The following is excerpted from Sailing Home: Using the Wisdom of Homer's Odyssey to Navigate Life's Perils and Pitfalls, published by North Atlantic Books.
We long to come home because we don't feel at home where we are, and we have a memory of home that beckons us with its rightness. Like Odysseus, we know that, whatever it takes, we have to go back, because our lives and the lives of those we love depend on it.
Why did we leave home in the first place? We left home because we had to, however conscious or unconscious of that need we were at the time. We needed to leave so that we could become the person we were meant to be. We knew we couldn't remain in our family, in our hometown, in our simple and naïve heart, forever. When we were in the womb something made us uncomfortable and pushed us out into the harsh world. We went on with our life until something made us uncomfortable at home, and forced us outward and onward. There is no Odyssey without an Iliad ("a poem of force," Simone Weil called the Iliad), and there is no returning without leaving.
Almost all great religious traditions work with the theme of "leaving home." To join the Buddhist order is to become a "home leaver," renouncing your worldly home and family for a life without possessions, home, or fixed identity -- a life of wandering. In this, Buddhist monastics imitate the Buddha, who, disturbed by the inescapable indignities of sickness, old age, and death that he sees all around him, leaves home in the middle of the night, seeking a way out of the impossible predicament we call living. In the Bible, Abraham is rousted out of his home by God, who commands him to "leave your father's house and all that you know and hold dear and go to the land that I will show you." Jesus leaves the loving support of his disciples to enter the desert for forty days and forty nights (imitating his people, who abruptly left their sorry homes in Egypt for the desert where they wandered forty years, and Moses, who prepared to lead them with his own long wilderness exile). Mohammed flees Medina. Native Americans go off alone into the mountains to fast and seek visions. So, too, Telemachus finally leaves home secretly, sailing away under cover of darkness: "And the prow sheared through the night and into dawn."
Leaving home means setting aside all we know, all that is secure, authoritative, comfortable, and binding, and shoving off for parts unknown with no road map and no guarantee of finding your way. Though it can look like -- and even in some cases can be -- a form of running away, an act of cowardice, real home-leaving is courageous, requiring heart and force. To go forward you must leave everything behind, and even though the past may seem to be persistent, lodged as it is in our very bones, it is one thing to be bound up by the past, doomed to repeat it or to be held back by it endlessly, and another to use it as a springboard for a journey that goes beyond-to where, one can never know.
So, leaving home, often literally and always metaphorically, is a necessary step along the path of the journey of return. After your long waiting, which is an inner ripening, comes expression, a wail or a scream or a poem, and then action; you climb into your boat, crew and provisions in place, and push off into the dark sea for parts unknown. What does it take to motivate you to leave behind everything, and to set forth on a dangerous mission without knowing where you are going or precisely why? Is fear enough, fear that life is growing shorter by the day and that you haven't really begun to live? Fear that the foundations of the life you have built are so shaky that you need another approach, a new foundation? Or fear simply that you have not loved and that after all these years you have no idea who you really are? Fear is a good motivator. Probably a certain amount of it is necessary. But fear alone is not enough. Home-leaving requires a vision more stimulating and more sustaining than the vague notion that we have to "get a life."
After rousing Telemachus out of his doldrums, motivating him to go forth into his real life, Athena leaves, literally flying away like a bird:
But as she went she put a new spirit in him
A new dream of his father, clearer now,
So that he marveled to himself
In leaving home we must do more than simply flee; we also must move toward something uplifting and challenging, however vague it may be. And even if, like Telemachus, we receive this vision through contact with others, the vision can't be someone else's property; we have to make it our own. And it must be powerful enough to motivate us, to awaken us from our slumber, to turn our paralyzing fear into action. Though our adventures on the open sea might not be identifiable to the outward eye, and though our setting forth will result in the end in our coming back to where we started from, we don't know this at first, and the journey is real to us, desperate, crucial, and difficult. So we need a considerable force to get us started.
Telemachus finds this force in a "new dream of his father," that is, a new confidence that his father is alive, that knowledge of him is possible, and that he must seek it. As a son, a father, and a spiritual teacher who is often mistaken for a father, I know how powerfully motivating (for good and for ill) a vision of "the father" can be, however ambiguous its unconscious effects. In our time we have necessarily criticized what we call patriarchy, the social order that customarily places men in positions of unassailable power, with all the social and psychic injustice this inevitably brings.
Traditional patriarchy also has underlain our spiritual realities as well. God has been seen as "the father," seat of spiritual power and leading force of our inner journeying. Men have been considered to be in charge of religious life, women relegated to secondary roles. We want now to overcome this ancient bias, to elevate mothers as well as fathers, and to go further than this, beyond hierarchy and control, toward a sense of personal empowerment inside and out.
Despite this important and ubiquitous contemporary imperative, we can't deny the persistent power in our psyches of the archetypal figure of the father (beyond any particular father or male person). The relationship with the father figure, as I suggested earlier when I spoke of my own father, is fraught with undercurrents of passion and violence. Yet we can't dispense with it, any more than we can dispense with our biological father, no matter how disastrous a force he has been in our lives. The father, as well as the mother, gives us life, a genetic code and a psychological imprint with which we spend our lives working. Along with the mother, he is "author" of our lives and, if we want to claim that authorship in his stead, we can only do it through negotiation, by transferring his power to ourselves. Although we may prefer to forget about the father, to skip this thorny negotiation, one way or another we must go through this step, however painful and scary it might be, if we want to find our own authority.
The father is also something larger than a powerful male archetype in our lives; he is a metaphor that contains our feeling for the world we enter when we leave home. Formidable and foreboding, that world bears down on us with its full intimidating weight. That weight had been dragging down Telemachus, but when he shoves off in his boat to seek news of his father, he is inspired with new possibilities. No longer stuck with the absent father as the stumbling block, the heavy inert dragging force preventing all movement and reducing him to impotent complainant, Telemachus can now see in the absence and unknown fate of his father a creative dream calling him onward. We can put this in the context of the four Buddhist truths: in finally leaving home, Telemachus digests the first Noble Truth: that conditioned life is suffering. In receiving a "new vision of his father," he intuitively grasps the second and third Noble Truths: that suffering has a cause, and an end.
These metaphors of religion, myth, poetry, and art provide us with the new dreams, the new visions of possibility, however idealistic or imaginary, that can give us the force we need to go forward. Religion, myth, poetry, or literature can take the longing and the absence we feel and transform it, not by glossing over it and pretending it isn't there, but by giving it energy and purpose, raising it to another level so that we can see a way out of our doldrums. For Simone Weil, the absence of "the father" is not a tragedy but an infinite opportunity for transcendence. "God can only be present in creation under the form of absence," she writes. "Nothing which exists is absolutely worthy of love. We must therefore love that which does not exist."
Present-day society doesn't offer us much in the way of vision. Instead of vision we have consumption, in place of the journey we have the mortgage. We are enjoined to go to well-lit, merchandise rich stores to shop for our true satisfaction, rather than to rummage around for it in the obscure corners of the soul. And even when we are offered religious comfort, more often than not it is in the form of worn-out piety, or cut-and-dried doctrines of certainty that close down our questioning and journeying, rather than providing us with spiritually challenging practices that might open us up. To sail out onto the sea of stories, ride the inner waves of fear, courage, and endurance, so that we can come home with some sense of joy and grandeur, we need a vision more meaningful than what the mundane, present world has to offer us.
I am inspired by the vision of the compassionate servant, a person who finds a deep peace and satisfaction not in accomplishment or accumulation, or even in mystical transport, but rather in wisdom gained through service to others, through friendship, love, silence, and truth. All religions I know of offer this model. Such a vision does not necessarily require that we be hermits, monks, or saints, that we scorn the "things of the world" as evil or decadent. Though this vision sometimes requires renunciation, periods of time (for some, perhaps a whole lifetime) when we naturally find that it is better to be quiet and to have nothing than it is to run around in search of that elusive something we think we need, the life of the compassionate servant can be a full life, a life of joy, interest, and discovery.
In Buddhism the vision of the compassionate servant is imagined in the figure of the bodhisattva, literally an "enlightening being," committed to bringing peace, happiness, and illumination to all, certain that this is not only possible, but that it will definitely be achieved. The bodhisattva is naïve and enthusiastic, hard to discourage, always kind to others, feeling their feelings and suffering their sufferings, sparing no effort, refusing no vows that might lead to the final achievement of his or her impossible goal to save everyone, eliminate all evil and delusion, master all spiritual teachings, and in the end merge with all others to become nothing but pure holy truth itself. Though utopian idealisms can be toxic, the bodhisattva vision (and similar visions in other religious traditions) has the potential to do better than this, for it is grounded in practical kindness, in the ethics of nonharming, flexibility, and listening, and in the thoughtful consideration of what will really work in this world as it is, not as it should be, to benefit others. So the vision of the compassionate servant can be a healthy vision, offering us immense scope for our living, without twisting us out of shape as normal people.
One can't find one's way to a spiritual vision like this through reading about it in books (though books might encourage us to seek it) or wishing it were so. Like Telemachus, we need a little help from our friends, and usually a certain amount of effort on our part. But if we have the help and make the effort, we can find a vision, and, finding it, can muster the courage to leave home as our ancestors, real and imagined, did before us. We too will set forth, prow pointed toward the dawn.
© 2008, 2011 by Norman Fischer. Reprinted by permission of publisher.
Teaser image by gnuckx, courtesy of Creative Commons license.Tweet