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Sailing Home

Using Homer's Odyssey to Navigate Life's Perils and Pitfalls

About The Book

Homer's Odyssey has a timeless allure. It is an ancient story that is significant for every generation: the struggle of a homesick, battle-weary man longing to return to love and family. Odysseus's strivings to overcome divine and earthly obstacles and to control his own impulsive nature hold valuable lessons for people facing their own metaphorical battles and everyday conflicts -- people who are, like Odysseus, "heartsick on the open sea," whether from dealing with daily skirmishes at the office or from fighting in an international war. Sailing Home breathes fresh air into a classic we thought we knew, revealing its profound guidance for navigating life's pitfalls, perils, and spiritual challenges.

Norman Fischer deftly incorporates Buddhist, Judaic, Christian, and popular thought, as well as his own unique and sympathetic understanding of life, in his reinterpretation of Odysseus's familiar wanderings as lessons that everyone can use. We see how to resist the seduction of the Sirens' song to stop sailing and give up; how to bide our time in a situation and wait for the right opportunity -- as Odysseus does when faced with the murderous, one-eyed Cyclops; and how to reassess our story and rediscover our purpose and identity if, like the Lotus-Eaters, we have forgotten the past.

With meditations that yield personal revelations, illuminating anecdotes from Fischer's and his students' lives, and stories from many wisdom traditions, Sailing Home shows the way to greater purpose in your own life.You will learn a new way to view your path, when to wait and when to act, when to speak your mind and when to exercise discretion, how to draw on your innate strength and distinguish between truth and deception, and how to deal with aging and changing relationships. Sailing Home provides the courage you need for your journey, to renew bonds with your loved ones, and to make the latter portion of life a heartfelt time of spirit and love, so that -- just as Odysseus does -- you can defeat the forces of entropy and death.

Reading Group Guide

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.
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?
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 ( 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 for audio files of the author reading his work. (There are also poems on
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.

About The Author

Photo Credit: Robert Hofmann

Norman Fischer is one of the best-known Zen teachers in the country, both through his extensive teaching and traveling, and through his writing.  In addition to his own retreats and events, Fischer participates frequently at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in California, the largest of all Western Buddhist establishments, where he gives frequent talks and leads retreats on creativity and interfaith issues, as well as on mediation and conflict resolution. 

                    Fischer has been publishing in Buddhist magazines for many years, and is on the advisory board of BuddhaDharma magazine. His essays have been anthologized in many Buddhist and other spiritual books and have been included in every annual edition of the Best Buddhist Writing (Shambhala).  He has written two books, Opening to You: Zen-Inspired Translations of the Psalms (Putnam, 2002) and Taking Our Places: The Buddhist Path to Truly Growing Up (HarperSF, 2003). A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, he has been associated with the lively San Francisco Bay Area literary scene since the 1970s. Fischer has published a dozen collections of poetry; the most recent are Slowly But Dearly (Chax Press, 2003) and I Was Blown Back (Singing Horse Press, 2005).

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atria Books (June 3, 2008)
  • Length: 256 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781416560395

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Raves and Reviews

"We all sail across the wine-dark sea, and Sailing Home gives humane, wise instruction for our voyage. In these pages, Zen master and poet Norman Fischer, beloved for his forthright honesty and kind heart, guides us to understand our own odyssey, our own hard-earned, vulnerable, mysterious life journey, with genuine compassion and newfound understanding." -- Jack Kornfield, author of The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology and A Path with Heart

"It is not so easy to come home to yourself, although it may be the most important journey any of us will ever take. This profoundly inspiring book reminds us of why the cultivation of awareness and kindness is so necessary and so difficult. By exploring The Odyssey and tying it to the travails of our personal lives and to a very human understanding of Zen and Buddhist meditation from decades of practice and teaching, Norman Fischer brings it all to life, and us as well, so that we can remember what muses are best listened to, especially when we are so easily captivated by false dreams of security and attainment." -- Jon Kabat -Zinn, author of Coming to Our Senses and Arriving at Your Own Door

"Norman Fischer is a wise guide and wonderful companion who teaches us the essentials: that knowing when to set sail is an art in itself, and that our destinations will appear on the horizon when we are ready to see them." -- Priscilla Warner, coauthor of The Faith Club: A Muslim, A Christian, A Jew -- Three Women Search for Understanding

"Sailing Home is delightful and insightful. Reflecting on the wanderings of the wily Odysseus in light of the wisdom of the Zen tradition is surprisingly relevant to the modern heroic journey. The central narrative of Greek culture comes alive for modern readers." -- Sam Keen, author of Sightings and Fire in the Belly

"This book reminds us that the great literature of the world and the great religions of the world share something in common. They each reveal us to ourselves. Fischer focuses on the actual experience of our life as an odyssey -- a journey toward our unknown fulfillment, which is welling up in the ground beneath our feet." -- James Finley, author of Merton's Palace of Nowhere and The Contemplative Heart

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