Taking Refuge

I’m pretty sure that I first learned to take refuge about seven years ago, on retreat with Sarah Powers. It’s been part of my daily practice ever since, with some personal touches over the years — drawing from a little zen, and a lot more vipassana. When I first sit down to meditate, this usually is the form:

I take refuge in awareness, my true home (Buddha)
I take refuge in the path, and the practice which is part of the path (Dharma)
I take refuge in the community of support (Sangha)


As I silently repeat the phrases to myself, I zoom out into the spaciousness of awareness: so much bigger than me but still holding me. I rest into the feeling of my body and breath as I sit, and give a nod to the mind states or life events that are providing my biggest lessons of the moment. I picture and express gratitude to the many teachers that surround and support me.

Many days, I’m flooded with gratitude and a big exhale of relief and belonging.

Other times, when I’m still arriving and distracted in my thoughts, formally taking a refuge is a useful practice to “catch” and focus my attention. If I sit down on the cushion and immediately get wrapped up in the stories of my thoughts, forgetting to take refuge, at some point the habit of starting with these phrases will catch up with me.

I realize that I’ve missed the turnoff, and then there it is.

And, of course, there are the difficult days that are more like this fantastic description from Sy Safransky, from this month’s issue of The Sun:

So yesterday morning I meditated for twenty minutes. Then I had a perfectly awful day. Do I get my twenty minutes back? I mean, if I’d waited in line for twenty minutes to buy an umbrella, and was unable to open it once it started raining, and, when I finally did get it open, discovered it was full of holes, wouldn’t I have insisted on a refund? Well, this morning I waited in line to get my refund, and guess what? No refund. Not only that, but for twenty minutes I had to listen to someone complain about the terrible day he’d just had.

Don’t you love this? It makes me laugh, and I guess it’s debatable whether an umbrella full of holes is still more of a refuge than no umbrella at all. (Weighing irritation against getting totally soaked.) Now that’s dharma.

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