by Will Brown
“We can become extremely wise and sensitive to all of humanity and the whole universe simply by knowing ourselves, just as we are.” – Pema Chödrön, teaching on day two of a dathün
When someone mentions “meditation retreat”, you might get an image of “on the cushion at 4am until lights out at 9pm”. The Shambhala Buddhist practice of Dathün is not just thirty days on “the cushion” but a complete system, or spiritual technology, for developing familiarity and friendliness with one’s mind, body, emotions (and patterns) and one’s own inherent power of healing and wakefulness. At my first Dathün, I discovered that sitting meditation was just a fraction of the practice.
The system of Dathün includes quite a few hours per day of sitting meditation but also walking meditation, dharma talks, contemplation, and chants. And just as integral to Dathün are the mindful “Oryoki” meals, the hours (or days) of silence, one’s interactions with other people, and the furniture, buildings, and land which support the practitioner.
At Dathün, in the kitchen, the hallway, on the cushion, all of it is meditation and all of it asked me to just try opening where I might find the dignity of compassion. For, as I “held my seat” (or bowl, or tongue), I was providing peaceful space for those on the cushion next to me who, in turn, were holding ground for me and all beings.
This “space” developed into care and appreciation for the objects, structures, and environment around me. Being mindful of the Shrine room, the Center, the animals and land, became as integral as returning to my breath rather than following thoughts. In the first few days of Dathün, I had taken personally the loud orange color of the Shrine room. By the end of four weeks I could accept that perhaps the Shrine room wasn’t about me but maybe just a mirror of my ever-shifting mind.
I know that this process of resisting and then accepting reality (suffering, impermanence) will continue for at least this lifetime if not for many more. But over the course of a month of Dathün (four weeks!), I was able to meet some patterns well, and perhaps, wear them out just a little bit. I have since seen friends who stayed only a week, or two, and they surely had significant experiences. But for me to fully unplug, be present and be able to discover, I needed that solid month – that entire page from the calendar – to allow the whole system of Dathün to enable me to make friends with myself, be merciful to others, and begin to experience meditation in everyday life.