So you’ve just completed a meditation retreat. Congratulations! Take a deep breath and rejoice in your accomplishment.
After a retreat, you might find yourself with more questions than answers. Maybe you’re not sure how to integrate what you’ve discovered into your daily life, or where to go from here in your spiritual practice.
If you’re in this boat, you’re not alone. I’m going to share with you what I’ve learned from experience about how to make the post-retreat landing as smooth as possible, and to make the insights you gained in retreat a part of your everyday life.
The single most important thing is not to rush back into normal life.
After 10 days or however long of silence, stillness and meditation, you might be on fire to meet all your friends, go out dancing or dig into that project you were trying not to think about while meditating.
It’s a natural impulse, but it can backfire in a couple ways.
First, people coming out of retreat are often very sensitive. By going inwards, you tune into a more subtle experience of the world, and the energy of normal life can be a shock at first.
Secondly, if you dive straight back into business high stimulation, you won’t give the insights, healing and transformative effects of your retreat the time and space they need to settle in.
Sometime the most profound realizations come in the days after a retreat, when the pressure is off and you get to look at your familiar world with new eyes.
So take your time coming out of retreat. I recommend staying at or around the retreat center for a few days, especially if you have a long way to travel.
Try to avoid too much socializing right when you come out. Limit your talking time and meet only with people you feel a real connection with, people who understand your path and who will allow you the space for your insights to blossom.
After a deep experience, you may find your identity is more transparent than it used to be. Your patterns are not so tight and you have the opportunity to choose how you want to approach life.
Be aware, however, that if you are surrounded by people who have a very fixed (and maybe outdated) idea of who you are supposed to be, you are more likely to fall back into old patterns. It’s the same phenomenon as when you visit your parents for the holidays and instantly turn into a 12-year-old bickering with your sister.
So if at all possible, spend time after a retreat with your spiritual colleagues and people who are supportive of your evolution.
Keep up the practice
The retreat is over but your practice is far from it!
You have worked so hard during the retreat to build your concentration, stability, and depth of awareness. Now is your time to enjoy it.
It can be tempting to drop the practice and just relax, but I recommend sticking with it, especially in the week following the retreat. Like I said earlier, you might have your deepest insights at this time.
It’s a unique opportunity to combine the high state of awareness from the retreat with the energy of your daily life, to bring the most profound wisdom into all the messy, nitty-gritty aspects of the outside world. This grace period is a chance to truly integrate your experience.
Stay connected to the spiritual community
Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, the great 20th-century Indian saint, taught that early in our spiritual journey, when we go out into the world, we are like milk poured into water. Our worldview is unstable and we’re likely to be drawn back into the flow of conventional life, losing our insights.
But practice churns that milk into butter. Then, when we go back into the water, we float on top.
Nearly every tradition in the world has emphasized the importance of the spiritual community. In Buddhism, it’s called the sangha, one of the Three Jewels in which all practitioners take refuge.
Living in a community of practitioners, sharing a spiritual path, is truly invaluable. When everyone around you shares your values and aspiration, you can all hold the frequency for each other, and everyone can go deeper in their practice.
Don’t worry if you’re not ready to drop everything and go live in an ashram. These days, you can find communities of practitioners nearly everywhere. Look for groups in your city of people who meditate together: Buddhist centers, yoga studios or MeetUp.com are natural first places to check out.
If there’s really nothing in your area, go online for support. Keep in touch with people who were in retreat with you. See if your retreat center has a community group on Facebook or a page you can follow.
And if you love your teacher, take them with you wherever you go! Feeling their presence with you while you practice, asking them for help before you meditate, or thanking them afterward can help keep the connection and support you on a subtle level.
One common challenge of coming back from the retreat is that the gap between your retreat experience and your normal life is too wide.
In retreat, everything is quiet, simple, and peaceful. You only have to meditate and focus on your inner reality. Your concentration is higher, your mind more clear and relaxed.
In normal life, you might have to juggle a job, studying, friends, family, and taking care of yourself. Modern life is stressful, fast-paced, and scattered. A thousand things are always shouting for your attention. You have to struggle to find the time and energy to meditate.
The state of mind you had in retreat can feel so far away, it might as well be another person.
So how to bridge the gap? Two words: karma yoga.
The “yoga of action” can come in many forms. It might be selfless service, doing volunteer work with the conscious intention of using that work to increase your mindfulness and compassion. It might be dedicating some of your time to help a friend or someone in need, again while remembering your intention.
It might simply be an effort to bring more awareness into your everyday actions. You can treat cooking and cleaning like a meditation.
What’s important is to change the way you view your actions. Instead of just doing what you have to do, take it as a spiritual practice, an opportunity for awareness to express itself in motion. After all, if you are very present in any action, you’ll find that’s exactly what it is!
To get the most out of selfless service, dedicate it for the benefit of all beings, or for your own spiritual growth so you can develop true compassion. And then release the results, knowing that no matter how your work turns out now, you are planting the seeds for something great.
Practicing living this way creates a vital link between your “retreat mind” and your “normal person mind.” It makes you a complete spiritual person, not just a person who does retreats. It allows you to retain and deepen your insights from the retreat, and builds a foundation for you to fly even higher in your next retreat.
Expect up’s and down’s
Finally, the simplest and hardest practice: accepting yourself where you are.
At the end of a retreat, you can feel so expanded and full of inspiration. It doesn’t last forever – and that’s ok.
When I first started doing meditation retreats, I was like a yoyo. I would feel high as the sky during the retreat, but then when my old patterns started to kick back in afterward, I would get depressed and angry at myself. I was disappointed that I couldn’t maintain the same high state of consciousness outside of retreat.
Of course I couldn’t – that’s why I had to do retreats to begin with!
As my teacher often says, “Realization is instantaneous but deconditioning is a process.”
No matter how intense your experience in retreat, it takes time for it to become your daily reality. It takes time for your old habits to melt away and new ones to become strong. Beating yourself up for not being enlightened yet won’t get you anywhere.
What’s more, detaching from those blissful, everything-is-perfect experiences is actually a critical part of the practice.
Remember that spirituality is not about getting high, it’s about getting free. We need to learn to embrace the world as it is, to be strong enough to look ignorance and suffering in the eye. This acceptance, the ability to be present with imperfection, is actually the root of compassion.
Coming out of retreat can be a challenging process – maybe even more so than the retreat itself!
However, it can also be extremely beautiful. It’s when the real work starts in a way, learning to make your most profound realizations the guiding force behind your everyday life.
So be patient, be gentle and enjoy the process.