Read an Excerpt Sailing Home
Using Homer's Odyssey to Navigate Life's Perils and Pitfalls
By Norman Fischer Free Press
Copyright © 2008 Norman Fischer
All right reserved.
Whenever I go to a Zen meditation retreat, sooner or later -- by the third or fourth day if not the first or second -- I get the classic feeling of déjà vu: Haven't I lived this moment before? I sit on my meditation cushion, in my Buddhist robes, delivering a formal Zen discourse. I look out at my silent, dignified listeners. Haven't I given this talk before? -- and to these same people? Possibly many times? And what day, what year, what place is this anyway? Strangely timeless, the déjà vu moment seems very real to me, though it is utterly different from the normal pressured moments of busy clock time that mark the purposeful hours and days of my ordinary life.
I have been a Zen Buddhist student, priest, or teacher for most of my life and have done countless Zen retreats. No wonder I have the feeling I've been here before! Getting older might be a factor, too: I've been going along in this body for many decades, through many subtle changes of aging, getting up, sitting down, eating meals, going to the toilet, walking, standing, laughing, crying, wondering about the nature of sensation, being, and time, writing books and poems, spring, summer, fall, winter, year after year, peopledying, new people being born, the daily news always different and the same: perhaps the déjà vu experience becomes more normal the longer you live. Maybe déjà vu is just the ordinary, actual feeling of being in time, an astonishing experience, though we're so used to it we don't much pay attention.
Another thing about the déjà vu moment: it doesn't seem to arrive out of the blue; it feels as if it has been here all along, lurking in the background of my living but only rising into consciousness now and then. Most of the time I am too busy for it, so mesmerized and absorbed by the convincing details and dramas of life that there's no room for it. It seems to take something radical -- such as a Zen retreat, a whack on the head, or a sudden shock of some sort -- to bring forth the moment into awareness. I may have become a Zen Buddhist priest so that I could frequent meditation retreats where I'd be bound to bump into this uncanny, rare moment, which is at the same time utterly common and ordinary -- I would be experiencing it quite often if only I were paying more attention. What a ridiculous predicament! At my talks during meditation retreats I share this ridiculous predicament with my fellow meditators, who, like me, are also gloriously, luminously, and constantly stuck in the déjà vu moment, but have also forgotten to notice it, and are aware that they are missing something important, fundamental, and beautiful about their lives. Like me, they also feel the need to make an earnest effort to return home to this moment, even though they've never actually left it.
The mystery (and pain!) of our lives is that we are where we need to be, but we don't know it. The spiritual odyssey, life's deepest and most significant undertaking, involves great effort. It leads us on through many disasters and troubles in the inevitably checkered course of our living and growing, and in the end brings us back where we started from, to ourselves, only now with a more seasoned appreciation. There's an old Zen saying: "Before I began Zen practice, mountains were mountains and rivers were rivers. Entering Zen practice, I saw that mountains were not mountains and rivers were not rivers. Now again, after long effort, I see that mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers." The spiritual odyssey is full of déjà vu experiences, full of irony, depth, strangeness, and wonder. Full of paradox. In it, everything changes and nothing changes. And we will all make this journey, each in our own way, no matter how much we insist on ignoring, denying, forgetting, or working against it.
In a story from the Jewish tradition, which is also told in the Muslim tradition, and many others, a poor tailor from the shtetl has a dream that a treasure is buried underneath a bridge leading to a castle. The tailor packs his bags and journeys to the capital city. He approaches the bridge he saw in his dream, but there is a Cossack standing guard. For long hours the tailor stands gazing at the bridge, not knowing what to do. Finally the Cossack asks him why he has been standing there so long and the innocent and honest tailor tells him the story. The Cossack laughs uproariously. "Foolish Jew," he says, "believing the fantasies of sleep. Let me tell you the difference between you and me. I too have had a dream. I dreamt that under the stove of a Jewish tailor in the shtetl was buried a treasure. You travel all this way at such cost of time and effort chasing dreams for nothing. I, on the other hand, know a dream for a dream and don't waste my time." The tailor promptly went home, dug under his stove, found the treasure, and lived out the rest of his days a prosperous man.
We are all born with a dream. It wants to lead us on, elsewhere, in search of our heart's desire. Maybe we are practical, down-to-earth people like the Cossack. We ignore the dream and decide to live our life stuck where we are, in a world we take to be real but in fact have manufactured, without knowing we've manufactured it, paying no attention to the vastness of our lives, the uncanny weird mysteries that may be presenting themselves to us at every turn, only we are too busy and too prejudiced to notice.
Or maybe we are better dreamers than this. We do follow the dream, but fail to see its true import, and so are inevitably disappointed when it doesn't pan out as we had expected. So we dust ourselves off and follow the next dream that comes along, and then the next and the next, always dissatisfied, always seeking something we never seem to find.
Or maybe we are like the simple tailor in the story. We follow our dream. And we pay close enough attention to what happens in the process to recognize (with a little help from a Cossack!) that what we are seeking has been there right under our stoves all along, only we hadn't noticed it before. So we go home and dig a little.
I have seen just this sort of thing happen many times. I lived for many years in Zen centers. People would often come to visit these centers, with a great longing and envy, imagining that spiritual fulfillment was to be found inside the temple compound, a place where they could not possibly remain. They would come for a year or a week or a day, longing, even as they were there, to be there more frequently, and for longer stays. And then, if they were lucky, eventually they would realize what was obvious to me all along (though it never did any good to tell them because they would not listen): that the spiritual key they were looking for was to be found right where they were, in their work or family life, on the meditation cushion that was right in their own home, in the living room next to the easy chair. As Zen Master Dogen writes, "Why give up the seat in your own house and wander uselessly in the dust of remote lands?"
The story about the tailor turns on the traditional Jewish concept of teshuvah, return. Teshuvah is the spiritual effort we must constantly make to come back to the depth and truth of our living, from which we are constantly straying simply because we are normal human beings living in a normal, distracting, human world. Fall and redemption, in other words, didn't only happen long ago to the characters in the Bible: they are happening all the time in us as well. Although the Jewish sacred calendar sets aside special times of the year for teshuvah (the High Holidays of Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah), the deeper sense is that teshuvah -- this leaving and having to return again and again -- is the constant shape of human consciousness.
Return is also a fact of nature: the universe expands and contracts, the tides go out and come in, celestial bodies go around and around, the seasons begin, endure, draw to a close, come around again. The spiritual journey, the human journey, is as natural as this. We begin at home, we leave home, we return home. Even when it looks like we're going far afield, we're always on our way back. We have what we need, and we are where we are going; the spiritual journey is a journey of return.
How do we make this journey? There are no maps. The path is mysterious, dark. It leads us to the corners, the subtexts, of our lives, the in-between, unconscious, unknowable places. We think we know who we are and what our lives are about. But suppose we don't. Suppose our lives are not what we think they are; suppose something else is going on, deep streams flowing underground that come to the surface only now and again, in little springs or freshets or maybe only in telltale spots of moisture where weeds or scraggly flowers grow. And suppose that the task of our lives is not so much to shape or control our stories so that they will turn out according to our preference or preconception but rather to recognize that our stories, the visible images of our lives, are cover stories, narratives that hide within them deeper, underground narratives, that we can sense and taste now and again but never fully comprehend.
This is the territory of religion and myth, the province of spiritual practice. And yes, there are traditions, protocols, studies, useful spiritual activities we can engage in. We can practice meditation, prayer, or some other form of spiritual exercise with discipline and commitment; we can study, imagine, write in a journal, make art. We can become part of a spiritual community, and we can show up to practice side by side with people of that community, helping to take responsibility for it. We can seek mentors, teachers, or spiritual directors, and we can work with them sensitively, receiving their guidance with appreciation, but never without taking responsibility for our own development. And we can follow a teaching of some sort, whether it is the religion we were brought up in and have long been familiar with, or some other religion, or combination of religions, or no religion at all but some more secular form of spiritual wisdom.
Yes, we can and ought to do some or all these things. They will make a big difference. This book, in fact, is one such spiritual aid; it will help you to appreciate the shape and feeling for the journey, will give you tools and reflections to keep you company, and perhaps also steady your step as you walk forward into the darkness. But no book, no practice, no community, no scripture can ensure that things will turn out as you want them to -- nor, even, that you can be sure, at any point, of where you are or where you are going. For the spiritual odyssey is more mysterious than any teaching, community, or mentor can explain (though there is no shortage of explanations). And because the journey takes us in the end back to the beginning, back home where we started from, it is an odd journey, a heartfelt journey, a sentimental journey, a journey of déjà vu.
In Zen Buddhism the spiritual process is imagined as a domestic art, the training of an ox. The Zen Oxherding pictures show a lonely young person leaving the busy world in search of the ox, an ordinary water buffalo, most common of all farm animals. The ox represents the mind or heart. The youth finds the ox, settles it, tames it, rides it, and disappears. In the end he returns to the marketplace, older now, an ordinary person willing simply to help out in this world.
In Western literature the spiritual process is more likely to be envisioned as a quest. The hero sets forth from home in search of something he must find, capture, and bring back (in most traditional tales the hero is imagined as a male). He undergoes many trials and tribulations, faces implacable enemies, seeks and receives help of all sorts, confronts dangers, finally reaches his goal, and, overcoming all the odds, prevails.
Life as an arduous journey is an ancient metaphor. The Greek word metapherein, from which our English metaphor comes, is made up of the words meta, meaning "over, or across," implying a change of state or location, and pherein, meaning "to bear, or carry." In modern as in ancient Greek, the word metapherein commonly means "to transport, or transfer." Though we think of metaphor as a mere figure of speech, something poetic and decorative, in fact metaphors abound in our lives, underlying many concepts that we take for granted. And metaphors condition, far more than we realize, the way we think about ourselves and our world, and therefore the way we are and act. So to consider a metaphor seriously, bringing it to consciousness, turning it over in our minds and hearts, is to allow ourselves to be carried across toward some subtle yet profound inner change.
Metaphors can engage our imagination and spirit, transporting us beyond the literality of what seems to be in front of us toward what's deeper, more lively, and dynamic. Objects in the world can be defined, measured, and manipulated according to our specifications. But the heart can't be. Its requirements are more subtle, more vague. Metaphors are inexact and suggestive; they take an image or a concept and map it onto another image or concept that may seem quite disparate, as if to say "this is like that; understand this and you will understand that." In this way metaphor can help us to feel our way into the unspeakable, unchartable aspects of our lives. Seeing your life as a "spiritual odyssey" is a metaphorical truth. Contemplating your life as a spiritual odyssey can help you to enter hidden parts of your life.
This spiritual process is neither rational nor scientific; it does involve conscious effort on your part, and there may be some intelligible signposts along the way to give you a clue about where you are going. But the journey is essentially unconscious, subtle, unknowable, and surprising. This is why metaphors are necessary, and why spiritual and literary traditions are so full of them. In this book we will follow the thread of one of the greatest of all metaphors, the Odyssean journey home to Ithaca, to see what guidance it can offer as we grope our way forward toward our own spiritual destiny and fulfillment.
Some years ago I was leading a meditation retreat at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center in Muir Beach, California, where I was serving as abbot. During my daily talks I was speaking about the Buddha's great spiritual quest. I had discussed this story many times, and I was looking for a new way of making clear to my listeners that the Buddha's story is not only the historical narrative of a great religious founder but is most saliently the biography of us all. Although people understood my point intellectually, and even to some extent emotionally, it was difficult for them to identify with the Buddha. After all, the Buddha was a renunciate religious hero who had walked away from his worldly life to seek his spiritual fortune, whereas many of the people sitting the retreat with me were living normal lives in the world, with no plans to abandon those lives. They were familiar with the Buddha's story and appreciative of it, but could only see themselves outside it.
Around that time I had been, to my great delight, rereading The Odyssey. It struck me that Homer's tales of Odysseus were not only colorful, foundational myths of ancient Greek and therefore of Western culture; they were also spiritual teachings, metaphors of the inner life. It occurred to me that since these tales are so encoded in the Western mind, they might be clearer, more personal and straightforward for us than the Buddha's story. Odysseus is, after all, like most of us, a householder. Like us, he loves his home and his family above all. Yet, like every working man and woman, he can't remain at home; he must go forth to do battle with the world. Only then has he earned the right to return.
But to go out and come back isn't so easy. Going out takes its toll, and coming back is a struggle involving many hardships and trials. With courage, guile, and strength, with love and loyalty, Odysseus finally does return. His tale includes much of the stuff that we experience, and that the Buddha gave up: intimate relationships, passionate emotions, worldly skills and worldly goods, enemies, ambiguous and deceptive words and deeds. So in my talks that year (and for some years afterward) about the spiritual path, I began inserting stories from The Odyssey. Many students responded to the metaphor of leaving and returning home, and the more I read and reread The Odyssey, the deeper and more suggestive its details became. The Odyssey's metaphors helped me and my students to understand the Buddhist path, and our own progress on it, in ways we had not considered before.
The word odyssey is commonly taken to mean journey. But, as I've said, an odyssey is not just any journey, it is a journey of return. Homer's tale is of Odysseus' wanderings homeward after long years away fighting at Troy. The Odysseus of The Odyssey is not a brilliant hero on a quest, journeying forth in search of victory, glory, fame and fortune, blessings, or the truth. He's been through that already. Though reluctant, he went as a young man to fight at Troy. It was difficult. He did well. But that was long ago. Now, without a grand army or a high purpose, and with no dreams of honor, conquest, or greatness, he is struggling to return to his wife Penelope and to Ithaca, the home he left twenty years before.
Odysseus' journey home is not without its hair-raising escapes and disastrous reversals. This is not because Odysseus is a thrill-seeker or a risk-taker. With all his heart he wants to come home, and all that befalls him is simply the unavoidable consequence of that desire. Many of the worst things that happen to him are the result of his own foolishness or passion. Once or twice, just at the point of return (even within sight of the Ithacan shore!), Odysseus does or says something so stupid and so consequential that the blowback of his words or deeds sends him off again far out to sea, prolonging the agony and the longing. Yet Odysseus is no fool, nor is he without resources. Though no longer young, he is still strong and courageous. But now instead of sword and spear he relies on emotional and mental skills as his weapons: improvisation, tale-telling, guile, charm. His powerful forbearance, his undying loyalty, and his ability to hold his emotion in check sometimes also stand him in good stead. Above all, he has an unerring focus on his goal. (True, he is now and then overcome by despair or distraction, and weeps bitter tears, unable to go on, but he always comes back to his senses, and resumes the struggle.)
All this may sound familiar. The Odyssey has remained alive for us these thousands of years because its metaphors are so astonishingly true to life. We are Odysseus. Having made mighty efforts in our youthful days of bright hope, we eventually become tired out to the point of becoming realistic about our prospects. We realize we are not heroes. Yet we must go on with the journey, see it through until the end, even if, from time to time, we have to stop by the side of the road and weep. Why go on? Because love and loyalty require it. Besides, the emotional pull of home is compelling, no matter what we may think of it. We've got to get home. It seems as if there are no other options.
And all this may be just as true of our epoch as it is of any one of us. Perhaps we are living in a post-heroic age. Maybe the human race, so full of promise, bright ideas, and hubris, is finally weary of the toxic idealisms and thoughtless excesses of power that have been so destructive and so exhausting for so long. We have seen and done too much, and it has left us dazed and confused. Maybe, like Odysseus, we are finally ready simply to return home to what we are, to our beauty and strength as well as our limitations. Maybe we are ready to see that what's wanted and needed is what was there all along, our animal life, our love and our presence. Maybe we're ready finally to become the creatures that our deepest stories and metaphors have always described: half heavenly, half stupidly earthbound, full of wonder and awe, powerful and vulnerable. Maybe the point of our life's journey, our spiritual odyssey, is not conquest or perfection, whether spiritual or worldly, but rather the simple transformation into what we have been all along: flesh-and-blood people in a flesh-and-blood world, feeling what people feel and doing what people do. Returning home to what we are.
Could this be enough?
1 / The Sea of Stories
Our lives are full of stories, inundated by them. The day begins with the drama of the morning news and continues with stories we hear from friends, family members, coworkers, acquaintances. Popular songs regale us with stories, as do the movies, the Internet, the newspaper. Almost all our institutions, from business to psychotherapy, from school to pulpit, organize their messages through story. And at night we fall asleep to tales told in books, magazines, or television, and even our dreams weave our souls into the spell of story.
You'd think we would tire of stories, that we'd have heard it all by now. But our appetite for them is unabated. Creating, processing, and interpreting stories is a major industry, and at any given moment there are literally millions of people working on the creation of new stories that we will consume, discuss, fret about, dote over, forget, and remember.
This human obsession with stories is as old as language. Long before the printing press, or even the written word, people told stories, in verse or in song; they were blurted out loud during walking or working, whispered at night, declaimed from the holy places. People remembered and invented stories, sacred stories, profane stories, jokes, parables, fairy tales. From childhood we gravitate toward the good story and its endless fascination: "Tell it again!" children have always cried. Probably now more than ever we have access to stories from all cultures, all times, more stories every day than we could possibly absorb or pay attention to.
If you listen to stories closely, critically, and long enough, you begin to discern patterns. Boy meets girl, loses girl, gets girl back. Pride leads to a fall. Within happiness lurks the seed of tragedy. Power corrupts. The world wears down a noble character. Love suffocates, we need to break free. A hero overcomes an evil adversary. In all stories there's conflict or pressure, tension that builds to a release. Action rises, crests, then falls. Stories end happily, sadly, or with open-ended questions. I suppose you could make a list of ten or twenty or fifty plot categories into which almost all stories would fit. You could create diagrams that would chart the action of almost any story. A Russian folklorist named Vladimir Propp once did an exhaustive survey of fairy tales and folk stories in European cultures and was able to do just this. As Propp and others after him discovered, stories have deep structures with predictable variations, which is probably why they are so satisfying, even if we have heard them a thousand times. Like children, we want to hear again what we have heard before, for reassurance, because every story has a beginning and an end, a satisfying and predictable order. Stories reflect our hopes, our dreams, our fears. Just as we don't tire of looking at ourselves in the mirror, though we can be reasonably sure of what we are going to see, we never tire of stories no matter how repetitive they may be. Through stories we can experience our lives experimentally, without consequences. Through them we can safely share the common human drama, of which our own life is but a small reflective sliver.
But stories can also be enormous distractions. Immersed in the latest soap opera on television, the newspaper, the tabloids, or in the lives of our friends, we can avoid tending to what is real in our own experience, to the truth or the challenge of our living, or to the real horrors and joys of the world.
Many centuries ago the Buddha noticed with compelling acuity the way in which absorption in stories -- even in our own personal stories -- could, and usually did, function as an avoidance mechanism, to disastrous effect. Immersed in the passion of the tale, we forget who and what we really are, and, heedless of our patterns of thought and behavior, we go on suffering driven and unexamined lives, hurting ourselves and others in the process. This is why the Buddha devised the doctrine of "Nonself," by which he meant not that the self did not exist, but that the self depicted in stories, in gossip and myth, and in our own repeating emotional tape loops, is not a true self. Every story, by hooking us to its plotline and shaping us through its narrative structure, says far too much that is not true, and far too little that is.
As an antidote to the human obsession with stories, the Buddha taught moment-by-moment attention to the elements of perceptual, emotional, and intellectual experience. He once said, "In the seen let there be only the seen; in the heard only the heard." In other words, let go of the story and pay attention to the actual facts of your life. When you pay attention to these facts, the Buddha felt, without being swept away by the exciting plotline of your story, you will be able to see what kinds of thoughts and deeds lead to suffering and trouble, and what kinds of thoughts and deeds lead to happiness. Seeing clearly, you will choose what's happy over what's not happy, and your life and the lives of those around you will improve.
As a follower of the Buddha's teaching, I have trained myself over the years to live my life in this way, paying less attention to my story, and more attention to the fleeting moments that come and go with a tremendous fullness of emotion and perception. Being less subject to the heights and depths of my story, and more aware and tolerant of the patterns of my thinking and feeling, I think I am a happier, more balanced person.
And yet, there's no denying stories, one's own or anyone else's. To be human is to tell your tale and listen to someone else's. But it would make a difference to know that stories are stories. They are real, but not in the way we think they are when we take them too earnestly and allow them to mesmerize us. Stories are true as stories but not true as life. They require interpretation and reflection if we are to draw lessons from them. Stories teach us through their shapes, sounds, structures, and suggestions, their between-the-lines content that speaks to us through our souls rather than our minds or even our hearts.
To know that my story is not exactly mine, but is rather a wave rising up within the sea of stories, is to appreciate my story and everyone else's in a new, wider, and more significant way. Maybe by looking at stories this way we can see them as large and mysterious. Then perhaps we won't need to cling any longer to one particular version of our story as the only true story, the story of victimization or trivialization or despair or boredom; instead we might begin to see our many stories as stories of humanness, of being-aliveness, not just our own small possessions. And then, perhaps, we can be inspired by our own stories, and begin to make use of them in a new way.
Imagine: Go back in your memory to the first vivid event of your childhood that comes to mind. Maybe it's something you saw or heard, a snatch of image, a fragrance, a taste. Maybe an expanse of green grass you played on, the way it smelled and stretched out under the sun. Maybe the taste of your first birthday cake. Remember the feeling of that moment; how the place seemed, the people, the furniture, the weather. Ground yourself for a moment in the physicality of this memory. Let yourself be in it with a relaxed, curious attitude.
Now set aside this moment and begin to tell yourself the story of your life. But don't tell it résumé-style, with the usual distancing facts, where you went to school, what you accomplished, whom you married, dates of your children's births, and so on. Tell it instead as if it were a myth, the untold, hidden tale of what really occurred, the half-remembered, seemingly insignificant things, moments when you were startled suddenly out of your ordinary stupor and felt a more robust significance. Chart your life path from one such moment to the next, choosing a few moments from childhood, a few from adolescence, a few from young adulthood, and beyond. Take time to do this.
Now connect the moments one to another so that you can begin to see the narrative thread that holds them together. You could even, possibly, write all this down. Or tell it to an intimate friend. And then, when you are finished, you could do it again, with a completely different set of moments. And again and again, probably, if you wanted to. And each of the stories would be true. Each would be the story of your life. And each would feel as if it were the story also of others' lives.
Try this now, if you can. It will give you a different feeling about your life. "Who do you think you are?" will become a much more interesting question.
Thinking about The Odyssey in my talks at meditation retreats made me appreciate the possibility that stories, if we receive them in the right way, can heal us. Contemplating the old story of Odysseus' wanderings, experiencing it as the profound metaphor that it is, gave my listeners and me an expanded, more emotional sense of our own peregrinations, our own attempts at making the odyssey of return. Odysseus wasn't exactly the hero we had previously taken him to be, when we read Homer's poem years before. In fact, Odysseus was a lot more like us than we had remembered -- sometimes a hero, yes, but just as often a fool, a hothead, a lover, a father, a friend. The opening lines of the poem set forth the basic aspects of his character:
Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy.
Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds,
many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea,
fighting to save his life and bring his comrades home.
Odysseus is not a simple man. Buffeted about by time and fate, he has endured much, has been thwarted time and again by forces beyond his control. In his travels -- many of which he did not choose, they were chosen for him, often against his will -- he has encountered and observed many sorts of people, and has learned to make use of their ways to further his own aims when he could. He has few illusions, for he has known hardship, despair, and suffering. A leathery, shifty fellow, Odysseus is a character actor more than a leading man. He is a survivor. He can be brutal when he is cornered, and he is just as willing as the next man to plunder and pillage, as he did at Troy. But he is at the same time deeply loyal, enduringly true to his wife Penelope and to Ithaca, his native land. He is a great talker, a storyteller whose tales, most of them false, are always persuasive. He is also a master of disguise who can appear as a beggar or a mighty warrior, depending on the situation. From time to time he succumbs to his passions, or even to his world-weariness. Often at crucial moments he does exactly the wrong thing, compounding his problems.
The Greek phrase rendered here as "a man of twists and turns" suggests that Odysseus' chief character trait is his wiliness. He is above all clever, deceptive, and persuasive. In ancient Greek culture this sort of quick-witted, strategic trickiness was much prized. Thanks to their intellects, more than to their strength and courage, innovative entrepreneurial people were able to craft and shape reality in order to win victories and advance societies. Athena, the goddess of wisdom who also invented many domestic arts, as well as music, appears frequently in The Odyssey as Odysseus' most important protector. She is also described as cunning and clever. And yet, prized and admired as these traits are, they are also understood to be problematic, for trickiness and cunning are just as likely to bring us trouble as to get us out of it. This double-edged aspect of Odysseus' character figures strongly in his story, just as it does in ours. We, too, in order for us to become persons capable of surviving and thriving in this tricky world, have to be wily and cunning. If we are too innocent, too naïve, we'll be destroyed. So we have to become pleasing people -- people who can shift and change shape as conditions warrant. But our cunning and trickery have their downside, for the worldliness we develop to ensure our outer successes eventually becomes embedded in the identities that we craft for ourselves to get through this dangerous world. We begin to believe our own deceptions, and slowly drift away from our truer, more vulnerable, less presentable inner selves. This may be fine at first, but as time goes on it becomes untenable, until one day, like Odysseus, we too find ourselves "heart-sick on the open sea."
The ten-year war at Troy finally ended, Odysseus is now determined to return home to Ithaca, where his wife, Penelope, and son, Telemachus, await him. But ten years is a long time to be away, and in Odysseus' absence things on Ithaca have deteriorated. Sure that Odysseus must be dead by now, suitors vying for Penelope's hand in marriage occupy his household. Their profligate, disorganized ways (they spend days and weeks feasting, drinking up Odysseus' storehouses of wine, slaughtering his cattle) threaten to destroy Odysseus' home and substance.
The suitors represent life's blind and relentless tendency toward disorder and entropy. They are all desire, appetite -- sheer, thoughtless, comfort-seeking. Absence from home is dangerous: while we are away things fall apart. When we don't pay attention to our inner life, it naturally, gradually, devolves into chaos and confusion. Someone moves in and slaughters our cattle, drinks up our wine, and dissipates the spiritual treasures we were born with and possessed as children. Without maintenance, a house falls down; without weeding, the fields go wild; and without tending, our inner lives will slowly but surely become disordered, so that when we need them most, when the circumstances of our mature lives require them, our moral fiber, our wisdom, our compassion, and our love are no longer there for us.
The situation on Ithaca in Odysseus' absence is dire. Though things seem normal enough (as they may seem in our lives), and though no one is particularly noticing (as is also the case with us), disaster is brewing.
The Odyssey's prequel, The Iliad, is a poem of going forth, a poem of honor, glory, conquest. In it, Odysseus and his comrades, led by Agamemnon and Achilles, set out for Troy to avenge the abduction of Helen, defeat the Trojans, and prove their valor. The Odyssey is a poem of return: the war is over now, and the struggle is for home. Going forth is necessary when we are young. We have to prove ourselves, seek our fame and fortune, find out who we are in the world so we can build what we have been given to do in our lifetime. Returning is the work of more experienced people, who, having gone forth in bright dreams, have encountered the twists and turns of pain and suffering, and so are ready to come home. Coming home sounds comforting and restful, but, as we have seen, it is not easy. In our absence powerful forces of destruction have gathered, and when we arrive we will have to do battle with them if we are to establish our rightful place. Odysseus' return, full of many twists and turns, takes twenty-four books of The Odyssey to complete! And the journey of return that we must take after we have gone forth may be just as long, just as perilous.
The Odyssey has a second, powerful hero: the sea. In world literature, the seascapes in The Odyssey are justly famous. Odysseus' adventures take him from island to island, each a small emerald shining in the vast, embracing sea. So many of the poem's most memorable lines are loving but terrifying descriptions of the sea, which is "wine dark," swells with mountainous tumult, heaves with steep valleys, blows up fearsome gales, glows in the sunrise, glistens at midday, shimmers in the moonlight. It is the province of powerful gods, who control its flow and use its power to achieve their own willful ends. Whenever the action of the story is to be advanced, the characters must quit the land and set out to sea. Doing so, they take their lives in their hands, for they never know what will happen, whether the gods will bless them and bring them safely to port, whether they will be swept away to a far land inhabited by strange and menacing creatures, or perish in the icy depths.
About the sea, the French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil says, "[it] is not less beautiful in our eyes because we know that sometimes ships are wrecked by it. On the contrary, this adds to its beauty. If it altered the movement of its waves to spare a boat, it would be a creature gifted with discernment and choice, and not this fluid, perfectly obedient to every external pressure. It is this perfect obedience that constitutes the sea's beauty."2 The sea's perfect obedience is to the world's force, not human desire.
The sea has been Odysseus' nemesis. The sea god Poseidon has been angry with him (later we will see why), which has caused him no end of trouble. Cast off course by great storms, at the beginning of our story Odysseus is marooned on the island of Ogygia, where he is held captive by the goddess Calypso. We first meet him, listless and trapped, sitting on the beach gazing out to sea toward Ithaca, his eyes red with weeping.
There is something typically human about this sorrowful sea gazing. We all do it. We go to the beach where we gaze dreamily out to sea, searching contemplatively into its distances, watching the play of light on its ever-shifting waves. What are we looking for, or at? Gazing out to sea is pleasant, fascinating, calming. Why is looking at long, constantly moving spaces that recede out as far as the eye can see, and far beyond, so satisfying, at times compelling, yet oddly disturbing? Perhaps when we look out to sea we become Odysseus musing on our long-lost home, wondering when and how we will return.
I live near the ocean so I often look out at the sea. I never tire of it. The sea is like my life, like anyone's life: large, full of currents and depths, constantly in motion, sometimes quiet, sometimes full of whitecaps or crashing waves, and always perfectly obedient to forces I will never understand. Just as the sea is a major character in The Odyssey, it is a major character in our stories as well, for we also advance the action of our tale only by setting out to sea, shoving off into the unknowable, powerful, unpredictable sea of life, of time, of the world. We set out with some trepidation, because we know we can't control or even completely understand what will happen to us. We will be tossed this way and that. We will be taken somewhere whether we want to go or not, for no matter how skillfully we sail and how fervently we pray for good winds, unexpected disasters constantly occur.
Maybe we don't realize we are at the mercy of the sea. Maybe we think our own wiles and skills ensure that we will arrive safely at the port of our choosing. Of course we can, to some extent, master the sea. We can study it and come to know the patterns of its waves and currents. We can learn how to handle a boat, how to read the instruments. We can become expert sailors. But if we think that we are in charge, that we can dictate the way the rolling waves of our life stories will go, we are sadly mistaken. In fact, as any sailor knows, you cannot control the elements. If you want to sail, you must cooperate with the sea, yield to its motion, and give it all due respect. To get where you want to go, you must be attentive, fluid, and obedient, like water. Most of what makes a life satisfying and resonant lies outside the sphere of our personal skills and powers. We have been conditioned to think that we shape our lives far more than we actually do, and this is why we are so dismayed and feel so helpless when something outside our plan, outside the linear narrative flow of our life-tale, arises. To respect the sea is to trust that we can welcome life's immense and unknowable currents rather than resist them, even when they seem to be drawing us to shores we don't want to visit. We live our lives too much on small islands of conscious awareness and control. Homecoming requires that we set out to sea, as Odysseus does, and give ourselves over to its powers and its gods. The journey home cannot be predetermined. We may not always enjoy the sea's course-altering storms and paralyzing calms. But we must sail forth.
Try this exercise now if you want.
Imagine: Close your eyes and visualize the ceaselessly restless sea. There is no land in sight. Just shimmering wavelets, tipped with diamond-glinting points of light. Be with this vision, in calmness, for a few moments.
Now ask yourself, "What is the sea, the uncharted sea, of my life?" Don't press for an answer, as you might if you were being given a psychological test for a job interview. Let whatever answer just come floating to the surface of your mind, as if from the depths of the very waters your inward gaze encompasses. Maybe the answer will come in the form of a feeling, a feeling difficult to describe or understand. A feeling perhaps so subtle and vague you're not sure it's actually there. Maybe you are just making it up. Because this is an imaginative exercise, just making something up counts. Or maybe what comes is more definite than that: maybe it is a clear sense of the mystery that has always surrounded your life. Maybe you recall suddenly, after having long forgotten about it, that chance encounter, that unexpected, maybe even unwanted, series of occurrences that made all the difference in your life, that shaped it, made you what you have become. Maybe you feel a tremendous gratitude for what occurred. For without it, who knows what would have become of you? Or maybe nothing comes to mind. You just see those waves moving. And maybe you sense a storm approaching in the distance, where the sky is dark around the edges.
Copyright 2008 by Norman Fischer
Excerpted from Sailing Home by Norman Fischer Copyright © 2008 by Norman Fischer. Excerpted by permission.
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