Before and after
A couple of years ago, I wrote a post titled “Retreat and pre-retreat practice“, which explored ways to navigate some of the anxiety and other challenges that often come up before we go on retreat.
This month, I’m writing about another aspect of retreat practice that doesn’t always get a lot of attention, and that’s what happens after retreat. This exploration feels alive for me right now, having just finished teaching a five-day retreat for Auckland Insight at a camp in Huia, on the Manukau Harbour.
Waking up every morning to the soft lapping of waves on the harbour shore, and the song of tui (native birds) calling from the kauri trees was very relaxing. And after five days of no internet or mobile phone access, I noticed how much more at ease my body, heart, and mind felt. But then, there’s the return … for most of us, to busyness, overwork, hyper-stimulation, and various relational challenges, with partners, family, friends, colleagues, neighbours.
What is “real life?”
It’s common for people to talk about this return as going back to so-called “real life.” But thinking of everyday life as “real life” implies that retreat life is somehow “unreal.” In the first few years of my own practice, I often got caught in this duality, not seeing that there was an underlying cynicism built into it.
On retreat, I’d sometimes experience moments of clarity, stillness, and alignment with a deeper truth that at the time, felt very rewarding. But coming back home, it was easy to lose connection with the value of those moments, to dismiss them as irrelevant, unreliable, or even naive.
Later on, I recognised that this was a kind of defense mechanism to protect myself from what often felt like a significant loss: loss of connection with my own capacity to give and receive love; loss of connection with my own capacity to understand more fully; loss of connection with the deeper purpose of life; and loss of connection with others who shared similar aspirations.
Grief and gratitude
It was only after several longer retreats at the Forest Refuge that I eventually understood that my cynicism was a way of avoiding grief. It was a relief just to be able to name this, then I could make time for a kind of “mourning period” to allow the sadness to move through. Surprisingly, when I was able to do this, what often emerged was a sense of profound gratitude that helped to balance out the grief.
Intuitively, this movement between allowing grief and orienting to gratitude helped me to come back to balance, and the benefits of retreat practice became more sustainable – even in the midst of the many challenges of everyday life.
(You can hear more on this theme of post-retreat practice in one of my recent talks given at Auckland Insight, here.)
Consciously cultivating gratitude is just one suggestion to help navigate any post-retreat rockiness. Staying connected to sangha, community, is also invaluable. If there isn’t a sitting group in your area that you can meet with regularly, you might consider inviting someone from the retreat to stay connected with you online. These days, most people have the technology to make occasional meetings via video-call possible, and this can be a great way of maintaining or strengthening dharma friendships.
There are also many study courses available on line now too, that support the deepening of our practice in community. Organisations such as the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, Spirit Rock Meditation Center, Lion’s Roar magazine, and Tricycle magazine all offer online courses covering a wide range of Buddhist study and practice.
Next Step Dharma online course
One course that’s particularly aimed at supporting the transition from retreat practice to daily life is Next Step Dharma, set up by my friends Oren Sofer and Jaya Rudgard.
I occasionally host the online Q&A sessions for this course, and always enjoy connecting with people around the world who are exploring ways to integrate their retreat understanding into daily life.
More info here
May we all navigate the transitions between pre-retreat, retreat, and post-retreat practice with ease!