with zazen meditation and the very circumstances of retreat and daily life. It is the encounter between two people, often teacher and student, and usually consisting of a number of interactions over the course of a retreat. Gathered below are the personal reflections of a number of participants. We offer them as windows into this aspect of the practice.

Things to consider before your first one-on-one.
Sooner or later every serious Zen practitioner walks into a one-on-one room for the first time. It is a natural step in your practice. Zen literature abounds with examples of dialogues between masters and monks (whether they are called mondo, sanzen or dokusan). Hits, shouts and incomprehensible responses galore. Fascinating stuff. Yet it can (and should) be much closer to home. Recognize any of the issues in the quotes below?
1. “Rabbit’s clever,” said Pooh thoughtfully.
“Yes,” said Piglet, “Rabbit’s clever.”
“And he has Brain.”
“Yes,” said Piglet, “Rabbit has Brain.”
There was a long silence.
“I suppose,” said Pooh, “that that’s why he never understands anything.”
2. “When you are a Bear of Very Little Brain, and you Think of Things, you find sometimes that a Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it.”
3. “You can’t stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.”
4. Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind. “Pooh?” he whispered.
“Yes, Piglet?”
“Nothing,” said Piglet, taking Pooh’s hand. “I just wanted to be sure of you.”
5. “It’s snowing still,” said Eeyore gloomily.
“So it is.”
“And freezing.”
“Is it?”
“Yes,” said Eeyore. “However,” he said, brightening up a little, “we haven’t had an earthquake lately.”
6. “I’m not lost for I know where I am. But however, where I am may be lost.”

Bottom line: one-on-one is an ‘extension’ of your zazen: just be where you are. That is enough. Always. Don’t turn it into Something. Forget about masters and monks. Just go in, meet this guy on the other cushion and then take it from there.
– GvO, 55, NL

On one-on-one
Each and every moment is one-on-one. Each and every moment is a unique and precious presence, where one is not different and not the same with the other, whatever form it takes. The falling away of separation, the falling away of oneness. Dynamic, vibrant, alive. Each and every moment is a time to deepen and mature practice, and to express yourself as what you are, in complete freedom.
This is the simplest thing in the world, but it is not easy at all. To help you find this freedom, to see it through for yourself and express it in the world, during retreat there is a chance for a more specific one-on-one. Here, it is simply meeting with Jeff – one-on-one.
It can take any form. Come as you are, in all openness. Present yourself, in silence or words, see what comes up, how it unfolds. Where are you in your practice, in your sitting? Is there something you bump up against? Is there clarity and joy, pain and frustration? Where are you, who are you, right at that moment? Present yourself.
To present yourself is to understand what is at the root of yourself at this moment. Not to go for branches, however tempting it may be. One-on-one is not psychological counselling. It is about helping you realize the fundamental truth that you are, your very essence, the essence of all. Your practice will strengthen and deepen.
For me, one-on-one is always a catalyst in my sitting. Rather than it being a break from zazen, to me it is an opportunity to clarify it and to make sure I’m going in the right ‘direction’. Most always, the sitting is deeper and more focused after that.
I had very tough times in one-on-one. Not because of the interaction, but because it is the perfect moment to see your own insufficiency, to see the gap you still have to bridge. That gap becomes very manifest. I often came to Jeff and said: ‘I know it, but I cannot say it from the heart.’
To be confronted with this inability to express it fully, is itself a precious spur for practice. Then, when finally the veils fall away, one-on-one is a chance to test the thoroughness of that. And to find pointers about how to continue practicing.
– Ron, Zen student, The Netherlands

One-on-one is living truth, revealed immediately & directly, without the confines of self or other.
And it is brought to life, tested and refined,through opening up with the other.
We all need to be open and honest – without that, one-on-one is impossible. We must put down everything when we enter one-on-one. See clearly what you are doing. For some people, one-on-one is like confronting a wall with no possible entrance. Others experience it as completely open on all sides. Either way, that’s something you bring with you. Let it all go – then enter!
Where are you in your actual moment-to-moment practice? Not where do you want to be or where do you think you should be. Then find the practice that is appropriate. One of the reasons we have one-on-one is so that we can go through this together. Then you can clearly see where you actually are, and we can find the practice appropriate for you.

– Jeff S, 60, teacher, Japan

During an intensive retreat with many hours of sitting in silence it is only natural that one encounters all kinds of physical and mental problems. Sometimes it’s good just to sit through these problems and find that they dissolve of themselves. But sometimes they persist. Whether physical pain or mental turmoil, it just seems to get worse. You might reach a point where it all seems pointless. Where you feel you get completely stuck like a rat in a trap. At those points it really gets tempting to just get up, leave the whole meditation business for what it is and go to a bar and get drunk.
When the pressure gets that high, there is this opportunity to share your misery with someone who knows exactly where you are. And paradoxically you don’t need a pat on the back or some encouraging words. Whatever you have or have lost, wherever you are or however lost you are, you just need a mirror to see what it is you’re doing. One-on-on provides just that. So when it all feels pointless, you might need to hear to just let it be really pointless and neither more nor less. And when you get to a point where you are stuck – I mean really stuck – you might need to hear that is exactly the place where you need to be. Another human being, just like yourself that knows you and sees you, who expands your world by puncturing that little bubble of misery you might be wallowing in. It is nothing short of a release and you can simply get on with the practice, without stumbling over petty things like pain or self-pity.
Of course there is the happy side too. Blazing fireworks of insights, deep emotions of happiness, even bliss that lift you above your cushion. Finally, Nirvana achieved! These are most likely the points in practice where you are more than ever in need of that compassionate other who knows you and sees you just as you are right then and there. You’re lucky if you are within the supporting structure of a retreat with such a one available for one-on-one. Because getting stuck in that provisional bliss is even worse than getting stuck in pain and desperation. Practice stops neither at misery nor happiness.
Whatever you bring to one-on-one, that’s what you will find there. If you bring a brick you’ll find a wall, if you come with an open hand you’ll find an open heart. In short, whatever you might need, you will find in one-on-one. Simply, just because that is what you bring to it – and get reflected back in that confronting but dead-honest mirror.
– Stefan van W., 49, Husband/Father/Student, The Netherlands

One-on-one is like an honest friend pointing a mirror directly where I am stuck.
Then giving guidance so that I can find my way out of the forest and get through on my own.
This friend does not point out my ego errors. He speaks straight and clearly to me.
He has been through this himself, so I can fully trust him.
It is a precious opportunity which you do not get very often in life.
– Tom W., Germany, IT-Engineer&father&human

What is one-on-one?
For me participating in a retreat is always an intense experience. Sitting for hours and hours and hours. Keeping noble silence all the time – even during lunch I have to keep all my brilliant thoughts inside… In this harsh environment, one-one-one could be the spot to relax, the spot for recreation. Grab a cup of coffee, join your Zen-teacher in his room and chat a bit about the big questions of life.
But that is not what one-on-one is. No coffee, no chatting.
It’s always easier to know what it is not than to know what it is. So, having no clue what one-on-one really is, I can only try to describe how I experience one-on-one:
Well, first of all, one-on-one is – as it says – about two people, the Zen-teacher (in my case Jeff Shore) and the Zen-student, meeting in private during a retreat. When we meet, we bow (gasshou) and sit in front of each other in seiza position (as I learned after doing it wrong many, many times by sitting in zazen position). One-on-one takes place once or twice a day for each participant of the retreat.
The first one-on-one session of a retreat usually starts with Jeff asking me a question. Most of the time I think “Well, that is not really what bothers me most…” Still I come around with an answer. I can sense that my answer is half-hearted. And I know Jeff senses that my answer is half-hearted. So, Jeff offers me some hints, some direction to follow-up on the question. This first session usually lasts five minutes.
The upcoming one-on-one sessions in general are shorter. Most of the time they are follow-ups on the first one to see whether my answer has matured. At other times I ask a question mostly about basic things like how to respond to pain and things like that. In all cases somehow the question of the first session stays present. And the question I did not really care about at first seems to gain more and more of my attention.
Towards the end of the retreat Jeff tunes up the intensity a bit. He encourages me to really use the last day or hours of the retreat wisely and to really reach an answer to the question. And (simplifying a bit) two scenarios are possible. In one scenario I do not get to the answer. In the other scenario I somehow get closer to the answer. Then I share my conclusion with Jeff and he gives me some feedback on it. And Jeff’s feedback helps a lot to confirm the experience for myself.
Summarizing, the one-on-one sessions give me some direction during a retreat. They keep me from getting too hung up with my very, very personal questions. Thus one-on-one is very valuable for me – even without coffee.
– Stefan E., 42, Tax Accountant, Germany

Facing a one-on-one meeting with Jeff caused me a lot of stress in the past.
I was in turmoil: what am I going to say this time? Wracking my brains for an answer – always ending with: “I don’t know.”
All these questions: What does Jeff want to hear from me? What am I looking for? What about all these emotions – anger, desperation, tears? What is it I cannot see?
I was like a cat chasing its own tail, as Jeff once said.
All these years Jeff remained the same – being always there – like a STOP sign
Why didn’t I stop then? I really don’t know.
Somehow with all this going on, trust started to build. Now I can be (during one-on-one) what I am.
– Ruth, 59 yrs., nurse, married + 2 children

Reflections on one-on-one
You enter the one-on-one room where what may seem like a mere, initial formality is observed: gathering into a seated posture before another and then bowing with your palms together, the bow is returned.
But please understand: this is already all of one-on-one. It’s like the Buddha holding up a flower and Mahākāśyapa smiling in return: all is already manifest. And everything that follows in one-on-one comes to flow out of it.
What flows out? Speaking or silent, challenge or celebration, it is naturally brief and to the point. No need for commentary. Two people in a room, dancing as emptiness, no opposing position – even where there’s the most pressing concern! It’s the total expression of wondrous, unimpeded, boundless functioning, of two who are not two – that’s you. Two people, each one all of it, each one. So that one encounters one. So that one plus one equals one. That’s one-on-one. That’s you.
So that first exchange of bows is all of it. And yet it’s only some of it. Look, bowing must give way to what comes. You can’t stick to it, or to anything else. Not even to the idea of ‘not-sticking’. And since there’s no particular form or standpoint to stick to, each occasion as it comes can be all of it. Every time. You. So when you are unsure, tripping up or just unable to fathom things, that’s all of it and some of it. And when you inquire with all of body-mind, or get absolutely stuck, or sit regally without lack like one round moon, or when you offer a pointer or laugh at all the fuss, or playfully subvert, or probe and express the matter this way or that, calling and responding – in each and every case, that’s all of it and some of it. Fully expressed on each occasion, still it can’t be captured or tamed, endlessly opening out. And in each and every case, that’s you, two who are not two, engaged in one-on-one.
One-on-one is undertaken in complete sincerity, in sheer honesty. Two who are not two – you – confirms that no one and nothing is ever isolated or left out. Is it so? Thoughts about it won’t do. Nor will any pose. No, it’s simple. Just you.
And with final bows (again, all of it) one-on-one “concludes.” Then it’s time to go your different ways, though not apart, continuing to simply realize sitting, standing, walking or lying down, out of stillness creatively responding as birdsong and cries take the shape of daily life joyous or fraught, nothing the least bit out of the ordinary.
That’s all of it and some of it.
– Marty A, 60, NYC

More participant impressions that include reflections on one-on-one may be found here.
You may read the account of Guus on his Zen practice here and in German here.
You may also submit your own brief Reflection on one-on-one here.