Home-leaving while at home

“Home-leaving” is the Buddhist term for taking up monastic life. You give up your family of origin and join a sangha of monks or nuns as your primary family and this spiritual family becomes your new home. Home-leaving also refers to how the Buddha’s early followers practiced. According to official texts, Buddha and his followers had no fixed abode. They wandered place to place, season to season. Later, home-leaving referred to ordination, taking the three refuges – in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha – shaving the head, and putting on robes.

There’s a shadow side to the idea of home-leaving – that you have to reject your family of origin to practice sincerely. Years ago, I joined what I later recognized as a spiritual cult. The process of acculturation into the community included rejecting my family of origin, telling my parents I’d joined a new and truer family. It was challenging. There was heartache involved. At the same time, retrospectively I appreciate the power it had to land me fully in the community.

You probably have some personal experience of this drama. It’s a joke in our culture that when you spend a holiday with parents and family – Thanksgiving is the classic example – you revert to feelings, reactions, and ways of behaving you thought you’d left behind when you moved out to go to work, to study, to marry, or whatever. But there they are again, in full flower, much to your dismay and to the dismay of a spouse or kids. “What happened to dad? Why is he acting this way?” You realize you’re still a prisoner of your conditioning with less freedom of movement than you thought.

Few of us practice or plan to practice monastically, so home-leaving is more relevant as a metaphor. Not thinking of home in terms of family or location, as where we hang out psychologically and what we habitually rely on. What are the preferences, ideas, habits, we think of as safe harbor? Where do we set-up emotional housekeeping? Is your habitual “home” a reliable refuge?

It’s not that all emotional habits are bad or that Zen’s the best resource when life throws a curve. But whether you meditate or not, it’s good to know how you feel and how you react when you’re in a tight spot. Do you make tight spots tighter? How do you defend yourself when you feel threatened? Do you know? These are hard questions because when you’re in a tight spot, your capacity for self-examination dries up. You’re too busy feeling and reacting. Too busy getting mad. Too busy getting drunk. Too busy turning on the TV. Too busy eating. Too busy feeling sorry for yourself. Too busy tuning out. Too busy…fill in the blank.

Home-leaving is about getting unstuck from unconscious, habitual patterns. You recognize your home habits and patterns, then you cultivate a capacity to “leave home”. When you see your habits, when you study them closely, examination all by itself starts to dissolve them.

Home-leaving is finding a freer, more illuminated space to function in. Instead of entrenching habitual patterns, you watch yourself with a calm, curious pair of eyes: You see what annoys or confuses you. You notice how it feels and how you respond. Your calm curiosity is nourished by zazen. You don’t tackle your habit patterns overtly when you sit, but as you return over and over to your breath, you notice the persistent, repetitive ways you’re distracted, troubled, and confused. As you learn about your habitual home, you’re less a prisoner there. This is home-leaving that doesn’t demand saffron robes or a shaved head. Just a steady effort to keep waking up.