April 2018 full moon – Retreat and post-retreat practice

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.

harbour headland 1.JPG

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.

harbour foreshore rocks 6.JPG

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.)

Sangha

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 CenterLion’s Roar magazine, and Tricycle magazine all offer online courses covering a wide range of Buddhist study and practice.

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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!

July 2017 full moon – Gratitude

FR meadow Buddha

Just last week, I finished a one-month retreat at the Insight Meditation Society’s Forest Refuge in Barre, Massachusetts, led by Sayadaw U Vivekananda.  What a relief it was, to temporarily put down some of the burdens I didn’t even know I was carrying, and to have such a powerful opportunity to “disentangle the tangle” (as the discourses say)!

The challenges and rewards of retreat practice

Being silent and unplugged for a whole month might sound easy – and perhaps for some people, it is – but for most of us it can be surprisingly challenging at times.  As Andrew Holecek, a US teacher and student of Tibetan Buddhism, recently wrote:
Retreat is not for the faint of heart. It takes courage to stop and face one’s mind so directly. But if you want to be unconditionally happy, which is one way to talk about enlightenment, there is no other way. Sooner or later you have to relate to your mind instead of from it. Otherwise you will forever be held captive by the contents of your mind, shackling yourself to every shiny thought that pops up, a prisoner of your own making.
https://www.lionsroar.com/block-all-exits-from-retreat/

Gratitude

Even though it’s not always easy to be on retreat, the rewards are immense.  Towards the end of my time at the Forest Refuge the gratitude I felt for this opportunity became quite overwhelming.  I realised that next year will be the 15th anniversary since sitting my first three-month retreat at IMS, and that every year since then (with one exception) I’ve been able to sit either a one, two or three-month retreat here. Continue reading

Meditating together in May

FR Buddha head

Each month on or about the full moon, I’ve been trying to write a post about some aspect of dharma practice that’s relevant to what’s happening in my own life.  This next full moon though, I plan to be on retreat at the Insight Meditation Society’s Forest Refuge in Barre, Massachusetts, for the whole month of May, and I won’t have access to email, computers, or technology of any kind.

Even though I’ll be in silence and solitude, I know from past experience that a powerful feeling of connection with others can happen on retreat, especially with other meditators.  I’d been wondering about ways to make that felt sense of connection more tangible, then by coincidence, a friend sent me information about the “Mindful in May” challenge.  This challenge combines the benefits of committing to meditate every day, with fund-raising for Charity Water.

A not for profit organisation, Charity Water donates 100% of its funds to providing clean water in regions such as West Africa, where Mindful in May founder Elise Bialylew describes ” … watching in disbelief as women walked barefoot along cliffs for miles, balancing litres of water on their heads, only to do it all again the next day … For the lucky ones the water they brought back to their families were from clean wells – for the unlucky ones, contaminated water would quickly infect their families and lead to sickness and oftentimes death. This problem seemed so overwhelming, I really wanted to do something to make a difference, but I just didn’t know how it would be possible.
Fast forward 12 years and that latent feeling of wanting to make a difference came to the surface in an unexpected way through the idea for Mindful in May. When I created Mindful in May four years ago, I never would have imagined that four years later it would have spread into a global movement and have impacted the lives of thousands living without clean water.”

To commit to the Mindful in May challenge, you sign up to meditate for 10 minutes a day for the month of May as either a team or individual. You then receive access to a one month online course, which includes a meditation program delivered daily to your inbox, including audio guided meditations and video interviews with global experts such as Sharon Salzberg, Tara Brach, Kristin Neff and Dr Richard Davison.

If I wasn’t already on retreat at the Forest Refuge, I’d definitely be taking up the challenge!  I’ll be meditating every day anyway, so if you’d like to join me in spirit you might consider signing up for “Mindful in May” here:

Home Page

A second, highly worthwhile way of boosting your dharma practice in May is the online “EcoSattva Training” being offered by One Earth Sangha, starting Sunday 10 May 2015.  This training has evolved from the series of five online “Mindfulness and Climate Action” conversations in the fall of 2014, and is an opportunity to “join Joanna Macy, Rev. angel Kyodo williams and other great wisdom teachers of our time as we explore, connect and support each other in engagement amid these profound changes.”

Again, an opportunity I’m sorry to miss, but hopefully some of you might be able to join it.  More information here:

Eco-Sattva Training

Whatever you’re doing in May, I wish you well and look forward to exploring the dharma with you again soon.