One of the trickier things about going off on a spiritual retreat is not what happens when you’re away. It’s what happens when you get home.
I was recently at a retreat center where I had some powerful emotional and spiritual experiences. For this discussion, the details are not important, but I got some great advice from a friend that I want to share in our blog. My question to my friend was: How do I integrate a spiritual experience or an emotional revelation back into the daily routine of my life? How do I look back on it? How do I explain it to friends and loved ones who did not experience it?
Here was my friend’s advice: “It's easy to attribute what happened to other people, to sense experience, to the teacher, etc. But fundamentally what Buddhism tells us is that happiness comes from letting go, and what I think happened to you is that you had some profound experiences of letting go. If you get attached to those experiences or think that the fundamental cause of them was external, then you can spend a lot of time trying to recreate them or get back to the people and situations out of which they arose. That's how addiction happens.
“Instead, I think you could look deeply into yourself to understand what you let go of in that situation. You discovered your own potential in that workshop—the workshop didn't give it to you. Now your work is to let go of something so rich and move on, taking the lessons and insights with you and trying to integrate them into your life in some way. This doesn't mean you should or shouldn't change anything external in your life. I don't think there's an easy lesson about what you should do now. But you've touched something deep and profound, and now you have the opportunity and maybe the responsibility to see where it leads you. How can you hold on to what you learned without clinging to the experience?”
Jack Kornfield, the Buddhist teacher, has also addressed this question in one of his books. “We all know that after the honeymoon comes the marriage, after the election comes the hard task of governance. In spiritual life it is the same: After the ecstasy comes the laundry.” Kornfield writes that while a spiritual awakening is real and special, it does not happen to “a special person.” “It happens to any of us when the conditions of letting go and opening the heart are present, when we can sense the world in a radically new way.”
In my opinion, one of the most important questions to ask after getting back from a revelation-filled spiritual retreat (or coming down off another quest or journey) is this: What happens next? How do I bring those insights back into the “real world?” Will I come out of the experience a more aware and compassionate person?
So, the discussion I’d like us to have here is about how we bring the wisdom back home. Would you please share some of your experiences and lessons learned?
Don Lattin is the author of five books on religion and spirituality in America.