Home is both a concrete place and an abstract notion. For some of us, home is where we were born and raised. It formed our identity, our customs and habits, our ideas of what’s right and wrong. For others, home was an unpleasant experience that felt somehow foreign. Later, we may have created home as adults with our chosen family and location, if we were lucky. And for yet others, home is a mixture of both or perhaps an elusive notion as we’ve moved from one home to adopt another but don’t really feel completely at ease in either place.
For years I felt at sea. Having been born in Indiana with a cornfield in the backyard, we moved to suburban Chicago when I was nine. Within a few years, my parents divorced and moved to other states. I went to high school at a New England boarding school for three years and then France for a year. Summers in high school and college were spent at my parents’ homes in Georgia, California, New York, Florida, or Hong Kong, all places unfamiliar to me. Once I graduated college, I moved to DC, got a job, a boyfriend, and a group of friends, and bought a home, all within two years. My father remarked that I was nesting, and I realized he was right. I longed for feeling at home. But today, when people ask me where I’m from, I struggle a little for an honest answer. Indiana, where my family was rooted but where I lived for just nine years? DC, where I’ve lived for 30?
In the Plum Village practice, our home is not a place, it is our true selves, our unfiltered experience of life that is always with us, whether or not we are with it. Our true home is the present moment of being aware of what is real both within and around us that creates this singular moment of time and space.
Thich Nhat Hanh’s experience of living in exile for almost 40 years surely shaped this understanding of home. Thay writes in “At Home in the World” that he suffered deeply upon being told he could not return to Vietnam. But his suffering was not so much because he missed his homeland, it was because he had not yet found his true home despite having been a monk for over 25 years. The experience of being separated from Vietnam and tossed into unfamiliar places, meeting new people, and experiencing strange food helped him by focusing him less on Buddhist teachings and dogma and more on practicing mindfulness:
It was precisely because I did not have a country of my own that I had the opportunity to find my true home. This is very important. It was because I didn’t belong to any particular country that I had to make an effort to break through and find my true home. The feeling that we are not accepted, that we do not belong anywhere and have no national identity, can provoke the breakthrough necessary for us to find our true home.
For Thay, being thrown into the unfamiliar helped him break free. For most of us, in our daily experience we feel the opposite. There’s an innate draw we each feel to be in comfort, to wrap ourselves in experiences and places that reconfirm our sense of self and identity, which can mislead us into building a false nest. We construct an ego-identify of self that we present to the world as “me,” but we also take refuge in this constructed self as our understanding of who we are.
When we go through a shocking life experience, it’s often a chance to let our constructed home fall away and to step into our true home, which has no walls or boundaries. Holding onto our constructed home is what causes our suffering. Understanding that we already have a true home in the present moment allows us to step outside the confines and stop the effort to maintain the home we built. It sounds scary or uncomfortable, but I think the truth is that constructing this false refuge is much more work. Something deep inside of us knows it’s not real and is always at risk of being taken from us, and it creates a gnawing lack of ease. Realizing we’re at home anywhere, anytime may initially sound untethered and uncomfortable, but in the end it is much easier and lighter. What’s difficult is dropping the many years of habits and misunderstanding, which have come to be a rickety refuge that we cling to and then suffer so much when it’s damaged. A passage is below from Thich Nhat Hanh’s “At Home in the World” that touches on how to do this.
This Thursday, you’re invited to share your experiences of home. Has home been an important part of your life—a joy, a sorrow, a conundrum? What does home mean to you now? What kind of home do you hope to build for you and yours?
I hope you can join us,
From Thich Nhat Hanh, “At Home in the World”
Your true home is something you have to create for yourself. When we know how to make peace with our body, to take care of our body, and release the tension in our body, then our body becomes a comfortable, peaceful home for us to come back to in the present moment. When we know how to take care of our feelings—when we know how to generate joy and happiness, and how to handle a painful feeling—we can cultivate and restore a happy home in the present moment. And when we know how to generate the energies of understanding and compassion, our home will be a very cozy, pleasant place to come back to. But if we’re not able to do these things, we won’t want to go home. Home is not something to hope for, but to cultivate. There is no way home; home is the way.