At Home in Homelessness

While many emotions act as spurs to creative expression, sadness isn’t one of them for me, and that’s been the prevailing weather lately. Which accounts for the fact that it’s been awhile since my last post. As I was explaining to friends last night, my intention for this blog is that it offer something to readers — inspiration or uplift, at least an interesting thought to chew on. If I don’t have that, I see no point in taking up people’s time with more words, of which there are many in the world already.

All I have right now is a series of intellectual impressions; I don’t know if they add up to anything. But I’m putting them down in hopes that something will resonate for you.

At a retreat this weekend, Buddhist teacher Mu Soeng offered the following summary of our human existence: we’re always seeking support and security from people and things that cannot give it, thereby putting ourselves in the way of continual disappointment, suffering, and harm. This is an absolute statement, which means it isn’t always true. Some things and people can be relied on more than others. Yet nothing can be ultimately and always relied on. Under the right (or wrong) conditions, anything will let you down.

He asked us to consider whether it’s possible to create a life of not wanting anything from any person or situation, as a way of reducing suffering, or as he called it, “managing harm”. I think it might not be possible to avoid wanting things, and some things are worth wanting, but we can negotiate how tightly we cling to our wants: how we justify them, whether we let them harden into expectations, and how we respond when we don’t get what we want.

The topic of the workshop was “psychological homelessness”. This is an important theme in Buddhism, where the ordination ceremony is called “leaving home”. I wonder if there can be a kind of home within homelessness, a being at home within oneself and the world no matter what happens, inside or out.

Part of the reason this idea resonates strongly for me now is that I feel physically and mentally besieged by the bacteria I’m hosting at the moment. It’s not clear how long they mean to stay, whether I can evict them, and what the costs of their staying and going might be. How can I make myself at home here?

David Loy writes that “we project a higher ‘spiritual’ world to compensate for our inability to be comfortable in this one.” This statement may apply to many religions, but not to zen. In zen the only world is this one. It might seem higher or lower depending where you stand and what you look at, but for better or worse, there’s only one world in the here and now. Which is obviously slim consolation when the here and now isn’t pretty.

While I was procrastinating writing this column, I read a response by TV journalist Mike Rowe to criticisms of his recent spot about a doctor who’s trying to save endangered whooping cranes.

Experts call it “congruency,” that rare and wondrous state that occurs when your beliefs and your actions line up perfectly, and net out in a vocation or avocation that you truly love. Dr. French is first and foremost, congruent, and thus, perfectly suited for [the show].

I understand congruency as continuous practice in all the moments of one’s life and death, and as another word for home — a graceful yet adamantine integrity that might be the only ground we have to stand on.