Coming Back From Retreat

Having just come back from a 5 day retreat myself the question that we often have about how can we maintain our retreat experience when we return to our ordinary lives is fresh in my mind. It is a question that is asked of the teacher on virtually every retreat, but yet there is never one clear answer. It is tempting to assume that our retreat experience is so dependent on the conditions that being on retreat creates, such as a set structure, noble silence, hours of daily meditation, daily teaching, that it is simply impossible to maintain our retreat state out in the wider world. To some extent this is true, the deep meditative states that we can get into on retreat do depend very much on the stillness and simplicity of retreat conditions. For example if you attend a monastic retreat at Amaravati your life is very simple, no mobile phones, no talking, no eating after 12pm, a set timetable and a bell to guide you to your next activity. This simplicity quickly takes the heat out of the mind and body, modern life generates so much stress and stimulation that deep meditative states are hard to achieve normally, but after a day or two living the simple retreat life that energy dissipates and we begin to calm down. The lesson isn’t that we can only meditate well when we are on retreat though, the lesson is that we need to change our ordinary lives if we are really serious about our practice.

For me the time since I have left the retreat has been a time of close observation of my experience to see if I can understand just what it is about the feeling we have on retreat that makes it so different to how we ‘normally’ feel when we have been living our worldly lives. On the day the retreat finished I was still in that mode, I had experienced many deep meditations and realisations and came out peaceful and focused. I have a few bad habits, one of which is reading Twitter. On the day I came home I had no urge at all to look at the internet, and even a day later when I did have a quick look I felt disinterested and detached from it, it all just looked like words and pictures. But the day after I found myself going back to my habit more, and when I was reading the comments I felt much more connected to them, engrossed in them. This change alerted me to the fact that whatever my retreat mode was it was now wearing off. I decided to investigate to see if I could find what was changing.

One of the big learning points I had taken from the retreat was that I had previously lost my mindfulness for many months and that through practice on retreat I had managed to get it back. Now as I investigated myself, again I found that it was mindfulness that was fading. Why was it fading? Well when I thought about what it was that had allowed it to come back while I was on retreat I saw that calmness in the mind and body was an essential factor, and when I thought about what I do on retreat that I don’t normally do that might cause that calmness of mind and body I realised that for me it was walking meditation. Walking meditation, I could see, establishes mindfulness in the body, but it is not a self conscious awareness of the actions of the body reliant on strong concentration; it instead establishes an experience of the mind and body operating together as a unified system which when it is achieved creates calm, peace, and a distance from both the mind and body that allows you to view whatever arises objectively and not personally. This state, this calm and objective state was what I had when I finished the retreat and was now in danger of losing again.

I saw that when this unified experience fades that our experience gets dominated either by what is in the mind or by the sensations in the body. A train of thought can take us completely away from the body, which then can react without any moderation from the mind to the slightest thing. We can then find ourselves totally at the mercy of physical sensations like anxiety, anger, fear, aversion, lust, or craving because we lost sight of the body and suddenly all these huge feelings come up as if out of nowhere. The mind can’t help us, it just spins as we desperately try to understand by thinking but thinking cannot help us. What we really need is mindfulness, to step back and notice ‘these physical sensations arose’ and to allow them to cease again, but our mindfulness is lost and instead we try to think our way out of it and this just makes it worse. Now the mind is dominating our experience and our mindfulness is gone. Mindfulness then is reliant on calm both in the mind and body, and this calm creates the conditions that allow our perception of them as two separate entities to fade and allows us to experience them as one connected system, which acts together to keep both parts of the system in balance. The mind doesn’t run out of control because the solidity of the body keeps us grounded in our experience and stops us floating off into the clouds, and the body doesn’t overreact because the mind can use wisdom to let go of strong sensations that arise.

So what I needed to do to maintain my retreat state was to work on maintaining my mindfulness through creating the calm that allows mindfulness to arise. This doesn’t just mean walking meditation though, although that is an important practice that I have introduced into my daily routine at home. Seeing the importance of calmness in the mind and body made me understand that I needed to restrict my exposure to activities that did not create calm or made it easy to remain mindful. I have long given up on watching tv and movies, but I do occasionally listen to music. With some of my favourite tunes on I found it was impossible to maintain mindfulness, either the mind was going off into thoughts or the body was reacting, so I saw that this was something I needed to stop doing if I was to keep my state of calm. Likewise browsing the internet, getting taken in with thoughts and stories, losing sight of the body, following craving and pleasurable feeling, avoiding the unpleasant feeling of boredom, this too had to stop if my focus was on keeping calm enough to maintain mindfulness.

I set myself an intention, to cultivate the state that allows mindfulness to arise and dedicate my activities to maintaining that state. So as well as sitting and walking meditation daily for me that means maintaining mindfulness throughout the day, using the Buddho mantra throughout to keep my attention focussed, and setting aside time every day that I can for Dhamma studies and writing. I decided that unless it is a day that I need to work all day that from 7pm until bed I will devote that time to Dhamma activities such as read books and suttas, writing, and meditation practices. These conditions remove the things that make it hard to be calm and keep my mind focussed on practice and not frivolous activities.

But at the same time just because this is what I need to do don’t assume that it would be the same thing for you. Yes everyone’s practice benefits from daily meditation and removing yourself from worldly trivial activities, but this might not be what you need right now. I can now understand why there is no one clear answer about what we need to do after a retreat to keep feeling the same once we get home because we all left the retreat with a different learning point and we all go back to different lives. In fact we all started with different lives, I have been practicing for many years and the regime I have set myself isn’t that different to ones I have done before, this level of focus on practice isn’t hard for me and it cultivates a lot of peaceful feeling. If you have never followed a regime like this in your own practice then this could be too austere for you, suddenly giving up all entertainment and throwing yourself into Dhamma study could create discomfort for you, not peace. You need to examine your own experience and figure out just what it was that you felt on retreat and what you need to do in your ordinary life to maintain it. It is always useful to hear about other people’s experiences but you are the only one who can ever truly experience what it is like to be you, so once you get back from retreat and start to notice that retreat feeling fading ask yourself what is different, and then see if you can figure out what you need to do differently to get that feeling back.

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