What Can We Learn From the Post-Vacation Blues?
Chances are you’ve heard or read some version of this quote from online marketing guru Seth Godin: “Instead of wondering when your next vacation is, maybe you should set up a life you don’t need to escape.”
Where to begin with what’s wrong with that statement? It’s a specious argument, equating vacation with escapism. The word comes from the Latin vacare, “to be unoccupied.” Vacation is not necessarily an escape from something horrible. It’s its own verb, a unique action – unoccupying yourself – and a very worthwhile pursuit. Even an extraordinary, spontaneous life will necessarily have some kind of “occupation” in it. There’s nothing wrong with that, and there’s nothing wrong with taking a break from it.
The problem is that picking up the routine again can be a bit of a struggle. People seem to experience anything from melancholy and fatigue to disorientation and anxiety. There are even acronyms for it! PTD (Post-Travel Depression), HOAD (Holiday Adjustment Disorder) for the Brits, SVP (Syndrome Poste-Vacances) for the French. But there’s no disease to be cured here; it’s a transitional phase, and, like most things in life, if you pay attention, you may learn something interesting from it.
At this point, I’d like to say that I recognize that this is a First World problem. Billions of people on the planet are concerned with surviving, never mind unoccupying themselves and feeling ok about it afterwards. Maybe you’re surviving, but just barely. Maybe you don’t get a vacation. Bear with me. I’m talking about the ability to adapt and pay attention, to move through periods of change just a little more gracefully. This is a useful practice whether you just spent two weeks on the beach or two months sweating through your usual work week.
So if you find yourself adrift after August or some other change in your activity and rhythm, what can you learn?
Accept the uncomfortable
This is always a good idea, at least in the short-term. Don’t push away how you feel. Acknowledge what’s happening, without judgement. Try to describe your thoughts, emotions, and sensations precisely. Are you sad? Fearful about something? Physically unwell? This isn’t wallowing or navel-gazing: being specific about your experience will help you to see which aspects you can do something about, and which ones you just have to allow; not pushing it away will let it take its course. Take a deep breath, relax your body, and don’t try to be anything else right now.
You may find you’re absolutely dreading something about returning to your daily life (a job? a person? an event?). It could be that there’s an element you’d really like to change, that needs to change in order for you to be well. Vacationing affords perspective – when you unoccupy yourself, you can see things with a fresh eye, including your own life. In the passage between any two experiences, some things may stand out as no longer desired, necessary, or acceptable. This is an opportunity to face what you want to transform, however daunting that might be.
Observe beginnings and endings
You’re closing one chapter and opening a new one. You had an intention, maybe unconsciously, for the period behind you (relax, see friends, travel, try something new). Have a look at where your intention went. Was it fulfilled? How did it change you? And state your intention for the period to come. What are you looking forward to? What challenges are you facing? Think about what you want. Recognize that you’re starting a new period, full of potential and the unknown (yes, unknown: even if you’re going back to a certain routine, you never really know what can happen).
Identify the things, however small, that you did differently in your “unoccupied” time: Did you get up earlier, or later? Eat differently? Use the internet less? Look at the sky more? Spend more time alone, or with certain people? Can you imagine a way to incorporate just one of these things into the rest of your life? The point is not to re-create your vacation or reproduce a particular state, but to take something beneficial that you did for yourself and bring it with you into the next part of the adventure.
I’ve done a fair number of Zen Buddhist retreats, and I’ve seen it again and again: after days or months of calm, meditation, and organized communal living, participants go home to the chaos of work, traffic, supermarket lines, and grim headlines, surrounded by families, friends, and co-workers who did not just spend day and night sitting on a cushion letting their thoughts pass. The meditators were always asking, “How do I stay Zen when I go home?” The answer is: don’t try to “stay” anything. Nothing stays. The thrilling experiences come and go – as do the harrowing, and the boring, and the enlightening. The key is to live them fully while they’re happening and then move on. Otherwise, you’ll be stuck clinging to the banks of the river as life flows by. Let go. It was so incredible! It was so disappointing! It was. Time goes on. Surrender. Travel light.
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