Eight Hours of Meditation, for Seven Days Straight: One Gal’s Reflections on Week 1 of Reggie Ray’s Dathun. Plus, Specifics Every First-Time Dathuner Should Know.

Via on Jan 7, 2009


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.

About Merete Mueller

Merete is a writer and filmmaker, and was once-upon-a-time the Managing Editor of elephant journal's print incarnation, from 2006-2008. Today, you can find her on Twitter @meretemueller and on her blog To The Bones. Her first documentary, "TINY: A Story About Living Small", about people who have downsized their lives into homes the size of a parking space, premiered at SXSW in March 2013.

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25 Responses to “Eight Hours of Meditation, for Seven Days Straight: One Gal’s Reflections on Week 1 of Reggie Ray’s Dathun. Plus, Specifics Every First-Time Dathuner Should Know.”

  1. Simran says:

    Heather,

    What a beautiful post! I am a practitioner of Vipassana meditation, which is a little different from your experience but I think we, hopefully, end up in the same place: less attached. (Enter vision of Heather on her back in the ocean here.)

    My intensive ten day retreats really help all the monkeys in my mind slow down and remind me, through observing, that everything rises and falls – the grief, the fantasies, the self-judgment, all of it. I long to do a better job of remembering that in daily life but I know slowly, slowly it will come.

    Warm embrace,

    Simran

    • Nadeem says:

      Wow Wow people are talking about meditation and its effect in life ,for me , i do not miss a day when i don't find 45 minutes to sit and meditate. Again Wow
      A very warm embrace to all of you here ………

  2. Your words have been honed by silence—fantastic Heather! One question—how exactly does one “float like a walnut?” It really sounds lovely…

  3. Lindsey Wolf lindsey says:

    Heather, thanks so much for sharing some real down to earth advice and insights on your experience (pack snacks? love it). I have never been on a meditation retreat, although the ashram I used to go to would do silent retreat weekends. I. like. to. talk. I should have tried that one before I left NY state. But eight hours a day for a week? Really it honestly just brings up fear for me to be with my mind for that long. Perhaps then it’s something I should face when the timing is right. I’m saving your blog for future reference. :)

  4. sj* says:

    i love to hear about the various meditation courses and experiences people have. though i’ve never done a Dathun, i can certainly relate from my multiple experiences with “long rounding courses.” as a TMer, the same tips apply: bring some munchies, wear it comfy and be like the walnut. and if you’re lucky, you’ll come out alive.

  5. Jayson Gaddis Jayson says:

    Thanks for the post Heather! Very helpful. And, I wanted more. I’ve been to a few of these suckers with Reggie. I wanted to hear more about your experience and how you felt about the Dharma teachings given by RR.

    What about the new building? the views from the windows? the storms passing by? what was it like?

  6. Adriane says:

    Great blog! I feel like I may need a retreat like this……..it seems like my mind never stops thinking, even in yoga class!

  7. Wow Heather! It sounds like this could be a really cathartic experience for a lot of people. Including me, this has really inspired me to look into a meditation retreat! I’m currently a college student in Portland, Oregon and I was wondering if any of you out there know of ways that college students who attend public universities could have access to such a thing at an affordable price..
    I’d love to hear more comments.

  8. Gabrielle says:

    I would imagine one might float gently when “floating like a walnut.” Or, for a completely different reference: “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” but that’s a whole other path.:^D

    (Thanks to Mohammad Ali for second the quote.)

    Your personal description of facing your mind during a weekthun was very human. Thanks for writing it. – Gabrielle

  9. Heather says:

    Thanks for the comments, everyone. So much to respond to!

    Caroline, thanks for urging me to be more concrete. Personally two things come to mind when I think of how exactly to “float like a walnut”
    1. To get my body to a place where it feels just like I’m at the beach floating. Then, it’s easier for my mind to follow suit and relax a little. Reggie Ray’s often teaches a bodywork practice called “ten points”—you basically lay on your back with your knees up and feet on the floor and go through your body slowly, releasing tension along the way. I think he may have free downloadable guided meditations of this on his site: http://www.dharmaocean.org . Traditional shamatha meditation where you focus on the breath and label your thoughts as “thinking” is another.
    2. Another way that I’ve been practicing this lately, is that whenever I find myself confused or at odds or generally overwhelmed (which kind of happens a lot these days), I just admit to myself ‘I don’t know,’ instead of trying so hard to figure things out—which usually just ends up trying me up in knots even more tightly. This doesn’t mean being passive or in denial, just thinking ‘whatever’ about everything, but it does allow me to get some space from the situation, so that I can better act and make decisions mindfully later on that aren’t based on anger or confusion or anxiety.

    If any of y’all have personal advice of your own, I’d love to hear it!

  10. Heather says:

    And to David,

    Dharma Ocean (which is Reggie’s foundation) and I’m pretty sure the Shambhala retreat centers offer scholarships to students and others who couldn’t ordinarily afford the retreat at regular price. There are also work study options, where you alternative working in the kitchen and practicing in the shrine room each day.

    Ashoka Credit Union is also an organization that is experienced in giving loans to people for retreats: http://www.ashokacreditunion.org/

  11. Thanks Heather! I will have to look into that as an option for my summer break!

  12. elephant journal admin says:

    I’ve done two Dathuns. The first was like sitting on a hot stove—painfully boring, all I wanted to do was getaway (it didn’t help that I was 17, full of hormones and wildness). We snuck off, watched the World Series, partied, romanced…the leader of our Dathun had a nervous breakdown, and at the end we all made shirts that said Disfunctional Dathun and gave ‘em out to everyone.

    So you can see why I did another. A few years later. And it was just the opposite. I was 20, now, and practiced meditation with one-pointed attention. Like Heather said, I really noticed the effect small distractions had. By the end of the month, I remember my mind feeling like a cleaned out cistern—I’d hit rock bottom, in a good way, I could see through all those thoughts to the bare nature of who I was.
    My hands have shaken a bit my whole life—I remember for a few weeks after that Dathun they didn’t shake at all, which amazed me.

    Concern: most Dathuns these days, like whales, have attracted all kinds of anciliary distraction—bodywork in Reggie’s case, Shambhala bla bla talks at Shambhala Mountain Center…back in Trungpa Rinpoche’s day, they were about getting away from distraction, and leaning into what he called ‘hot boredom.’

    Personally, I’d recommend a Dathun at Karme Choling, in Vermont. Something about sitting in a little wooded valley with a big view is…perfect, and comforting. But I hope, with Jayson’s kind encouragement, to check out Reggie’s Dathun this Summer, or whenever it next happens. And write about it!

  13. Leanne Bird says:

    Beautiful Heather, I really enjoyed reading this post. In fact, it reminded me of a thought in the back of my mind I’ve had for awhile now saying “Do a mediation retreat…”

    So happy you enjoyed it. And it’s always lovely to read your writing.

  14. Christa Mueller says:

    Heather, your piece is so beautiful and so honest. Sometimes I can get a taste of that floating on a quiet mountain meadow. But 8 hours for a string of days sounds like pure luxury, or, on closer look, maybe not! Facing yourself in such a way sounds brave and wise too.

    Christa

  15. Dominique says:

    Once again, Heather, you have managed to use your wonderful writing to document intelligently the tranquilizing experience that is Dathun. I have never been to Dathun but am definitely attracted by the prospect of long periods of silence respected by all and people watching. I absolutely love the idea of spending that much time in one place collecting thoughts and insights about myself and the world around me. Sign me up. And the feeling of being a walnut in the ocean? Of recognizing the beauty of just floating, to just be? I don’t think I could ask for anything more in this life since I have that feeling constantly as it is. I have tried slowly to bring meditation back into my life, and I really did forget the calming effect it can have after a difficult day. I just really love learning different ways to make meditative philosophies even more accessible in the every day, with strangers and friends, wherever you are. Excellent blog as always.

  16. elephant journal admin says:

    Oh, btw, this quote seemed apropos:

    “I think that cheerfulness has something to do with with simplicity. Simplicity allows us to experience our mind in a raw and naked state….one of the most welcome & important aspects of practicing & studying the Buddhist teachings is that we begin to trust our mind & discover the inherent goodness in it, The result is being cheerful.”

    - Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche

  17. Anna says:

    This is inspiring Heather
    Thank you.

  18. elephant journal admin says:

    Great point, Leondor…you sound like a philosophy major (a good thing). The point however is not an intellectual one, but that what Dathun traditionally offers is…

    …space…

    …and lots of it. The temptation, both in Shambhala Buddhist circles and elsewhere, is to fill that space. But like the Beatles said, space is all you need sometimes.

  19. Leandor says:

    It seems silly to call body work or dharma talks a distraction anymore than to say that to shower or sleep is a distraction from practice. We need to resists the temptation to create in our minds the idea of a pure dathun setting and an impure one for that would be just another polarization of what often times can be a difficult situation.

  20. David says:

    hi Heather,

    Just wanted to let you know that I really enjoyed the Elephant article!

    I recall that a few years ago at Dathun, Reggie’s instructions to us were: “your job here is to fall apart”, and related to that, “and that’s what the annoying container is all about. To make is safe for you to do so. So just surrender to the forms”

    and the time in late 2003 when a NY Times photographer came into the shrine room. Some people were offended (violating a sacred space); my reaction was quite different; i thought, “30 million people are going to see this. Some small percentage of them are going to want to learn to meditate; who do we think is going to teach them?????” That was my initial inspiration to become an MI, and the point when my practice stopped being just about me.

    i think Reggie’s dathuns are unique because he goes out of his way to open us to the depths of our relative (i.e. emotional, personal, “real life” experience) (rather than inviting us to “bliss out”, which is also known as spiritual bypassing or spritual materialism and actually is NOT helpful for releasing karma. This, as you probably saw, can include profound grief and pain (or whatever else we bring with us), and his (and everyone else’s) love invites us to feel safe in going there and cooking in that soup. Maybe he best expressed it the week you were at this dathun: “Our bodies have the wisdom to process our deepest feelings. We don’t have to work so hard in our minds. Trust the wisdom of the body. The feelings will move. That is how karma is released”…..That seems unique in our culture.

    best to you,
    David

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