How to Come Out of Retreat
By Natasha Friedman
Everything is a kaleidoscope of color and sound as we drive down the highway to Mazunte. I am squished into the front seat of a taxi with a girl I have lived in the same building with for the past six weeks but have not yet spoken to. Two more retreaters and most of our material possessions are in the back seat.
No one says anything for most of the 45-minute trip. I remember all the shapes and sounds appearing in my awareness in hallucinatory brightness. I feel simultaneously overwhelmed and strangely calm.
We pull up in front of the Hridaya Yoga Center, unload our bags, and then that’s it, we’re there, it’s over. I greet a few people, feeling like I just saw them yesterday. It’s only their surprised reactions that remind me I haven’t spoken to them—or to anyone—for 49 days.
After so much time in solitude, basic human actions somehow become almost impossible. Talking makes me weak and dizzy. Looking at a computer screen makes me nauseous. When I call my parents, it is like talking to them for the first time. And, when I start to lose the intensity of presence that had become my normal state, I feel like my heart is breaking.
Questions wouldn’t stop throughout the first sleepless night after the retreat: Who am I? What is this personality? How do I pick up my life after all this? Where am I supposed to go and what am I supposed to do now?
The retreat is over, but the work is just beginning.
For some of us, going into retreat is a challenge. The silence, long hours of meditation, and lack of external stimuli can be a sharp break from our normal experience. Detaching from daily patterns can leave us feeling anxious or lost in space.
For other people—or just at other times—the hard part is actually coming out of retreat.
We spend ten days (or however long) going into high concentration and expansion. We become sensitive to subtle realities, feeling energies and sensations too refined for our normal perception. We come into contact with the deepest dimension of our being.
Even if it’s a difficult retreat, with a lot of struggle and purifications, these challenges come because the retreat gives us the space to contain them. We might not realize how far we’ve come until the final bell rings and everyone gathers for the sharing.
I always feel like a spell is breaking as soon as people start talking again. The world of silence is so intense, so profound, so full of magic and mysteries. There is such clarity and brightness. When the mind is deep in silence, every detail of the world around has a ring of truth.
Then, words come again, and with them stories, divisions, projections, patterns, limitations… All the conditions we are usually enslaved by. The Garden of Eden starts to fade away.
Of course, the ultimate goal is not to be a hermit in perpetual mauna. (It’s not my goal, at least.) But, so long as we’re not stabilized enough in the Self to maintain the stillness of retreat while engaged with the world, it can be a harsh transition back to everyday reality.
Go Slowly and Accept Whatever Comes
How long does it take to integrate after a retreat?
There’s no right answer. Even after a short retreat, we might feel echoes for weeks or months. Speaking generally, the deeper the experience, the longer it will take to harmonize it with everyday life.
And in the meantime, be prepared for anything.
After a retreat, we might feel totally blissed out. We might feel calm, relaxed, or refreshed. We might feel inspired and burning to share what we’ve learned with everyone we know. We might feel depressed. We might feel confused, like nothing makes sense, like our entire lives are being lived in someone else’s shoes and don’t fit right anymore.
I want to emphasize: all of these feelings are okay.
What’s important is to honor the process and give space to whatever arises.
When I came out of the 49-Day Prathyabhijna Retreat earlier this year, I felt extremely lost. I didn’t know who I was within this manifestation. I had gone through a major transformation that hadn’t yet stabilized, to the point where I didn’t want any contact with my life from before the retreat.
I asked Sahajananda what to do, and whether this was normal. His first response: “What is normal after an experience like this?”
Which brings me to my second point: integration might look very different from what we think.
I think a lot of us go into retreats or spiritual practices with the idea that we will get something out of it—knowledge or healing or whatever—and then when we go back to normal life, this will just be added onto what we already have.
In reality, we are putting our whole being into a blender. What comes out will be something entirely new. That’s the real meaning of transformation, and it’s what we’re all looking for, even if we don’t realize it or if the idea scares us.
So, again, my best advice is to give space to these changes. It is better not to be afraid to let go of our notions of what we are and what our place in the world is. We can allow ourselves to explore new possibilities. Maybe it is scary, but this uncertainty is actually a form of openness, a sign that we’ve made real progress and are at a point of great opportunity.
It’s like when we get hit by a wave at the beach. For a few seconds, we’re spinning in every direction at once and can’t tell up from down. If we simply hold our breath, stay calm, and relax, soon enough the water will settle and we’ll find our feet on dry land. We can take our time going through this. There’s no rush to dive back into our responsibilities or busy social lives. We can benefit from staying close to the retreat center, where support and inspiration from other practitioners is available.
Share with Others, but Keep Your Sacred Space
It’s very beautiful to stay in touch with other retreat participants.
Often, when going back into the world it can be hard to find people to open up to about deep spiritual experiences. Our friends and family might want to support us, but unless they are on a spiritual path themselves, they probably won’t be able to understand what we’re going through. Sharing our innermost feelings with them might just create more confusion and feelings of disconnectedness.
People going through the same process, however, are an invaluable support network. They can help us put our transformation in perspective and make sense of whatever is arising. If others are on the same wavelength and receptive, just talking can be an integration process, bringing deeper realizations up to the level of the conscious mind.
That said, there is no pressure to share everything. A retreat is a step into the realm of the sacred, into the ineffable. There may be experiences that are best kept in intimacy with the Spiritual Heart.
So, we can give ourselves as much space as we need.
Following a retreat, art is a useful means of expression. It’s a great time for journaling, painting, writing poetry, playing devotional music, or following whatever creative path calls. I’ve often found that the days after a retreat are a time of peak creativity. New songs and poems come naturally, flowing from Stillness.
These songs are like the flowering of seeds that germinated in my heart during the retreat. Later on, they become a precious window into the world of the retreat, and they can bring others to the same depth of experience.
Keep up the Practice
This is probably the most important thing we can do!
Sahajananda recommends meditating for at least one hour every day to maintain a high level of consciousness after a retreat. We need to touch that depth again and again, especially if we’re living somewhere surrounded by mainstream Western values that run contrary to the spiritual attitudes we try to cultivate.
In the days following a retreat, I find it helpful to stay in “half retreat,” practicing for four or five hours a day and keeping mauna until noon. After a period of such intensive focus, sitting down to meditate might be the last thing you want to do, but it’s essential for stabilizing the experience.
Sahaja always emphasizes continuity. It’s not enough just to have peak experiences, we have to raise our base level of awareness.
During a retreat, this continuity means trying to keep a meditative state even outside of formal practice. We walk with awareness, eat with awareness, contemplate nature, and stay in the Heart, no matter where we are.
In daily life, it’s about living the teachings. It’s what Padmasambhava, the master who brought Buddhism to Tibet, meant when he said, “Descend with the view while ascending with the conduct.”
We bring our insights, the wisdom that comes from contact with reality, back into our daily lives. And in our daily lives, through constant remembrance of the Heart and our efforts to live in integrity with this vision, we rise to the level of our highest practice.
Which is more “real,” daily life or time in retreat? Do we come home when we close our eyes in meditation or when we go back to our personalities?
I could say both or neither. Our true home is the Spiritual Heart. When we live from there, we are at home no matter what happens outside.