Taking Refuge, Taking Responsibility

Two weeks ago we talked about taking refuge and how refuge is not a place to escape to but a relationship, a way of being supported by the inspiration of the Buddha and the discovery of our own Buddha nature; supported by the dharma, both the teachings and the wisdom we find in nature; and supported by the sangha, the community of meditation practitioners who too are taking refuge in this way.

Last week in class I was asked to talk more about what the sangha is. Simply put it is the group of people who share the intention to be present and compassionate. A sangha is not like a group of friends. If someone cries the sangha holds the space for that person to fully experience their feelings without anyone rushing in to comfort them, make it better or make it go away. Instead the person feels the sangha’s complete acceptance of their tears. They really get it that there is room for all of who they are and all of what they feel in the web of support the sangha provides. On a retreat after a few days of sitting in silence you might begin to hear sobbing. This is not because the retreatant is having a miserable time but because they feel the emotional release of sitting in silence and they feel the support of the sangha to help them face whatever they are dealing with in their thoughts and emotions. They can spend time safely coming face to face with the thing that all the distractions in their lives have kept them from facing. It is a very rich sharing when someone breaks down and cries, especially when a man does, as that is so discouraged in our culture. The sangha honors and supports the deep practice of each member, so when we take refuge in it, we feel held but not coddled, interconnected but not necessarily interactive.

When we take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, if we recognize that it is a relationship instead of an escape then we understand that, like any relationship, there is not just refuge but responsibility, if that relationship is going to thrive.

So, we take responsibility for our relationship with our Buddha nature, vowing to nurture and honor it.

We take responsibility for our relationship with the Dharma, vowing to honor the teachings and not manipulate them for our own agenda. And we take responsibility for holding all dharma up to the light of inquiry, not accepting everything we hear or what we have come to believe without question.

We take responsibility for our relationship with the Sangha, vowing to support our sangha sibling in their practice and to honor their privacy by not sharing what they have disclosed in our circle with others. Thus we develop a practice of trustworthiness that is valuable in all our relationships.

Let’s explore this word ‘responsibility’ a little more. Taking responsibility in life sounds straightforward, but it’s amazing how quickly we get out of balance, taking too much responsibility or taking too little and not knowing how we got so turned around.
First we need to let go of the idea that all the responsibility lies elsewhere, that we are hapless flotsam being tossed about on a sea of causes and conditions. We need to recognize that on this sea of causes and conditions we have a boat and we have a sail, oars, a motor, a rudder, a bucket, a compass and more. These are not things that can fall overboard, but they are things we may not realize we have on board. So part of our practice is to recognize all the means we have to cope with whatever causes and conditions arise. This recognition helps us to take responsibility for our own happiness and our own well being.

Circumstances exist. It’s no use to pretend they don’t. Yes, we have a boat but nothing on the boat will change the weather. We have the means to change our relationship to the weather, to the storm, to the choppy waves, to whatever arises.

We are born into a life with certain circumstances, rarely ideal, and even when ideal, we learn that life can change on a dime. Plans we made may no longer be viable due a change in conditions. Taking responsibility includes acknowledging the truth of the situation and the ramifications that arise, just as the sea goes from calm to full of white caps to a raging storm. Then the storm quiets down and the sun comes out and we’re still here.

What if the circumstances in our life seem to preclude the possibility of our living the life we want to live? We have the means to explore this assumption. We have inquiry: Is this true? How do I know this is true?

We have noticing: We see not just the circumstances but our own set of skills, connections, strength and patience. Taking responsibility for our own life experience doesn’t mean forging ahead without regard to conditions. It means working with all that is arising in this moment. Being able to release our attachment to the way we planned to go. Exploring work-arounds to see what really is possible is one way of taking responsibility. So is letting go of our addiction to living in the future, some distant destination always beyond the horizon, and finding joy right here, right now.

We have self awareness: If we feel like a big ship, weighted down with a lot of freight, what’s that about? If making a decision to deal with changing conditions is wrought with difficulty, perhaps we are carrying around too much weight in the form of stories we tell ourselves about our place in the world. Can we develop the flexibility of a small boat?

And we have compassion: Our boat can rock, but we can experience it as a cradle, being held in the supportive web of life. And we can see that we are not alone on these seas, and we can share compassion and feel compassion from others in our midst.

Through the practice of compassion, self-awareness, noticing and inquiry we create for ourselves a small sea-worthy vessel. We are able to navigate our way through causes and conditions. Our practice of meditation gives us the clarity to see through the fog and the storms.

If it doesn’t feel that way, if that sounds like wishful thinking, let’s explore why. Are we at the helm of our vessel? Or do we imagine someone else in charge? And if so who? Why do we believe that to be true? The actions of others do have an impact on us, but if they are crashing into us, then that action is just another cause and condition to be weathered.

Here’s a traditional boat story that is appropriate here:

A man is rowing his own boat, minding his own business, and he sees another boat coming toward him. It’s foggy and he can’t see the person steering the boat, but it’s clear the boat is going to hit his, so he calls out. But the boat keeps coming at him. So he calls out louder, this time more aggressively, fueled by his fear that the boat might hit him and his future thinking of all the harm and hassle that might entail. But the boat keeps coming! Well now he’s really angry! This other boater is clearly ignoring him and is purposely attacking him. So he yells curses and uses his oar not just to fend off the approaching boat to keep himself safe but to clobber the stupid expletive deleted at the helm.

Only then is he able to see that the other boat is empty. Suddenly all his feelings change. He has no hard feelings about a boat floating aimlessly. He doesn’t think it is out to attack him. He just pushes it away and sets back to rowing his boat.

So what does that story tell us? Why do we respond so differently to causes and conditions when we think another person’s volition is involved? Why do we let the actions of another so throw us off course? We can see how we do this in our lives. How angry we get at other drivers on the road if we think we have been disrespected. If we realize that these unskillful actions we see on the road and elsewhere in life are the result of mindlessness – that the person is absent from this moment, their mind somewhere else – then how is that really different from an empty boat? Scary to think about how many empty boats are floating about, but when we understand that to be the case, we can take responsibility to be really present and mindful, to be able to navigate these added conditions.

Now, back to who is at the helm of our own vessel. If we see someone else at the helm, then we are not in touch with our own Buddha nature. We are perhaps reacting out of emotional longing for safety, but it actually makes us less safe. Putting someone else at the helm of our own boat is making ourselves captive rather than captain. Coming into the relationship with our Buddha nature allows us to take the helm of our own lives. Our Buddha nature is our refuge and it’s our responsibility to awaken and cultivate our relationship with this deep, connected inner wisdom that is our birth right.

If our vessel feels unstable, as if it will turn over in a big wave, then we need to add ballast in the form of meditation practice. If we are already doing a regular practice, perhaps a refinement in our understanding of what meditation practice means is in order. Perhaps our practice is taking us off into dreamland or spacy-ness instead of into a deep and abiding awareness of the present moment. This ability to stay with physical sensation – the breath, for example – is not a journey to lofty heights of forgetting where we are, but a door into the fullness of each moment, replete with gratitude for this gift of life in all its variations, the ability to feel connection to all of life as it is. This adds ballast that keeps our vessel steady. Fantasy is lovely but has no staying power. And we can’t navigate our vessel from up in the clouds.

We set our intention to be present and compassionate and we let that intention guide us like a rudder through the challenging waters of our meditation and our life. That is taking responsibility.

Sometimes we may find we are trying to navigate someone else’s vessel. As parents our children’s smaller vessels are tied to ours. The other day we were walking along the shore in Tiburon and saw a motor boat pulling nine little dinghies in a row. It was like a mother duck being followed by her ducklings. A great image! But at some point our children are ready to take charge of their own vessels, and we rejoice in their independence.

As adults with no dependent children, we need to acknowledge that we have responsibility for only one vessel: our own. Whether we are married or not, our vessel is our vessel, no one else’s. And our spouse’s is not ours to steer, no matter how closely we travel together. So this is a very important thing to notice about how we are taking responsibility in our lives. Where are we out of balance? It’s quite common to take too little responsibility for our own vessel, possibly not even recognizing that we have a vessel, and/or too much responsibility for steering the vessels of others.

This vessel analogy has some similarity with the analogy of accepting our seat at the table and having table manners. Work with whichever one feels most compelling for you.

We might say this is a boundaries issue, and it certainly is. But notice that when we talk about vessels, it becomes quite clear where the boundaries are. We don’t want to fall into the water as we lean over to steer another’s boat!

But what if someone we care about is steering their vessel into harm’s way? Are they going the ‘wrong’ way or just not our way? That’s an important question to ask ourselves. Most times we see they are headed for stormy or choppy waters and we want to keep them in calm seas. But learning to navigate in all conditions is part of developing a sea worthy vessel in life. Certainly sailor to sailor conversations are useful, but there are strict rules at sea about asking permission to come aboard. Remember that the only ones that board another’s ship without permission are pirates! Is that the role we want to play in the lives of those we care about? Of course not! And while we’re on board, who’s minding the tiller of our own vessel?

So we take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, and we take responsibility for our relationship with these three refuges as well. Whether we feel adrift, becalmed or about to be engulfed in a big wave, we have the means to navigate all the causes and conditions of our lives.

Let me know your thoughts on this.

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