I had a lovely holiday. Lots of nature, fresh air, sky, trees, lakes. And a decent amount of time to unplug and be in non-work mode.
Coming back I’ve had conversations – with friends, neighbours, my wife and clients about our post holiday mindset. People notice the pace of life more than usual, the slightly frenetic edge to everything. We perceive more clearly a background buzz, a slight pressure and lack of space in work and daily activities. As if life is somehow driven, constrained, a bit speedy and claustrophobic.
I call this post holiday syndrome. Maybe you recognise it? It may feel problematic but actually it can be tremendously interesting to explore this experience with curiosity. There are 3 levels, or aspects, of post holiday syndrome we can consider:
1. OUTER ASPECT:
There are lots of wistful conversations about moving to the countryside! About spending more time outdoors, restructuring work and life priorities to allow more contact with nature, space, creativity and time. This is all understandable (and of course it reflects the tremendously privileged position that those who can consider such possibilities are in).
This is what I call (in line with traditional Buddhist thinking) the outer aspect of post holiday syndrome. We experience something – in this case the contrast between the peace, simplicity and openness of holiday, and the rush and pace of normal life. Then we quickly associate that experience with external conditions, circumstances and changes. We imagine living somewhere different, going camping more, changing job, changing something ‘out there’. There’s nothing wrong with this. It can be a useful and relevant consideration. But if we focus only on the outer aspect of things, we’ve entangled direct, inner experience with outer, material circumstances. We are imagining that only external events and outer contexts determine our capacity to feel peaceful, simple and rested. There is a limitation here.
2. INNER ASPECT:
The inner aspect means acknowledging how much it is our own thinking, beliefs and internal storytelling that gives rise to a sense of peace and space on the one hand, and rush and constraint on the other. We notice that our inner chatter is quite different on holiday compared to normal life*. Of course outer circumstances – social and physical contexts do affect our experience and inner chatter. But actually – if we pause to consider – there is no inherent reason that we have to tell ourselves the stories we do about different situations. There is no real reason that we need to adopt speedy and pressured beliefs and self talk just because we are back at what we choose to call ‘work’. It’s just a habit, a reaction, a pattern we become used to. We don’t need to – though somehow it doesn’t usually seem easy to change this inner chatter.
At this inner level it is useful to notice the beliefs, stories and self talk that lie behind habitual feelings of pressure, speed or constraint. What are we repeating to ourselves? What do we believe? How did we come to believe it is ok to relax in August but suddenly not in September? It is nonsense really, but as long as we believe it is reality, it seems rather compelling and heavyweight nonsense. Noticing beliefs and inner chatter and becoming curious and investigative about them can be very helpful. What story about your current back to work situation are you repeating to yourself that you could just let go of?
3. SECRET ASPECT:
The secret aspect is not secret in the sense that it is any mysterious big deal or hidden wisdom. It is secret because we keep it a secret from ourselves. There is something going on here that we simply do not, and perhaps refuse to, notice. The secret aspect of post holiday syndrome is hidden in plain sight, there for us to see the whole time. Except we don’t bother.
What we keep secret from ourselves is that feelings of space, relaxation and possibility are ultimately always present moment experiences. They arise – a combination of thinking, feeling, and fleeting sensory impressions. A cluster of ephemeral, immediate experience that comes from nowhere and disappears again. Because in our normal, familiar story of how life works we assume this experience is connected with ‘holiday’ or ‘time off’ we don’t notice that really the experience itself, whenever it arises, is simply present here and now – nowhere else. We are so wrapped up in our concepts of what is going on and how things work, that we don’t notice – the secret in plain sight – that it is entirely possible to experience qualities of openness, relaxation and fresh possibility in any situation. They are inherent aspects of, or qualities within, immediate, direct experience, wherever we find ourselves. They do not require a plane ticket or a day at the beach.
How might life and work change if we work with this secret aspect? If we started seeing these qualities as intrinsic parts of our immediate experience?
Changing our ideas about freedom and constraint
My meditation teacher used to encourage us from time to time say to ourselves, and really feel, “I could do anything right now. I could go anywhere, do anything.” Really feeling the inherent, deeper truth of that statement cuts through many of our heavy, habitual thoughts about how restricted our life is. It gives us a momentary glimpse of the essential spaciousness and possibility present in life all the time. This doesn’t mean we then walk out of the office, or punch a policeman, or whatever (!) But we might start to de-couple the direct experience of space and relaxation, from our conceptual stories and heavy judgements about what is going on.
He also suggested that anytime we step outside, we could momentarily connect with a sense of spaciousness – the unconstrained, unlimited aspect of experience that is always there. As we leave one situation, room or building, we let go of our thinking and momentarily step into open space, fresh, unconstrained possibility. Try it. See what happens. Again this doesn’t mean we don’t have responsibilities, deadlines or commitments – we do. But we can investigate qualities or experiences of heaviness, restriction or pressure that we believe go with such things. Maybe in the end these heavy feelings themselves are also inherently freeflowing, fleeting and spacious too!
Kings and Queens of infinite space
The inner meaning of post holiday syndrome asks us to consider how woven into every aspect and each moment of our experience is the possibility of rest, relaxation and enjoyment.
As Hamlet elegantly put it,
“I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.”
Perhaps we are all, really, Kings and Queens of infinite space. Could we wake up from the bad dream of whatever we decided work, routine, and day to day life must mean, and thereby claim our thrones?
If we can connect with that inherent experience and bring it with us to work – into meetings, projects, and deadlines – what a wonderful holiday souvenir that would be for ourselves and others. Maybe trusting our intrinsic connection to the inherent spaciousness of each moment is one key to enabling outer change and transformation.
* actually it is not quite so simple, Some of us find it hard to relax on holiday too, and may notice that even no holiday we adopt an achievement, activity, speedy mindset. That is also worth noticing, but probably another blog.