Friday, July 15, 2016
The Practice of Returning
Today is the last day of a week-long contemplative writing retreat I've been leading on Washington Island in Door County, Wisconsin. This is the second year we have done this retreat - other than some weekend retreats and occasional four day retreats, this is our main retreat of the year.
It's a trek from Madison - five hours, with a ferry in there. The drive is northeast, far enough north that the sun sets notably later and rises notably earlier in the summer. That final journey, the stretch on the ferry over to the island, is a commitment. One woman didn't attend this year because it's at least three hours, including an emergency ferry ride, to the closest Emergency Room.
The island, in other words, is rural and secluded, surrounded on one side by the Bay of Green Bay and on the other by Lake Michigan.
We go deep. People come to write fiction, non-fiction; about their lives or nothing to do with their lives. But we all come to write - to meditate, to move, to write. And to share. The sharing helps us go deeper, allows us to open gates inside ourselves to others and to ourselves. Listening, giving feedback, holding space.
After diving so deep, it can be hard to return.
We've been away now for a week. The world has had its share of traumatic events, our families have their ups and downs back home. What will the re-entry be like? Often, rough. Often it is hard to prevent the jostling and jolting feelings and experiences that happen when we leave after this kind of concentration in this kind of space.
But the main practice, I keep reminding my students, is returning. It's what we have been practicing all week - returning to what we want to prioritize, returning to our writing, returning to our breath, returning to the feeling of feet on the bare earth. Returning to the waves washing in and out - a completely constant sense of change. The practice, any practice, is really not about staying - focusing, concentrating, not leaving. It's about recognizing when we have left, and coming back.
So today, we mark that we left. We recognize we left our homes, our families, jobs, dogs, lives, cats, partners. We mark that we are going back, we are returning. Doing it with as little shame as possible, with as much gentleness as we can muster and as slowly as we can - though not going too far under the speed limit - all of that helps moderate the adjustment, which is guaranteed to be dramatic.
We also need to realize the people and beings we have left behind for a week will need to adjust to our return, too. Returning to the rhythm of "normal" - whatever that means - to habit, to ritual, to regular. Hopefully a bit changed, a bit altered, trusting that what we have done here is of benefit and has been absorbed deeply into our system. Prioritizing what we want to have in our lives, before the flow of habit overtakes us again.
And always, always, constantly, like the waves, returning when we find we have drifted away.
So long as we are alive, we can return. And the moment we recognize we have left - our attention, our intention, our connection - that moment is the greatest gift.