It’s like this:
There’s a wild animal, like a lion, stuck in a zoo. It starts to exhibit all kinds of fucked up and excessively violent (even for a lion) behavior. No matter what the zookeepers do, the lion continues to behave erratically.
Eventually, realizing that the lion is suffering solely because it’s in a zoo, they tranq it, put a tracker on it, and fly it back to the savanna. Once it wakes up, they release it back into its natural habitat.
But they don’t just abandon it there; they keep tabs on it. After watching it for awhile, they see that all of the erratic behavior is gone and that the lion seems content.
Disciplining the mad mind and then easing up on it is just like this. Anger, fear, sorrow, greed, ignorance, and all the other afflictions are extremely harmful prior to practice, so they have to be brought under control.
Once we subdue them, the mind starts to clear and we’re able to develop mindfulness, inquiry, determination and reflection. Once we learn these skills, it’s time to lift our restrictions and pick up where we left off.
When do, we find that the harmful parts of us are still there, but the mental environment they’re in has completely changed. Now that they’re exposed to open, accommodating spaces, they can roam freely and it becomes clear that they were never really inherently afflicted at all—just trapped in the wrong context.
People often go on long retreats to give themselves a reboot. But, really, we’re on a retreat from the second we learn about Buddhism and begin behaving in accordance with the Noble Eightfold Path.
This retreat lasts until we step back into non-Buddhist lives and pick up our lots again. In some ways, this is when the practice truly begins.