The Dark Night of the Traveller’s Soul

November 7th, 2020
The Dark Night of the Traveller’s Soul

Greetings from Thailand!

I've just returned to Koh Phangan in the sunny south after a brief visit to see friends and explore the northern parts of the country. As I mentioned last week, with the borders still effectively closed to 99% of travellers, the government has been trying to stir up some domestic tourism, and I decided to indulge them and time my trip so that I could check out the famous Loi Krathong Festival in Chiang Mai.

While driving my motorbike along the winding roads and hills of northern Thailand, my mind was free to wander and I found myself reflecting on the dominant energy of the present, which seems to be chaos, panic, and discord. There is a great deal of unrest and unpredictability, and the times, they are a-changin'...it is a challenging time for an awful lot of people.

For travellers, this time is perhaps the metaphorical 'Dark Night of the Soul', a time of trial and tribulation where the end is not yet in sight, and perhaps unknowable altogether. It's obvious that many of us are feeling stuck, lonely, and isolated, weary for a return to more normal and less-agitated times.

And for Canadians, I think November adds an extra literal-ness to the metaphor, as the darkness arrives earlier and earlier as we settle in for a long winter. For some in this community, this will be the first winter at home in Canada in quite some time, and for many others it will be the first without an opportunity for an escape to warmer climes.

However, it occurred to me that although the inability to escape the present situation is certainly not pleasant, it also reveals the limitations to the frame of travel as escape. Psychologically speaking, running away from is less rewarding than running toward, and I think creating the life we want and fulfilling our dreams is an act of creative imagination...much more a running toward than away.

There is of course nothing wrong with indulging or referring to travel as an escape, but I think there's value in considering the limitations that entails and the negative frame that puts around our present situation. And I think for us as travellers, getting through this proverbial Dark Night will come down to focusing on or strengthening a few positive mental habits that will nourish our resilience.

First, we must cultivate a sense of mindfulness in the present, to avoid creating a gap of misery between our current state and the desired one when we are back on the road again. I think discovering beauty in the mundane and calmness in the routine is possible, and doing so is psychologically stabilizing. It is a function of directed attention, and to that end, it is a choice we all can make.

And I do not for a second think that discovering the grace notes in the here and now will make the thought of travel any less desirable; quite the opposite! A keener sense of observation and gratitude at home will lead to even greater joy and deeper reflection when our senses are alive in a new and foreign place.

Second, I think we must put some deliberate practice into the habit of optimistic thinking. This is no small feat in the current day and age, but I want to offer to you the idea that you need not accept the suggestions of the cynics, pessimists, and doomsday folk. Those groups often lay claim to the idea of 'just being realistic', yet there is nothing that says realism and optimism are mutually exclusive.

At the core of an optimistic mind is not an assertion that things out in the world will be ok, but rather that whatever happens, you will be ok. And in the context of our community here, I'd like to extend that to say we will be ok - we will keep our spirits up and eventually resume our exploring together.

And third, I think that crucial to riding out this challenging time is a refusal to give in to the feelings of isolation and loneliness. Pick up the phone and call a friend, write some letters or emails to people you haven't been in touch with for a while, or join a webinar and chat with us while we dream about future adventures. We may be physically distanced, but we can still connect spiritually and emotionally, and support one another as we walk this road together.

All of these mental habits are best cultivated when in a state of relaxation, so I would also invite you to adopt or spend more time in whatever habit or activity relaxes you. Reading, walking, meditating, prayer...the seeds of resilience blossom in the mind that refuses to give into anxiety.

I am both aware and grateful that all this reflection was a gift from being able to travel a bit locally here, and I have a great deal of empathy for those of you who are feeling stuck where you are. I made a wish for us all during Loi Krathong in Chiang Mai...so hang in there and do reach out to connect if you find yourself feeling down.

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