Folks who’ve been to Karme Choling, Shambhala’s retreat center in the Green Mountains, agree that it’s a pretty special place. After all the striving and frustration and noise of daily life, it’s extraordinary to find yourself in a spacious, verdant place where every detail reinforces a quiet, structured environment in which you can get to know your own mind. Retreat exists for the sole purpose of training someone to be more gentle with themselves and others, and it’s wonderful. It’s also incredibly difficult, tedious, and often unpleasant. Furthermore, Karme Choling is rotten with skunks.
Like many of my fellow One City bloggers, I fled the city for the country and a meditation retreat this summer. I sat two weeks of the four-week retreat called Dathun (literally and uninterestingly, “month session”), and this is my field report.
I sat an introductory week-long Simplicity retreat last summer at Karme Choling and felt ready to try something more demanding. I got what I asked for. Dathun is a silent retreat, and after the orientation day everyone practices functional silence at all times (“functional silence” meaning, for example, if you’re on fire, you are allowed to gently indicate to someone that you would like some water, please, for use in extinguishing the fire on your body). Sitting begins every morning at 7 AM and ends around 9 PM. Meals are taken in a ritualized manner borrowed from Zen called Orioki, where every implement and motion required for eating is choreographed in a specific sequence. There are periods of sitting and walking meditation broken up by chanting, short free time, yoga, and Orioki meals (which aren’t really a break), and an afternoon period where you can sleep, clean your Orioki set, lay in the grass, or take a walk. You can also read Dharma books or raid the Karme Choling store for ice cream and chocolate, but no talking.
Every minute is scheduled, which has a two-sided effect: it greatly deepens your practice to have a rigid schedule with little room for distractions, but it can be claustrophobic to have little choice in how you use your time. For the first five days, I fought my body, mind, the instructors, the rule to maintain Noble Silence, the frustration of eating Orioki, the fatigue of the long day. Each morning I woke up and, within myself, fought the whole damn Dathun and then woke up the next day and did it again. I disliked many of the endless and, it seemed, petty rules governing everything from when we could leave the hall to get a drink of water to the correct angle of the gaze during walking meditation. I particularly loathed the chants because they seemed too religious. Three times a day the meditation hall filled with fifty droning voices and I thought, “I’ve stumbled into a cult, and I’m the only one who hasn’t drunk the Kool-Aid.”
My shoulders, back, and left knee began to hurt constantly after three days, and I was hungry. The Orioki meals were delicious but meagre for an active guy over 6’5″. I was always stealing off to the kitchen to gobble apples and bread slathered in organic peanut butter. To make things worse, on the second night I was walking to my tent and, in the gloom of a cloudy, drizzly night, I nearly stepped on a skunk. The skunk, frightened and probably indignant, covered my left side with odiferous discharge and I spent several hours bagging my clothing and scrubbing in the shower, panicked that I might trail the smell into the meditation hall. My inner mantra at the end of the first week was, “I call myself a Buddhist, but I’m not sure this is for me. I can be a Buddhist and not put myself through the wringer like this. This is too much. I’m not sure I’m going to make it.”
Acceptance and Surrender
My meditation instructor saved me, or rather, helped me stop fighting the Dathun. At the beginning of the retreat each of the 50 or so practitioners were assigned a meditation instructor, a senior teacher with whom we met every two days to discuss our practice. In our first interview, I talked about the frustration of not being proficient in Orioki (and starving for it), the physical pain, and the feeling that I was simply doing the Dathun wrong. I felt isolated, cut off, often angry. I took any opportunity to speak to others or make a funny face, and I noticed that how I walked took on an exaggerated expressiveness. I was also in emotional pain from the recent death of a friend. In short, I was struggling. “I feel like the teachers look at me and – it’s as if there’s a glass plate on my head and they can see in and they’re judging me for it,” I said. “No,” she said, smiling, “they see a beautiful human being.”
This had an immediate and transformative effect. Somehow, I was able to look at myself free of judgment and harsh expectations. I understood what was happening: I was doing my best, but I was at war with myself, both fighting the structure of Dathun and the discomfort of sitting with the muck of my mind, and very drawn to the ritual and surrender I saw around me. Even though I came to appreciate the discipline of the Dathun (and sorely miss it now), the support and insight that came with those meetings was deeply nourishing.
After I stopped fighting the rigid form of the Dathun, I settled in to practice like I’ve not settled before. I understand now why monks devote their lives to prayer and good works (fasting: meh) – the discipline of the thing is necessary to truly quiet the mind and body. I came to appreciate the bowing, the many forms, and even the chanting. I realized how often I use my mind to override the messages my body is sending, and the frequency with which I expend great energy trying to force mind and body to agree, instead of simply listening. Then, there was the constant buzz of thinking that, after a while, went from fascinating to familiar to slightly boring. For example, I remember one morning sitting when my tickster mind launched a particularly vivid sexual fantasy and a voice seemed to respond, “That again? Can’t we do better than that?“
In the American Buddhist scene it’s become almost cliche for a writer to go on retreat and return with stories about the heightened pleasure of simple things like taking a walk, looking at flowers, or simply sitting in the grass. Well, it’s a cliche because it happens to be true. One of the cooks baked big, soft loaves of multi-grain bread every day and set one out for hungry Dathun-ers, and most days I would have a few slices with butter. The memory is still vivid – after a long day of practice, the act of eating fresh bread with butter while evening gathered over the hills was as perfect as human experience gets. I even found amusement in the company of the skunk who sprayed me in the first week, who I saw almost nightly in the meadow where I was camped. He took on a personality and symbolism not unlike Mara – vindictive and slinking, an enemy of my practice.
One Foot Out the Door
A few days after I had settled in, it was suddenly time to leave. In fact, I had several days left, but the anticipation of rejoining society, of regaining my time and the internet and junk food, became fierce. In an instant, it seemed, I had gone from spending entire minutes (minutes!) without a single discursive thought to unable to sit still because I was ready to get back to my life and wield the mighty ax of my new mindfulness chops.
Stepping back in to the world after two weeks of practice wasn’t as dramatic as I thought it would be, but I felt different in small ways. I noticed how people interact, and the many small acts of both kindness and violence that we exchange every day. I saw a lot of frustration and unhappiness in peoples’ faces. And I found myself slipping right back in to old habitual patterns that I had hoped would be automatically changed after Dathun. I still took the laptop to bed and browsed blogs before going to sleep. I ate junk food. And after I judged my rain pants and jacket to be ruined forever after being sprayed, I had vengeful and angry thoughts about the skunk. There was much backsliding.
Still, I feel my connection to mindfulness is stronger than before, and when I sit down to practice I often see the meditation hall in my mind’s eye. If I don’t feel like sitting and want to blow it off, I remember how rich my awareness became, for short periods of time, and I sit. There’s also something powerful about sitting with other people, and I draw inspiration from some of the other Dathun participants who dealt with more pain and adversity than me and still made it to sitting at 7 every morning. If you get the chance to do a Dathun, or even a week-long retreat, do it. You might hate it at first but it’ll grow on you, and afterwards you’ll find yourself in the car or the subway or standing in an endless line at the drug store wishing everything in life was a little more like retreat.