Querencia: Longing For Home

(This article by Indira was also published in Elephant Journal.)

In bullfighting there is a place in the bullring where the bull feels safe. If he can reach this place he stops running and can gather his full strength. He is no longer afraid. From the point of view of the matador, once the bull has found this safe place, he is at his most dangerous.  It is said that if the same bull were to fight more than once in the ring, every matador would die; once an animal learns the game and stands in his power, he cannot be defeated. This place in the ring is different for every bull and it is the job of the matador to make certain that the bull does not land in this place of wholeness. This safe place is called the querencia.

In Spanish, querencia describes a place where one feels safe, a place from which one’s strength of character is drawn,the place for which one’s heart yearns. It comes from the verb querer, which means to desire, to want. Querencia is a place of ease and, paradoxically (once we’ve landed there) of freedom from wanting. In the place of querencia the sense of feeling at home is so strong that all else seems to fall perfectly into place.

Animals have it by instinct. The monarch butterfly migrates an incredible 4,500 km to reach its safe place here in Costa Rica at the end of the North American summer. Each season I also witness with the same awe and opening of heart the arrival of whales from thousands of miles away to birth their young in the safe waters off the coast of Pavones.  For the bull, it is the place where he believes he can survive the vicious ‘sport’ he finds himself ‘playing’. Cruelly, he almost never does.  In other parts of the world querencia is evident in the hibernation of bears, the nut-packing habits of squirrels prepping for winter, the mysterious navigation system of homing pigeons.  We might not understand the underlying mechanisms, but we instinctively recognize querencia when we see it.

For human beings there is also such a place. When a person finds their querencia they are calm and steady, even in full view of the matador. They have gathered their strength around them and the silence of that moment is more secure than any hiding place. We know where we feel most at home. Our bodies tell us, if we listen. There are certain places where we feel most ourselves.  Some people feel most at home on bustling city streets deep in the urban jungle of a city.  Other people’s querencia is linked with nature: the sound of the ocean crashing on shore, the call of macaws, or owls, the sound of wind chiming through a bamboo forest. You might recognize your querencia in an age-old longing for wide open spaces with big skies and endless horizons; or feel safest when enveloped by forest or nestled in a mountain cave. Often too it is the people in our lives who create the space of querencia, and the animals who so intimately share our life journeys, showing us unconditional love and acceptance.  The death of a loved one, the shifting field of relationships as they evolve naturally over time, these situations force us to discover and unearth new querencias, both in the world and within ourselves.

Being able to land in a place where we feel most at home, learning to hone in on an inner sanctuary, can give us that sense of being grounded and safe no matter what the circumstance.  I’ve discovered that, when you’re really very very lost, an inner guidance system does ultimately take over (though it seems to require a lot of suffering to get to the point of surrendering to it).  In the meantime, tracking the breath, breathing in the suffering and breathing out compassion, accepting the fretting mind… Querencia requires the time that the matador so carefully denies the bull, the time it takes to listen to the wisdom of the body, the secrets of the heart.

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