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Wednesday
Dec222010

Coming Home to Self

By Jennifer Kavanagh

“What does the word home mean to you?” Over the past couple of years, I have been asking people without warning, wanting a gut reaction, not a carefully thought-out response. And the replies have been extraordinarily diverse: a building, a country, community, family – and something within.

In one sense, the whole of life can be seen as a search for home, an identity, a journey to be at home in one’s own skin. For some there will be a geographic rootedness, a clear understanding of belonging. But many – and increasingly in a fragmented world – will be torn, restless, finding it hard to find a context in which the self can be at home.

I used to be a visitor at Pentonville prison in London: a vast container of 1200 or so men. A harsh, inhospitable place, full of comings and goings, no time to form friendships or feel part of a community. I visited Ben one day. We sat on the steps of the landing, there being no other easy place to meet. Ben was a Buddhist, and he pronounced himself to be utterly at home. His cell was his space; he did not feel constrained. Despite not being free in any physical sense, he had made even that inhospitable place his own. He felt free.

How do we come home to self? How can we feel at home in our own presence, without a continual need for distraction, or a puffing up in status, bank account or grandeur of surroundings? Sometimes it can simply come upon us, take us by surprise, but for a more lasting state, some work is usually necessary.

It’s a life’s work, first understanding, then coming to terms with, the different layers of our belonging. All human beings live with “baggage”. We won’t necessarily “get over” all our sense of pain and loss, but the jagged bits will become less sharp as we accept them as part of the totality of our life’s experience. No one said it was easy. Only when we have, to some degree, made peace with the different aspects of how we relate in the world, will we come home.

I am good at shutting doors on the past, closing compartments of my life that no longer seem relevant or might be painful. I don’t think it’s necessary to penetrate deeply into all of these rooms, but peace demands a certain integration of where we have come from with where we are now.

Inner hospitality

Coming to terms with where we are now calls us to work on what John O’Donohue calls inner hospitality. To work on self-acceptance, on recognising, reaching for and expanding the sense of a world within, our unique world from which we approach the outer. Once we accept ourselves, “can live with” ourselves as we are, we will not feel the need to compete, to project, to show off or to battle with others. Once we trust ourselves, we will be able to trust others, to breach the walls of fear, hostility and defensiveness with which we surround ourselves.

And we will not put ourselves down. In the Jewish and Christian religions we are bidden to “love your neighbour as yourself”. Some of us will find loving ourselves the harder task. How to achieve this wondrous state?  My own experience is that the journey mirrors that which we take in relating to others. The journey, it seems to me, begins with compassion. While being all too aware of our faults, we can suspend our judgmental tendencies, and regard ourselves with gentle kindness.

From compassion, we can move to understanding, acceptance and, finally, trust.

So much of what we do in life is running away. Rather than staying in the home of ourselves, we do anything to escape. We distract ourselves. We run to the past and the future. The past has gone; the future does not yet exist. The past may never have been how you remember it, and the imagined future may never come to pass. Only by being in this present reality can we be said to be at home.

Rather than doing something, we need to stop. Stop our busyness, our filling of every moment with activities, noise, company. Stop, and let the peace creep in. Stop, and let the body relax, pay attention to the breath, the sounds around us: where we are now. If we take time to do this on a regular basis, this peace will become a part of our lives. There will then grow a space in which the inner voice can be heard, a leading to what is true for each of us as unique individuals with failings and flaws, but also with boundless potential.

In reaching within, ironically, we will come upon the place which connects with others: the place of Spirit that connects with Spirit in other people and the rest of creation, that bridges diversity to reach the One. It is from that still place, that place of truth, that we most truly relate to others, a place which others perceive as something solid to which they themselves can relate. Just as there some buildings, some houses, that have a positive ambience, a “good feel”, so we have all met people who radiate a grace-filled state of being. Even with no speech, it draws us. Inner acceptance is inviting to others. If we are at home, it allows others to be so too. If we are always “out”, there is nowhere for others to visit.

A material home is a place of security from which to go out into the world and express our fullness. In the spiritual dimension, there is a balance to be found between rootedness and the spiritual quest. Home is not static. Home is the balance between security and freedom; of belonging and longing. Home is both an end and a beginning.

www.o-books.comJennifer Kavanagh worked in publishing for nearly thirty years, the last fourteen as an independent literary agent. In the past ten years she has run a community centre in London's East End, worked with street homeless people and refugees, and set up microcredit programmes in London, and in Africa. She has also worked as a research associate for the Prison Reform Trust and currently facilitates workshops for conflict resolution both in prison and in the community. Jennifer contributes regularly to the Quaker press, and is an associate tutor at Woodbrooke Quaker study centre. Her books include Call of the Bell Bird (Quaker Books), The World is our Cloister (O Books), The O of Home and, as editor, New Light (O Books). She lives in London.

www.o-of-home.co.uk