February 3, 2020

Sustaining a Home Practice after an IMS Retreat

IMS retreats invite us to step away from day-to-day life to explore the meditation experience in a monastic setting. Conditions on retreat wholly support the development of calm and quiet states of being and often lead to new insights and deepening levels of compassion and kindness. Mindfulness skills earned on a retreat center cushion often feel permanent, solid and stable. Yet we can be challenged to remember even the basic teachings the moment we encounter a traffic jam on the way home, or when we return to work, school, or other natural life circumstances.

To help ease your transition from retreat life to life back home, IMS Resident Teacher Chas DiCapua offers these five tips for navigating the first few weeks after an IMS retreat.

  1. Set Realistic Goals

On a typical retreat, we may practice 10 to 12 hours of sitting and walking meditation each day and mindfulness is preserved continuously. Chas says, “While me may aspire to continue a rigorous formal practice schedule when we return home, it is unrealistic for most people to replicate the discipline of retreat life while appropriately engaging in day-to-day responsibilities.” Instead, Chas suggests we “set small, attainable goals to help reinforce the daily practice of mindfulness.”

For example, he suggests a modest approach to seated meditation commitments. “When considering formal sitting practice, set a realistic daily total,” Chas says. “Choose a schedule that accurately reflects the time you can dedicate for daily seated meditation in relation to your other activities. For many with family and work responsibilities, this may only be 20 minutes a day. After a week, bring your earlier intention to mind and mentally review whether you achieved your goal. If you were able to sit for 20 minutes on only four days of the week, your goal may be too ambitious. Reduce the goal to 15 minutes a day and wait another week. Keep reducing until you have discovered the realistic amount of time you can dedicate to formal seated practice on a daily basis.”

This is your new, non-retreat baseline. Chas suggests that in three months, evaluate whether additional time can be added or whether your non-retreat baseline is perfect to maintain a daily formal practice within your current lifestyle.

  1. Focus Your Daily Practice on Ethics

The five precepts served as the guiding principles of behavior when you were on retreat. While it may be unrealistic — and potentially unwise in relationship — to practice continuous silence and abstinence in your home life, Chas recommends a focus on non-harming as a primary daily practice after retreat.

“Whether you are on retreat or off retreat we can bring non-harming and kindness to every moment,” Chas offers. “We can also notice when our ability to be kind and open-hearted is challenged,” such as when we are stuck in line at the coffee shop or when a co-worker pushes our buttons.

Chas reminds us that it is important here to be truthful with ourselves. “People often try to be kind and non-harming with everyone and everything. If that doesn’t work, be mindful of your ambition and shift your intention to a more attainable goal for the day, like refraining from lashing out verbally. Even the awareness that kindness can be a challenge is part of the practice.”

  1. Use Relationships as an Arena for Mindfulness Practice 

“All interpersonal relationships are part of your dharma practice, especially intimate relationships with partners and close friends,” Chas suggests. He invites practitioners to “Adopt the view that relationship is as much a part of our practice as sitting on a cushion or going on retreat.”

As a tool, Chas encourages us to add some structure to this practice by using the body to anchor the mind. “Cultivate body awareness — sensations, breath — whenever you come into contact with another human being. Become fully present. Have the connection be embodied so that you can clearly see how you are showing up for the relationship.”

Then, Chas says, “Use your relationships to practice kindness and generosity. Whether you are at a retreat center or out in the wider world, you can walk this path with a huge dose of kindness.”

  1. Bring Awareness to The Ten Perfections (Parami) 

The Ten Perfections are a list of character qualities taught by the Buddha. They include equanimity, discernment, and renunciation, which are natural topics for exploration during retreat. Out in society, Chas indicates that it may be most suitable to prioritize the qualities of patience and resolution.

“Just because we are not totally mindful in everyday life does not mean we can’t keep practicing,” Chas says. “So be patient with yourself and practice self-kindness.”

IMS co-founder Joseph Goldstein has said that one of his favorite mantras to repeat in life is “It’s ok.” Chas adds, “The mantra works on two levels. First, if you didn’t remember to be mindful today, it’s totally ok. Then, on the biggest and most absolute level, it’s also all ok.”

And resolution is very helpful on this path, Chas says. “When you remember you have not been very mindful and you stick with it anyway, that’s resolution.”

  1. Cultivate or Build Sangha (Community)

Chas enthusiastically relates that the most important action after a retreat is to develop and participate in sangha. “When we are on retreat we often connect and resonate with something deep inside of us that says ‘this is the right direction for me.’ But like a bell, you have to keep ringing this frequency.”

“Unless you are already a Buddha, you are going to have to do this with other people,” Chas offers. “I like to tell students to make the development of sangha as intentional as the development of your seated practice. If you don’t already have a dharma community, make your own. Invite people to your house to sit; use online meditation teachers and dharma talks to guide you so you don’t have to teach anyone yourself.“

Ultimately, Chas encourages us to practice in community because it develops the quality (parami) of generosity. “We often rely on sangha ourselves because it supports our practice individually. But we can also prioritize sangha because it offers the opportunity to support the practice of everyone else who is there.”

Bonus Tips

After a retreat, Chas has one wish for his students; he hopes they can stay tethered to the deeper part of themselves than connects them to the practice. To maintain this connection, he offers two last helpful tips. First, “Plan your next retreat right away. Don’t let the busyness of life collapse in. Find an opening and carve out that time for additional practice.” Second, Chas says, “Don’t underestimate the power of even one moment of mindfulness. It interrupts the habitual patterns of mind and begins to form new neuropathways over time.”