You can’t go home if you don’t leave home. Odysseus, the Prodigal Son and Frodo are just three examples of wayfaring heroes whose homecoming is the real pivot of the story. Just as there is something magical about venturing out into unknown territory, so is there magic in coming home.
“Coming home” is a common refrain among communities and cultures who have experienced the dislocation and trauma of exile and emigration. I am a Chilean exile, and the songs of my homeland, especially the songs of return, such as Vuelvo by Inti Illimani and Vuelvo Para Vivir by Illapu, never fail to tug at my heart-strings. Irish music is also replete with this kind of patriotic nostalgia because of their own long history of mass emigration, something that Enya has extensively exploited in her music.
In her beautiful song Pilgrim, Enya sings about this condition of being a wanderer on the Earth, but in a spiritual rather than geographical sense. “Home” is not Ireland, or some other homeland, but “you”:
Each heart is a pilgrim
Each one wants to know
The reason why the winds die
And where the stories go
Pilgrim, in your journey
You may travel far
For pilgrim it’s a long way
To find out who you are…
Enya’s music has sometimes been called “New Age”, which she rightly objects to, but this idea of finding out your True Self is central to New Age thinking. Whether expressed in a spiritual or psychological idiom, this is a Religion of the Self, or Soul Mysticism, which many people see as an alternative to the traditional religious focus on an external God. This inward turn chimes with such mystical proclamations as “the Kingdom of God is within you” in Luke’s gospel and the bald Advaita Vedanta assertion that “the Self is Brahman” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad).
A corollary of this inner divinity is the sense that the natural world is itself infused with divinity, that is, pantheism (God is everywhere). This is clearly expressed in Thomas’ gospel: “the Kingdom of the Father is spread out upon the earth, and men do not see it.” In his Centuries of Meditations, Thomas Traherne (1636-1674) writes:
The world is a mirror of infinite beauty,
yet no one sees it.
It is a Temple of majesty,
yet no one regards it.
It is a region of Light and Peace,
did not humans disquiet it.
It is the Paradise of God,
the place of Angels,
and the Gate of Heaven.
“Coming home” can refer to a physical return to your homeland after years of absence, as in the Homeric epic The Odyssey, or to self discovery, as in the Disney film The Lion King. But it can also refer to a return to Earth itself, as in Alfonso Cuarón’s 2013 film Gravity.
When I first saw the film, on a British Airways flight to Chile to see my dying father, little clues, such as the Russian ikon in the Soyuz and the Chinese buddha in the Shenzhou capsule, were not lost on me. Stranded in space, the sole survivor of a satellite debris storm, these two “rides” with their mystical symbols, were the vehicles that allowed her to get back down to Earth.
Most adventure stories, such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, focus primarily on the outgoing arm of the narrative arc. The return is almost a coda. Even in science fiction films such as Star Wars or Star Trek, the story usually starts with a call to leave home and go off on an adventure, only to return back home at the end, even if “home” is an itinerant Starship Enterprise. Gravity begins with the hero floating out in space. There’s no take off or journey out, there is only the desperate struggle to get back, the return arm of the traditional arc.
Gravity is a Disaster Movie, in the venerable tradition of the 1974 classic The Towering Inferno. It is about the indomitable human will to survive, about courage and perseverance against the odds, inspiring us to keep calm and carry on, even in the jaws of death. But it also has another, subtler, subtext.
The final scene (spoiler alert!) where the hero Ryan Stone drags herself onto the sandy shore and joyfully scoops up a handful of wet sand, is the final revelatory moment of the film, which explains the film’s title, gravity not just in the literal sense, but in the metaphorical sense, “spiritually” coming back down to Earth after being lost in “psychological” space. Until that moment, partly because of grief over her dead child, Stone hadn’t fully embraced life. Her soul hadn’t fully incarnated. It takes a near death experience (NDE) for her to wake up to the miracle of life, with Friedrich Nietzsche “saying yes to life, even in its strangest and hardest problems.” (Ecce Homo) It is an initiation, a baptism, a resurrection.
Like a stone, Dr Stone is as susceptible to gravity as everything else, even the temple in Jerusalem:
6 As for these things which ye behold, the days will come, in the which there shall not be left one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down.
19 Jesus answered and said unto them, Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.
20 Then said the Jews, Forty and six years was this temple in building, and wilt thou rear it up in three days?
21 But he spake of the temple of his body.
John 2: 19-21
As with all adventure stories, spiritual adventures commonly focus on the outgoing journey, as in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress or Thomas Malory’s knights of the Round Table and their quest for the Holy Grail. After all, swash-buckling adventures in exotic locations are more fun. This is why in psychedelic circles there is so much emphasis on the exotic psychedelia and colourful trip reports, the weird places and even weirder entities. The return journey is glossed over as uninteresting, a mere “come down”, accompanied by the inevitable anxiety that maybe this time you won’t come back in one piece.
“Grounding” is usually understood as the process of integrating psychological material arising from a psychedelic experience. Important as this is, there is a more fundamental grounding. There is nothing quite like the relief of coming back down to earth, to sky and trees and water after an exhausting night travelling through other dimensions on ayahuasca. How wondrous is the warmth of the sun on your face. How delicious the taste of pineapple! What a miracle is every blade of grass!
Hakuin Ekaku (1685-1768) famously wrote, “This very land is the Pure Land. This very body is the body of Buddha”. Ultimately, the point of working with plant medicine is not to “get high” or even to “get healed” or “get wise”, but to find out who you really are and where you truly belong, not out there on the perimeter of psychic space, but here on this beautiful planet, feeling the cool earth under your bare feet and the wind on your bare legs, like Dr Ryan Stone in Gravity.