My Fiasco At The Secluded Solitary Meditation Cave

A few years back, out of the blue I decided I was ready for solitude and a high meditative practice. I booked myself a solitary cabin with the Shambhala people in Vermont whom at the time would let you do the cave-week retreat if you had taken just seven days of their dathun program (which I had done earlier in Colorado). I think that has changed now and you need more time.  I can see why.

A Dathun is a four-week training in meditation which is completely different than Vipassana.  For example: people are allowed to talk at night, they can eat meat, smoke, and even have sex under certain circumstances.  It was a great introduction to meditation for me as it does not force someone into being a "monk" as Vipassana would.

Solitary Cabin Shambhala Tradition

The day before I left for the retreat I had an argument at work for a reason I don't recall but that at the time seemed very unfair.  I had the image of my boss in my mind the whole drive. Feelings of hatred, anger, and disappointment filled the road.  Not even Pema Chodron's recordings on the car CD could appease me. I was mad and broken.

As soon as I arrived I felt like I was in jail.  The explanations were clear, I was to be alone and walk only to a certain area.  There was the stupa that I could circumvent (if only I was not petrified of bears), and if I needed anything I could leave a note by a certain point on the path to the main hall which would be collected once a day by a mediator aid.  Food or water would be delivered to me twice in the week but I was encouraged to bring as much as I could with me to minimize disruptions.

The cabin had no electricity or heat.  I had to actually keep a fire going and use the gas stove to make simple food that would aid in the meditation.  I was also to abide by all Shambhala codes of meditation.

It had sounded great when I read about it at work, from the point of view of a stressed-out woman at the end of her wits.  Being alone seemed perfect: no other people, nobody to report to, no external world obligations, just sit down and meditate.  How great!  Is it?

There was one single detail I forgot:  MY MIND WAS COMING WITH ME.

My mind at the time, great painting I found at Goturboegon

I was barely able to meditate one hour out of the whole day for the first 4 days.  Everything distracted me, the coyotes calling each other at night, the cold, the bad food, the stove, my body which began to look weird to me, the feeling of being in jail, memories of work.

On the fourth day I was to get a visit from an adviser and knowing that she was coming helped me get a full 1.5 hours of meditation in.

"There is a nice energy here" she said as she came in, maybe just trying to encourage me because I could even sense how palpable my discomfort was.

The next day I walked to the main hall with determination, and found her: I am leaving, I said.  I cannot take this, it is bringing up everything and I cant do anything, much less do nothing.

She suggested I joined the Dathun that was on-going at that time rather than just leave, which I did.  I did not care about sleeping on a mat in the meditation hall, or being kicked out of Dathun-participants-only activities, I was among people again, out of jail! Out of my mind.

The thought of retiring to a cabin sounds good once in a while, but I believe we must remember that the renunciation we are looking for is not one of the world but rather one of our own thought processes.

Just like with Yoga-asana, we build up to it, we cannot determine when we will be ready for more advanced practices, we just need to exercise the muscles on a daily basis, and let the rest come.

Here are 7 things to renounce right here, right now, before we go all out looking for a cave:

  1. Our own belligerent tendencies
  2. Our anger
  3. Our pain
  4. Our idea that to achieve higher states of yoga we must be secluded
  5. Our saboteur
  6. Our idealization that being anywhere else would be better than right here
  7. Our Resistance to be present with things exactly as they are right now
Last year James and I went back to Shambhala in Vermont for an "Intro to Meditation" weekend. One afternoon we had a group walk and we passed near the area of the the solitary cabins.  

Some of the group participants were talking about their solitary retreat experiences. I said nothing.  James wanted me to share my story with the group, but I was reluctant.  He was all in awe at me that I had managed such feast, but internally I knew I was a fake.  That is why I wanted to say nothing.

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  1. You are so not a fake. You're the real deal.

  2. What James said! Wow, that is hard core. But it sounds like it taught you what it needed to. You can only call it a fiasco when you don't learn anything :) Love the painting of your mind, too.

  3. Hi Jen, so good to read from you, and yes it definitelly taught me what i needed to learn :)

  4. Love this post! especially this: "there was one single detail I forgot: my mind was coming with me"
    You're so right, what we really want is to go on vacation and leave the chattering mind behind for a few days. ;)

  5. There are some days when I'm so sick of myself, and all the thoughts and narratives that keep popping up without restraint. Those are the days when going to hide out in a cave/retreat seem most appealing but of course, it's just an illusion. Great list of things to renounce, I especially need to remember #6 right now and I'm curious as to what #5 is?

  6. Christine, yes that is right, wish there were vacation packages like that....

    Saddict, I agree, just illusion, if we cannot let them out right here it is unlikely they will leave us alone at the cave... As per five, the saboteur is the voice that constantly tells us we are not good enough....

  7. Thank you for the honest post...just perfect. This topic has been popping up a lot in my world lately...Reminds me of a quote from Sri Nisargadatta:

    "You cannot renounce. You may leave your home and give trouble to your family, but attachments are in the mind and will not leave until you know your mind in and out. First thing first - know yourself, all else will come with it."

    and also:

    "Of Course there is a way which is neither violent nor sterile and yet supremely effective. Just look at yourself as you are, see yourself as you are, accept yourself as you are and go ever deeper into what you are."

  8. Tom, thanks for your comment, and I love those two quotes, so 'right-on' as the Canadians say, perfect!

  9. Great post. I laughed out loud at "my mind was coming with me." So true that the mind is what we are really trying to escape from so much of the time, yet it is the last thing we can ever really escape from.

    Also a great reminder not to force things when we aren't ready. It can be hard to sit back and wait for things to organically happen, especially if you are a type A as so many yogis are, but in the end things that happen when you are ready are so much better.

    My mentor always says "when the student is ready the teacher appears."

  10. Thank you Hannah... very true. Something you just said is making me think about a new blogpost, something about how things end up happening anyway... thanks for commenting! and yes the teacher does appear, maybe not in the form we expect it, but it does :)

  11. This is a beautiful, honest and quite extraordinary conscious blog post.

    I agree with you on all seven items, but #5 and especially #6 of the Seven Things to Renounce, are a perfect fit for me. I share a similar experience.

    In the mid-90's, after visiting a near-by retreat center for about five years, I took a hermitage for one-month of silence and non-communication. I was given a wood splitting job for four-hours of solo work each day. In addition to my personal saboteurs, I found myself thinking (mind) that I could be at home (attachment), in my little community, doing this physical labor as volunteer work (ego).

    After four days, while the entire community at the retreat center was at an evening meditation function, I schlepped my things quietly to the car and drove away. When I returned home, my SEVA held a different quality.

    The next morning, I informed the retreat center that I was gone. Of course, I returned for more programs later in the year. At first, I was slightly embarrassed. Eventually, I allowed myself to feel soothed and accepted by the community. Finally, I accepted myself.

  12. Thanks Kameshwari, good to know I am not alone... amazing story yours, I can feel the pain in those moments that you write about, great story, hey you should be blogging! maybe you do? oh yes, I see you do... will add you to the blogroll to stay in touch! Love how your story ends with you accepting yourself and then continuing on, going back for other retreats.


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