Tonight we’ll begin a series of dharma talks based on Tara Brach’s latest book, True Refuge: Finding Peace and Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart. After over 30 years of teaching meditation and working as a clinical psychologist, Tara identifies “true refuge” as an inner place of peace, connectedness and inner freedom that is available to us no matter what challenges we face. True refuge implies a deep trust in life and in oneself.
The book begins with Daniel Ladinsky’s translation of a poem by the Sufi mystic Hafiz:
I wish I could show you
When you are lonely or in darkness,
The astonishing light
Of your own Being!
One reason that we meet here on Monday nights is to recall and to affirm what some call our “Buddha nature,” the divine light within all living beings. We yearn to connect with the refuge of inner light, and when we feel cut off from it, we suffer.
The Buddha used the Pali word dukkha to refer to the unavoidable emotional pain of stress, dissatisfaction, anxiety, frustration, and unease that human beings experience in life. Tara notes that our suffering entails an underlying sense of being alone, unsafe and flawed. According to the Buddha, we are conditioned to feel separate and insecure about our inability to control inevitable changes in life.
But the Buddha and other spiritual masters demonstrated that it is possible for us to find true refuge whenever we pause right here and now to recognize the spacious awareness behind our busyness. When our hearts open to love, and when we feel connected to the innate clarity of our true nature, we are at home wherever we are.
I feel at home when I bring full presence to what I’m experiencing. At such moments, I feel alive, awake and whole. Last month, when Mark and I were co-teaching in California, we had an opportunity to participate in a ritual with our students. We gathered in a grove of tall redwood trees around a long coiled wire that was laid on the ground in a large spiral design. One by one, we took turns walking mindfully in silence from the outer edge of the spiral to the innermost part of the coil. The group silently witnessed each person’s pilgrimage. The instant I entered the spiral pathway, all my senses opened. I saw patterns of scattered green needles covering the ground, smelled their fragrance, and sensed them prickling and sticking to the soles of my bare feet. My ears detected the soft swooshing sound of each footstep, as my legs moved effortlessly in a slow, steady rhythm.
The closer I came to the innermost coil of the spiral, the more I sensed powerful energy emanating from the noble trees and gentle, steady support coming from the circle of attentive witnesses. In the center, I knelt on the earth and felt immense gratitude for the beauty of nature and for the perfection of that very moment. As I retraced my steps, my lips naturally curved into a contented smile. Even though the duration of the ritual was brief as measured by clock time, I experienced the timelessness and open-heartedness of true refuge.
We tend to fill our lives with what Tara calls “false refuges,” which provide comfort and security for only brief periods and eventually cause more suffering. Many of us take refuge in staying busy, in striving to perform better, or in taking care of others. We may be tempted to pursue wealth, success or praise. In our efforts to avoid emotional pain, we may seek solace in addictions to alcohol, overeating or Internet surfing.
False refuges intensify underlying self-doubts and tensions that prevent us from savoring the present moment or sleeping peacefully. When a crisis comes, we realize that false refuges don’t protect us from the pain of loss and separation. A few weeks ago, I observed an interaction at Houston Hospice that illustrates the fickleness of false refuges:
While I’m playing soft music at Chuck’s bedside, his sister Caroline barges into the room and, ignoring me, shakes him by the shoulders, trying to wake him out of his coma. When he coughs noisily, she jumps away nervously. Imperiously she gives me orders: “Keep playing music for him,” and she runs to fetch a nurse. As the nurse arrives and tries to explain that the patient is unresponsive but resting peacefully, Caroline once again grabs Chuck, this time by the head, turning his face towards her. Loudly, she demands, “Look at me! It’s your sister visiting you.” Without opening his eyes, he coughs and sputters. Her reaction is “I can’t take this any more! Play him more music. I’m leaving.”
After Caroline flounces out of the room, the nurse and I exchange looks of relief. I feel sad and angry to witness such unskillful treatment of a dying person, and I try to muster some compassion for Chuck’s sister, whose heart is too blocked to accept that, after three years of declining from brain cancer, her 55-year-old brother is on the threshold of death. Instead of being present with her fears about death and with the painful truth that she will never again hear her brother’s voice, Caroline is hiding behind the false refuge of trying to control what cannot be controlled.
Tara refers to the “Buddhist law:” the truth of how things really are. Until we let go of manipulating our experiences, and until we surrender to trusting the waves of life unfolding just as it is, we can’t understand the nature of reality. Because it’s hardest to be present amidst painful circumstances, it helps to practice presence in calm moments, gradually establishing a familiar home base of being present.
The guided meditation that ends Tara’s first chapter is ideal for sensing presence through the body:
Sit comfortably and close your eyes. Begin with three conscious breaths. Inhale long and deeply, filling the lungs, then exhale slowly, sensing any tensions in body and mind letting go.
Invite your awareness to fill your whole body. Imagine your physical form as a field of sensations. Feel the movement and quality of the sensations—tingling, vibrating, heat or cool, hard or soft, tight or flowing. Take a few moments to bring your full attention to this dance of sensations.
Now let your awareness open out into the space around you. Imagine receiving a symphony of sounds, letting them wash through you.
Try listening to the changing play of sounds, not just with your ears but with your whole awareness. Take a few moments to bring an open attention to listening to sounds.
Keeping your eyes closed, let your awareness receive the play of images and light on the eyelids. You might notice a flickering of light and dark or certain shapes, shadows or figures of light. Take a few moments to attend to seeing.
Feeling your breath and sensing the space around you, be receptive to any scents that might be in the air. Discover what it is like to smell and receive the odors around you.
Now let all the senses be wide open, your body and mind relaxed and receptive. Allow life to flow freely through you. Feel your moment-to-moment experience. Notice the changing flow of sensations, sounds, aliveness, and also the background of presence that is here. Let yourself appreciate this awake, inner space of presence. When you are finished, sense the possibility of bringing an alert, open awareness to whatever you do next.
Slowly open your eyes, and be here now.