Remembering the Way Home
Q. Which way should I go?
A. Go back the way you came.
The English word “nostalgia” derives from Greek roots meaning “return home” and “pain.” The same word for pain, algos, appears in medical terminology to designate various physical afflictions.
As an emotion, nostalgia ought to be painful, and sometimes it is excruciatingly so. Yet this pain is one that you might savor, choosing to revisit, evoke, and linger in. It can be unbearably sweet.
October in New England, where I am briefly residing at the time of writing, is an environment ripe for nostalgia. Day by day, as the season shifts, the fields and forests absorb their life back into themselves for the winter to come. Nature seems to honor loss and decay, the inexorable passage of all created things.
And it is starkly beautiful, not only the brilliant colors of the trees but the taste of impermanence in the air. Our lives are so brief. Everything is so temporary, so fragile, and so precious. Here one day, gone the next, no matter how much we cling to it.
This is the nature of things. Anicca, anatta, dukkha, as the Buddhists say; impermanence, non-self, and suffering are the three characteristics of all existence in the phenomenal world.
All things change. No limited form contains its own inherent existence. So why this dukkha? Why do we struggle so much against the movement of life?
The Persistence of Memory
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
–F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
Autumn leaves shift from green to red, orange, and gold, then fade to brown. Old photos, old memories, a song you used to love on the radio. Glimpses of a time long gone, a space of your life that might have been very ordinary or even unpleasant, but now when it resurfaces, the sense of distance makes you ache.
A memory can become a momentary shift into the person you were at that time, with all their joys and pains and secret longings, so close and so foreign from who you are now, a living reminder of the insubstantiality of the limited self.
That person, that place, that time is already gone the moment it happened. As creatures of memory, we constantly run after ourselves, trying to find some steady ground to stand on, but the current flows in only one direction.
So the question is whether this impulse of nostalgia can be gently, lovingly detached from its illusory object and inhabited in its purity.
In this drive towards stability or some idea of lost innocence, which becomes all the more pronounced in times of uncertainty, try to discern something deeper. What are you really missing?
Sacred Nostalgia for the Home of the Heart
Devotion lives and breathes nostalgia, a very special kind of nostalgia.
It lives from the ache in your heart, that feeling of something missing, that pain of separation, that sense of loss of something so precious that your entire being cries out from the lack of it.
Your soul wants to go home. Forgetful of your true nature, you seek everywhere for that perfection you know that you come from. If you do not see it all around you now, you must have lost it at some point in your life, or maybe you would have found it if only you had made a different decision at some pivotal crossroads…
But the answer does not lie in the past, however rosy-tinted, or in some imaginary alternative life path. That eternal home, the true home you have been searching for, is always and only here and now.
Goloka-Vrindavana, the Garden of Eden, the Holy Land by any name, appears whenever you put God in the center of your life.
The nostalgia of bhakti is just this drive to return God to the center, or better said, to center ourselves around God—to recognize the Heart. The pain itself holds the key; it is our lifeline. It must hurt enough that we cannot fall back asleep.
Shravanam, Kirtanam, Smaranam
The three first processes of Bhakti Yoga are shravanam, kirtanam, and smaranam: hearing about God, glorifying God, and remembering God.
Smaranam (remembering) is the essence of the path, the possibility that the soul can turn towards the Infinite. At every moment, awareness can pour into itself in clear recognition of its own nature.
The primary axiom of any endeavor to reveal Truth must be that Truth is already present and is the only thing present. Therefore, it is not about learning something new or changing into something we are not but revealing who we truly are, the Reality that we have persistently forgotten.
Kirtanam (glorification) is the expression of that remembrance. Any movement in which God is remembered, any moment in which we are living in the Heart, speaks the glory of the Supreme Reality. Silently, beyond words, it speaks the Holy Name.
Shravanam (hearing) is our nourishment along the way. Teachings, reading sacred texts, and other external reminders can trigger our memory, like finding notes to ourselves that we have left around the house.
Remembrance of God is not like a mental memory that attempts to preserve and recreate an image of some external event. It is “remembering” yourself, your true essence, recognizing reality as you have always known it to be, and being as you always have been. It is complete transparency, embracing all forms, including memory of the past and imagination of the future as simple appearances within yourself.
It is an awakening to the inner order of things, which is entirely open and undefinable, while mental concepts fall away.
It is a forgetfulness of the objective mode of relating within the world, defining self and objects in opposition to each other, in order to relate only with the Whole as it expresses through the particular.
Remembering God is not an escape to the past but an absorption in the Present Moment.
The Heart Remembers Its True Nature
Though our vision of ourselves may be occluded, there is something within you that never forgets who you are.
You know you are eternal, so you recoil to see yourself caught in anything temporary.
We all know that we will grow old and die, yet we often seem caught off guard by it. The growth and decay of the body should not be a surprise, but it is perplexing because it is so unlike the Eternity we know ourselves to be.
In the waking world, you might yearn for stability—a place to call home, a family, a steady job, and comfortable living—but something in you will not let you rest there. Again on the road, again reinventing yourself, again searching and searching.
On some deep level, you remember who you are and that none of these forms are you.
Although it is so gentle and peaceful, the soul must move like a shark through the world, never resting in anything but itself.
The alternative would be a slow death, one to which we have all committed ourselves many times before. You try to settle yourself in an identity, a lifestyle, a religion or philosophy, or an understanding. You say to yourself, “At last, I’ve found it!”
This is how people end up leading unsatisfactory lives, filled with regrets and a lingering sense of missed opportunity.
This is also how people end up fanatics, if they happen to set anchor in a worldview with enough intensity and narrow perspective.
As a fanatic, a “true believer” in some dogma, you might feel like you are moving very quickly towards your goal, at least for a while. At least the fire is there; at least your soul is not asleep. But at some point, even the confines of your own belief system might start to chafe.
No philosophy, no religion, and no understanding is equivalent to the absolute freedom of the Spirit.
No lifestyle can substitute for that freedom. The soul wants to fly, and it wants to fly back to its true home. Your inner wisdom will not allow you to put down roots anywhere else.
Walking Each Other Home
We are all just walking each other home, as Ram Dass used to say.
“Trying to go home” is a very apt and humble way to describe the spiritual endeavor. A little sweet, a little melancholy, and a little absurd—metaphysically, the spiritual “journey” is more like spending hours in a parking lot looking for the car keys which were in your pocket the whole time.
“Trying to remember,” like the experience of having some name or question right on the tip of your tongue, and however much you struggle, it just will not come out. Only later, when you relax and let go of it the effort, it will pop up in your mind as the most obvious thing in the world.
Finally, you can rest, back in the home you never really left, while relishing the poignancy of the passing world.
Naveen Radha Dasi is a Hridaya Yoga teacher and a frequent contributor to our blog. You can read all of her posts here.