Sunday, May 6, 2012

Three Things I Learned at Dathun

I learned a whole lot of things at the mostly silent 28 day meditation retreat called dathun, from which I just returned. I learned that Mahakala (the fearsome Tibetan protector deity known for severing the heads of those who pervert the Dharma) loves his daily shrine offering of Cheerios. Sometimes he gets Rice Crispies too. I learned that eating all of your meals in the Zen Oryoki style can take a few inches off your muffin-top; and little screw-ups during Oryoki can leave a room full of people helplessly giggling. In a dathun you can totally mess with people by putting terrible songs into their heads. I also learned that getting to know people without talking to them is an amazing way to notice things about how your mind works. But of all the things I learned, there are three big ones that I wanted to share with you, so here goes...

Inclusion, inclusion, inclusion...
I used to approach meditation in such a way that it was like sitting down and drawing a circle around myself, with the breath as an instrument to ward off any thought that would sneak into the circle. Now I  understand that EVERYTHING that happens to us while we are sitting on the cushion is worthwhile, including the fidgeting, the looseness, the lust, the imprecision, the frustration and the blissful moments. In other words, we should practice gentleness toward our thoughts. Intellectually, I understood this, but it really sunk in this time.

Mahakala loves Cheerios
We should not push anything away, even thoughts. In the 1973 Dathun letter, Chogyam Trungpa said, "most problems in life don't come from being aggressive or lustful. The greatest problem is that you want to bottle things up and put them aside - and you become an expert in deception."

The purpose of meditation is to practice being present
Whether we think we are good meditators or lousy meditators, we should keep a reasonable perspective on it. Good meditation is not the goal. It's just a tool for increasing our ability to be present for our lives. The aspiration should not be to become an Olympic gold medalist in shamatha or vipashyana meditation. The aspiration should be something more like opening our hearts and minds to the fullest extent possible.

Of course we should be careful that we don't get too loose. We should still approach meditation with a strong aspiration to develop a clear and stable mind through the breathing technique. We should exert ourselves as much as possible in this effort.

I think of this as kind of like skipping stones on a pond. The goal is to fling a stone across the water and have it bounce a few times before it sinks, or we can even hope the stone makes it to the other side of the pond. We make that aspiration when we start skipping stones, just like we make an aspiration to stay with our breath when we practice shamatha. However, the reality is that most of the time the stones don't go very far. They might skip once, twice, or not at all. We shouldn't take this as discouragement. We can delight even at watching the stones sink into the pond. Once in a while we'll throw out a good one and it will keep us inspired to keep trying. 

In case you missed this important point... meditation is first and foremost about learning to be present. 

Put a rock on a leaf
An important refinement to my meditation practice has been recognizing the power of the first few seconds when I sit. It totally changes the quality of that sitting period if, from the moment I sit down, I set my intention to be present with my breath.

In dathun we like to put rocks on things. As Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche says in Turning the Mind into an Ally, "placing" our minds is like putting a rock on a leaf. I love this analogy because when I bring it to mind it conjures something very concrete and firm, yet gentle. I'll post more about this idea soon, along with some notes on a process for "putting a rock on a leaf" that works well for me. Stay tuned!


  1. Great stuff Kipp! Sounds like it was a good month.

  2. Really lovely. I'm inspired all over again.

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  4. So would you do it again? Did you learn anything about your life in dc?

  5. I would definitely do it again. In terms of things I learned about life in DC, I learned that most of the time, our competitiveness is really motivated by fear, even though we like to mask it with phrases like "friendly competition." We like to pretend competition is just a game, but usually it is us feeling insecure. If we really felt confident, we would try to help each other more than compete.

    On the flip side, I now deeply feel that true confidence comes from the discipline of mindfulness. If we can focus on what we are doing, we become truly confident, and I'm not referring to the type of arrogance that masks as confidence. If you are mindful, you can do your job well to the point where it is egoless. It is mind and body synchronization, without the ego filter. If we could learn to work this way I think we would become wonderfully civilized, friendly, efficient, and effective.

  6. Kipp - Thanks for the insights. I too found the dathun (1/2 dathun in my case) to be a profound experience. My wife says I am a calmer, more patient person. I certainly feel somewhat calmer. By the way, watch where you swing that sword you found. You might poke someone in the eye. Jigme Nyima :)