The meditation retreat is over, silence is broken and it’s time to go back to normal life.
Landing from a meditation retreat can be just as challenging as the retreat itself, if not more. This means it’s also an equally powerful opportunity for growth.
Many people find it difficult to bridge the gap between intensive practice and daily life. It’s an important skill, an aspect of spiritual maturity that’s too often overlooked.
If you are ready to make your realizations into your everyday reality, here are four questions to help you ground your insights and turn them into the foundation of positive change in your life.
1. What were my most important insights during the retreat?
After a profound experience, you might be reluctant to start analyzing and putting labels on what you felt. I definitely wouldn’t encourage that.
However, if it feels natural, it can be very helpful to reflect on your retreat and see what moments stand out the most in hindsight. Try to capture the flavor of each one. You can even close your eyes, go into a meditative state and feel how the memory echoes in your body.
Ask yourself, “What does this experience have to teach me?”
Maybe the lesson is clear, an insight or realization that you can easily understand. Maybe it’s more of a subtle energetic movement that you can’t yet reflect with your conscious mind. Either one is very good.
If you can’t put it into words, rest assured that the insight will continue to ripen and permeate your being whether you are aware of it or not. Just make a commitment to yourself that you will allow it to happen. For visual people, it might help to draw a picture of it.
If you can put it in words, write it down. Steer clear of metaphysical speculation and focus on your lived experience.
This record will help you clarify your insight and return to it later on.
Remember: right after a retreat, it often feels like everything has changed and your highest insights will stay with you forever. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that!
Consciousness goes up and down. Our spiritual growth is never in a straight line. You will forget what you’ve learned, and remember again, and forget and remember again… and that’s fine. It’s all about persistence, just coming back again and again. Sooner or later, your insights will stabilize and become the base for new lessons.
2. What was my most difficult moment and how did I get through it?
Meditation retreats aren’t all flowers and sunshine. At some point, maybe you wanted to run screaming away from the meditation hall, or just lie on the floor and cry.
Good news: these times are also valuable! In some ways, more valuable than the times of peace and joy: not because suffering is so great in and of itself, but because it shows you where you are making the most profound transformation, and how your own inner strength and awareness can get you through any challenge.
If you’re reading this now, it means you survived the crisis. Thinking back on it, what was the turning point? What set off the crisis, how did it feel when you were in the thick of it, and how did you pull yourself out?
In retrospect, can you see what the inner struggle was really about? Here’s a hint: it probably wasn’t what seemed to trigger it.
For example, during one retreat I was feeling dizzy sometimes during yoga and in my own classic neurotic way, I convinced myself that I probably had a rare heart disease and might not live to see the end of the retreat. I knew it was a crazy neurotic fear but it was intense nonetheless.
All the rationalizing and self-reassurance in the world could do nothing. However, at some point I realized that this fear of death was actually a fear of change, a fear of my old self “dying” as part of a process of transformation.
Once I recognized this, I was able to let go and say goodbye to some old patterns that didn’t serve me anymore, and the irrational fear dissipated.
This is just to illustrate that we don’t really understand what is going on in the depths of our psyche, and what we see on the surface is just an approximate reflection.
When there is big drama during a retreat, a lot of uncontrollable energy and emotional turmoil, it often shows that below the surface, something big is trying to change. It might be difficult or impossible to see it clearly when you’re in the middle of it, but by reflecting on it later, you might find some important lessons.
You will also bring more awareness to the whole process, making for a smoother experience next time.
3. What will I do now to embody these insights?
Now, let’s take your new understanding and ground it in a practical plan of action.
Maybe one of your insights was about the importance of compassion.
As an exercise, try closing your eyes and reconnecting to the feeling of compassion that inspired you so much. Imagine yourself going through life with this compassion in your heart. How will you react differently to people and situations around you? What are a few simple acts of compassion that you can perform every day?
Maybe it was more about letting go of attachments. In this case, try making a list of what you’re holding onto: habits, possessions, people, ideas or anything else. (If you’re unsure, just think about what distracted you the most during your meditations.)
What will your life look like without that attachment? What will it feel like to give up what you are so attached to, or just to give up your dependence on it?
Whatever you choose, come up with some steps to make your realization a part of your daily life. It should be something that challenges you but that you can realistically accomplish and stick to.
Don’t promise to give half your monthly income to charity or never get angry at your partner again, because you will fail and get discouraged. Instead,decide to volunteer once a week, reach out to one person you have trouble withor cut back on a destructive habit.
Once it becomes easy, you can up the ante.
4. How will I keep up the practice from now?
Just as important as making a plan to put your insights into action, you have to maintain contact with the level of consciousness that revealed them. If you didn’t have a daily meditation practice before your retreat, now is the perfect time to establish one.
So ask yourself, what practices served me the most during the retreat? What resonates the most with my normal life? How much of this practice do I need every day, and how much can I reasonably commit to?
As I mentioned before, be realistic and compassionate to yourself. Push your limits a little bit but don’t burden yourself with expectations.
Remember from the beginning that if it was a challenge to find time for meditation before the retreat, it will be a challenge again. What’s changed is that now, you have more motivation – a taste of what is possible – and this makes all the difference.
Also keep in mind that in normal life, you will rarely go as deep in meditation as you do during retreats. It’s not a sign of failure but totally natural. If you feel discouraged, just remember that the doors were opened to you once and will open to you again when the time is right.
It’s incredibly rewarding to see your meditation practice blossoming into tangible changes in your life. The key to embodying your realizations is patience, consistency, and a balance of determination with self-compassion.
If possible, I encourage you to stay in contact with the leader and other people from the retreat. Your comrades in meditation can be a priceless resource and support system. You might even find that after this shared experience, you have some new friends for life!
And if you are already missing the beauty of silence, it’s never too soon to start planning your next retreat.