The Dharma Ocean shrine hall in Crestone, CO.
It wasn’t until Day Three that I really started to feel crazy. It was Wednesday, and we’d already been oriented and trained in the traditional oryoki mealtime ritual. We were settled into our dorm rooms (in my case a mattress and sleeping bag by the shrine room fireplace) and completed our first ROTA work periods—either chopping veggies in the kitchen or vacuuming the common area or wiping down the bathroom sinks. Break times had been whittled down to a minimum. As Reggie Ray announced in his Dharma talk that afternoon, “We’re leaving the shore. There’s nothing in front of us but the open ocean.” In other words, there was no escape. For about eight hours per day, it was me, my cushion and my own little mind.
Dathun—a month-long period of intensive meditation practice—was developed by Chogyam Trungpa to give his students a taste of Buddhist monastic life. The idea is that in such a structured atmosphere (a rigid schedule rotates between sitting, sleeping, oryoki meals and occasional work periods), with none of the daily preoccupations of modern life (no job, no family, no spouse, no errands, no television or computers), practitioners can really let go and come face-to-face with their own minds.
For example, in everyday life, an awkward situation with a stranger in the hallway is usually forgotten within minutes. There are other things to think about. And if we feel insecure, or angry, or confused about something, it usually gets buried under the jumble of every other thought of our day. Not at Dathun. At Dathun, left with endless hours to contemplate, I found insignificant events transforming into monstrosities. The way I bossed everyone around while we loaded the dishwasher during ROTA? Horrendous! The fidgeting practitioner to my left? Insufferable! They guy I passed during walking meditation who I’ve never seen before but is kind of cute? Fantasies! That time when I was five and my dad accidentally dislocated my elbow because I was throwing a tantrum and he was trying to get my jacket off? Oh, the grief! There’s nothing like eight hours of stillness and silence to make you feel like a nut.
Luckily, this was about the time that I remembered to have a sense of humor. And when I stopped obsessing about myself long enough to talk to my fellow practitioners, I realized that most everyone else felt the same way. We were all kind of crazy, left with our own weirdly spinning minds. But, hell, at least we were being ourselves. On Day Four, my meditation instructor, Zach, reminded me of a line from Reggie’s Dharma talk the day before: Each of us is like a walnut in the ocean (I’m paraphrasing here). It may seem terribly rocky and unpredictable to the walnut, but when you let go and look at the big picture, we’re really just floating on an endless sea. That may sound cheesy to you, but I can think of nothing more relaxing or reassuring than floating on my back at the beach, so it worked for me.
Many of us read books about Dharma, about presence and compassion and letting go. But Dathun is where you really have the chance to put those concepts to practice, to make that knowledge experiential. When there’s nowhere else to go, I had no choice but to face my habitual patterns—even when it was painful to see my neuroses at work—and let go of all my ideas about how I and the world “should” be.
Back in my everyday life, things go on much as they did pre-Dathun. I’m still neurotic. But I do feel a crack in the veneer. Having a sense of clarity to refer to, knowing what peace feels like—even a bit, even for a minute—makes it easier to make decisions guided by one enduring piece of wisdom: When in doubt, float like a walnut.
(This being just one person’s experiences, and only for a week—I couldn’t stay for the whole month—I would love others to share their dathun experiences and advice below.)
Practical Notes About Dathun…
1. Just going for a week? It’s harder than you’d think to leave—but also feels naughtily wonderful to escape while everyone else is still practicing. If you’ve never dathuned before, the first week is a great intro to the routine and mealtime rituals. But if you have been on a dathun before, you may want to skip all the orienting and just get to down to business. Which means that you’re probably better off signing up for Week 2 or 3. I’ve heard tell that Week 4 is ruled by relief and celebration, so if you’re just going for a week, it may seem be hard to focus on your practice while everyone else is getting ready to party.
2. Dress like you did in middle school PE class. I went to Catholic School, so for me that means the ugliest, most comfortable sweats ever mass-produced. You’ll want to be comfortable while sitting and sleeping—in such a different environment, there will be plenty to make you feel ill-at-ease (and dealing with that is really just part of the practice)—so don’t impose any discomfort on yourself with tight jeans or itchy clothing. You’ll get a chance to dress up and strut your stuff—if that’s the kind of thing you’re into—at celebration feasts.
3. Bring snacks. Again, a comfort issue. If you’re still hungry after oryoki meals, there’s always a fridge full of left-overs and PB & J, but it can’t hurt to bring a chocolate bar or a stash of LARABARs or your favorite treat for those special moments when you need some personal comfort.
4. Make sure your cushion is really comfortable. Sure, anything gets uncomfortable when you sit on it for eight to ten hours each day. But make sure that you have a cushion well-suited to your body and posture. Being on the wrong type of cushion can cause a lot of unnecessary discomfort.
5. What if I don’t like being surrounded by lots of people I don’t know? I’m sort of shy, and have been known to withstand awkward pauses when I don’t have anything interesting to say to the stranger I’m faced with. I also really love being alone. Dathun is a little like camp. Being surrounded by strangers may seem daunting at first, but facing those fears of social interaction is part of the whole experience. The sangha, or community, created by such close and intense practice eventually becomes a sort of safety net or comfort blanket when you’re having a bad day. There’s always opportunity to take walks alone, plus periods of silence when you can have fun observing everyone without the pressure to interact.
6. What if I want to run away? Or check my email, or call my boyfriend? The dathun container—which generally discourages participants from leaving the retreat center—is meant to keep people from escaping into their normal habits (obsessing over work, for instance, or clinging to a partner). The idea is to find out what happens when all of that stuff isn’t there to fall back on. That said, I got cell phone reception and did some texting.
7. What makes Reggie Ray’s dathun different from other dathuns? I’ve never done a dathun with another teacher, or at any of the Shambhala retreat centers, so it’s hard for me to say. Reggie integrates bodywork practices into his retreats—relaxation exercises and breathwork of different types—to help his students focus and surrender more fully to their meditation practice, and to access pent-up emotion or stress that they may be holding in. Sort of like how it’s easier to meditate after a great session of yoga. Of course, every teacher has their own way of conveying the teachings—it all depends who resonates with you the most. And there’s no better way that to study with them in-person.