The spiritual connection between repetitive beats and the human heart is undeniable. Though impossible, it can feel like your heart is beating in time with what is being played on the dancefloor. A techno enthusiast since the late ‘80s, Debbie Griffith felt that connection for years as cofounder of the free party sound system Spiral Tribe, and she continues to feel it as a member of the group’s descendent collective, SP23.
Griffith entered the millennium with a feeling of dissatisfaction, searching for a healthier direction. She went on a free 10-day silent meditation retreat that “was extremely hardcore, very intensive,” she recalls. “I’m not sure if I even managed to close my eyes.” Over the next 12 years, Griffith took many meditation courses, which broadened her world while enlightening her thinking. But there was a downside: She was becoming alienated from her techno family and not connecting with similar spirits in the meditation retreats.
“There are no drugs, there is no talking; there is just music and dance. For a lot of us ravers, it’s like being naked in front of the music.”
She met Denis Robberechts, a 10-year meditation and retreat leader, and told him about her tandem worlds. “I explained to him about my techno background and the chaos of it all, but also the creativity—how so many people I know, myself included, find themselves in a loop with the scene,” says Griffith. “They see a glimpse of something spiritual on the dancefloor, a connection with the music—whether enhanced by drugs or not—and then continue trying to find that same feeling, often getting deeper and deeper into the drugs and losing the connection.”
Robberecht suggested a three-day silent retreat with an evening of techno, as an introduction to meditation for ravers. “Many people on the dancefloor have had experiences of reality that are beyond words. These experiences—drug-induced or not—need to be explored and integrated,” he says. “Many of us who have even once felt life is bigger than the conventional way we usually view it are left with existential questions. There are a lot of people going to parties that are longing for more then just having fun. The inside feeling is a search for freedom, that very feeling that gave birth to the free raves. Spirituality is a search for ultimate freedom. That is the link between these two seemingly different worlds.”
From these two worlds, Dharma Techno was born. The first three retreats took place in the Drôme department of southeastern France. The space used there has a number of rooms with two to three beds each, a large kitchen, dining room, and a great hall that serves as the meditation room, movement room, and techno dancefloor.
Now held in various locations, the current program is a four-day retreat: silence on days one and two, techno on the evening of the third day, and one last day of silence. A typical silent day, which goes from 6am to 9pm, includes movement classes focused on stretching and expression; multiple meditations, some of which are done through walks in the country; and meals—all vegan, with dairy on the side. Participants have some opportunities to ask questions: after the morning meditation, and during the 45-minute group sharing sessions held every other day.
“I know how many people have gotten lost along the way. It seemed that if we could offer ravers (and non-ravers) a time-out of their lives to take stock and be with themselves, then that might help them make more positive life choices.”
Fellow SP23 member Sebastian Vaughan, better known as 69db, is the DJ at Dharma Techno. An experienced selector, he participates fully in all aspects of the retreat before breaking the silence with his music. “I was nervous about coming face to face with myself,” he admits of his first time there. “We are so distracted in modern life, and the ego is a pro at finding a way to keep us focused on it. We forget how scared we are about letting go of that whole side of us, even for short periods of time.” However, he recalls, “It was a fantastic experience. Even when you fail to concentrate—and we fail most of the time—you at least get a good look at how this busy side of you wants to keep the control.”
With a dance music background that stems from the original sounds of Chicago and Detroit, Vaughan is the one that has to bring the music to this highly charged atmosphere of serenity and connection, where everyone’s emotions are heightened. “There are no drugs, there is no talking; there is just music and dance. For a lot of us ravers, it’s like being naked in front of the music.” His sets—which are more live, improvised electronic music than they are a traditional DJ selection—have gone from 4.5 hours at the first retreat to six hours at the most recent one. They start with effects-treated nature sounds and progress into synths, bass and percussion, based on feeling. The styles move from ambient to tribal, then techno and house. Once the peak is reached, he reverses the process, shifting back toward silence.
Vaughan notes how his Dharma Techno sets differ from those he plays at regular gigs: “For the first time in a very long time, I get an incredibly fresh feeling, and that comes off in the music. On a normal night, everything needs to be up and moving, so the dynamic is small. In this context, I get to take my time and go from silence to full on techno, which is a very large dynamic. Just when you thought rave had been put in a box, along comes this.”
One participant, Matt Boulard, first became curious about meditation via Mœbius’ art in comic books like Heavy Metal, as well as later through his favorite TV character, Twin Peaks’ Agent Dale Cooper. A techno enthusiast and follower of SP23, Boulard has now been to two of the Dharma Techno retreats.
“I’ve heard a lot of 69db’s sets, but I’ve never seen the beats coming from such a distance,” says Boulard. “The sounds emerged so progressively from the silence, defining an ambient sound that got more and more syncopated, until you end up feeling the need to get up and move your body. This progression and my enhanced senses dragged me strongly in a trance.”
“You hear the music in a whole new way,” says Griffith. “It helped me listen to it properly. And the movement classes are really good for us raver types who tend to dance in a pretty formulaic way. The classes show us there is a whole world of expressive movement to experience.”
“The atmosphere is one of courage,” adds Robberechts. “The courage to be alone with oneself, without any entertainment, without any distraction. A major difference between Dharma Techno and the retreats I usually lead is that this is a gathering of people who are used to living a hedonistic life, and for whom silence can be challenging. [But] Dharma Techno also brings an element of fun and lightness needed in the world of meditation, where everything becomes deadly serious.”
For now, Dharma Techno asks participants to cover costs only, which is more affordable than any kind of vacation you can take that includes accommodation, food and activities. In addition to the costs, if you feel you benefitted from the experience, you can donate, which goes to those involved in putting the retreat together. Griffith’s ultimate goal is to offer Dharma Techno on donations only, like the dāna system used by most ancient spiritual teachings of the East.
“As soon as you want to start getting healthy and spiritual, you have to be loaded. But what we ask for costs is what a lot of people spend on cocaine for a weekend,” says Griffith. “I know how many people have gotten lost along the way. It seemed that if we could offer ravers (and non-ravers) a time-out of their lives to take stock and be with themselves, then that might help them make more positive life choices.”