Is it possible to feel a nostalgia for a home we have never known? This is the paradoxical feeling that can hit when you sit down to meditate. Turning towards ourselves, sinking into the stillness under the thoughts and the endless pressure to act, you can feel an unmistakable longing to go home to your true nature. First comes a feeling of physical fatigue, like you have been caught up in a battle you don’t really believe in, like you’ve been armored by attitudes that aren’t really you. Then comes the deep longing, a deep ache, to find your way to your true home.
I recently learned from a book called Word Catcher that “nostalgia” was coined in 1688 by Johannes Hofer, an Austrian medical student, who joined two Greek words, nostois, return, and algos, pain, to describe the longing for home of Swiss soldiers stationed in the mountains. I find the detail of Swiss people in the mountains poignant because it suggests a longing for something vast, something beyond. But Homer uses a version of the word, nostos, the homecoming stories, and even before Homer there were nostoi, the tales that sailors told of their homecoming journeys. Some scholars say that ancient Greek epics can be divided into stories seeking glory in war (the Illiad) and stories of seeking the way home (the Odyssey). Perhaps our ordinary lives–even our days–can be divided the same way: we long to go out and get things done (sometimes big things, sometimes at least the laundry). And then we ache to find our true home. Odysseus went through a years-long, well, odyssey to get home again after war against Troy–the pull of duty and the possibility of glory gave way to that deep, deep ache to be where he was meant to be. I wonder if this is the natural rhythm of life–to go out and to return, the out breath and the in breathe.
Often run down as sentimental, a feeling triggered by a song or a scent or a season, the ache of nostalgia can sometimes lead us to something unknown. That extremely unsentimental physicist Stephen Hawking says that we can feel nostalgia for the future, which is his definition of synchronicity. I think I know what he means. Sometimes, usually when you are more quiet and receptive, there can be the feeling that there is a larger pattern and a larger life that we are meant to be a part of. But how to break through?
Larger ideas can help (at least until we get attached to them and start confusing the map for the territory). One large idea handed down from the days of Buddha is that there are inner attitudes or postures or mental formations, call them what you will, that lead us away from our true nature. Among these postures are the “five hindrances”: 1) desire or greed, 2) anger or aversion, 3) sloth, torpor or boredom (and this can include compulsive doing, which pushes away boredom), 4) restlessness and worry, 5) doubt. Lately, I’ve been trying to see how often I am carried away by this attitude or that. Sometimes it really does seem as if a mechanical habit that has nothing to do with who I really am or what I really deeply long for is picking me up and running away with me, speaking words that have nothing to do with my essential wish, engaged in actions that feel hollow. How amazing it is to catch myself before I speak in anger, before I walk out to the kitchen. How amazing it is to just sit down and be still…and feel that ache for a life I haven’t yet known.