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.

boat ramp 2.JPG

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

November 2015 full moon – gratitude

red berries close

A few slightly random reflections on Gratitude

“These two people are hard to find in the world. Which two? The one who is first to do a kindness, and the one who is grateful and thankful for a kindness done.” AN 2.118

 As the three-month retreat at IMS comes to a close, there’s a definite shift in the overall mood of the meditators.  Each day, the ones I meet with are expressing more and more gratitude for the opportunity they’ve had to be here, practising intensively for six weeks or three months.
It’s definitely not easy to do this, and yet perhaps because of the challenges, there’s a corresponding depth to the gratitude.  I’ve noticed this in other situations, too – that there can be an unexpected ability to connect with gratitude even in the midst of difficulty.

Continue reading

4 July 2014 – celebrating two years of “homelessness”

2014-07-04 London

Just realised today is the second anniversary since I had to leave the US, which means I’ve been technically homeless and living out of this suitcase (the silver sub) for two years now!  Sending much gratitude to all the people who have given me a roof over my head – thanks to all of you, I’ve been able to continue teaching and travelling and teaching and travelling and …