The most common question I’m being asked when leading a yoga retreat (or even after a weekly yoga class) is: “How do I hold on to this when I get back to ‘real life’?” This being: this good feeling, this daily yoga practice, this routine, this sense of peace, etc. Over many years of teaching yoga, and being in numerous silent retreats myself, the answer to this question has evolved into a counter question: “What is ‘real life’?”
To many people their beliefs and opinions about what is create reality, instead of accepting what is as real. However, our thoughts may seem real but there is no such thing as an absolute true thought. So the mere fact that we think about what is going on around us, instead of being in the moment as it is, turns our experience into a dream, into something that is made up, or at best it is colored by our own perspective.
I remember being in a silent retreat and feeling great. The weather was beautiful, the surroundings were gorgeous, the food was good, and my meditations weren’t too much of a struggle. “This is what being on retreat does for me, and I should hold on to this when I get back home”, I thought. The next day, I felt annoyed. The other retreatants irritated me (and they weren’t even talking), I didn’t like the food, I was obsessively thinking, and I wanted to do a different practice. And then, while I was on a walk being absorbed in my frustration, I suddenly realized: nothing had changed compared to the day before. The other people were still the same, the food was similar, the practice identical, and I was still there. What had changed, however, was my perspective on things. It dawned on me that my thoughts were creating ‘my reality’, and that it was those exact thoughts that turned ‘my reality’ into something ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
I also realized that my experience at the retreat was no different from when I was home, or anywhere else; there are enjoyable moments and times when I wish things were different. The fact that I was on retreat didn’t all of a sudden turn my life into a week of bliss. Just as being back home wouldn’t be miserable, or less enjoyable. Each moment is just that: a moment. The way I relate to it turns it into something else.
I’d love to share a couple of Haikus I have written during some of the silent retreats I have been on, to illustrate the fluctuations of my experience.
Softening into Stillness
A whole retreat.
But not the present.
I can sit.
As I hear the bell.
Now back to the first question: “How do I hold on to this when I get back to ‘real life’?” My answer to that is: “’Real life’ is not out there. It is right here. Now.”
When you realize that reality is being in the moment without having any thoughts or opinions about it, it doesn’t matter anymore where you are. Of course, you may have a preference of waking up to the sound of the ocean or cowbells, rather than city traffic. And yes, practicing yoga and meditation several times a day gives a better feeling to your body than sitting in a chair behind your desk the whole day. Yet, the practice doesn’t end the moment you get off your yoga matt or meditation cushion. The whole point of the practice is to cultivate an awareness of your thinking mind. By doing so you will become less and less identified with your thoughts, and more and more able to simply be. And you will suddenly find that you can experience ‘feeling really good’ while sitting in a traffic jam in the rain as much as when you sat on your yoga mat overlooking that gorgeous lake.