Whether we realise it or not, we are all relying on some sort of refuge in times of need. Some people are lucky to have understanding and supportive partners who are good at listening and giving advice when prompted. Others prefer processing troubles internally rather than bringing them up. Both types of people still have to face their demons at night. Anxiety, fear, helplessness, grief tend to turn up late, like unwanted guests, and overstay their welcome. Some people deal with anxiety by playing the piano; others go for a run to subdue their anger. Some combat stress with food, others - with drink.
I recently discovered that Buddhist teachings recognise the human need for a spiritual refuge. No matter how strong and self-reliant you are, you need help to carry your burden. While a packet of dark chocolate ginger biscuits may alleviate my stress about a work project, its effects are temporary and ultimately false. Buddhists teach about a “true refuge” - something genuinely nourishing and permanent. It is surprisingly relevant even thousands of years later.
“True refuge” is found in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Let me explain.
Buddha means religion, spirituality and personal growth. It doesn’t matter if you are religious or a die-hard atheist because “awakening” is entirely possible in secular context. It’s just about recognising that old age won’t translate into wisdom if you aren’t prepared to invest in some personal development.
Dharma means Buddhist teachings. Once again, it’s about education and truth. A medical diagnosis may be overwhelmingly distressing until you do some research and find out the necessary facts to help you deal with the situation more rationally. In the post-truth world getting to the bottom of the story is more important than ever. Understanding the problem helps to tackle it because it is then possible to break it into more manageable tasks.
Sangha are Buddha’s disciples. In modern context, it’s any wise and compassionate friend you can turn to for support. Some people have a knack of saying the right thing at the time of need which helps to soothe the inflamed mind.
This trinity - Buddha, Dharma and Sangha - won’t bring back the loved one or undo the disaster but it will restore the peace of mind, which is imperative if you want to move on.
I learned about the “true refuge" at a London Insight workshop I recently attended in North London. I came to realise that I have found my "true refuge" in meditation. I was first recommended to try meditation via an app called Headspace back in 2011 (and I still use it today). I found it helpful at once: when someone at work pissed me off, I was able to “switch off” for 10 minutes listening to a guided meditation and calm down. Sadly, I didn’t begin a regular practice until late 2013 because I didn’t feel I had the time. In May 2013 I was diagnosed with M.E., a debilitating condition causing disproportionately severe fatigue after physical exercise, mental work or emotional feat. It’s like a smartphone which runs out of charge too quickly and often unexpectedly. I then realised that a 20-minute meditation helps me to re-charge and began meditating daily. For years I’ve been thinking of meditation as purely functional much like an afternoon nap, only without the added grogginess. But of course meditation is much more than that.
When we meditate, we focus our attention on one simple process or sensation like breathing. It is an exercise which means that when thoughts and feelings rush to disrupt that focus, we are (gently) guiding them away and keep our attention on the breath. As a result, after 10 or 20 minutes of meditation, we “wake up” with a less cluttered mind like a smartphone with only one running app. I feel immediately calmer and more energised after the meditation, but I also take refuge from unhelpful thoughts and feelings. Afterwards, the problems are still there, as is the pain and the grief and the sadness, but somehow the sharpness is gone and there is a sense of freedom, even if it is temporary. Importantly, I am beginning to see that after four years of daily practice, my mind seems to be able to deal with dramas life is so fond of showering us with - a little better.
The Buddhist meditation workshop I attended took place in a hall of a North London school. The walls of the hall were decorated with posters highlighting the students’ values, handwritten in acrylic. I read “kindness”, “tolerance” and “honesty”. I also spotted a word “resilience”. The school, we were told, offers meditation classes to its students. I think it is brilliant. Most of us have to learn resilience on the go when life chooses to surprise us. It would have helped to know that even the strongest need a refuge and it’s available to us all.