The dharma of nostalgia

The Buddha indicated that our problematic cravings fall under three headings: craving for sense contact (e.g., food, drink, and pleasant physical and mental stimulation); craving for existence (survival, and various states of being, like being rich, beautiful, in love, at home, etc.); and craving for non-existence (ultimately the death drive, but long before that: mental oblivion, as in intoxication. mindless tv-watching, etc.).

Tonight I want to probe a modern form of craving for existence that I think exercises a significant but usually unnoticed power over us: nostalgia. Here I’m indebted to Svetlana Boym who wrote The future of nostalgia (2001), probably the most stimulating book I’ve read over the last 12 months.

Nostalgia as a word and concept began life in 1688. A Swiss doctor, Johannes Hofer, coined the term in diagnosing an illness that afflicted some Swiss mercenary soldiers when they were abroad, one which he described as ‘a sad mood coming from the desire to return to one’s native land’, thus causing the patient to lose touch with the present. He cobbled together two Greek words, nostos (homecoming) and algia (longing) to call the illness in question ‘nostalgia’.

So nostalgia began as a treatable malady that a doctor could diagnose in individuals. But in the nineteenth century it escaped that box and became an incurable epidemic that took root in western culture and affected millions of people. The object of the longing (or ‘craving’) in question wasn’t limited to an actual original home, but rather extended to past ways of life and elements of culture (language, rituals, beliefs held in common, the routines of daily life, and folkways) which felt intimate, safe and dependable. Often nostalgia feeds off memories of childhood when – for many but not all of us – these boons underpinned our lives.

Dependently arising nostalgia

Emotions like nostalgia have histories – they’re contingent on historical change and cultural development. This insight is basic dharma: it’s a subset of dependent arising. So why did westerners and their culture become nostalgic when they did? In crude summary it was because industrial capitalism and modernisation (including migration inside and between countries) meant that people were cut off from their familiar life-worlds during their own life-spans. Mass nostalgia arose as a tacit rebellion against time, history and the pace of irreversible change.

As Svetlana Boym puts it, ‘modern nostalgia is a mourning for the impossibility of mythical return, for the loss of an enchanted world with clear borders and values; it could be a secular expression of a spiritual longing, a nostalgia for an absolute, a home that is both physical and spiritual, the edenic unity of time and space before entry into history.’

We dharma practitioners need to nail nostalgia as a form of craving for existence, and to remember our responsibility to probe the phenomenon under the rubric of ‘investigation of phenomena’ (dhammavicaya), the second of the seven factors of awakening. Boym can help us here, too. First, we should acknowledge that nostalgia – like all forms of craving – makes its own often subtle contribution to delusion. Nostalgic memories and histories are often fabricated. Here’s how the 20th century Italian poet, Giovanni Caproni, exposes nostalgic untruth in his poem, The last homecoming:   

I have returned there

where I had never been.

Nothing has changed from how it was not.

On the table (on the checkered

tablecloth) half-full

I found again the glass

never filled. All

has remained just as

I had never left it.

Boym distinguishes between restorative and reflective nostalgia. Restorative (unreflective) nostalgia depends on idealised, often mythologised memories and public histories, either at the individual or collective level. At the collective level it is the stuff of hard-right political discourse, in which the founders of the nation appear as white knights in a lost golden age. Conspiracy theories then step in to explain how some group of bad guys undermined and destroyed it – the same bad guys who now stand in the way of restoring the past glory.

As against this error, dharma practitioners need to go into their nostalgic experiences reflectively (practising reflective nostalgia) as we would any other form of craving. In this way we can turn the dharmic trick of transforming poison into medicine. When we sense the presence of a particular longing – for a vanished childhood, home, or way of life – we need to ask ourselves what we’re really hankering after. Is it a past experience of receiving unqualified love supported by an ethos that honours that sort of human connection? Is it the experienced security of a safe home, and knowing where our next meal (and other physical needs) are coming from?

Of course we can’t turn back the clock and restore the situations we inhabited in the now irretrievable past. But we can turn our nostalgia for them to good account by imagining and working to create a culture and a community that foster those lost human values.

If we take that turn, we’re ‘entering into history’ in a creative way: contributing to historical change, instead of wishing it away. We’ll enter into an ongoing history in which two great political forces have vied for dominance in western countries over the last two centuries.

Skilful homecoming

During that time the dogma of economic liberalism has pursued a utopia in which virtually everything (including the earth, and our own labour and creativity) is reduced to money terms and traded on unregulated markets. This utopia is market society, in which all human interactions are transactional, monetised and thus unilinear, and all expressions of our human solidarity are either subordinated to market operations or invalidated. Insecurity is both the means and the goal of this project.

 Market society has no place for concerns about human solidarity, social security, social justice, or planetary survival. When this dogma is enacted, ‘all that is solid melts into air’, in the title of Marshall Berman’s famous 1982 book. The economic-liberal program destroys the underpinnings of personal and social security so that market mechanisms have full sway. It is thus a vector of nostalgia.

But the promoters of market society have always attracted variegated opposition bent on protecting society against their inhuman utopia. It asserts precisely those spiritual values that most of us grew up with but have no place in market society – community, compassion, social justice and environmental responsibility. This oppositional movement constitutes the natural home for those who understand their nostalgia in terms of their aspiration to return to human, spiritual values, and to realise them more strongly than ever.

The balance of power between these two great political forces has ebbed and flowed – globally as well as country-by-country – over the last two centuries. Right now economic liberalism (rebadged as neoliberalism) enjoys an unprecedented global grip. But more and more people can see the abyss it’s dragging us towards – unsustainable global warming and social inequality, and intensifying conflicts. More and more of us are mobilising once more in defence of our humanity and our common home, this planet. It’s a homecoming worthy of a dharma practitioner.  

This dharma talk was given to Kookaburra Sangha in Sydney on 16 May, 2022.



3 Replies to “The dharma of nostalgia”

Anne-Laure Brousseau

Dear Winton, I’m much encouraged to read Svetlana Boym whom I’ve just discovered in your talk. I realized reading it that I have nostalgia for public intellectuals/writers to “think with” poetry. Thanks for the wonderful poem from Giovanni Caproni.


Très intéressant ce nouveau point de vue : la nostalgie comme vecteur d’un attachement manipulé par un système malsain, démoniaque ; et cette idée géniale de création utilisant cette découverte ,cette lucidité pour faire revivre ces vraies valeurs humaines dans la société…
Merci du Coeur

Yes, I can see where nostalgia falls under the category of a craving (verging on addiction). I hadn’t thought of it in those terms, and that clarification helps me to put my current sense of nostalgia into place. The poem also helps to clarify the sentiment.

Still, at a time as tumultuous as this, when guns have become more important than children, when big business has only the concern of fleecing the consumer wherever possible, when we may be on the brink of WWIII, there is some comfort in the occasional indulgence of nostalgia, however counterproductive it may be.

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