I have been back home for almost two months now. Two long, hard, melancholic months. Reentry has led me down a dark rabbit hole of depression. At first I thought my fatigue was due to jet lag, after all I had been in Italy for two months. Then I figured it was due to a strong pain in my hips that limited my physical activity, which meant I could not work; after no income for two months the lack of incoming funds was stressing me out. The physical pain inhibited me from taking long walks which was the healthy rhythm I had grown so accustomed to since last year’s pilgrimage. Walking was a large part of my mental health routine and without it I was swimming in unchartered waters. I was heartbroken from my situation. Depression saw the newly open cracks with somewhat jagged edges, and worked its way into my heart. I have read countless experiences about post pilgrimage depression. I experienced a tinge of the post pilgrimage blues last year. My research into making sense of my experience for my symposium is what helped me process, reflect, and steadily move through my sadness. This time depression has felt much more intense and overwhelming.
Depression upon reentry makes sense. After all, to be a pilgrim requires bravery, courage, and trust. Only a pilgrim can fully understand another pilgrim’s story. We walk side by side, sleep side by side, eat side by side for the entirety of our journey. We care for each others physical and emotional wounds. We understand wholeheartedly that our success is meaningless unless celebrated together. Life on the camino is full of spontaneity and simplicity. It is full of laughter, tears, solitude, community, nature, and a constant sense of awe. Awe at the beauty of our surroundings. Awe at the depth of our new friendships. Awe of the synchronicities along the way. Awe at our ability to practice non-attachment. Awe at discovering the depths of our strength. Awe at the profoundness of happiness felt even without all the creature comforts from back home we believed we needed in order to experience happiness. Awe at the love that we perhaps can finally feel towards ourselves. Even awe at our connection to all beings. Awe at the beauty of slowing down. And then we come home…
Life speeds up faster than anticipated. Life consumes me. I realize that I have changed and struggle to reintegrate back in society, my existing friendships, and the previous role I played within those structures. When the spontaneity of daily life is lost amongst scheduling walks, coffee dates, or dinners weeks in advance with friends. When time changes and busy schedules create distance between me and my pilgrim friends. When watching the sunrise while walking is replaced with incessant chatter on the radio during a morning commute void of all sounds of nature. When I have to find time to drive an hour to the mountains to connect with nature when before all I had to do was walk out the door of the hostel in the morning. Everything is moving so fast yet I’m……….m o v i n g… s o…s l o w. I feel disconnected from my life and take on an observer role. Where is the sacredness that I experienced every day while walking? Why is there so much packaging at the supermarkets? Why is everyone looking down at their phones? Why aren’t people interacting with each other? Is this the purpose of life? I resist it. Yet this disconnect between all beings is everywhere I look. So I disconnect. I wave my white flag of surrender and I crawl into my dark shell and hide. Awe sadly lowers her head, knowing there is no longer space for her, and slowly walks away in search of a dark corner to sit in within the chambers of my heart.
I’m grateful for having a strong self-compassion practice. I’m especially grateful that this practice doesn’t leave me when much of my other self-care regimen gets thrown out the window when depression comes. Thomas Moore in his book, “Care of the Soul” wrote that about six hundred years ago depression was not looked upon with the negativity that we have for it today. Instead, people would say that someone experiencing depression was “in Saturn” as in the Roman god Saturn who was the “old man” who looked back on life with melancholy. I have come to befriend my time “in Saturn” because I recognize it as a time to withdraw from society and reflect upon the lessons I learned while walking. Thomas Moore wrote the following about depression, “Depression is sometimes described as a condition in which there are no ideas – nothing to hang on to. But maybe we have to broaden our vision and see that feelings of emptiness, the loss of familiar understandings and structures in life, and the vanishing of enthusiasm, even though they seem negative, are elements that can be appropriated and used to give life fresh imagination” (p. 141). It makes perfect sense that I would experience depression upon reentry, after all I returned a changed person. Depression has motivated me to discern what is truly important to me (such as meaningful relationships, nature walks, and heart-centered living) and what I can let go of (materialism, one sided friendships, and meaningless work). Depression has slowed me down and shown me a side of my soul that I befriended while walking. Depression has helped me to reconfigure how I navigate this world in my new skin.
Soulful living is now a priority. I can operate slowly in this world. I don’t have to move with lightening speed. My decisions, activities, and interactions are intentional. I am reminded of the monk slowly walking the streets of presumably Tokyo in the movie Baraka. I realized I can walk slowly through society while everyone runs around me. I can be present and engaged, the speed of others doesn’t have to impact me. I can find, and stop to appreciate the beauty in my surroundings. Here is the clip I’m talking about:
Pilgrimage is soulful exercise. Long distance walking is not solely concentrated on exercising the physical parts of our body, instead it allows space for beauty, imagery, and sacredness. Pilgrimage is a sensory experience. “In a former time, exercise was inseparable from experiencing the world, walking through it, smelling it, and feeling it sensually, even as the heart got its massage from the exertion of the walk.” (Thomas Moore, p. 172). Pilgrims aren’t only exercising their muscles, we exercise all our senses. Our heart isn’t solely exercised as a pump. As we learn to trust in the unknown, as we break free from our comfort zone, as we learn that we have to keep walking even when experiencing great discomfort, as we meet others from around the world, and as we find awe in the beauty of a sunrise – we exercise the spiritual aspect of our heart. We recognize that our heart is the source of our courage, our intuition, our compassion, and our ability to love and trust. This way of spiritually exercising our body connects us on a deeper level to the world. Pilgrims experience heart-centered living. Returning, it is our responsibility to reflect on how we can continue living with such richness.
So here I am, two months reentry. I’m slowly making my way out of Saturn, and making sense with my new role in life. I hope that others struggling with reentry are able to take time and reflect upon their journey so that they can make the intentional changes their soul needs to navigate this crazy world. I also hope that in sharing my experience others who are in Saturn may know that they are not alone in their suffering. May all beings find an intimacy in communicating with their soul and the anima mundi (soul of the world).