'Leaving home': personal change and transformation
Although 1st January is most often associated with the notion of change and personal transformation, most of our early experience of change in the UK comes from the rhythm of the academic year. Our first day at school, our first day at ‘big’ school and our first day at college or university all take place in the autumn, after the end of summer. For me, the end of the summer holidays and the beginning of autumn, with its full ripeness that presages decay, death and, eventually, rebirth can be quite powerful in terms of a sense of new beginnings. I very often find myself returning from summer holidays with a sense of renewed purpose or a wish to make changes in my life.
In my role as part of the chaplaincy team at the University of Sussex, this time of the year is associated with freshers' fayres and the huge influx of new students, many of whom are leaving home for the first time. There is always an atmosphere of excitement and discovery at the beginning of the year, but sometimes anxiety and confusion too: leaving home can be difficult. Finding yourself in new surroundings and amongst new people can bring feelings of disorientation and vulnerability. Being brought into contact with new ideas and ways of thinking can seriously challenge our worldview. I remember when I attended university for the first time to study social work at the age of 30 I felt as though the foundations of who I thought I was were so seriously shaken that, in certain instances, they actually crumbled away. I found myself changing long-held views and being able to see my life and my world from a different perspective. Whilst this was a good thing, it was also disturbing and distressing at times. Although I hadn’t left home to study, I still felt as though I had left home in a metaphorical sense – leaving the known parameters of my emotional and psychological world and venturing into new territory.
In the Mahayana mind training (‘Lojong’ in Tibetan) tradition of Buddhism ‘leaving home’ is used in this metaphorical way to emphasise the seriousness of the path of personal transformation, as in verse 2 from 'The 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva' by Gyelse Togme:
"In one’s native land waves of attachment to friends and kin surge,
Hatred for enemies rages like fire,
The darkness of stupidity prevails, oblivious to right and wrong.
To abandon his/her native land is the practice of a Bodhisattva".
Entering into personal therapy, whilst not as serious and life-altering as a religious path, can really feel like leaving home. Our usual way of looking at things may change significantly and we may begin to feel differently about long-established relationships – how we relate to ourselves as well as others! We are journeying into new territory and, whilst we may return home after our journey, we will bring with us new ideas, new ways of relating – new emotional and psychological 'furniture'. Our home will be renewed: it will never be the same again. Letting go of the old world and encountering the new can be very difficult. It can bring up many strong emotions, such as sadness and anger, but also tenderness and joy. In fact, if the process is not difficult then you probably haven’t really stepped outside your house and begun the fascinating, exciting, scary, bumpy, but joyful journey away from home.
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About Paul Johanson
I am a cognitive analytic therapist in the NHS and private practice and a teacher of meditation and Mindful self-compassion. I am also the Buddhist Chaplain at the University of Sussex and at the Martlets Hospice in Hove. My greatest joy is to work together with others, combining our strengths, on the knottiest and most difficult of problems.