If you’ve studied any Buddhism, you may be familiar with the concept of Taking Refuge. If not, don’t fret! This is not a post about formal Refuge or any formal Buddhist practice. Refuges are everywhere, and it is our skillful or unskillful use of those that intrigues me most.

Buddhists take refuge in the Three Jewels: the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha. This is done as a formal ceremony, but can also be performed as a private practice or affirmation. If you know my blog, you know I gravitate towards the informal route.

I’ve mulled over the three treasures on occasion. It’s not much of a stretch for me to get there, depending on whose interpretation I adhere to. The hardest for me to get behind, ironically, I guess, as a Buddhish type, is the first. What does it mean to take refuge in the Buddha? For me, it is either the idea that a being without illusion and attachment could exist, which is heartening; or the idea that Buddha nature is in all of us, which is even better. The dharma, the teachings, are obviously instrumental in guiding my life and decisions; and the sangha, which for me is my community of like-minded practitioners, be it the Western Buddhist leaders whose writings I rely on, my online sangha left over from the UPAYA Socially Engaged Buddhist group, or just the world of fellow meditators who are trying to live a life free of inflicting or indulging in suffering.

Nonetheless, when the Refuge-focused, 3 week intensive with my local meditation center started, I didn’t really have any idea of what Refuge meant outside of these strictures and the dictionary definition of the word. When we were encouraged to consider where we find refuge and where we don’t, I really didn’t know where to begin. A lovely Buddhist teacher couple whose daylong retreat I attended in November came to mind — they had asked us to find a place in our experience or memory that we could turn to when times were difficult. I have good, safe memories, but none that stood out as worthy of developing or grasping, and isn’t the point to be good with where we’re at?

So now I was being asked to look at my places of refuge again. Have I completely misunderstood Buddhism? or are we, mere mortals, being invited to indulge in stopgap measures while we float in the moat outside of enlightenment?

I eventually listened to the talks we were assigned (usually a good idea) and realized I was more aligned than I had thought. The idea was not to find more places to take refuge, but to recognize the ways in which we try to find safety in helpful, impermanent, silly, or even destructive things. I have plenty. Here are some choice ones:

  • food – a constant battle: eating out of boredom, depression
  • filler noise – podcasts while I do repetitive, mindless work
    • What’s the harm there, you might say? Well, one, that I stay in a job in which I am regularly bored; and, two, there is ample evidence that when humans try to distract themselves from unpleasant tasks, they always feel worse, not better: the task is more demoralizing the less you engage with it. This also gels with Buddhist beliefs
  • drama – there’s been plenty of that at work lately, and I can feel myself being energized, maybe made frantic, by it. The drama is destructive. It is causing real practical and emotional harm to many people, and I don’t like that, but I do like how it makes me feel. I am not bipolar, but I have so much sympathy for folks who don’t want to give up the mania in order to mitigate the depression. It’s enlivening.
    • I used to feel this way about anger – what is more invigorating than anger? – but I couldn’t handle the hangover. I couldn’t control it, so it controlled me. It was so destructive that I couldn’t help but recognize the harm it was doing and to loathe the feeling it generates in me. But I still like drama.
  • sleep – not a bad thing, but in winter I can prioritize sleep and just lying in bed over pretty much anything, if I let myself
  • reading – again, not bad in isolation, but as a substitute for doing things that need to be done it’s still an issue
  • gossip – I don’t think of myself as a big gossip, but it’s been tied up with the drama at work. If only we got the same thrill in praising others as we do in talking shit about them…
  • exercise and cleaning are both immensely beneficial to my wellbeing; I don’t know how I’d get through winter without them. I suppose they only become a false refuge if used as a substitute for facing up to truth. I believe even meditation and retreats can be false refuges if done for any reason other than awakening. There’s a New Yorker cartoon I saw long before I started meditating that still sticks with me: a man meditates, looking peaceful, while a closet bulges off the hinges behind him. I couldn’t find that one, but there’s some gooood meditation comedy out there. Here’s one (courtesy of Ginny Hogan & Jason Chatfield).

I have certainly used sitting to avoid one thing or another. One challenge for me is distinguishing a false, harmful refuge from a simple, mostly harmless, or even beneficial, distraction. If I sit now instead of doing that work thing, won’t I approach working more mindfully? Eventually? If exercise staves off depression, doesn’t that help me update my resume? Someday?

The truth is, I’ve been doing this for long enough to know when something I’m doing is avoidance disguised as meaningful action. I may not know why. I may not be able to stop it. But I can feel it when I’m efforting all around the problem and pushing life further down the road. Ugh. Consciousness is hard.

Even harder is forgiving yourself and letting your fuckups just be. The oxymoron is almost as confounding as the belief of the Socially Engaged Buddhist: nothing to do in a world that is fine just as it is, and everything to do in a world of prevalent injustice.

I haven’t committed to this intensive practice period as much as I would have liked – there are so many things going on this time of year, and so many things going on in parts of my life, that I’ve only gone a wee bit beyond upping my daily meditation time. But it still helps. It helps me deal with the demands for attention and the temptations and the cold and the sadness for the people in the cold. I’m grateful for all of it. And for all of you who let me write about it. This blog is definitely a refuge for me.

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