Be it a retreat, conference, vacation, or another adventure: spend time focusing on the art of returning, rather than only ongoing/leaving.
“Well it sounds like you had a great trip. Are you depressed now?” our neighbor asked us. We were sitting in his backyard, sipping cappucinos in the Hudson Valley in mid-May: it was an almost idealic scene. I was a bit startled by his question. But I think it is indicative of a common experience.
Journeys can be so addictive.
And the return can be like a crash.
We live in a society that consistently emphasizes the outward journey. Going to college, going on a retreat, going to a conference — but less about coming home. And then when we do return, we tend to focus on the next adventure. The next peak experience.
What actually happens when we come back from our journeys? How do we make sense of it all? How do we relate to those who have stayed? How do we return well?
Before the predicted summer travel extravaganza of 2023 is fully upon us, let us consider: how do we come back home.
For those of us who organize for others (vacations, summer internships/learning journeys, events, retreats, and conferences) these questions are critical. How are your attendees going to return and integrate their experience? How much time and resources are you spending addressing those needs?
So let’s dig into returning: the myths we have around it, why it can be so hard, and some dynamics that are larger than the individual.
The Story of Returning… well, the lack thereof.
I love coming home: these days, I love my home, my partner, my regular routine, the gentle sweetness of belonging, and the responsibilities of care that are nexused at home. I think that for some folks, this is not a big deal. But I know that returning can be hard, as well as sweet.
There are precious few reflections and stories and support for the process of return.
Many of our classic stories inform us that, on some level, we can’t, actually, ‘go back’. Indeed, to return is viewed as difficult. Let’s take an example that many of us know well.
In Tolkien’s story, The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins tells of a journey ‘there and back again’: a framing that emphasizes the arc of the journey. You go… and then you return. It’s a beautiful phrase that often comes to mind in my own traveling.
But in Bilbo’s own life-story, told over multiple books (and now films) there is a caveat. Bilbo can’t really stay in Shire. This becomes a multi-generational challenge: By the time the next generation comes around to going on their own adventures, notably his nephew Frodo, Bilbo has been able to write his own story, but he can no longer stay in The Shire. His time away has set him apart to such an extent that integration is difficult. He yearns/needs to go somewhere else — to the place/people (the elves) that he found on his journey. Subsequently, Frodo has a similar experience. While Frodo’s best friend, Sam seems able to reintegrate into village life, the burden of carrying the Ring of Power has been too much for Frodo: he also goes off with the elves.
In so many ways I love this narrative.
I love the recognition that our adventures change us; that it is not always easy or possible to explain ourselves or our experiences to those who did not share that experience with us. It echoes the experience of so many adventurers, explorers, college-educated people, military personnel, and others who are attempting to re-enter society after being “away.” We cannot simply come ‘back’ to where we were. Both the place, the people, and we ourselves have changed, sometimes dramatically.
On another level, I wish we spent more time on stories like Sam’s. Let’s get curious about what is successful reintegration into village life.
For this is not only the stuff of myth and fantasy.
We need to return to our homes. Even more than needing to: we do. Not always to the same place, but there is, after a while, some kind of returning. After the peak/intense/different experience, we come back. Somewhere. Wherever that may be. Maybe we are different. Still, we come back. But how?
The question haunts (or at least it should) organizations, not just individual journeys.
How many philanthropic ventures include bringing people (perhaps “changemakers”) out of their home context in order to put them into a different context with the intention of those same people returning to their communities…. And then spend almost no energy/money/resources on actually ensuring they can effectively integrate what they learned while they were away?
Insert “conference” or “retreat” above for a common set of experiences. How many great conferences leave one hour at the very end to think about what you are “going to do differently next week”… as if that was remotely enough time to really work on that question? How many people re-enter their jobs after the conferences slowly enough to actually think through and shift their actions?
How many insights, connections, and relationships fall through the cracks as a result of a lack of integration?
So how do we engage with returning?
This is, obviously, a big question. Let’s try some small-scale approaches.
Some (small scale) Suggestions
Here are a few suggestions.
Care for your own physical well-being. Going, especially when that entails metal flying tubes, crossing into vastly different ecosystems, and engaging with different cultures (including within your own country) is done today at a velocity foreign to our biological makeup. It takes most people several days — not just hours — to adjust to a new place, including coming back. Eat regularly — for many, that means fresh, healthy food, not too heavy. Drink a lot of water. Go for walks every day when you return. Get sunshine. Sit outside and taste the wind in the place you call home. Touch the earth. Get your hands in the soil (perhaps gardening); in the rivers/lakes/streams; in the physical ecology of where you are. Rest. Rest. Rest.
Care for your communications. Returning can be quite disorientating. It is very common that we get our communications ‘wrong’.
I’ve slowly realized that part of why communication can be so hard is that just because my body is back, that doesn’t mean that my mind/spirit/consciousness/sense of time is back. It takes several days (if not longer, depending on where you’ve been) to ‘return’. Some of my pre-existing challenges of paying (the right kind of) attention is often much worse upon my return. And there is often a lot to pay attention to. I’ve noticed that it is common that when people return from something they don’t really see what is in front of them. This is in part because they aren’t really “here”. Some of that is, I think, inevitable. It is part of returning. Returning takes time. Returning takes practice.
Part of this is attending to something that should be obvious: your grand adventure is not, actually, necessarily very significant to other people, who are deep in the midst of their own lives, and the precariousness, potential overwhelm, sickness, deadlines, and other challenges that they have. If you were gone for a longer period of time (say, on a job for a month or two a long way from home), those whom you left behind developed patterns without you. Your return might be both a blessing and a disruption to what they built while you were gone. Things shifted for you… and they shifted for the other people in your life, too.
Care for the ordinary. Going away is often viewed as part of the extra-ordinary. This can make it easy to miss the magic of the ordinariness of our own lives. Yet it is in the ordinary that so much becomes possible. So enjoy your everyday rituals.
If you sign up to go to a conference, to return…:
Schedule at least 4–6 hours the day or two after the conference, when you get back, to do some form of integration.
This can include:
- writing out the 3 big ideas you got from the conference that want to incorporate into your work. If this involves working differently with your team, think carefully about communication with them.
- Depending on the nature of the conference, you might want to have a buddy system or small group to help keep one another accountable for the commitments and new ideas you made — to help the process of implementation. This is also a place where having a person/coach who is supporting you in integration and various forms of ethical alignment can be helpful.
- Strategizing. Never doubt the power of conditioned tendencies and pre-existing habits that can make it difficult for you to bring anything new into your work. Use your team and buddy systems to support doing things differently.
- Schedule what it means to work with these new ideas: Short term, mid-term, long term.
- Reach out to the 5 people you connected with most. Consider the 10–15 people whom you also loved meeting:: who do you really need to work with? It is probably unrealistic that you will have follow-up engagements with all of them.
Consider this work to be as important as the conference itself. If you don’t have time to do this follow-up work, re-consider if you have time to go to the conference.
If you are going on a retreat, to return…:
- Start preparing to leave the retreat at least the night before you go. Thus if you have a 3-night 4-day retreat, on the third night, start planning how you want to re-enter.
- If possible, drive ‘out’ of the retreat with other people from the retreat. Talk about how it feels.
- Stay in touch with the people whom you met. Schedule it. Even if it is just a phone call 1 week afterward.
- When possible, travel into and out of retreat spaces with others whom you are already in community with.
- Create a practice in the last day or so (or more!) of the retreat that you can practice when you get home. For example, if there is a breathing exercise, lunar practice, yoga pose, or song that spoke to you on the retreat, practice that for 7 days following the retreat, as part of re-integrating.
- Consider — plan! — on how you want to talk about your experience. You might not have words to describe it to others. That’s ok. This is part of where having a person who is supporting you in integration and spiritual direction is so valuable.
- It is quite common that upon having a ‘peak experience’ people have a ‘down experience’ afterward. Doubts, depression, sickness, exhaustion, and what can feel like a minor crisis can occur. The solution is not to plan the next peak experience. It is to take the time to recalibrate and to keep strengthening your practice.
If you are going on a vacation, to return…:
- Consider having a few days ‘off’ before you have to get back to work after your vacation. It is very common that vacations are exhausting. Traveling (especially with airline cancellations,etc) can be draining. If possible, flexibility, don’t go immediately back into work.
- If you are tired going into a vacation, consider what your body needs to actually rest. This might not include visiting 20 places in three days. You might only visit one place. What is the tempo that your body actually needs? This will shape how you return.
- Talk to your landscape (rivers, forests, gardens, streets) before you go. Then tell them about the trip when you get back.
- Do you really need an object from another culture to remind you of that trip? What does that object mean? To you…. And to the people whom you are taking it from?
- Consider what it means to share with your friends about your trip. How can you engage them in the ideas and questions, and not just, ‘oh we went here and here and here and it was amazing’?
- Can you view the place to which you are returning with new eyes… and see how precious it is?
You might notice in these concrete suggestions a few common themes. These are:
Spaciousness. To go to a new place is to experience space and time differently. To return and be able to integrate requires spaciousness. Just sitting can be wonderful. Why should you think you can do everything all at once upon your return?
Spaciousness is also important because it is very, very common that weird things show up upon your return. You find out something terrible. Something that was brewing months ago suddenly has to be immediately dealt with. Your kids fall apart. You get sick. After the height of your ‘mountain top’ experience, something shitty happens. I don’t fully understand this, but its a common pattern.
Strategic planning. Be purposeful. Integration does not necessarily happen on its own. If that was the case, I think many more conferences would have much more impact. For some adventures, plan aspects of the return before you leave.
Engaging with others — with care. Buddy systems, communities, small groups, accountability circles… there are many ways of not holding it all by yourself.
Simultaneously, engage with care with those who did not share that experience with you, be that in your team, your community, your family, or your community. They did important work while they stayed at home. They might not have the capacity to understand your experience… or they might! Increasing FOMO doesn’t help anyone. Try treasuring what those who stayed at home were able to do… or what they took care of in your absence. What hearths did they tend so you could be away? Don’t take their work of care for granted!
Engaging with an ongoing spiritual direction and integration coach: In my work as an integration coach/spiritual director, I see again and again how much people value having a person (ie, me) who can help them integrate their learnings, leadings, and insights into their life. Living in the thick of life can be overwhelming. Having someone to share these special experiences with… and who can help you, over time, integrate them, and remember them, is invaluable.
Consider not going. Going is often time-consuming, expensive to your pocketbook and to the environment, and has a variety of social and spiritual implications that can take you away from ‘here’. What might arise if you stayed?
ReFocusing on returning.
I love going. I enjoy seeing new places and meeting new people, especially if they share similar questions to my own, or if they help me see the world and my place in it differently. And meeting in person students, clients, and colleagues whom I’ve worked with for years online is super special.
As someone who has deep and important relationships with people who live in places that are far, far away from where I now live, I totally get how ‘going’ can help fill one up: with love, connections, ideas, inspiration, clarity. I come from a long, long line of pioneers and explorers.
And I’ve seen the damage that those mentalities focused on “going” do: to those people at home, to the people far away, and to the person doing the all of the ‘going’ and too often, none of the real work of returning.
If we place significantly more attention onto returning and integration, the process of going, from our expectations to our planning, will itself shift.
At the very least, as you return, pay attention. To your body, your ecology, the waters around you, your place.
Rev Sara Jolena Wolcott serves the Spirit as a spiritual director/integration coach, legacy advisor, and through the eco-theology learning community, Sequoia Samanvaya. She guides learning journeys for more meaningful discernment and teaches on the intersections of climate change, colonization, spirituality, and origin stories.