The Practice of Leaving a Retreat by Gil Fronsdal
The end of a meditation retreat is as important as any other part, and approaching it as a significant period of practice can lead to many benefits. The final stage of a retreat and the period following provide significant opportunities for insight and self-understanding. Instead of discontinuing the practice because calm, concentration or mindfulness has decreased, and immediately diving back into life, it is helpful to end a retreat with the intention to process, absorb and integrate the retreat experience. In this way, a retreat can have greater lasting value.The transition associated with leaving a retreat begins when one’s thoughts turn toward the end and leaving the retreat center. Increased thinking and excitation usually mark this shift. Generally, the influence of the end begins about six sevenths of the way through a retreat. For a seven-hour retreat, this may be an hour or so before the end. For a seven day retreat the transition may begin about a day before the end. For month-long retreats, it can begin as much as 3-4 days before the close.That the length of this period varies with the length of the retreat points to how it is a natural process.Many people believe the important part of a retreat is attaining deeper experiences of concentration, calm, or clarity. When, near the end, one seems to be surfacing from whatever depth one has reached, it can be easy to conclude that the practice momentum is gone. Some people will then spend the last hours or days of the retreat just going through the motions, not seeing value in continuing to practice wholeheartedly. However, some of the most important insights and realizations on a retreat can occur as we come out of whatever stillness has been reached. Staying attentive and interested in what happens as we approach the end of the retreat increases the likelihood for these insights and realizations.At some point near the end, mental patterns that receded or fell away during the retreat often return. Common worries and desires, personal problems or challenges, and increased self-consciousness may all reappear. Because we are still on retreat, we have the opportunity to find a different vantage point from which to observe them. With more sustained mindfulness than available in daily life, we might be able to look more deeply at our mental tendencies, or notice parts of our mental ecology that go unseen in the busyness of daily life. It might be possible to shift the relationship to our feelings, emotions, and thoughts by viewing them with more equanimity, acceptance, and kindness. It can be possible to learn to observe what the mind is doing instead of getting entangled with it.During this transition period, just as throughout a retreat, we can explore what we might be clinging to and how we might be able to let go. In fact, some forms of clinging may be most easily discovered near the end of a retreat. Simply asking oneself, “What am I clinging to?” may reveal attachments that underlie how the mind operates. One might also discover what lies beneath the attachments themselves by exploring, “Why am I clinging to this?” These important inquiries can be beneficial even though we may not be as concentrated or still as earlier in the retreat.
It is helpful to consider that a retreat continues after its official end for the same duration as its length. Thus, a one-week retreat continues for a week after its end; a month long retreat continues for another month. During this “second half” one may still experience the effects of the retreat. There may be unaccustomed energy and mood shifts. Particularly on the day the retreat ends one may become uncharacteristically energetic, perhaps talking quickly and lengthily. Some people become tired, in need of a nap or solitude, and some become over-stimulated easily if they do too much after a retreat. Sometimes even going into a supermarket may feel overwhelming. Occasionally people become easily irritated a day or two after a retreat because of the stark contrast with the calm and well-being of the retreat. Sometimes annoyance arises because all one’s emotions are flowing more freely.
Coming off retreat one may not see the full context of one’s life. It is better to avoid making major decisions or coming to grand conclusions during this unofficial “second half of the retreat.” Instead, if possible, it is helpful to spend ample quiet time during this period. Meditating, going for walks, and refraining from lots of email, TV, or computer time may allow deeper reflection about what is important.
The post-retreat period is a good time to integrate or digest the benefits, learning, or inspirations that came from the retreat. Living calmly and simply in the days after the retreat may let these stay current in one’s mind so they can continue to ripen. Rushing back to a fully packed life may cut short this ripening. Taking time for reflection, journaling, or talking with a trusted friend about the retreat may also deepen the lessons of the retreat. Meditating two or three times a day in the days after a retreat can be very supportive for this integration process. Extra meditation can also help bring emotional and mental balance if one is feeling particularly sensitive after the retreat.
The entire meditation retreat is an integrated whole, so the formal closing period is part of the retreat’s overall process. If one leaves before the closing talks, the breaking of silence, and the chance to say goodbye, one misses a significant opportunity. It can leave part of what is “cooking” on retreat “half-baked,” and short-change the important interpersonal aspects of a retreat. Retreat practice is a collective practice where retreatants mutually support and benefit each other. Buddhist practice, to fulfill its full promise, involves both personal and interpersonal development.
Finally, from the perspective of ongoing mindfulness practice, the “end” of a retreat is arbitrary. Bringing the practice into one’s entire life includes practicing before, during, and after retreat. The practice continues in whatever new circumstances we come to. One of the great values of a mindfulness retreat is to have greater confidence and inspiration in being mindful wherever we are. Leaving a retreat is just another circumstance in which to be mindful.