Taking refuge

In the Buddhist tradition, people talk about ‘taking refuge’ – in particular, taking refuge in the Buddha (the teacher), the Dharma (the teachings) and the Sangha (their Buddhist community). This is an acknowledgment that any kind of spiritual life is not easy without support. In our individualistic culture, we might sometimes feel as if we’re supposed to work it all out by ourselves, but that’s not realistic. It’s very helpful to have teachers and other people in our lives who can guide and support us.

Similarly, it’s difficult for us to practise mindfulness if we’re constantly rushing from one commitment to the next. We need to find spaces in our lives where we can ‘take refuge’ – a space where we feel safe to stop for a while, to tune in, take stock, and have our internal batteries recharged. It could be a place where we can be on our own, or time spent with a group of like-minded people, or even a combination of the two.

The word refuge implies a space free from persecution, where we are completely safe, but if we carry unrealistic expectations into our refuge, we can unwittingly sabotage what it has to offer. A spiritual refuge is not so much a place where we can escape all our problems, but rather an opportunity to gather strength for the sometimes difficult internal work ahead. For members of religious communities, these refuges are often built into the structure of the days and weeks. Going to mass, lighting a candle, making offerings at a temple, celebrating the Sabbath or stopping five times a day for prayer – these are moments where we can pause and allow ourselves to feel supported. If we don’t belong to a religious group, ‘taking refuge’ is less automatic, and may require more intention and planning, but it can nonetheless become a regular and valuable part of our lives.

I know of someone who sits in her garden every day in a favourite spot, and quietly meditates as she notices the sights, sounds, smells and the air around her. This small daily ritual has become a precious and sustaining part of her life. Someone else with a stressful job and young children always makes the time to go for a walk along the beach by herself on a Sunday morning. A busy lawyer has noticed that if he pauses a few times a day to ground himself using the STOP practice – his work day flows much more smoothly.

Taking refuge works best when it becomes a small but regular part of our lives. Then, when we go through a difficult period, we have a familiar place where we feel safe and supported, and where we can gather the strength we need.

The shadow side of taking refuge is escapism, which will be the topic of next week’s reflection.

Weekly practice idea:

On a piece of paper, write down between three to ten ‘refuges’ – inspirational teachings, practices, communities or places which nourish and sustain you. Choose one of them and tick it, and plan it into your week.

Anja Tanhane