Sailing Home: Using Homer's Odyssey to Navigate Life's Perils and Pitfalls

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9781416560210: Sailing Home: Using Homer's Odyssey to Navigate Life's Perils and Pitfalls

Homer's Odyssey has a timeless allure. It is an ancient story that is significant for every generation: the struggle of a homesick, battle-weary man longing to return to love and family. Odysseus's strivings to overcome divine and earthly obstacles and to control his own impulsive nature hold valuable lessons for people facing their own metaphorical battles and everyday conflicts -- people who are, like Odysseus, "heartsick on the open sea," whether from dealing with daily skirmishes at the office or from fighting in an international war. Sailing Home breathes fresh air into a classic we thought we knew, revealing its profound guidance for navigating life's pitfalls, perils, and spiritual challenges.

Norman Fischer deftly incorporates Buddhist, Judaic, Christian, and popular thought, as well as his own unique and sympathetic understanding of life, in his reinterpretation of Odysseus's familiar wanderings as lessons that everyone can use. We see how to resist the seduction of the Sirens' song to stop sailing and give up; how to bide our time in a situation and wait for the right opportunity -- as Odysseus does when faced with the murderous, one-eyed Cyclops; and how to reassess our story and rediscover our purpose and identity if, like the Lotus-Eaters, we have forgotten the past.

With meditations that yield personal revelations, illuminating anecdotes from Fischer's and his students' lives, and stories from many wisdom traditions, Sailing Home shows the way to greater purpose in your own life.You will learn a new way to view your path, when to wait and when to act, when to speak your mind and when to exercise discretion, how to draw on your innate strength and distinguish between truth and deception, and how to deal with aging and changing relationships. Sailing Home provides the courage you need for your journey, to renew bonds with your loved ones, and to make the latter portion of life a heartfelt time of spirit and love, so that -- just as Odysseus does -- you can defeat the forces of entropy and death.

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About the Author:

Norman Fischer is one of the best-known Zen teachers in the country, both through his extensive teaching and traveling, and through his writing.  In addition to his own retreats and events, Fischer participates frequently at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in California, the largest of all Western Buddhist establishments, where he gives frequent talks and leads retreats on creativity and interfaith issues, as well as on mediation and conflict resolution. 

                    Fischer has been publishing in Buddhist magazines for many years, and is on the advisory board of BuddhaDharma magazine. His essays have been anthologized in many Buddhist and other spiritual books and have been included in every annual edition of the Best Buddhist Writing (Shambhala).  He has written two books, Opening to You: Zen-Inspired Translations of the Psalms (Putnam, 2002) and Taking Our Places: The Buddhist Path to Truly Growing Up (HarperSF, 2003). A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, he has been associated with the lively San Francisco Bay Area literary scene since the 1970s. Fischer has published a dozen collections of poetry; the most recent are Slowly But Dearly (Chax Press, 2003) and I Was Blown Back (Singing Horse Press, 2005).

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Introduction

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, people dying, 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 ...

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