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Crossing the Return Threshold: How to Make Sure Your Experiences Abroad Stick With You

December 11, 2012

While Maddy and I do spend time coordinating and bouncing ideas off of each other, we also give ourselves a fair bit of blog independence. So I wasn’t expecting her last post about the difficulties of sharing your travel experiences with others. But being the self-improvement junkie of this internet duo, Maddy’s topic raised a concern I often have after coming home from another country having stuffed myself full of life lessons. How do I apply those experiences to this new (or rather, old) situation? In other words, how do I avoid slipping back into familiar habits and letting my suddenly expanded worldview narrow itself back down to what it was before my trip?

We are all the heroes of our own stories, so I direct you toward scholar Joseph Campbell’s take on the final leg of the journey. As he covers in his “Hero With a Thousand Faces,” the protagonist of the adventure frequently experiences a desire not to return at all. If they do, they fear they may not be able to bring their treasure with them or communicate what they have learned. Campbell speaks of this Crossing of the Return Threshold:

“The first problem of the returning hero is to accept as real, after an experience of the soul-satisfying vision of fulfillment, the passing joys and sorrows, banalities and noisy obscenities of life. Why re-enter such a world? Why attempt to make plausible, or even interesting, to men and women consumed with passion, the experience of transcendental bliss? As dreams that were momentous by night may seem simply silly in the light of day, so the poet and the prophet can discover themselves playing the idiot before a jury of sober eyes.”

Unless you share my delusions of grandeur, you may want to tone down the vocabulary a bit. However, I’m guessing the overall statement sounds pretty relatable to those of you who have been really impacted by travel. Unfortunately, Campbell is better at describing the problem than the solution, so let me give some examples of the things that have helped me, and the things I wish I had done better.

Keep a Journal

I’m not really the “dear diary” type, but I always make a habit keeping a notebook on me while I travel for a number of reasons. The main one is to write down any sudden revelations. When you spend your time surrounded by Zen monks every other sentence is a nugget of wisdom, and I don’t trust myself to be able to remember every profound truth I hear for several months.  I also use my journal to sketch out quick ideas for pictures I want to take, or the names of specific places like temples or restaurants so I don’t have to be vague when recounting a story. I tend to pack very light when I travel, but I will never, ever skimp on extra pens and a notebook.

Often the simple act of writing something down will help you remember it better. Travel is all about learning, so treat it a bit like studying for a class.

Pursue Things Further

When I got back from Japan, I started reading up on alternative Buddhist sects like the Theravadan branch that is more popular in Tibet and Nepal. This helped keep Buddhist philosophy on my brain and encouraged me to keep meditating on occasion after I got home. When I returned from my eco-tourism vacation in Costa Rica I made a point of writing down the number of miles my meals had to travel to get to me. I don’t do that any more, but going that extra mile during the transitional phase helped turn a short-term lesson on sustainability into a long-term habit. Maddy’s story is a great example of pursuing a lesson after her trip. Between her presentation on HIV and her work at non-profits, she has done a great job turning her experience into something tangible.


(Here I’m wearing the staff and robes of a Shingon monk on pilgrimage. Right now I’m at my desk with my laptop in jeans and a t-shirt writing for a blog. Same person.)

Travel More!

Sometimes the best way to get something to sink in is to experience it twice. What’s more, you may find that you take away similar lessons from different destinations. Staying in a monastery and visiting the third world both helped me realize that material things are not the key to happiness, and that day-to-day dramas are almost never as big a deal as we tend to make them out to be. In a word (or two), acceptance and perspective. Maybe you’ll discover the same thing, or you might learn something completely different. Either way, you’ll have that much more evidence to support your expanded perspective. It’s hard to forget something when you’ve seen it from more than one angle.

I often hear people refer to returning to the “real world” after coming back from a trip. But Japan, Nicaragua and the United States are all equally real. When you come back from an adventure, don’t take off your travel hat and put on your “normal life” hat. You are the same person at home as you are abroad, and the more you can fuse those two lifestyles the better qualified you are to consider yourself a global citizen.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 11, 2012 2:41 pm

    This is true, but I don’t think you should have to work on it. You pick up on the stuff that is going to have an impact on you, one molecule at a time, and it kind of builds up without you noticing it.

    • December 11, 2012 11:38 pm

      I think you’re absolutely right that much of the change we experience is natural and unconscious. But while my first trip to Nicaragua put a lot of things into perspective, after a few months I caught myself sinking back into my bubble, thinking it was the end of the world because I forgot to study for tomorrow’s exam or because I lost my smartphone. The best solution would be to remind myself by going back again, and I’m sure that if I visited a third world country every year I wouldn’t have to work for it to really change my lifestyle. But when that’s not possible, I think it’s worth working a little to make sure those lessons stay fresh in my mind.
      Thanks for your input!

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