The Odyssey – the Story about Returning Home. The Lotos Eaters – Desire under the Helm

Soon after leaving Troy, Odysseus and his fleet make landfall at a sleepy backwater port which is the Land of the Lotos Eaters. The Land of the Lotos Eaters straddles two worlds. Odysseus, a great war hero, is leaving the competitive, combative, outer-directed and ego-oriented realm of The Iliad, centered on conquests, one-upmanship and material accomplishments. This is the world that we know.

He could continue on as he has, business as usual, sacking cities and claiming treasure, expanding his reputation and influence, and getting very rich. If he did nothing more in his life, Odysseus would still be remembered as famous and successful, the shrewdest of the Greeks at Troy. He could rest on his laurels. We would still be reading about him, although perhaps not with such consequence.

Or he can change direction and head for Home; this is the difficult inner journey toward a deepening of meaning and toward who he really is supposed to be – king and husband and father – and what he really wants.

Lotos Land is at the fork in the road. It is where the people who can’t decide which way to go get struck.

Like some coffeehouse beatniks of another era, Lotos Eaters are an easygoing, no-hassle, copacetic tribe that goes with the warm and fuzzy flow. They are the first counter-culture in Western literature. But underneath their super-languid persona, they have a dark secret: they are drug addicts, hooked on an herb called lotos. And they are pushers too: they share their noxious weed with the sailors Odysseus has sent ashore.

When he hears that his men have taken lotos, Odysseus storms off his ship, furious, a one-man shore patrol. He collects his stoned, disoriented sailors. He lashes them to the ship’s rowing benches (for they fight hard to stay in Lotos land), and they urgently sail on.

Why does lotos stall the journey? Why is Odysseus so alarmed?

Lotos is not just some mellow herbal tea. It is a potent narcotic that triggers a specific, disastrous amnesia: everyone who takes lotos loses all memory of Home.

What’ s the big deal?

Home is where the heart is of course, the place where you are most at home in the world; it is the place, safe “beyond the reach of the perils of wayfaring,’ where you are not a stranger, where your most private struggles are known and understood and where you are seen and appreciated for your special virtues, your own unique powers. Home, at essence, is where you are recognized for who you really are, not more and not less. When you make yourself at home, you show your true nature, no matter where you are.

Home is not only the world that knows you, but it is where you can recognize the world for what it is, where you can see clearly without exaggeration or distortion, inflation or deflation. Free from pretense, you can see past appearances, past roles or titles, past your fears and projections and defenses, to glimpse someone else’s true nature. Home is where you can get out of your own way.

From the perspective of the psyche, each traveler holds deep in the soul the knowledge of the place where he or she is most real, most easily seen for who one is, and where he or she need not pretend to be more or different than that. That place, of course is your true Home.

it is unlikely to be some Great Mystery. Most travelers could tell you without much trouble what being at home is like (or would be like) for them.

For Odysseus, Home is the small, rocky island of Ithaca where his beloved wife and soul mate Penelope awaits, and so does his real king and husband and father. Homer’s principal epithet for Ithaca is “clear-seen:” it is the place where one sees and is seen clearly.

Until he gets there, no matter how edifying his travels, no matter how welcoming and supportive the natives, no matter how divine the goddesses along the way, Odysseus is everywhere a foreigner, a refugee from the wars. Later on, Calypso is the hostess with the mostess, and the Phaecians sing Odysseus’ praises; both ask him to stay on and mean it, but he is not at-home even in their fulsome care. Each new stop means an alien nation where he is, at least in part, not quite known or knowable.

The psychologist Carl Jung called this very sort of journey individuation, the arduous journey to ‘ divest the self of false wrappings’ as he put it, as to engage and express the true self. “Individuation” Jung wrote “is a process by which a man becomes the definite unique being he in fact is”, so that he fulfills a particular calling which is distinctively his own.

If home is the place where you are most yourself, then the distance between who you are pretending to be, your ‘ false wrapings’ as Jung has it, and who you really are, is how far you are from home. For Odysseus, it is a long and difficult trip.

For Lotos Eaters, the memory of Home is wiped out. Without the possibility to be at Home in the world, then no matter ow ingenious or fervent or fearless the traveler, he or she is utterly lost. There is nothing to set your compass by. Heck, there is not much reason to leave comfy Lotos Land. That would be bad enough. But Home is not just the destination of this voyage: Home is at the root of all wanting and choosing. All desires are desires to get closer to Home one way or another, to be more at Home in the world.

Lotos Eaters, for all their pleasantness, have no desires at all; they have snuffed them out with their deadening drug. Oh, they may have preferences during their day. But, as they amble through life they are unable to heartfully choose one path of action over another because they have fallen asleep to their guidepost, their Home: who they really are what they are supposed to become. They are stuck at this fork in the road, unable to choose a direction. No wonder Odysseus is so concerned.

What is Lotos?

Some travelers forget themselves with actual drugs or alcohol, and lotos can be that; lotos can be food or sex or any of the fashionable addictions of the moment, but lotos need not be a conventional measure. It could be a television, smartphone or Internet habit, a humdrum job or an inflexible daily routine. It could be that longtime relationship of convenience; you know the one, comforting in a way perhaps, but smothering and without passion.

For workaholics, lotos shows up as more work, more projects, a larger stack in the box. Overactivity is the lotos that keeps Type A people so stuck in their trance that hey fail to remember their real Home. We have had all times when we have forgotten ourselves and where we are headed, when we were pressed into the agendas of others, got swept along, and then later regretted it.

But Lotus Eaters make a life’ s work of forgetting their real selves. They put themselves aside, stifle their own yearnings, and periodically wake up to find themselves a supporting cast member in someone else’s play. They may find themselves at midlife feeling frustrated and betrayed for having given up their own journey for reasons that no longer make sense. They may have had their good reasons once.

You’ ll know you’re in Lotos Land when:

  • You are in the land of inertia, stagnation and overwhelming loss of will and desire
  • The natives create easy harmony and calm, complacency and conformity
  • Priority-setting and ambition are avoided
  • Change feels overwhelming
  • Initiative, innovation and risk-taking are discouraged
  • Decision-making is slow and bureaucratic: choices are chewed over endlessly
  • The goals (and the organizing vision) are fuzzy
  • Everything runs out of habit and on automatic
  • Disruptive, paradigm-busting talk is disapproved. Better to go with the conventional wisdom. Don’t upset the apple cart
  • Deep feelings – anger and desire – are stiffled
  • People are urged to accommodate, ” to love what you have”

If you are in Lotos Land:

  • Keep the memory of Home conscious: remember who you really are and who you are supposed to become.
  • Keep your eyes on the prize; don’t be distracted by the inessential.
  • Be willing to tolerate the discomfort of desire.
  • Be a bold self-starter, don’t wait for permission or consensus, risk action instead (There are other realms on the journey where the journey where the opposite is true)
  • Put your oar in the water, even though the path toward Home may not be totally clear. This Odyssey begins with an existential act: Odysseus puts his oar in the water and starts rowing.

Odysseus escapes Lotos Land because his instincts are to act, to overcome obstacles and solve problems. (Other predicaments will require different escape routes). He is not seduced by this lotos induced, torpid state of tranquility, without elation or depression. Here in Lotos Land the way out is not through disengagement.

To the contrary, Odysseus’ triumph emerges out of his longings and his passions – particularly his desire to be on the road home and his passion for his extraordinary wife – and his willingness to risk engagement on the road to get there, and to suffer the consequences. But how much engagement is enough and how much is too much? The next adventure with the monstrous Cyclops seeks to answer these questions.