A completely unscientific analysis of the arc of a successful retreat might go something like this: The anticipation and excitement of arrival and change; a growing dis-ease and desire to go home; an inexplicable certainty that you never want to go home; and a final acceptance that it is time to go home.
The big question is, what do you bring back? The key is not to expect too much … or too little. This brings us to a critical practice of the retreat that most people ignore. It’s the reverse of the anticipation of the retreat itself. It is the time when you reflect on all the good experiences you’ve had and all you’ve learned on your retreat, and then you visualize yourself back home.
Explore your home and your living situation in the light of your retreat. Look at your life. Look at your friends. Look at your relationships. And then look at yourself—and your future ideal self. Write down what you see and feel—write down what you really want to hang on to—and how you might hang on to it.
As you do this, keep an obscure bit of marketing research in the back of your mind: Once upon a time, a pillow manufacturer discovered that from the time a person wakes up to the realization that their pillow is truly uncomfortable to the time they actually purchase a new pillow is two years. The simple fact is that we hold on to things that are obviously painful for way too long.
The key is not to expect too much … or too little.
So, first of all, go easy on your reentry expectations. The odds of success are against you—but knowing that makes it much easier to make the kinds of changes that you know you need to make. Here’s another question: Has your retreat empowered you to begin to make baby steps in your right direction? Or have you geared up for a giant leap?
There isn’t a right or wrong answer, but a good retreat should raise the question and give you tools to help you on that path.
A Take-Home Toolbox
Decide on your homecoming ritual. How will you step through your own door differently? What will you change physically, in your home, to remind you? Bring your kitchen to mind. What stands out for annihilation?
Go through your home, room to room, and write down the things that no longer serve you and that you can give away (or sell to help fund your next retreat). If the simplicity of your retreat accommodations speaks to you, imagine ways to duplicate that at home.
Now imagine an opposite extreme—maybe your home is missing some comfort that you really want to focus on. Perhaps you’ve discovered an experience (massage, acupuncture, a trainer) that you need to build into your budget.
Think about how you want to structure your time. At home, your cellphone can be a remarkable tool, both to remind you to be present and to shift your attention to what you value most. Hopefully, your retreat revealed things you want your life to revolve around—and the timer on your phone can help make that a reality, not to mention numerous apps that will accompany you through any practice you can imagine.
Good habits are created by repetition. It doesn’t help to think about a good habit—you actually have to do it and resolve to stick to doing it long enough that it becomes part of your nature. Easier said than done, of course, but that’s also why any retreat should be seen as a stepping stone toward the next one.
Committing to a new habit will probably necessitate disengaging from an old one. Take time to consider how your habits, good or bad, are connected. Then figure out which small steps will ultimately lead to what may be big changes that you need to make.
Good habits are created by repetition.
Print out photographs from your retreat and post them in strategic places around your home to keep you on track. Keep in mind that many teachers at retreats now offer teleconferencing classes and support.
What if You Don’t Want to Go Home?
Some retreats open yearnings that can’t be fulfilled in a single retreat. For example, people meditate for 10 days and realize that was only the beginning.
For people who have that experience, there is a worldwide network of retreat centers that take volunteers who pay a minimal amount and do such things as work in the kitchen. The volunteer vacation can last weeks to months to even years.
Living Your Retreat
One of the blessings of a retreat is that you might get to meet a life-changing instructor like Jon Kabat-Zinn—a person whose books, videos, and practices can resonate for a lifetime. When I once asked Kabat-Zinn how to bring the wisdom of a retreat home, this was his response:
“I would offer the same advice for getting to Carnegie Hall—practice, practice, practice. And what is true practice in this regard? That is its own koan. So, I will leave it at that. You brought some wisdom to the retreat, just by virtue of choosing to attend and practice. Wisdom is portable, and it is not ‘yours.’ Each and every one of us needs to listen deeply for our own unique calling and appreciate our profound ability as humans to work with others for the greater good of the world, while attending to whatever is most salient and relevant inwardly and outwardly until there is no fundamental separation between inner and outer.
“It helps if you don’t make too much of the personal pronouns, especially ‘I,’ ‘me,’ and ‘mine,’ and become overly invested in your own narratives, especially the most self-centered of them. The ‘we’ narrative always (dare I say it?) trumps the ‘me’ narrative. And an open mind of ‘not knowing’ and knowing that we don’t know is an essential complement to the necessity of knowing the actuality of things where suffering is concerned. So, every day and every moment is an opportunity to wake up and embody your understanding of a universal dharma wisdom in whatever forms it most deeply speaks to you.”