By Tammy Stone Takahashi
Over the past several years, I’ve been to several meditation retreats, Buddhist and yoga course retreats, ranging from 10 days to a month each.
Every time, there is a lot of excitement (because I know I’ll find it meaningful, and because I will learn and experience so much), mixed with a little bit of dread.
What am I getting myself into? Am I ready to leave the comforts of my world behind and dive deep? What am I going to find once the layers of my comfort zone are disintegrated and I am face to face with myself?
Each time, amazing things happen that are hard to quantify, but profound in their impact. But what I wanted to talk about today is not the “before” or “during” part of these retreats, but the “after.” It recently dawned on me that our situation of starting to slowly come out of quarantine again in our new COVID universe, and “open up” has reminded me of the good, the bad and the ugly of coming out of these retreats.
While in retreat, we start to see the world and our own selves from a different perspective. Things we normally think are so important, like our everyday comforts, can start to feel less so, while we focus our attention on things we may have forgotten to (re)claim as our sources of joy, like contentment with the simple life, and cherishing relationships with loved ones.
We might have noticed something similar in quarantine. At first, like in retreat, we tend to focus only on the things we miss—restaurants! Shopping! Cafes! (I have particularly missed the latter). Of course, in retreat, we choose to remove ourselves from the world, and know that we will be able to have hugs and face-to-face conversations when the retreat is over; we are not so certain about this coming out of quarantine, and this is a vast difference.
Still, as the quarantine has wore on, we might have found ourselves using more discernment about what it is we value and need in our lives (Another shirt, no. A good conversation with a friend in which we can hug and see each other’s eyes, yes). We might have found we actually started yearning to live more simply, to hold onto how good it feels to reduce some of the clutter once the period of confinement ends.
Retreats are a haven (in ideal circumstances). Distractions have been removed, one might find oneself in a serene, natural environment, and everything has been prepared for you, so that you have nothing to work on aside from yourself and your practice. Coming out of retreat, it is common to find ourselves armed with tons of goodwill and good intention, only to face the reality of the onslaught of our usual distractions, and responsibilities.
Similarly, despite what has been for so many the severe difficulties generated by being in quarantine, we might have also noticed our minds, bodies, and routines all start to go a little quieter. We might have even noticed that we liked parts of it—more time to cook, longer walks, more time to rest (I’m also utterly aware of, and don’t mean to discount or disrespect those for whom these activities would amount to luxuries they could only dream of, and my heart goes out to them so very much).
I’ve heard of many people noticing, for example, how much of their wardrobes they don’t actually need, and resolved to reduce or simplify. To live “better,” so to speak. As we start to emerge into society again, will we find the distractions…distracting again? Will we maintain our resolve? Will we do what we can to keep the clearer skies as clear as ever?
In retreat, we are (or should be, in ideal circumstances), in a safe environment, so that the “stuff” that comes up is wholly interior. We come face to face with our demons—our fears, doubts, insecurities, you name it. During quarantine, we certainly have a legitimate reason to feel fear, as we have been dealing with the external situation of a potentially devastating virus.
That said, it’s probably also true that these fears have triggered a whole host of other ones having little to do with external threats and more to do with our internal landscape. Who am I without my fill in the blank (job, social life, routine, etc.). We are not often in life forced to strip away the layers, or trappings of who we think we are or have been conditioned to believe we are, to look in the mirror and face nothing more or nothing less, but precisely what is looking back at us.
No wonder anxiety and depression has been on the rise. No wonder we feel so lonely, and adrift.
These feelings can amount to an existential crisis that can and very well might persist much longer than the period of confinement that triggered it, as long as we choose not to slip right back into the world of our distractions. Of course, many if not most of us will become subsumed again by our struggles, debts and responsibilities again, but these challenges do not mean that our existential worries will just disappear, either. The mental load might well just increase.
It took me years before I felt strong enough to do my first meditation retreat, despite having yearned to do one for years. A part of me knew that I’d have to dig deep and confront a lot of that deep-down stuff I knew would bear its claws. And it did, over and over. In our current situation, we have an entire world of people who did not ask for time in isolation but had it thrust upon them anyway. The emotional toll this takes is very real, and can be devastating. It is my greatest hope that we are going to wake up to whatever world comes next with eyes wide open for what we are going to find, and hearts wide open and full of empathy and compassion for the unfathomable challenges we’ve all had to face and will continue to have to bear.
The takeaway? Stay vigilant.
Of course, be vigilant about your health and safety for yourself and everyone around you, but I’m talking about something else here. Stay vigilant in your mind and your being. Awaken to the truths you’ve been discovering in yourself, about yourself and the world around you, and don’t allow anything or anyone to take those truths from you. They have been one of the great, if bittersweet gifts of this time in isolation.
Let’s be ready. Let’s have a heart full of gratitude for the lives we’ve been living until now, and for the fact that we are still around to brave the new world, but let’s be brave enough to let it be new and different. Let’s not pine for a status quo that was not working. Let’s do our very best to leave some of our comforts behind in the name of making change, of cleaning and purifying our world in all the ways we can imagine.
Whether we realize it or not, what many of us have been doing, as we’ve confined ourselves to our homes, has amounted to a purification. We’ve been observing ourselves feel restless, uncomfortable, achy, sad and confused, and we have come to some measure of familiarity, if not comfort or acceptance, with these feelings. We may have even started to realize that what ails the world also ails us, and we might be perhaps feeling a renewed hope, for our ability to start over, maybe by making better or bolder decisions.
At the very least, we’ve seen that we can get through something that would have been unimaginable to us a mere few months ago. That is already a victory.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve kept up my meditation practice after a retreat, only to lapse. But I never forget the benefits I derived from those intense days of silence and inward focus, and I’ve always come back. Slowly, but steadily and surely, the practice improves. May we be open to understanding how much we have accomplished during this time of isolation—even if it feels like nothing at all—despite and also due to the discomfort, and carry the best of what we’ve learned forward, for ourselves, for all beings, and for the world.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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