It’s been several days since I returned home from a personal retreat. I was way up north for four days in Lindisfarne, also known as the Holy Island. No doubt about it, I had discovered a magical place. Wild, windswept and rugged; just the sort of atmosphere I was searching for.
And so I was going to write about what happened for me up there, about the inner shifts, the sudden insights, and the continuous string of synchronous activity I experienced. Oh, it was going to be a glorious post about journeys, and pilgrimages, and reading the world one sign at a time. Really. And then life happened.
It began on the car journey home. The M25 was in lockdown, reducing traffic flow to nothing but an endless series of stops and starts. It’s fine, I thought. I’m so zen and relaxed from my cocoon of contemplation that nothing can touch me. Turning onto my street many hours later than expected I noticed it was full of barriers and deep potholes. The gas company had been hard at work while I was away, replacing the lines and digging up everyone’s gardens and drives. My home had no gas connection, so no hot water or heating. No problemo, I said. Think of the retreat. Think of all that peace and equanimity, lady. You’re all filled up with it.
But deep down I knew that wasn’t really true. I was irritated. I was strained. I was sad at the loss of the solitude, quiet, and focused time for myself. Not very long ago, I had been a balloon filled with peace and happy thoughts, but now I was rapidly deflating.
The next morning the gas company began jackhammering work in the driveway. It was at this point I realised I was Bruce Banner and was about…to get…angry. Gassholes, I thought. Ruining my post-retreat experience. Now I have to take a cold shower and listen to pounding, relentless noise pollution.
The swamp of admin and mundane practicalities I needed to begin wasn’t thrilling, either. I won’t bore you with the details, but there was commuting to do, and calls to return, emails to write, and forms and applications to fill out.
Receiving bad news from the gasmen about digging yet another hole and the Hulk transformation was complete. I was bloated with rage and deep frustration, and only after throwing a banana against the wall and dropkicking scatter cushions did it dawn on me that I had been warned about this. My emotional extremes following the retreat had everything to do with the challenges surrounding reintegration, transformation and assimilation.
None of these processes are easy after a retreat. The challenge seems proportional to the depth of the retreat experience. The deeper you go, the harder it is to return, step gently back into familiar routines, and begin to live out your insights and transformations in everyday life.
Though I had been advised by various retreat aficionados to take extra time to ease myself back into my life by making self-care a priority, I was still taken unawares by the shock of re-entry. It was just too difficult to hold back the tide of normal, everyday affairs. And that’s exactly what those post retreat triggers were – simply the mundane aspects of life. Normally, these things don’t grate. But going on retreat meant that the energies driving the experience stripped me of many layers of self. It would take time to build up those layers again.
Speaking with a close friend of mine about it, she likened a retreat to a birth experience. It’s like this, she said. You enter into sacred space, a womb-like place in order to gestate and ‘be’. No matter what happens on retreat, you grow through the experience. There is no choice, there is only a mighty driving force of change at play. At some point the growth is complete, and you are reborn at the end of the retreat term. You emerge into the world a new being. As a newborn version of yourself, you feel vulnerable, raw, and exposed. You’ve just been ejected from a contained, safe place into a noisy, frenetic world. And you encounter traffic jams and jackhammering in your front drive and you want to howl with all the primal force you can muster. In other words, she said, what you’re going through is natural. If a newborn doesn’t cry, she added, there’s usually something wrong.
This reframing has helped me immensely. I can now take it as a good sign that I got angry. Perhaps my anger and frustration signifies that I was re-born during the retreat experience, and had no choice but to encounter the difficulty in bringing a newborn ‘me’ back into my everyday world.
My experience has taught me that the real work begins after a retreat. Yes, I was informed of this by other people but there’s nothing quite like having the experience yourself. For me, the post retreat process is all about transition, assimilation and integration. It takes time and patience to build up those layers of resiliency, all the while holding onto all the new material that’s been created within. I hope that, over time, the inner transformation(s) will alter my day to day life.
However, before that can happen the reality of the situation is that in returning from retreat you are directly confronting your old reality. And that can be disorientating, frustrating, and scary. It may lead you to wonder, will your newborn self survive, and what’s more, learn to thrive?