Over the years, when I talk about my work researching the psychology of home, inevitably someone will say, “Home is inside you.” Yes, I smile. This is true.
It took many years for me to experience this truth. One can know something intellectually but that is a far cry from knowing it in one’s soul; it is a huge distance from experiencing it as truth.
I haven’t spoken about this before because, honestly, the sentiment often seems too blithe, too easy, maybe even a bit smug. Often when it is said to me, it’s in the context of after all your research, surely you know that home isn’t a place – home is inside you. Maybe I’m sensitive but the message seems to imply that the answer is obvious and my research isn’t necessary: what I really need to tell people is to find home inside themselves.
Yes, but how?
My friend, Michael Kroth who writes about living profoundly, recently sent me this video of Thich Nhat Hanh speaking on the Buddhist practice of Going Home. It’s lovely. Anytime I listen to Thich Nhat Hanh, I feel calm. He says the practice is easy. Be in the here and now, be present. When you are present in the here and now, you are home. Certainly, it sounds easy. But in practice? No, I don’t think so. Sometimes the simplest things are the most difficult.
We live in a culture that is cluttered with expectations, demands, and mirages. First, we must learn to clear away this clutter: to see past our thoughts, our conveniences, our fleeting desires, our norms. This is extraordinarily difficult. The culture’s clutter is enforced in our schools, our jobs, our families, our hobbies, even in our churches. Our country’s economy depends on this clutter. And if we’re not feeding the economy, well then, are we even patriotic?
Clearing away the clutter requires solitude.
Many of us found the enforced solitude of the pandemic to be excruciating and depressing. But without solitude, how can we hear the wisdom of our soul speak? Ah! – that may indeed be the source of discomfort. If we hear our soul speak, then the clutter is no longer as enjoyable as it once was. The clutter itself begins to make us sad. And then we feel responsible to respond. And responding to what the soul needs doesn’t come easily; it often requires sacrifice, sacrifice of the clutter that comforts us temporarily and superficially. Responding to our soul requires change. We humans, no matter what we say, are terrible with change.
Yesterday, my friend Wendy Pabich, a water scientist and yogini, shared an excerpt from Manuscript Found In Accra, written by Paulo Coelho, which speaks about the need for solitude:
Without solitude, Love will not stay long by your side.
Because Love needs to rest as well, so that it can journey through the heavens and reveal itself in other forms. Without solitude, no plant or animal can survive, no soil can remain productive for any length of time, no child can learn about life, no artist can create, no work can grow and be transformed.
Solitude is not the absence of Love, but its complement.
Solitude is not the absence of company, but the moment when our soul is free to speak to us and help us decide what to do with our life.
Therefore, blessed are those who do not fear solitude, who are not afraid of their own company, who are not always desperately looking for something to do, something to amuse themselves with, something to judge.
If you are never alone, you cannot know yourself.
And if you do not know yourself, you will begin to fear the void.
But the void does not exist. A vast world lies hidden in our soul, waiting to be discovered. There it is, with all its strength intact, but it is so new and so powerful that we are afraid to acknowledge its existence. Just as Love is the divine condition, so solitude is the human condition. And for those who understand the miracle of life, those two states peacefully coexist.
If you are never alone, you cannot know yourself. If you are never alone, you cannot find home within yourself.
For many people, home is found in their family or in their spouse. And that’s okay too. There is no one right way to find home.
And – most of us, even the majority of us, will at some time be alone. Our family will be gone. Our lover will be gone. Our parents will be gone. If we have children, they, too, will be gone or far away, as will be our dearest friends. We will feel unmoored, isolated, alone. Our most constant companion will be only ourselves. Solitude will sit with us, sleep with us, and walk beside us.
If we can make friends with ourselves, be intimate with our aloneness, such solitude is not always difficult. It can, in fact, become a welcome companion.
Looking back, I realize I was alone a lot as a child. My sister is seven years older and my brother is four. The times we played together were really special and I remember them well. And maybe those times were so special, in part, because they were infrequent. More often than not, I played by myself. I have lots of memories of playing alone. I even have memories of playing in my closet, with the door closed, under the hanging clothes, and in the dark.
When I did something whoppingly bad as a kid (like set the basement on fire or steal caramels from the grocery store), my punishment was being grounded to my room. I attended school, of course, and had dinner with my family, but every evening I would be sent to my room alone well before bedtime to be by myself. I think I only did three whoppingly bad things as a child but I remember those groundings to my room as if they were many.
The worst punishment is solitary confinement. It can drive a person mad. This is why it’s used in prisons. Humans need contact. Nelson Mandela endured 27 years in prison, including solitary confinement. This wise and gentle man who led the transformation and reconciliation of his country instead of seeking revenge, even he called solitary confinement “the most forbidding aspect of prison life. There was no end and no beginning; there’s only one’s own mind, which can begin to play tricks.”
Making friends with our aloneness does not have to be this extreme. Like all things new (be it shoes, sports, a skill, or a relationship), moderation helps. Too much too quickly can be overwhelming and discouraging; too much can cause blisters.
The Buddhist author Stephen Batchelor was interviewed by Krista Tippett for On Being shortly after his book, The Art of Solitude was published in 2020, just as the Covid-19 pandemic was forcing us all into quarantine. On September 23, 2021, the podcast titled, “Finding Ease in Aloneness” was aired again.
One word they both use quite a bit is “interiority.” I love that word. To be inward. To attend to one’s interior.
When I visualize interiority, I see an anthropomorphized snail buffing the walls of her shell and hanging art, then bumping into it because the surface is curved and she cannot move without her head hitting the sharp corner of a wooden frame. Frustrated, she throws the art away. Then one day, she smudges slime into shapes on the shining gloss and that is pleasing to her. That is even fun. Eventually, she discovers flowers and moss and other natural things around her that make a kind of ink that she can work with. Now she has colors with which to draw and she does, according to her mood. Everyone else sees only the exterior of her home – a shell she picked up somewhere when she outgrew her last. She alone sees the interior. The interior is beautiful because the interior is her and this makes her happy.
How do we find home in ourselves? How do we become comfortable in our interior? There is no one way, no right way, no easy or quick way.
First, we must clear away the clutter, a little bit at a time. Release yourself from one obligation that weighs you down. Remove one distraction that does not serve your soul. Refuse an invitation that doesn’t make you feel truly excited. Stop engaging with the person who makes you sad. Stop smiling because you think you’re supposed to. Stop hoarding. Turn off the TV or the radio when you’re working or cooking. Give your brain space. Allow some thoughts to be left unsaid – let them float away and find a new thought instead. Take a walk without earbuds. Focus on your steps, focus on your surroundings, focus on your breath.
It takes practice. It takes time. It takes reinforcement.
Slowly, it will come. Contentment in the quiet. Peace in the solitude. Home inside yourself.