I will be still an instant and go home.
This world you seem to live in is not home to you. And somewhere in your mind you know that this is true. A memory of home keeps haunting you, as if there were a place that called you to return, although you do not recognize the voice, nor what it is the voice reminds you of. Yet still you feel an alien here, from somewhere all unknown. . . .
No one but knows whereof we speak. Yet some try to put by their suffering in games they play to occupy their time, and keep their sadness from them. Others will deny that they are sad, and do not recognize their tears at all. . . . Yet who, in simple honesty, without defensiveness and self-deception, would deny he understands the words we speak?
A Course in Miracles
I come to this essay as a sort of benediction for a part of my life just passed: thirteen years in my second home, a place that grew so comfortable that I could not imagine ever leaving. When I tried to explain my none-too-rational motivations for departing, a friend remarked, “Sometimes God shows the way by closing doors instead of opening them.”
That became a memorable metaphor for my process of change: all the doors behind and to either side of me had slammed shut during the last two years. Ahead, I could see or sense only one at a time, silently swinging open to reveal at least enough light to be worth following. Never before had I made such a major decision based almost solely on intuition. Americans are supposed to move because they’re following opportunity; I was moving because of an inner voice saying simply, “Go now,” and offering no explanation or financial aid. This is where what Joseph Campbell calls “following your bliss” will get you: deep into the territory of uncertainty.
To be honest, I’d done such a thing before, when I left my native home in North Carolina at age twenty-two to bicycle out west and discover the dreamland of sunlight and tolerance, California. I had much less idea of where I was going than I did this time: all I knew was that I had to get out of the South, and California was as far as one could go while staying on the American mainland. Because we had friends in Los Angeles, my partner and I settled on southern California as our destination, but somewhere in the middle of our trek we rerouted to the San Francisco Bay area, which became my second home. Now at age thirty-five, I’ve arrived at my long-forgotten goal, two hours south of Los Angeles in a town of surfers and meditators — blessed by a paradisiacal Mediterranean climate — called Encinitas. (The Spanish word means “little live oaks.”) In my best state of mind, I know exactly why I am here: to write more, to meditate more, to let emerge from myself a new potential that has been frustrated by habits and attitudes accumulated in Berkeley.
Housing is a kind of secondary body, a constructed means for being at home on the Earth — since evolution has somehow seen fit to make humans, alone among all the animals, unable to nest comfortably in nature.
In another state of mind, I dream that I have a brother who looks very much like me. (In actuality, my would-have-been brother was miscarried by my mother after an auto accident.) He is savagely attacking me and my sister. I resist him gently as long as I can, but it becomes apparent that he intends to do us real harm. I grab a kitchen knife and sink it into the underside of his forearm, sickened by the feel of the blade lodging in his flesh. He stops his attack, and stares at his arm with a schizophrenic half-smile. I begin to apologize: “I’m so sorry, I didn’t know what else to do to stop you.” He strangely replies, “It’s OK. Actually, it feels pretty good.”
Awakened by this dream a few days after I unpacked in Encinitas, I reflected on the tendency of the unconscious to exaggerate feelings that are suppressed in waking life. It was not too long before I grasped what I’d been ignoring, perhaps out of sheer necessity, while in my adventurous and super-efficient moving state of mind: this hurts, and it feels pretty good. A week earlier, I had wept intermittently for the first two hours of piloting a rented truck away from Berkeley; then I had abruptly shifted to an “on the road” buoyancy. Sadness and elation had continued to alternate, but the dream called my attention to the mysterious necessity to merge them, however contradictory they seemed. This, and that, together; my “brother” could feel it. He was wounded, but the wound abruptly cured a very bad attitude.
This is the shock of growth; in plants, it is called root shock, when a young flower or sapling must adjust to new soil because it has outgrown its first potting. It is also the shock of homelessness, when one must leave the old for the new. And without a doubt, it is the feeling of the birth trauma, when the body leaves the womb to become an independent, lonely being. This, and that: the pain and the glory of self-awareness. But virtually all spiritual traditions suggest that humanity suffers from an even greater leave-taking: our departure from the Kingdom of God, wherever that is, and whatever it might mean.
Housing is a kind of secondary body, a constructed means for being at home on the Earth — since evolution has somehow seen fit to make humans, alone among all the animals, unable to nest comfortably in nature. As a child I remember seeing snakes in the grass, fish in the lake, and birds in the trees; then I would turn to our big white house on the hill and wonder, why do we need a house anyway? When I was about five that house burned down entirely. Our dog, a fluffy Spitz who liked to sleep in the pump house underneath the light bulb that kept our water from freezing in the wintertime, somehow managed to push his blanket up against that light bulb late one night, thus starting the fire. So said the firemen. The dog survived. I was awakened by someone who grabbed my arm and pulled me so hard that I never got on my feet till I was outside; my father had rescued me while my mother crawled under the smoke to get to the telephone. My two sisters had been awakened first when the three small windows on the front door, a few feet from their own closed door, exploded from the heat.
For a while after that our home was a trailer perched on the hillside; I’ve seen pictures of it but can’t recall it. My mother says that I had to be sedated at night for weeks, because tree branches that scraped on the roof of the trailer would remind me of the fire and I’d wake up screaming. I remember none of this. My memories of the fire are entirely pleasant: we all went to the neighbors’ house in the middle of the night, a truly extraordinary event, and drank hot chocolate and watched a big fire. A few years later, when we lived in an exact replica of the house that had burned, my mother caught me setting fire to my bedspread. It scared her so much she didn’t spank me; she simply stopped speaking to me for a couple of days. All this I remember vividly. I remember that the box of matches represented a fascinating question: how much fire did there have to be before it was out of control? What was the most fire I could put out? It was a scientific experiment, really, driven by an emotional fixation well beyond my comprehension.
I have a much better handle on the issue of Promethean control than I used to. But fire will probably always be a part of what I look for in a home; I love wood stoves and fireplaces. Something that once made me homeless is now something I prefer to have in my home.
It makes me wonder: can I look around my room and see mementos of other past traumas? Is anyone’s home entirely protective, or is a home partially a library of our pains? What makes us feel comfortable may be more complex than we usually think. Home is a place to call our own, but the need for it reflects our discomfort at being on the Earth in the first place. We try to create a place where we belong, because most of us truly cannot belong, beyond the artifice of a camping trip, in Mother Nature. She seems to have expelled us as a species, at some point, like our own mothers expelled each one of us.
In a recent interview, Robert Hayes, attorney and founder of the National Coalition for the Homeless, said:
There’s an incredible danger to homelessness. . . . There’s a spiritual danger. Who the hell wants to raise a child in a society that leaves weak people on the streets? What is it doing to you and to me to go home at night past prone bodies sleeping on sidewalks? And what does it do to our sense of national purpose and self-confidence? How in the world do we think we can beat acid rain or create the technology to beat cancer or AIDS? We can’t build housing, we can’t put bricks together to create places for folks to live.
The discomfort that people in this country feel lately when they look upon other people who appear to be homeless is more than economic guilt, I believe. At some level we realize that our society is throwing a significant number of its members out of their refuge, out where they must face not only the basic issues of survival, but also the basic spiritual terror of not belonging. Robert Hayes suggests that the people we identify as homeless are actually those who are homeless and mentally ill — perhaps ten percent of the total. “Most homeless people you pass by,” Hayes points out, “you can’t tell they’re homeless, because they’re going to do everything possible to hide that for reasons of survival. . . . If you don’t look homeless, you can sit in a coffee shop for the price of a cup of coffee through a cold day. . . .”
But if you can have a home — especially if you can buy a home — you can look and feel as if you belonged. You have a private and quiet place, some kind of claim staked against the wilderness of simply being here. You can escape the cold without the perpetual company of strangers, without prevailing on the kindness of a coffee shop cashier. You can even sit at home and look mentally ill.
There’s a postcard I see for sale locally, that shows a splendid southern California sunset with the words, “Just Another Shitty Day In Paradise.” It is a card that someone homeless could send and really mean, I suppose.
This paradise is an area where real estate speculation is a much-touted ticket to success. The July 1989 issue of California magazine shows an exultant man on the cover, “The Man Who Would Be Trump”: Donald T. Sterling, who owns much of the real estate in Beverly Hills. “If the buying and selling of human shelter is southern California’s most popular sport,” writer Tom Huth opines, “Donald T. Sterling is a champion at it. . . . He bought $1 billion of real estate back in the Sixties and Seventies while other men were busy learning how to cry.”
The primary reason that real estate speculation is the area’s favorite sport, of course, is that this is an area where it’s relatively pleasant to be year-round. The natural environment exacts a minimum of suffering from the body; the reminders of our mysterious exile from nature are mild. So paradise becomes a hot property, to be divided and subdivided into as many homes as possible. And the successful real estate speculator owns more of paradise than anyone else; therefore, he does not have to learn to cry. He is well-insulated — or so we might like to believe — from the fundamental homesickness that has overtaken another man, an anonymous man with cracked and dirty feet, sleeping on a bench at the beach, not appreciating the glorious southern California sunset.
In a review of a Bruce Springsteen concert in 1988, Joel Selvin wrote:
[Springsteen] carefully explained to the crowd that the song [“Born To Run”] represented “a nice romantic idea” of two kids running off in the night looking for some place to call home. “But I’ve come to realize,” he said, “that home is inside.”
Are we ever at home in the body? In my copy of Bhagavad-Gita As It Is, there’s an illustration depicting a section of movie film. In each frame, a man with knee-length red pants is running. The caption says, “The body changes, but the soul remains the same. Although there are many movie frames, when seen consecutively they appear as one picture. Similarly, although one’s body is changing at every second, it appears to be the same body.” It’s a startling thought: one’s body is changing at every second. And yet we look in the mirror and call ourselves by names we’ve had for years. We print business cards that give our address and telephone number, but who will answer the phone at that number tomorrow? The same man who was running in red pants yesterday? How much of us stays the same from day to day? Why do we not change so much as to be unrecognizable? Who exactly is trying to be at home in this body?
The body itself is our restlessness, a thing always seeking a home that it cannot find because it is homelessness incarnate. So it must be stilled, by a process often called “going within.” Then we . . . may find that our only real home here is our own awareness.
Every spiritual perspective I can think of finds the body problematic. It must always be disciplined, or repressed, or seen through. “I am not a body,” states A Course in Miracles as an affirmative meditation. “I am free.” Does this mean that to feel at home in the body is to be a spiritual prisoner? Are we ever at home in the body?
In the I Ching, the Chinese Book of Changes (Wilhelm/Baynes edition), the judgement for hexagram #52 reads: “Keeping still. Keeping his back still so that he no longer feels his body . . .” and the commentary explains:
The back is named because in the back are located all the nerve fibers that mediate movement. If the movement of these spinal nerves is brought to a standstill, the ego, with its restlessness, disappears as it were. When a man has thus become calm, he may turn to the outside world. He no longer sees in it the struggle and tumult of individual beings, and therefore he has that true peace of mind which is needed for understanding the great laws of the universe and for acting in harmony with them. Whoever acts from these deep levels makes no mistakes.
This is obviously a prescription for meditation, and it directly suggests that the body itself is our restlessness, a thing always seeking a home that it cannot find because it is homelessness incarnate. So it must be stilled, by a process often called “going within.” Then we, like Bruce Springsteen, may find that our only real home here is our own awareness. How many of us are never at home simply because we never come to a full stop?
The Course states:
Perhaps you think it is your childhood home that you would find again. The childhood of your body, and its place of shelter, are a memory now so distorted that you merely hold a picture of a past that never happened.
Before I made the trip from Berkeley to Encinitas, I went to North Carolina to see my family. Behind me were weeks of packing up one life and preparing for another, deciding what belongings and symbols of my second home would be useful in my third. Behind also were hours of long talks — with a lover, close friends, and others — about the transitions in our relationships. I was leaving home, but as part of a web of relationships I was also changing other people’s experience of home. It was difficult to explain my decision. The part that felt like destiny, like a strong, sure, if unexpected change of current, was almost impossible to articulate. I often fell back on my business failures and inadequate income as a “rational,” if reductive, explanation. In my worst moods, I almost believed that my destiny was nothing more than a flight from failure. It was undeniably a death for some long-held ideas about myself.
So it seemed fitting that one of my first undertakings on native soil was a burial — that of an ancient family dog who died the same day I arrived. The next day my father and I went out behind the garden where the family pets have always been buried. I dug a hole while my father brought the body up the driveway in a red wheelbarrow. Bloated, the dog was a tight fit in my quick dig; when I tugged on him to get his legs in, tufts of white hair came out freely in my hand. I thought about how the Buddhists meditate on corpses to liberate themselves from bodily fixation, but my feeling was that the old dog was returning home — back to the soil from which all earthly beings have drawn themselves up. Walking dirt, all of us.
My Baptist sister, who originally owned the dog, called and suggested we “say a few words” over the remains, but the ceremony was much more Zenlike in the end: no words at all, just the filling-in of red clay soil, tamping it down, and covering the grave with large coils of insulated copper wire (my father is a retired electrician). The purpose was to protect the grave from investigatory digging by a new pup on the premises, but I thought of the coiled wires as heavy-duty wreaths.
This somehow reminded me of working with my father and uncle during my high-school summers. I remembered how my father treated cuts on his hands with light machine oil and black electrician’s tape. I remembered crawling under suburban houses to drag connecting wires from the circuit-breakers to the various rooms. Once, when the power to a particular house was turned back on, it happened that flipping the switch for the garage light turned on the bulbs in the master bathroom. “Cub tracks!” cried my uncle, a call that always meant my novice handiwork had bespoken itself again.
So this is home, too: a dense latticework of memories that connect to one another by a thousand different roots, sinking vaguely into the antiquity of birth and, for all I know, veining through previous lives as well. Just visiting an old home place causes the memories to float up, reminding us of who we used to be. And when we have worked sufficiently to disentangle ourselves from such memories, another homelessness ensues. Each new stage of maturity entails some degree of escape from the patterns of the past — and so growing up is necessarily a kind of wandering into the unknown.
As if I needed any more symbolism for my changes, outside my room at my parents’ home was a nest of young birds, balanced precariously on a narrow wooden ledge just underneath the outdoor ceiling of the front porch. They grew visibly day by day during the two weeks I was there, and about two days before my departure I woke one morning and looked out the window to see all four tiny birds fluffed up in the nest, shouldering each other about, as if they were ready to leap but didn’t know how. My parents and I wondered whether the young birds would literally be pushed out of the nest by their mother, but their graduation happened differently. When my father went out the front door with a camera, they suddenly flew all at once. Apparently they did not wish their leaving home to become a media event.
In Autobiography of a Yogi, Paramahansa Yogananda wrote:
The Hindu scriptures teach that man is attracted to this particular Earth to learn, more completely in each successive life, the infinite ways in which the Spirit may be expressed through, and dominant over, material conditions. East and West are learning this great truth in different ways, and should gladly share with each other their discoveries.
Since 1936, Encinitas has been the site of a Self-Realization Fellowship retreat, built for Paramahansa Yogananda by an American devotee. Yogananda was one of the first Indian gurus to bring Eastern spiritual traditions to the West, and apparently one of the last to be widely respected in this country. The Self-Realization Fellowship still operates a meditation-by-mail lesson service for those studying Yogananda’s brand of kriya yoga, and operates the local ashram as a retreat for devotees in what the teacher called “the Encinitas setting of perfect beauty.”
I discovered Encinitas by accident. I had been visiting friends on an exploratory trip to San Diego, expecting that city to be my southern California destination, when I drove northward along the coast just to look around. I was in Encinitas for no more than a few minutes before I felt inexplicably at home. I wandered onto the grounds of the Self-Realization retreat, where an exquisitely maintained meditation garden is kept open to the public from 9 to 5 daily. I took a seat on a bench atop a cliff overlooking the vast Pacific, feeling myself overtaken by a mood of victorious exploration, like a conqueror laying claim to new territory by virtue of having gotten lost there. This giddiness is surely the American heritage.
Within five minutes I was deluged by tears that did not abate for another twenty minutes. Now I felt overwhelmed by my recent defeats and departures, and it seemed that this garden was a safe place to be submerged in that feeling, and then come up for new air. I found myself repeating quietly, “If this is what you want, if this is what you want. . . .”
A month later, I found a comfortable studio apartment, a little refuge against homelessness, in my first hour of looking in Encinitas. I did not even have to place my truckful of belongings in storage before moving in. It was such an unprecedented piece of good luck, considering my material difficulties of the last few years, that it felt eerily prearranged.
For most of us, I suppose, home is where life seems easiest. Unless we are adhering to some kind of learning discipline that requires life in a dormitory or monastery, we do not put up with too many built-in discomforts in our home. The discomforts built into life on Earth — which Hinduism suggests is a learning discipline in itself — are plenty.
So this is home, too: a dense latticework of memories that connect to one another by a thousand different roots, sinking vaguely into the antiquity of birth and, for all I know, veining through previous lives as well.
I do not expect always to be at home here, nor perhaps for very long. My need for fire in my home place seems at least temporarily replaced by the need for the ocean nearby, within view of my door, within a five-minute walk. I like to stand on the cliffs here and watch the young surfers float their way out beyond the first breakers, to a place where they can sit on their surfboards and, like meditators, face the infinite. They are waiting for waves, for the rolling surges that rise up out of the stillness and yield a few seconds of ecstatic acceleration.
It is terrifying to look in the mirror and realize that our identification with the form we see is the first and grandest error of our lives. Paradoxically, it is the error we cannot completely undo as long as we are here.
Southern California is a land of comfort, promise, and confusion. Everyone wants to live here. Everyone wants to park a perfect sports car on the beach here. A few miles south of Encinitas, in ritzy Del Mar, the mayor is suggesting that color-coded flags be posted on the beach to warn the denizens of paradise on those days when they should “restrict activity” because the air is unsafe to be inhaled in large quantities.
A Course in Miracles states:
We speak today for everyone who walks this world, for he is not at home. He goes uncertainly about in endless search, seeking in darkness what he cannot find, not recognizing what it is he seeks. A thousand homes he makes, yet none contents his restless mind. He does not understand he builds in vain. The home he seeks can not be made by him. There is no substitute for Heaven. All he ever made was hell.
This judgement sounds harsh, but it is perhaps the only one that leads to a sense of home within our homelessness, and true direction within our restlessness. In our unreflective state, none of us is at home, and we are driven by desires that lead us one way and then another. We think we will be settled when we have enough money, or the right relationship, or a nice home, or $2 billion worth of real estate. If brought into contact with spiritual principles, we may look them over and say they’re very nice — or crazy — ideas, and then go back to the daily, deadly search for gratification in the world of the body, the world of things. It is terrifying to look in the mirror and realize that our identification with the form we see is the first and grandest error of our lives. Paradoxically, it is the error we cannot completely undo as long as we are here. Hating that error can be as painful and unproductive as never perceiving it. But we can always begin carefully unlearning it, thereby learning the “infinite ways in which the Spirit may be expressed through . . . material conditions.”
One of those infinite ways is surely a practical compassion for ourselves, for everyone, within the context of our spiritual wandering. Robert Hayes has said that our collective inability to care for the homeless is merely a lack of “political will,” a will that ebbed during the administration of President Reagan, who publicly stated that he believes many homeless people choose their condition. Metaphysically speaking, that is an interesting contention; but I suspect it was spoken as a means of reality-avoidance, not an exploration of reality’s deeper levels.
We all try to avoid the deep experience of homelessness that the Course and other spiritual disciplines suggest we must face to realize our true purpose here. Political will rises from our fundamental experience of that purpose. If we can face the truth about how it feels to be here on Earth, always searching for an elusive home, then we may begin to see how the plight of the man sleeping on the bench is not unlike the plight of the successful real estate speculator. Neither has found a permanent refuge. Both must look every day for a better one than they presently have. They may not understand that they are driven by the same suffering, of which their respective poverty and wealth are only symptoms.
Perhaps the only home here is found in the discipline of remembering that we are more alike than we appear, and that “wanting it all” brings only isolation. Seeking constantly after all the things, places, and sensations that ultimately do not save or satisfy us is a stultifying and even suicidal experience. It is a process opposed to genuine learning and growth. Sifting through the mysterious material world, looking for the elusive reminders of our home in the spirit, is the process that gradually invokes peace, grace, and compassion in our lives. This is our real work, which rewards us with a sense of belonging, however temporary, in our bodies on this Earth.
A Course in Miracles is a one-year, self-study curriculum that guides its students toward a personal, instinctive, and utilitarian spirituality by restoring their contact with what it calls the “Internal Teacher.” Published in 1976, the Course was written down over a period of seven years by research psychologist Helen Schucman of Columbia University, who claimed to hear a soundless voice giving her a compelling “inner dictation.” Schucman, who died in 1981, never claimed authorship of the Course. In a number of places, the Voice of the Course clearly identifies itself as the living consciousness of Jesus Christ.
As a psychological discipline, the Course encourages the growth and transformation of personality through the constant practice of forgiveness. As a spiritual training, it insists on a complete reversal of ordinary perception, urging acceptance of spirit as reality and the physical world as illusion. “This course,” says the Text introduction, “can therefore be summed up very simply in this way: Nothing real can be threatened. Nothing unreal exists. Herein lies the peace of God.”
I invite responses to this essay at 103 North Highway 101, #1022, Encinitas, CA 92024.
— D. Patrick Miller
This is the third in a series of four essays inspired by the principles of A Course in Miracles. The other essays in this series are “Back to the Real World” [Issue 153], “Climbing the Stone Face of Fear” [Issue 164], and “A Brutal Sadness” [Issue 212].