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Posted: December 02, 2005

Spiritual Caregiving

Finding 'Home' Within Ourselves

As a child, I got the idea that we were teetering on the brink of homelessness. I think it started the night of my father’s second stroke. I still recall that feeling in the pit of my stomach that made my body shake, my voice quiver, my heart ache from fear, abandonment, and loss. The EMTs moved skillfully through the ice and snow as they whisked my father off and mom followed the ambulance. Left behind with my sisters, I hid in the dim light of the oversized dining room chandelier, hoping we could keep it together. Hoping that home meant security. Hoping that food, warmth, and safety would be sustained so long as the chandelier kept shining.

Though my father died, we kept our home, and I am grateful that I’ve never had to experience the street in the way that many others have. Indeed, the problem of homelessness is increasing, as people struggle to find balance in the rapidly changing world. Of course, people’s reasons for homelessness are different — as are their outcomes.

A recent visit to the homeless shelter in my hometown of Petaluma, California, was eye-opening for my research team and me. Conversations with residents blew away our stereotypes about what homeless people look like or why they are seeking shelter.

One woman said, "My husband beats me. I love him, but me and the kids are on the run from him. I need him -- I don’t have any job skills, and most of the time he’s OK."

Another man explained, "I worked for a major corporation until about six months ago. They laid me off, along with a lot of other middle-level people. God, it’s awful. I can’t even get job interviews. I never planned for this happening. My savings are gone. I just don’t know what to do."

According to John Records, director of the Committee on the Shelterless (COTS), many homeless people dream of having a home, but lack the internal resources to make that a reality. Often their ability to develop the necessary commitment has been undermined by disabilities, trauma, addictions — or a history of failure that discourages them from even daring to hope for anything better.

An innovative new study at the Institute of Noetic Sciences in partnership with COTS explores how practices from the world’s wisdom traditions might benefit homeless adults. The aim is to help them integrate ancient processes for cultivating growth and transformation that have been supported by scientific research. The study, directed by Dr. Cassandra Vieten along with Records, seeks to create an intervention that encourages a feeling of being "at home within."

Vieten, a research psychologist and addictions expert, describes the premise behind At Home Within. "While homelessness and associated problems of addiction, trauma, poverty, and unemployment can be incredibly disorienting, many of the world’s spiritual and transformative practices point to a place of refuge within the self where one can find peace. Some traditions speak of this place as a common ground of all being, where one not only finds an internal organizing principle that provides a sense of inner authority, but also finds a shared common ground with others. The theory is that direct and repeated experience of connecting to that place can have a profound effect on the capacity to make new choices and overcome barriers. That is the hypothesis we are testing with this research."

Key components of the eight-week training include: body awareness through simple somatic practices like walking, stretching, yoga, and tai chi; mind awareness through mindfulness training and stress-reducing cognitive exercises; cultural awareness through a re-establishment of family and social institutions outside the shelter; and connection with the natural world through immersion in nature. Researchers are measuring outcomes such as increased self awareness, better stress management skills, improved relapse prevention, increased social support and social skills, movement toward self-sufficiency, and a more solid connection with self and life purpose.

This program builds directly on ongoing IONS studies about how all people can transform to more centered, compassionate, and purpose-filled ways of being. These principles provide the light and hope that I have been watching for all these years. And maybe they can help guide some of the homeless people in the study to a more secure base. As British writer and art critic John Ruskin noted: "This is the true nature of home — it is the place of Peace; the shelter, not only from injury, but from all terror, doubt, and division."


Marilyn Schlitz, Ph.D., is vice president for research and education at the Institute of Noetic Sciences and senior scientist at the Complementary Medicine Research Institute of the California Pacific Medical Center.

This article originally appeared in Spirituality & Health magazine, For subscriptions call 1-800-876-8202 or see Editor Stephen Kiesling and his staff contribute weekly columns, features and articles published every Friday as "Spiritual Caregiving" at Contact staff directly via email at

© 2005 Pederson Publishing, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Commercial use, redistribution or other forms of reuse of this information is strictly prohibited without the prior written permission of Pederson Publishing.

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