Experiencing post-retreat blues? You’re not alone in it.
Coming back from retreat can be hard. I recently returned to the UK from five months’ retreat in New Zealand. It wasn’t a formal retreat in a monastery or ashram, but it shared several of the hallmarks. Post-retreat integration isn’t new to me, but it felt tough this time. As if my precious inner states were being hunted down by the demands of everyday life.
Mind the gap
Everyone is unique and there are literally hundreds of different retreats out there. Plus even after attending the same retreat, one person can crash-land back into their life while another transitions effortlessly. It’s impossible to predict. If I had to guess what increases our chances of post-retreat pain, I’d note the size of the gap between ‘retreat conditions’ and everyday life.
Maybe you were on a digital detox ‘holiday’ which reduced access to tech but still permitted lots of personal freedom and socialising. Perhaps you were on a 10-day vipassana retreat which imposed silence and a strict daily schedule of meditation. Perhaps you were fasting or eating a very different diet. Retreats are powerful precisely because they break with normality. They reduce external distractions to focus attention inward. No wonder it can be a shock to land back into our ‘normality’.
It reminds me of Tolkien’s Return of the King, when the Hobbits find themselves back in the shire after their epic adventure. Life’s the same – and yet so different. Returning to work, family and relationships can feel isolating.
In a nutshell, while it’s perfectly ‘normal’ to find the transition uncomfortable, it’s still uncomfortable! I reckon our best bet is to regard post-retreat integration as an important part of our retreat process – a process worthy of curiosity and kindness.
Here are some of the dimensions I’ve encountered. Perhaps you can relate!
OMG the joy
I remember getting the train home from my first retreat experience. I was 21 and been away a month. The grimy station café seemed illuminated with divine light. My heart swelled with love for every precious human being on the platform. An extra hour’s delay felt like a profound teaching in patience. In those halcyon moments it seemed everything would be permanently different.
Old places, new eyes
I returned from New Zealand and unlocked the familiar door to my flat. It’s hard to describe the experience in words. Instead of seeing ‘the living room’ I saw a collection of objects, carpet, walls, light fittings etc. They didn’t feel like mine anymore. Everything that I’d labelled collectively as ‘home’ seemed separated out. As if I’d stripped the label off.
All ‘turned up to eleven’
Later I experienced the fear and exhilaration of driving a car again; so fast, powerful and low to the ground. Driving along the motorway seemed an act of faith in humanity. Such a wonder that these humans were sitting in these powerful machines and speeding across the earth on concrete strips. Populous environments still felt intense after weeks – and my most recent ‘retreat’ didn’t involve silence or sensory deprivation.
After my extended period of heart-opening and relaxing I feel way more vulnerable than before. Yesterday I cried on a Professor of Neuropsychology in a café while discussing data science. Luckily he’s a friend as well as powerhouse academic. But post-retreat I’m super sensitive, like my soft underbelly is exposed. (Incidentally my desire to keep feelings ‘out’ of my professional interactions is changing, but it caught me offguard.)
Plugging back in
One of hardest parts for me this time: I received an onslaught of communications sparked by my own impulse to reach out to people after my extended period of absence. The volume is nothing compared to what my ‘normal week’ would have looked like in the past. But it still felt super intense. And so effortful to meet people, talk, send emails and reply to messages. Old habits reared their heads; checking my phone before bed and saying ‘yes’ to too many engagements. A huge to-do-list sprang forth. I soothed my jetlag with a box of ‘welcome back’ chocolates. Sleep got disrupted. My yoga mat dusty.
Adding insult to injury
Yes, time for my inner critic to get stuck-in. I heaped on a load of judgement and analysis about how I was getting on. Berating myself for ‘regressing’. Feeling my body contract and my shoulders tense up. Lamenting my loss of peace and connection. Resisting the discomfort in my body and mind -and making it wrong. So in addition to finding it hard, I beat myself up to ‘do better’.
Giving myself time
I’d been back a few days when a wise friend stated the obvious:
“You’re going through a process of integration. This is going to time some time. Probably longer than you think.”
When I really let this land it helped a lot. At the risk of sounding like a teenage heath leaflet: Post-retreat blues or depression is totally normal. It’s an adjustment period and doesn’t necessarily mean that everyday life is broken.
Right now, four weeks post-retreat, I’m still being gentle. I’ve got my calendar back in shape and I’m looking after my boundaries again. During a retreat or ‘digital detox’ our boundaries are taken care of. We’re protected from technology and social interactions by the retreat parameters we’ve put in place. On returning to everyday life this has to be re-learned and re-established.
One teacher of mine had a rule that we should avoid major life changes (such as leaving a job or relationship) for three months after a significant spiritual experience or personal development process. Change is important and will come in time. But it isn’t generally advisable in the immediate aftermath of a retreat. It’s often enough to simply notice.
The gold of post-retreat blues
For many people there’s a stark difference between retreat conditions and daily life. We may feel sadness or anger about how we’re currently living. About the way we treat our bodies. That our lives are dominated by technology and work, disconnected from nature or from our own body and heart. While painful, I find this extremely precious. Seeing ourselves, our habits and patterns with new eyes. Getting clearer about what really matters to us. It’s post-retreat gold.
As the internet says, ‘you can’t unsee’. And in this case, that’s a good thing.