I’m often asked this question by newer meditation students still unsure of the value of taking that “next step,” from home and group sitting practice to devoting three or more days to meditation. Could there possibly be more to it than just sitting and walking over and over again? Each person who decides to take this step will answer that question in his or her own unique way. I can elaborate, however, on some common experiences.
What I hear repeatedly from people after their first residential retreat is how deeply they settled into their meditation periodically through the course of the weekend. Nearly all new retreatants experience some resistance at the beginning of a retreat because the activities seem so removed from everyday life. But once they make peace with the retreat rhythm and lack of external distractions, they find a way of settling in that allows for substantial deepening of concentration (Samadhi).
Through this Samadhi, the door to insight gradually opens. This is where each person’s experience is unique – the fruits of insight manifest in myriad ways. It may reveal the very nature of mind, an opening into emptiness. Some people will awaken to the endless arising and passing away of phenomena with equanimity. Fresh insights into difficult life challenges are common as well. Some people experience a deep opening of the heart with occasional or extended periods of stillness and joy. Usually these openings, however they manifest, are exactly what a person needs at the time – the wisdom of the dharma truly reveals itself through this process. It often differs from the expectations a person brought into the retreat, but letting go of fixed agendas is key to the unfolding of genuine insight.
Returning home, many people feel lighter and less caught in reactive patterns for a while. Others may feel heightened sensitivity because their hearts have opened so fully. Its important to maintain compassion and awareness during this transition back into everyday activities. At some point the after retreat high inevitably wears off, but the mind and heart retain a new depth of insight that can be accessed through continued practice. Most people experience a greater appreciation for the value of meditation and many make a stronger commitment to their practice.