Aug 21, 2012
Finding true refuge
My earliest memories of being happy are of playing in the ocean. When our family began going to Cape Cod in the summer, the low piney woods, high dunes, and wide sweep of white sand felt like a true home. We spent hours at the beach, diving into the waves, body surfing, practicing somersaults underwater. Summer after summer, our house filled with friends and family—and later, with spouses and new children. It was a shared heaven. The smell of the air, the open sky, the ever-inviting sea made room for everything in my life—including whatever difficulties I was carrying in my heart.
Then came the morning some years ago when two carloads of friends and family members took off for the beach without me. From the girl who had to be pulled from the water at suppertime, I’d become a woman who was no longer able to walk on sand or swim in the ocean. After two decades of mysteriously declining health, I’d finally gotten a diagnosis: I had a genetic disease with no cure, and the primary treatment was painkillers. As I sat on the deck of our summer house and watched the cars pull out of the driveway, I felt ripped apart by grief and loneliness. In the midst of my tears, I was aware of a single longing. “Please, please, may I find a way to peace, may I love life no matter what.”
This was the beginning of what would become an earnest search for a place of peace, connectedness, and inner freedom that I could count on, even in the face of life’s greatest challenges. I now call this place “true refuge” because I’ve come to understand that it doesn’t depend on anything outside ourselves—a certain situation, person, cure, or even particular mood or emotion. The yearning for such refuge is not mine, personally; it’s universal. It’s what lies beneath all our wants and fears. We long to know we can handle what’s coming. We want to trust ourselves, to trust and love this life.
In the Buddhist tradition, the Pali word dukkha is used to describe the emotional pain that runs through our lives. While it’s often translated as “suffering,” dukkha encompasses all our experiences of stress, dissatisfaction, anxiety, sorrow, frustration, and basic unease in living. But if we listen deeply, we will detect beneath the surface of all that troubles us an underlying sense that we are alone and unsafe, that something is wrong with our life.
The Buddha taught that this experience of insecurity, isolation, and basic “wrongness” is unavoidable. We humans, he said, are conditioned to feel separate and at odds with our changing and out-of-control life. And from this core feeling unfolds the whole array of our disruptive emotions—fear, anger, shame, grief, jealousy—all of our limiting stories, and the reactive behaviors that add to our pain.
Yet, the Buddha also offered a radical promise, one that Buddhism shares with many wisdom traditions: We can find true refuge within our own hearts and minds—right here, right now, in the midst of our moment-to-moment lives. We find true refuge whenever we recognize the silent, awake space of awareness behind all our busy doing and striving. We find refuge whenever our hearts open with tenderness and love. Presence, the immediacy and aliveness and warmth of our intrinsic awareness, creates a boundless sanctuary where there’s room for everything in our life.
That day on Cape Cod, I didn’t know if I could ever be happy living with a future of pain and physical limitation. While I was crying, Cheylah, one of our standard poodles, sat down beside me and began nudging me with concern. Her presence was comforting; it reconnected me to the here and now, and to a deeply tender inner presence. After I’d stroked her for a while, we got up for a walk. She took the lead as we meandered along an easy path overlooking the bay.
In the aftermath of grieving, I was silent and open. My heart held everything—the soreness of my knees, the expanse of sparkling water, Cheylah, my unknown future, the sound of gulls. Nothing was missing, nothing was wrong. These moments of true refuge foreshadowed one of the great gifts of the Buddhist path—that we can be “happy for no reason.” We can love life just as it is, recognizing that no matter how challenging the situation there is always a way to take refuge in a healing and liberating presence. This understanding inspired me to write the book, True Refuge, and is a deepening blessing on my path.