Finding Inner Refuge In Troubled Times
"To find one’s center—to become centered in the Infinite --
is the first great essential of every satisfactory life.”
~Ralph Waldo Emerson
The world is not an easy place in which to live. There seems to be danger and trouble everywhere. The human mind is not an easy place to live either! Even when things seem good in our ordinary lives, the activity of our mind can easily slide us into fear, worry or anxiety.
It seems that as human beings we are often in need of true refuge—a safe place —from what feels like a threatening world. There are also times when we need a refuge from the disabling antics of our own mind.
What is meant by "refuge" anyway? Webster’s Dictionary describes it “as a condition of being safe or sheltered from pursuit, danger, or trouble.” Birds, animals, all manner of wildlife are often protected in refuges, sequestered areas with clear boundaries and fences to ensure their well-being and future. Is there such a place for humans? I believe there is.
In 2008, when I received teachings from His Holiness the Dalai Lama, I took what are called in the Buddhist community, “Refuge Vows.” We pledged our allegiance, so to speak, to The Three Jewels: The Buddha, The Dharma and the Sangha. These vows are actually representative of our inner being: our ability to be calm, clear and wise; to work toward reclaiming an open mind and a wise, compassionate heart; to live in the highest way possible, guiding our actions so our lives may be of benefit to all sentient beings.
Viewed in this light, refuge can be found within every single one of us. Refuge is not necessarily a safe place to which we must escape (like a cabin in the woods or under the covers in our bed). Instead, refuge is a stillpoint or inner sanctuary —where we can access our innate peace, clarity and natural wisdom.
A few years ago, a gifted therapist and Buddhist teacher, Tara Brach, wrote a book titled True Refuge. The subtitle of this wise guide says it all, “Finding Peace and Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart.” When I think about this phrase even for a moment: finding peace and freedom in your own awakened heart—it delivers a significant sigh of relief to my whole body. Within me lies the grandest, most safe, most nurturing place in the entire world—my good, wise heart—and within it resides a deep well of peace and freedom. Amazing!
This wondrous state of being is there and available to us at any given moment. What takes us there? Connecting with our breath. Doing various spiritual practices. Communing with nature. Participating in spiritual/religious rituals. Silence and solitude. Each and all of these may lead us home to asafe place, a sanctuary, within ourselves. True refuge is found in the center of our being.
Spiritual companionship/direction can help us access this place of refuge, too. The trusted relationship between seeker and guide can serve as a container for safe questioning and exploring; for experiencing both human and divine love; for finding genuine acceptance as we are and as we can be.
What else allows us to experience refuge? Well, it definitely helps to have what Emerson references in the quote at the beginning of this essay—a sense of the Infinite— a solid understanding of who/what the Divine is to us. When this is fully developed (and the spiritual guidance relationship can help us do this, too), all we have to do is intentionally think about It, breathe into It, give ourselves over to Its loving embrace, and refuge is ours.
A Helpful Practice for Experiencing Inner Refuge
Practice bringing yourself to an experience of inner refuge by engaging in a guided visualization.
After suitably relaxing yourself, imagine yourself wandering through a vast desert. You have walked for a long time and are hot and thirsty. You are eager for relief.
In the nearby distance, you spot a beautiful, lush oasis. Without much effort, you suddenly find yourself there. Sate your thirst from a clear pool of water. Rest on a welcoming blanket beneath a sheltering palm tree. Heighten your senses and observe the wondrous sights and sounds around you. Fully see, touch, taste and smell all the sumptuous delights of this peaceful place of plenty.
Give thanks for this refuge from the heat of the world, from worry and weariness. Feel the relief that comes from being here in this safe place, this sanctuary of verdant green. Give thanks for it and for the Presence that guided you there. You are home.
Give thanks for your unique heart-mind, which, when properly focused, can deliver you to true refuge.
May I be at peace wherever I am.
May I find refuge and freedom in my own awakened heart.
Dr. Janice Lundy is the co-founder and director of the Spiritual Guidance Training Institute which provides education and certification in interfaith and interspiritual direction. She is an interfaith/interspiritual guide herself, the author of several spiritual formation books including Your Truest Self and My Deepest Me, and the creator of the Pure Presence® method of compassionate listening. She is currently Visiting Professor of Spiritual Direction at The Graduate Theological Foundation. She resides in Michigan, USA.