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When Zen teacher Norman Fischer began referencing Homer's Odyssey
in his talks, describing the hardships Odysseus faced during his journey home after the Trojan War as metaphors for the challenges we all face in our life journeys, his students responded enthusiastically. In Sailing Home
, he traces Odysseus's journey, retelling our hero's moments of joy and more oftentimes grief. Fischer candidly compares these trials to the hardships we all encounter in our own lives, revealing forgiveness, forbearance, and humility as compasses that can guide us in the right directions. He reflects on Buddhist, Judaic, and Christian traditions and even includes meditation exercises for the reader, so that she may follow along on her own spiritual path as our wounded warrior Odysseus makes his way home. READER QUESTIONS
1. The first quotation in the epigraph to the book is about metaphor. On pages 6 and 7 Fischer discusses how metaphor can be of use to us as we navigate our life's journey. How do you think of metaphor? How does the idea of metaphor Fischer advances differ from yours? Why is metaphor so important for the spiritual journey?
2. Fischer states at the beginning of the book that "The mystery (and pain!) of our lives is that we are where we need to be, but we don't know it" (page 2). Now that you've read the text that follows this statement, do you agree?
3. Chapters one and five focus on our occupation with stories. What does Fischer mean when he says that it makes "a difference to know that stories are stories" (page 15)? How does the knowledge that our lives are built upon stories affect us? How does this concept of stories apply to The Odyssey
4. After ten years of the suitors eating and drinking away his family's fortunes, Telemachus finally resolves to leave Ithaca in search of his father. Fischer examines the reasons that Telemachus chooses to set sail and describes the conditions that we all need to take action in our spiritual lives (chapter four). What are these conditions? Have you experienced them or watched a friend realize them?
5. "No matter our circumstances, life is inevitably a series of sudden or gradual losses punctuated by periods of respite that are actually just staging areas for the losses still to come...The gratitude, love, or joy that we feel depends on the temporariness of things. The rarity of that for which we are grateful is why it delights us so" (page 40). Here Fischer describes the first Noble Truth: life is suffering. He also explains why this Truth is something we can rejoice in and revisits this theme throughout the book, including in the discussions on pages 67 and 86. Examine these pages; how does this Truth help explain events in The Odyssey
6. How does the first Noble Truth apply to our own lives? Importantly, do we know for sure that life isn't the opposite way around; how do we know that it isn't actually a series of joyful events punctuated by periods of loss? Does Fischer account for this possibility in the book?
7. While recounting the story of Proteus, Fischer describes the virtues of forbearance (page 66). What does it mean to practice forbearance? How can "simply holding on" help us during life's journey (page 69)?
8. On page 141, Fischer states, "I began this book with the theme of time and have been circling back to it over and over again." Examine his discussions of this theme throughout the book and how the concept of time applies to our own lives.
9. In chapter eleven, Odysseus escapes from Polyphemos the Cyclops by cleverly telling him that his name is Nobody. What does this encounter teach us about humility?
10. Examine Fischer's ideas on forgiveness in chapter twenty-one. Does the story of Odysseus and Laertes provide an ample metaphor for our own struggle to learn forgiveness? Why or why not?
11. One recurring theme of the book is learning to understand our emotions and appreciate them. In the exercise on page 185, Fischer uses the label "the pain" to emphasize the universality of the emotions we are feeling. While attempting this exercise, were you able to recall this emotion? What does it mean to feel "the pain"?
12. Sailing Home
reflects on Odysseus's relationships with his parents and also includes examples from the author's own relationships with his parents. What does the book have to say about healing these relationships? Examine chapter fourteen. Did it make you realize anything about your relationships with your own mother and father?
13. The Odyssey
closes with Odysseus's death, an event that we too will experience in our journeys. What does Fischer have to say about death? Does death provide us with closure? Examine chapters fourteen and twenty-two.
14. Do you believe that The Odyssey
will be effective as a guide for your own spiritual journey? Why or why not? Which metaphors are you most likely to carry with you?
15. Are there any parts of the book that stood out as particularly helpful or eye-opening to you? Do you disagree with the author on any of his main points or think that anything needs more explanation? What themes, if any, do you plan on exploring further on your own? TAKING IT FURTHER
1. Pick up a copy of I and Thou
, the Martin Buber book that Fischer refers to throughout Sailing Home
, and read it as your next book club selection.
2. Visit the website for the Everyday Zen Foundation, where Norman Fischer is the founding teacher (www.everydayzen.org). It has hundreds of audio files, lots of written material, and even a blog, all downloadable for free (though donations are appreciated).
3. Bring in a Norman Fischer poem of your choosing to share. You can find a copy of Slowly But Dearly
(2004) or I Was Blown Back (2005) online most likely, or in your local bookstore or head to http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Fischer.html for audio files of the author reading his work. (There are also poems on www.everydayzen.org.)
4. Bring in a copy of The Odyssey
to reference as you discuss the metaphors in Sailing Home.
5. Choose a meditation exercise from the book to practice as a group.