Dharma Talk

Sally Kemp­ton shows us how to es­tab­lish a place of refuge, so we can weather even the tough­est times—mind­fully.

Yoga Journal - - CONTENTS -

Sally Kemp­ton im­parts the im­por­tance of find­ing refuge and tak­ing a break.


they feel fraz­zled or over­whelmed, I of­ten ask, “Is there a place you go to in order to take refuge? A safe space to sort your­self out?” Some peo­ple look at me blankly. Oc­ca­sion­ally, one bursts into tears. Oth­ers ad­mit that their an­ti­dote to stress is turn­ing on the TV, hav­ing a few glasses of wine, or tear­ing into a bag of chips. Some­times, even try­ing to find a more cre­ative way to re­lax can feel like one more de­mand.

I was con­sid­er­ing this as I lis­tened to Den­nis, a 40-year-old who is try­ing to run a con­sult­ing busi­ness and feels un­cer­tain about his fu­ture. What grounds him, he says, is spend­ing time in the woods on a Satur­day af­ter­noon. He’ll sit on a fallen log or be­side a creek and let his mind quiet down, notic­ing a bee­tle crawl­ing up a tree or the tex­ture of the moss on the rocks be­side him. Af­ter an hour in the for­est, his senses open to the nat­u­ral en­ergy around him. It’s that en­ergy, he says, that keeps him go­ing.

Den­nis has found a way to take refuge. For him, it’s na­ture. For me, it’s med­i­ta­tion. When ev­ery­thing starts to feel like too much, I take the fraz­zled feel­ing as a sig­nal that I need to sit down, close my eyes, and let my at­ten­tion sink into my heart. Al­most al­ways, I come out feel­ing more cen­tered and re­source­ful. Some­times when I open my eyes, I find that a prob­lem doesn’t even look like a prob­lem any­more. There have been many times when rest­ing my at­ten­tion in my heart for five min­utes has turned a bad day into a good one—a feel­ing of be­ing stuck into a cre­ative break­through.

Ev­ery­one needs to know how to

take refuge. No mat­ter how much you love your life, no mat­ter how strong or mo­ti­vated you may be, you will be over­whelmed at times. Maybe you’ll have to pick your­self up af­ter a breakup, or maybe you’ll lose your job. You may sim­ply have a hard week. At such mo­ments, if you don’t have a habit of tak­ing refuge, life will be­gin to feel like an end­less tread­mill. You’ll rely on the same old cop­ing mech­a­nisms, fol­low the same grooves, won­der­ing why you don’t feel in­spired or even, some­times, able to cope. Con­sciously choos­ing to take refuge—and hav­ing a re­li­able way to do it—can help you find new re­serves of strength, stamina, and in­spi­ra­tion.

What is refuge?

The word refuge means place of shel­ter. But I’m not talk­ing here about the ba­sic phys­i­cal shel­ter that ev­ery hu­man be­ing needs and de­serves. I’m talk­ing about the kind of shel­ter that lets you get in touch with your deep­est Self, es­pe­cially at times when you feel lost or over­whelmed.

What de­fines a refuge? First, it should help your mind calm down. Sec­ond, it should help you feel safe, even pro­tected. On a nor­mal day, it helps you stay con­nected to your cen­ter, to peace, or to the feel­ing that other hu­man be­ings share your con­cerns. On a bad day, your place of refuge can re­store your soul. A true space of refuge can also func­tion as a kind of co­coon, where you re­treat to do the sort of self-ex­am­i­na­tion that leads to in­ner change. Just as ly­ing in Savasana (Corpse Pose) can help you as­sim­i­late an hour of asana prac­tice, re­treat­ing to your place of refuge can help you digest your life ex­pe­ri­ences. It can give you both rest and the where­withal to act from strength.

Your refuge place can be a phys­i­cal lo­ca­tion—a med­i­ta­tion cor­ner, a tree in your back­yard, or even your bath­tub. Or, an­other per­son can be a source of refuge— a friend, a rel­a­tive, a part­ner you can call when you’re down, or a men­tor whose ad­vice you trust in­tu­itively. Like­wise, a repet­i­tive ac­tiv­ity, such as walk­ing or bik­ing, can of­fer an en­try point into the space of refuge. And so, of course, does asana prac­tice. That deep sigh—the “Ahhh” you of­ten hear in yoga class as one per­son af­ter an­other slips into their first asana of the day—that’s the sound of peo­ple find­ing refuge. The yo­gic sages warn, how­ever, that a place, a per­son, or an ac­tiv­ity will give you real refuge only when it con­nects you to some­thing that feels time­less and eter­nal. To Spirit. To Soul. To the in­ner Self.

The great yo­gic model for un­fail­ing refuge is the one Lord Kr­ishna of­fers his dis­ci­ple Ar­juna in one of In­dia’s most beloved texts, the Bha­gavad Gita. In this epic tale, Kr­ishna is Ar­juna’s guru and char­i­o­teer; he also rep­re­sents the em­bod­ied form of Spirit it­self. On the eve of a great bat­tle, the war­rior Ar­juna faces off against rel­a­tives and friends in a fight for the soul of his king­dom. Con­flicted about whether it is right to fight, he turns to Kr­ishna for ad­vice. Kr­ishna coaches him in the prin­ci­ples of yoga in ac­tion. But Kr­ishna’s fi­nal teach­ing is this: “Take refuge in me.” He tells Ar­juna that tak­ing refuge will free him from fear of wrong­do­ing.

This di­a­logue be­tween Kr­ishna and Ar­juna rep­re­sents the eter­nal con­ver­sa­tion be­tween our in­di­vid­ual self and our higher Self, some­times called the in­ner Source or in­ner Spirit. The mythic char­ac­ter of Kr­ishna em­bod­ies the in­ner wis­dom of Spirit, the un­der­ly­ing cre­ative Pres­ence that lies at the heart of re­al­ity. At one point in the Gita, Kr­ishna says, “I am the Self hid­den in the heart.” He’s re­fer­ring to one of the deep­est pieces of wis­dom in the yoga tra­di­tion: the teach­ing that in our own bod­ies, in the sub­tle cen­ter called the heart, we can tune in to our true Self, the part of us that isn’t con­fused about what life is all about. That Pres­ence is the “me” Kr­ishna is re­fer­ring to and the great source of true refuge.

The mys­tic poet Kabir speaks of this Pres­ence as “the breath in­side the breath.” His point is that it’s al­ways closer than you think. Once you’ve learned how to tune in to Pres­ence, you have a refuge that you can turn to at any time, even in the mid­dle of a stress­ful busi­ness meet­ing or an ar­gu­ment with your spouse. One way to tune in to Pres­ence right now is to fo­cus on the space in and around your body. In­hale and ex­hale, feel­ing that. With the in­hala­tion, you breathe that space in through your pores; as you ex­hale, you breathe it out. Af­ter a while, you should be­come aware of a sub­tle, del­i­cate en­ergy that is both in­side your body and around it. Ac­cord­ing to the yoga tra­di­tion, this is Pres­ence—and it is close to you at all times.

Door­way to peace

Once you rec­og­nize what be­ing in Pres­ence feels like, you’ll prob­a­bly re­al­ize that it’s al­ways been im­pli­cated in your mo­ments of

A place, a per­son, or an ac­tiv­ity will give you refuge when it con­nects you to some­thing that feels time­less and eter­nal. To Spirit. To Soul. To the in­ner Self.

peace and safety. For ex­am­ple, if you think about times when you’ve felt deep refuge in your yoga prac­tice, you may rec­og­nize that those were times when you man­aged to tap into the sense of Pres­ence—the liv­ing en­ergy within your body and breath. You may also re­al­ize that the feel­ing of com­fort when you’re with cer­tain friends, or when you open the door to your beloved, is not just the ef­fect of a neu­ro­chem­i­cal rush. It comes from be­ing con­nected to the liv­ing en­ergy of Pres­ence that runs through the two of you. One of the time­less ways peo­ple ex­pe­ri­ence the refuge of un­con­di­tional Pres­ence is through the nat­u­ral world.

The great eco-philoso­pher Thomas Berry points out that “the moun­tains and rivers and all liv­ing things, the sky and its sun and moon and clouds, all con­sti­tute a heal­ing, sus­tain­ing, sa­cred pres­ence for hu­mans, which they need as much for their psy­chic in­tegrity as for their phys­i­cal nour­ish­ment.” And though the most pow­er­ful ex­pe­ri­ences of Pres­ence in na­ture of­ten hap­pen in wilder­ness, you can also find them in your back­yard, a subur­ban woodlet, or a park.

When I lived in New York City, dur­ing mo­ments of stress I’d some­times find my­self gaz­ing out my win­dow at an Ai­lan­thus tree, sprouted in a lit­tle patch of dirt carved out of the side­walk. I didn’t un­der­stand why I felt so soothed by that lit­tle tree, but I’ve since come to re­al­ize that in a highly ur­ban en­vi­ron­ment, it of­fered me a door­way into that heal­ing, sa­cred Pres­ence that Berry talks about. Here are two ap­proaches to tak­ing refuge. The first is a way to cul­ti­vate a sense of Pres­ence in na­ture; the sec­ond, in your own home.

1 Of­fer your­self to na­ture. The next time you go for a walk in the woods, or even in your own front yard, stand still and take a few deep breaths. Then, rest your at­ten­tion in your heart. Imag­ine for a few mo­ments that a be­nign Pres­ence re­gards you through the trees, and the plants, and even the earth. In­stead of feel­ing as if you are the ob­server—the one who is see­ing the sky and the trees—shift your per­spec­tive and sense that the sky and the trees are see­ing you. Soon, you may be­gin to tune in to the sub­tle feel­ing that a pal­pa­ble Pres­ence is in the nat­u­ral world and that its na­ture is be­nign. Even a mo­ment of sens­ing Pres­ence in the nat­u­ral world can give you the feel­ing of refuge, the recog­ni­tion of how much nat­u­ral love is around you.

Set up an al­tar in your house that you ded­i­cate to Pres­ence. It doesn’t have to be elab­o­rate; you can start by choos­ing a small ta­ble— or cov­er­ing a box with a cloth—and plac­ing fresh flow­ers or a plant on it to cre­ate a con­nec­tion with the nat­u­ral world and its heal­ing beauty. If pos­si­ble, set up a can­dle or a lamp to rep­re­sent the light of con­scious­ness at the heart of your own be­ing. You may ar­range some ob­jects on your al­tar that have per­sonal sig­nif­i­cance for you—a spe­cial box, per­haps, or a crys­tal or feather. If it makes sense to you, place a pic­ture of a de­ity or a per­son who em­bod­ies sa­cred­ness for you (or a pic­ture of a sa­cred site or a nat­u­ral set­ting) there. Make your al­tar invit­ing and com­fort­able, and place a seat there for your­self. Then, make a point of vis­it­ing it at least once a day. Med­i­tate there, or write in your jour­nal. Make sure that ev­ery­thing you do at your al­tar has a sense of sa­cred­ness about it. In time, you may dis­cover that you can bring a prob­lem to your al­tar, sit with it for a while, and re­ceive the wis­dom aris­ing from within. You could also show up at the al­tar in a state of ag­i­ta­tion and then feel the col­lected Pres­ence sub­tly sooth­ing you. In other words, you will have cre­ated a place of refuge for your­self.

A beau­ti­ful world

I sug­gest do­ing one of these prac­tices at least once or twice a week, adapt­ing it to your own un­der­stand­ing of sa­cred Pres­ence. Then, make a point of tun­ing in to Pres­ence a cou­ple of times a day. You may want to say a sim­ple prayer and ask to be sus­tained by Pres­ence as you do your asana prac­tice, as you med­i­tate, or even while you’re at work. And no­tice that as you get ac­cus­tomed to tak­ing refuge in Pres­ence, you feel more grounded and at ease in the world. Soon, your re­spon­si­bil­i­ties may feel less bur­den­some. And per­haps, in a very nat­u­ral way, you’ll be­gin to no­tice your­self giv­ing refuge to oth­ers—not by giv­ing them ad­vice, but by em­body­ing the Pres­ence that in it­self can give com­fort, sup­port, and a feel­ing of be­ing at home in a beau­ti­ful world.

Orig­i­nally pub­lished May 2012.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.