A few years back, I traveled around the United States doing research for an article about the epidemic of homelessness in our country. Like many people who’ve never slept in the street or been housing deprived, I believed before making this journey that homelessness was a geographical-financial condition, in essence, and one that could be remedied simply by giving folks a place to live.
I had never considered that home meant more than a physical structure, a door to lock, a stable location, nor that home was as much a metaphor as it was an architectural container. Not before interviewing a wide range of “the homeless,” several of them philosophers in their own right, did I begin to explore the spiritual meaning of home and its impact on everyday human life, regardless of whether one had a permanent address or not.
I came to understand that homelessness is a state of mind that many of us have experienced, in fact, more often than we care to admit. In times of transition and struggle, during intervals of heartache, confusion, and disappointment, it is common for all of us to have feelings of dislocation, uprooting, and abandonment, the sense of being alone in the universe without a place to call one’s own – literally or figuratively. In these ‘homeless’ times, we come to learn that home means more than four walls and a ceiling. Home is where we find our balance, the pivoting point that connects us to the earth. Sociologists studying the homeless have examined this phenomenon. As one scientist writes, “It is of more than semantic significance that we call these people ‘homeless’ instead of ‘houseless’ or ‘shelterless.’ Home has an existential importance that reflects our discomfort at being on the earth in the first place.”
Viewed in this way, the question of home takes on a whole new meaning. Home is not only where we hang our hat but also where we find our heart. In addition to providing shelter from the storms of weather, home offers refuge in the spiritual sense, a protected place in which to thrive; this is why Buddhists describe dharma initiation as “taking refuge” in the teachings. The place we call home is where we find community and the experience of belonging. That is why we may feel more at home with a group of like-minded strangers than we do with biological family. To belong, to fit in, to feel comfortable enough to be ourselves; to be seen and heard without judgment; to know that we will be taken care of in times of need, unconditionally; these are our deepest human longings. Next to these nurturing aspects of home, the material comforts that many of us focus on – the perfect decor, the two-car garage, the central A/C and the sub-zero fridge – matter very little to the heart.
The heart craves connection, acceptance, belonging, a nest to come home to, a place to just be; a sanctuary where we can rest without fear of rejection, aggression, or prejudice. This is why many seekers, in search of such a place, sometimes feel as if our authentic lives were elsewhere, away from our familial context, in so-called spiritual contexts where we imagine we can be who we truly are. Lots of seekers begin with the reflexive belief that spirituality and everyday life are awkward bedfellows. Bitten by the enlightenment bug, we may inadvertently split our existence in two, between the extraordinary and the ordinary, the sacred and the profane, the high and the low, the spiritual and the unspiritual. In our newfound enthusiasm for the examined life, we inadvertently reject the familiar in favor of the otherworldly, the esoteric, the counterintuitive. There are times for radical change, of course, moments when it’s necessary to leave what we know behind and venture into unknown territory, geographically and philosophically; when we must be cruel toward the status quo – discarding past commitments, allegiances, and beliefs – as a way of being kind to our aspirations and vision of who or what we wish to become. But when seeking becomes an escape mechanism, an excuse for running away from our lives rather than toward them, it may be time to come home.
Our human need for exploration, discovery, and boundary-pushing is, without question, a beautiful thing that imbues life with meaning and sets us apart from other life forms that lack the ability to take destiny in their own hands. But like all forms of power, this unique capacity for self-reinvention comes with its shadows, two of which are spiritual ego and escapism. Among seekers, there may be a tendency toward spiritual condescension and righteousness, and an underlying, unspoken belief, that by splitting our lives in two, and focusing on the spiritual, that we will somehow be free of the ordinary pain that is part and parcel of human existence. Beginning my own seekers life 30 years ago, I certainly harbored the secret hope that dedication to spiritual values would make my own struggles and pains disappear. But this is the opposite of what really happens. Spiritual life isn’t meant to save us from pain. It’s meant to save us from taking pain personally. As we practice, we don’t become different people, apart from who we are in life, but deepened, widened, more expansive, creative, and free versions of what we already are, free of the idea of ourselves. As we evolve, our experience of suffering does change. Linked by pain to the rest of humanity, we come to recognize pain as a shared burden, not a personal offense or mistake. We experience pain with less suffering, less ego to defend, less spoiledness to counteract, and join the rest of humanity in this common cause of evolution and celebration we call life.
There is nowhere to escape from (or to) and that’s the good news. This message is echoed across traditions. “When a thing is everywhere, the way is not to gravel but to love.” (St. Augustine) “To seek is not to find.” (Rumi) “I came to a spot in the road where all paths were one.” (Dogen) “Most seekers are just Narcissus in drag.” (Da Free John). The fact of the matter, I came to realize, is that home and spirit are here and now – right where we’re planted in this very moment. If we can’t find God in the present moment, we can’t find Her anywhere.