Silent Retreat - Re-entry
This is the fourth and last post I’ll make about my silent retreat last month. I hope the previous three have given insight into what it feels like to undertake the daunting task of being silent for a long period.
Today, I write about re-entry to normal life after retreating and the challenges that follow. To begin, I list below experiences I had high hopes of maintaining upon returning home, and in my conclusion I offer some caveats about the weird side of re-entry.
1. Sleep Improves.
During retreat, the body responds quite rapidly to the lack of stimulation. Almost immediately, stress levels go down and muscles relax, allowing for much better sleep.
2. Attention Sharpens.
Your attention to the environment becomes more acute, so you become keenly interested in looking closely at things—a leaf, a worm wiggling through the grass, the bark of a tree, the clouds. Everything looks clear, and crisp, like you just got a new pair of glasses.
3. Inner Critic Dies.
After a few days, the ever-present mind chatter diminishes. The rate at which this happens varies from person to person, maybe because it’s actually hard for us to notice when it happens. After a few days of silence and meditation, though, it can dawn on you that the confab of inner critics who inhabit your mind-space is gone. It’s like the relief that comes when you realize the relentless jack-hammering happening in the neighbor’s driveway has stopped.
4. Eating Is Fun.
Eating meals in silence starts off feeling awkward, but soon becomes a joy. You slow down, chew deliberately, put your fork down, look around for a while, take another bite, enjoy the flavors. No rushing to get to the next event of the day. Just eat.
5. Meditation As Grounding Point for the Day.
The regularity of meditation practices while on retreat is so comforting. There is simply nothing to deter you from your practice, partly because you’re required to rigorously follow the scheduled sessions. But these required practices become the grounding points for the day. After retreat, I so wanted to bring home this satisfying feeling of meditation practice as the non-negotiable components of my day and everything else is worked in around the practices.
These are experiences I really wanted to hang on to when I come back into the world, and, alas, I found them very difficult to re-create at home. So I had to come to terms with the fact that retreat is not like real life, and it shouldn’t be. Retreat is a deep dive into a lifestyle that actually cannot be sustained fully outside of the rarefied conditions of retreat. I’m not ready to enter a monastery, so part of re-entry is figuring out what parts of these retreat practices are realistically do-able in a busy life.
But probably the biggest challenge of re-entry is trying to talk to friends about the openings, the aha moments, and the sheer joys that come on retreat. It’s like going to an alien planet and then coming home and trying to explain what you saw. There are no commonly held markers.
The Stages of Re-entry
How do you explain an experience that is so internal? Wait, isn’t all experience internal? Maybe the difference is that silence is a felt experience, not an intellectual experience, and it’s hard to find the right words to describe what it was like. At a certain point, words simply fail to express the profundity of silence on both mind and body. Silence is a joy beyond the conceptual.
And so, I caution myself to take re-entry in stages:
Stage 1: After a retreat, I take a few days at home alone, phone off, social media forbidden, only quick early morning trips out to get food. I reminisce about my retreat experience while doing the laundry, responding to mail and email, and getting the house back in order, but no talking allowed. It’s the equivalent of putting on dark glasses after your eyes have been dilated. For just a bit longer, you protect yourself from the glare of the world, just as the glasses protect your retinas from the glare of the sun.
Stage 2: Initially, this post-retreat solitude feels safe and comforting, like the ultimate self-care. And at times, it’s such a relief: no engaging, no making conversation, no being polite and attentive. You catch up on reading. You start writing that novel you’ve been thinking about. There’s all the time in the world, after all! But eventually, loneliness creeps in through the back door, and you start listening to break-up songs on Pandora.
Stage 3: And then, after a few pitiful days of post-retreat loneliness, you become anxious about what is going on in the world, and what’s happening with friends. The ultimate FOMO sets in, and you start scrolling through Facebook.
Stage 4: The last stage of re-entry takes you down. You begin to think no one remembers who you are; all those years of love and friendship are gone forever. You imagine your friends laughing and eating out and moving on with their glamorous lives as you stand at your kitchen counter eating a cup of plain yogurt with a plastic spoon. Your friendships are done for and your clients have moved on. You are not even a vague memory to them. No one notes your absence in the world. Steve, the beloved house cleaner, eventually finds your shriveled body on the kitchen floor, surrounded by several dehydrated baby frogs. The Sentinel makes a small note of your demise on the obituary page. No one reads it.
That’s when you know: it’s time to turn the phone back on.