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May 23
Dharma Teachings
Making the Most of Retreat…

…and Bringing It to Life

by Irini Rockwell
Director & Principal Coach/Trainer
at Five Wisdoms Institute

Taking a retreat, however long, is a precious opportunity to look deeper within ourselves by connecting with life transformative practices.

So how do we bring the awareness and intelligence of the retreat back into our life?

This is the crucial question.

If we do not contemplate how we make our transition back to everyday life, our retreat will be a mere blip. In some sense, the transition back is the most important aspect of our retreat – it is the bridge between our truest self and our self that armors itself against the onslaught of life.

One way to ensure a good transition is to engage fully in your retreat. Before you arrive think through your purpose for going. You can even sit still for a moment and set an intention for what you would like to learn.

The reason why I say this is each retreat is different – in its practice, teacher, and duration. Being mindful of the details of your retreat will help you explore the mind/body benefits the retreat offers.

For instance, I have spent much time learning, practicing, and teaching Shambhala Buddhism. This tradition begins with mindfulness-awareness meditation. Retreats focusing on this type of practice likely will be simple, with a focus on settling the mind in the present moment.

Other practices, such as yoga or Qigong involve movement and breath. At the Five Wisdoms Institute, we teach a unique practice of five postures, developed by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and sourced in tantric buddhism. The postures work directly with our energetic makeup – how we perceive and communicate with the world.

By the end of our retreats, students have learned to use these postures to explore their energy – where it tends to flourish and where it gets stuck. The key benefit of this training is that it provides the opportunity to embrace who we are so we can develop compassion and potential.

Thinking deeply about your retreat and the purpose for going will help you remember the practice you learn, so that you continue engaging it in your daily life.

Once retreat is over, how do we not resume our ‘same old’ life, but return to our life with a difference?

Our reentry is a very delicate matter. Connecting back to loved ones and our workaday world tends to be quite confusing.

We might feel shaky on reentering the world, leaving behind a warm, protected retreat center to meet a less friendly, speedier world. We might want to hold onto a new sense of calm we gained from retreat, making us resistant to the vicissitudes of life.

We might go through a period of groundlessness – who am I, how do I want to be in the world? We might feel discomfort as a result of opening our hearts, making us feel vulnerable, irritated, and cranky. We might become arrogant, feeling superior because of what we have experienced.

Sometimes, the deeper we have gone, the sadder we are upon leaving. The openness we have felt is like having a love affair and leaving is heartbreaking. We might have increased idealism and immediately try to turn insight into action by designing a self-improvement plan.

Having experienced a new depth, it is important to realize we have a choice after our retreat: we can do anything with either a neurotic or a wisdom twist.

Reflect on what feels best.

Let’s look at some more ways to work with the transition.

Don’t make a big deal. In making a big deal of retreat, we actually lose its essence. We feel we ‘got it’ so we want to record it, put it in a box, and label it. We name it and hold on to it as my precious experience.

If we do this, the vividness of the experience will be replaced by concepts. The truth is, even big moments need to be seen as ordinary. Then, they will translate into life and there will be continuity. Try not to talk about your retreat too much; rather, share your experience in simple ways, mostly by just being!

Reenter slowly. Do as little as possible. This will allow you to return with mindfulness and awareness. Take the time to pay more attention to the details of your life. Be ordinary – stay in the moment. In this way, we take care of ourselves and we have continuity between the retreat and everyday life.

Protect your open heart from shutting down. You can remember your intention, or purpose, for going on retreat. You can utilize the practice you learned during retreat to stay open. And you can use anything that triggers you to close down to remind yourself to stay open.

Most importantly, maintain a practice of mindfulness awareness. Sitting meditation, even for ten minutes each day, will create continuity between your retreat and your everyday life. It is foundational. You also can take walks, staying in the moment and paying attention to your sense perceptions. Let go of preoccupations. I like giving people homework, awareness practices, of which there are many, to cultivate in everyday life.

Seek out teachers who incorporate the transition into their retreats. When I lead an intensive retreat, I create a safety net. I make sure my staff and I are available after the program ends. It might happen that someone feels his or her personal intensity only after the retreat is over, so I find it good practice to be able to provide extended support.

In summary, here are some guidelines for the transition:

  • Contemplate and reflect on the purpose of your retreat, as well as its practices and benefits
  • Recognize the choice that your retreat provides in transforming your life
  • Reenter slowly
  • Keep your heart open
  • Seek teachers who help with your transition
  • Over time, the vividness of our experience will fade. Then it’s time for another retreat. See you there!

    Learn more about the Five Wisdoms Institute by clicking here.

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