Musings from the field.

When Even a Vacation Isn't Enough: The Call to Quest

"I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown,

for going out, I found, was really going in."

–John Muir (Scottish-born American naturalist 1838-1914)

The impulse to go out, get out, hit the road, take a vacation, almost always holds within its volitional energy the urge to re-create or re-vision one’s life. Our joy of recreation in part may come from our joy of re-creating ourselves.

We think of the common, even mundane responses to life’s regularity, schedule and regimen as almost a mechanical release valve, and although it is certainly that, our urge to retreat can also be a deeper message from the unconscious soliciting or signaling a call to ritual and its symbolic cycles of death and rebirth. We may be happy with the vacation, hike or bike ride we promised ourselves for too long to take and finally succeeded at pulling off. But we may also return home with just a tinge of dis-ease and longing still floating around the periphery of our consciousness if we don’t address the deeper call and hope for a return home that ushers in some new life or vision that will better sustains us.

The deeper call to head out is a plea from psyche to loosen the confines of an overly literalized and perhaps too hardened structure and story of our life. By shifting the context of our life we give ourselves an opportunity to reflect on the re-visions that might be available to us. The more imagination, intention, and stripping away of those calcified literalisms that we live with day in and day out, the more authentic restoration and new life we can access and bring back to the life we left behind. Ancient rites of passage, the pan-cultural tradition of fasting from food, shelter and companionship—or the vision quest--and Carl Jung’s inner journey of individuation are all traditions that answer this deeper call to symbolically leave what is known for the sake of harvesting something more sustainable, energized, and meaningful, from the unseen and un-lived life.

As James Hollis (a Jungian author of great guides to this deeper human journey, like his “Middle Passage: From Misery to Meaning at Midlife”) is quick to remind us, we are all summoned to a larger life, in fact life asks more of us than we are usually willing to admit. Standard modes of escapism (vacationing, a binge on drinking, sex or consumerism, to name just a few) seen through the lens of rites, quests, and Jungian psychology appear as small and feeble relief the morning after and surface as repressed and unfulfilled longings waiting for some greater re-creation or re-vision of the one life we have to live: more often than not a burying of our true connection to psyche and its unconscious gifts waiting to be enacted and lived.

Those old standards of distraction and escape eventually become stale and hollow when psyche recognizes and awakens in our consciousness, just how empty the calories it is being fed really are. “And then the knowledge comes to me that I have space within me for a second, timeless, larger life,” says Rilke in his poem “I Love My Being’s Dark Hours.” And so the journey begins…

It may not be convenient for you or me to go to a desert and fast for four days and nights, to wait, cry or pray for a vision that will change our lives. It may in fact not be convenient, comfortable, or pleasant to even think about abandoning our common assumptions and habits in order to approach the Mystery on bended knee for some morsel of a more meaningful or fulfilling life, but it also might not be sustainable to go on living this half-life. A “divided life” in the words of Quaker author Parker Palmer is one that never really addresses our longing for deep change, wholeness, and fulfillment. The divided life separates the call of the soul from the life of our persona. The divided life ignores the call to quest.

The work of living a deeper and more meaningful life, the seeds of the impulse to head out in order to see better within, asks of us again and again, in the words of the School of Lost Borders director, Joseph Lazarus: What is life asking of me now and what may I need to let go of to participate in my own unfolding?

Archetypal psychologist Carol Pearson cuts to the chase, “Those times of depression tell you that it’s either time to get out of the story you’re in and move into a new story or that you’re in the right story but there’s some piece of it you are not living out.”

Going out for the hell of it is always fun and a perfectly healthy, normal and human outlet. But when we recognize the impulse as part of a larger archetypal and mythical instinct to change and deepen our lives, we give ourselves the gift of creativity and consciousness to evolve as individuals and as a species. Going out in order to go in takes some courage and mindfulness, but the payback is in new life energy that may better sustain and enliven not only you and me but also the people we serve and surround ourselves with.

By all means take a vacation! Just see if you can't add some ritual or an element of a symbolic quest to your travels. Or...indeed, take a quest and honor your impulse to vacation as a call to an outer journey of inner exploration and renewal.


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