There is something special about the ending of a silent retreat. Whether it feels as if it’s the best retreat we’ve sat, the most difficult, or in-between. Perhaps it’s the sense of leaving the intensive, protected atmosphere for practicing the Dharma and wondering how to incorporate it into the usual routine of our daily lives.
If you’re new to practice, then you have a wonderful foundation on which to build. If you’ve been practicing for a while, then the retreat may have been a resetting of your practice. What now?
As always, our practice starts with our view of things the way they are:
- dukkha – the inherent dissatisfactions of life
- anicca – the fact that everything changes, absolutely everything
- anatta – that there is no permanent unchanging self
This view supports the deepening of our wisdom.
You may wish to set your intention for practice at the beginning of the day and revisit it at the end. It’s akin to establishing a course with a compass. I believe it was Zen Master Ryokan who reminds us, “If you intend to go North and set your compass South, how will you arrive?” Intention is not a vow. It may change from day to day.
If you want to assess how your practice is, look to your speech and actions. These aspects of the path are simply turning to its primary tenet, namely, kindness. What could be kinder than speaking and acting wisely? It is one of the ways we take care of each other. Our words are so potent. Wise speech at its basic level is about not causing pain. It’s helpful to just reflect on why we want to say something. What is our motivation? A desire to help, show off, or criticize?
An ancient fable tells of a little cobra who went to the forest monks to ask for the teachings. And so, the monks taught the way of the Noble Path and the little snake practiced diligently. One afternoon, while the cobra was resting in the sun, some children came by. In their curiosity, they tapped the snake. When there was no retaliation, they poked a little more; still no response. Thinking it wasn’t alive, they picked up the snake and tossed it into the forest. Later the little cobra, a little shaken up, returned to the monks and asked, “What was I supposed to do? I tried to not retaliate in any way!” The monks responded, “We gave you the teachings but we never said that you couldn’t hiss!”
With wise speech we can still be passionate, ferocious. Ferocity is different than anger. Check if your speech is honest, beneficial, timely, and kind (all four qualities at same time). Practicing in such a way makes us more sensitive to the karmic kickback of our words and how we will suffer from it. We may notice that we begin to talk more slowly because we are paying attention and listening more.
You may also take note of how you spend your time: hobbies, volunteer work, recreation, and livelihood. How are you serving all beings and using the Five Precepts as a daily practice to guide your actions? Not necessarily being rigid about it but as a training practice. Perhaps it’s more like putting yellow hazard tape around as a reminder to reflect, “Is this OK to do, or say, will it cloud my mind? Just working with these is a way to embody your practice.
Our view of things tells us it’s important to practice. Some days it may be only a little and other days more.
The mind is the forerunner of all things…..
With our thoughts we make the world.
~ The Dhammapada
It often shows us outrageous thoughts, stories, and images. This training of the mind takes effort. And it’s easier to do that “on the cushion”. It’s so useful to establish a practice where you sit for some time every day, whether it is a “three-breath sit” or for 30–45 minutes. Perhaps deciding for yourself not to go to sleep at night until you have practiced; maybe just sitting on your bed, in your meditation posture for three breaths. Regular practice creates a thread that follows through our lives even if we are travelling or in midst of some challenge. We all have time for a “three-breath” sit!
Mindfulness is the practice on the cushion; during everyday activities; and anytime of the day. As you bring a wise effort to the practice, mindfulness strengthens. From that you can work with concentration whether it is a one-pointed concentration by focusing only on the breath, for example; the counting of breaths; or breathing in “here” and breathing out “grateful”. It’s helpful to give the mind a job to do.
And I’ll pass along the best advice I’ve received after a retreat and that is to always have a dharma class, daylong retreat, or longer retreat penciled in your calendar!
May we dedicate the merits of our practice not just for ourselves
but for all beings.