Category Archives: benefits

Taking Refuge

I continue to read Buddha’s Brain by Rick Hanson, and I really appreciate learning the scientific findings of the value of meditation, how it “increases gray matter in the brain regions that handle attention, compassion and empathy.” He says that reports show that “It also helps a variety of medical conditions, strengthens the immune system, and improves psychological functioning.” This has certainly been my experience, and the experience of so many regular meditators I know, but it is fascinating to see the science of it. When I think of how often I was sick as a child and a young adult before I took up meditation, and how strong my immune system is now, according to recent blood work, I have to believe that meditation is a key reason. One of my students, upon hearing that I haven’t had a cold or flu in years said, “Just wait ‘til your granddaughter’s in day care!” She’s right. The health benefits of meditation will be put to the ultimate test!

Back in the 1980’s when I was an ad exec, I remember telling myself I was ‘too busy’ to do any meditative practice, even though I knew full well how nourishing the practice was for me. After a while I got so ill with chronic fatigue immune dysfunction syndrome that I had to quit my job and be flat on my back for the better part of the day for nine months! Who’s too busy now? I had to quit my job and one of the things I still could do was meditate. So I had myself a very deep and extended personal ‘retreat.’ I was very fortunate to have the practice in my life again, for I healed from this usually chronic and life long condition in record time. I’ll never know what part of my treatment effected the cure, but I know that my inner journey at the very least made me available for healing. Now reading the scientific finds, I can allow myself to give the meditation even more of the credit for my well being. And the inner journey resulted in the book Tapping the Wisdom Within, A Guide to Joyous Living.

There was a week in 2007 when we were buying our casa in Mexico and running around stressing out, feeling very deadline-driven, trying to get the house sufficiently furnished with diminishing funds before our return flight to the US, so we could rent it out, when I was suddenly stricken and bed-bound with a strange dizzy disease. Again, I had had ‘no time’ to meditate! So maybe the illness was just a note to self to slow down and return to regular meditation practice.

While I feel perfectly healthy right now, and have a strong meditation practice in place after being less consistent during our recent stay in Mexico, I am noticing that I have been feeling an incredible amount of physical pressure as I work towards deadlines on taxes and other projects. Sitting with it I notice that it feels like I am being ground and put into sausage casings! Ugh! But what a useful thing to notice. Another note to self.

So it was very helpful to me to come upon Rick Hanson’s mention of the Three Refuges. I realized that I have not addressed them in any dharma talk but they are so important!

They are important to me right now as I go through not just tax time but a period of transitioning back into the American way of life after the easy flow of Mexican living, and trying to be fully present at this time of holding great joy at the birth of my granddaughter and some worry at the same time as a close family member is scheduled for surgery.

When we are skillful enough to be able to hold both extremes of our current experience in an open hearted balance, the result is Upekka, the fourth of the Four Brahmaviharas, the heavenly abodes that are the precious gifts of the practice of meditation.

But what does ‘skillful’ mean? It means that instead of grasping at the joy and pushing away or avoiding thinking about the fear, we are simply aware of them, aware of the effects of them in our lives, our bodies, our thoughts and emotions. Skillfulness is making room for them to exist in our experience without over-dramatizing them, discounting them, getting lost in them, or using them as leverage to catapult some inappropriate behavior out into the world. Instead, through meditation, we create an interior spaciousness for all of our experience to be noticed and acknowledged. This is skillfulness.

When we do feel overwhelmed by what arises, we are encouraged to take refuge.

A person without the benefit of meditative awareness training might be more likely to take ‘refuge’ in things that lead away from mindfulness and potentially become addictive. Typical examples of this are going to extremes with eating, drinking, drugs, gambling, escapist books, computer games or chats, movies, television, computer, exercise, work, shopping, socializing, etc. When we pursue these extreme routes we literally lose ourselves in them, and thus we feel a temporary sense of relief from whatever is bothering us, whatever fear we are trying to avoid. But the route itself creates even more problems and doesn’t allow us to deal with and heal from the experience we are so desperately trying to avoid.

The Buddha advised taking refuge within the experience itself. It may seem counter-intuitive, but being with the experience is the most powerful healing tool we have. But how do we stay present with the experience if it is so painful? How do we cope with this sense of being overwhelmed or not in the driver’s seat of our lives?

We take refuge. Real refuge.

How I experience this in my body is easier to demonstrate than to describe. But I’ll try: Imagine a normal stance. Then imagine that you see a great weight coming your way that you will have to receive and carry. How do you adjust your stance? Well, a skillful adjustment would be to have a solid footing, then let your knees flex, your hips drop a bit, so your whole stance deepens, so that your arms rise up from your core when they open to receive and carry this extra weight. There is also an alert presence to changing conditions.

This is a good way to think about how we cope with emotional weight as well. A solid footing, greater flexibility, a deepening, and working from the core, and staying fully present for our experience.

The Three Refuges don’t talk about stance, but you can see how they too provide a solid footing, flexibility, deepening and staying present with the core of our experience. Perhaps you’ll see that too as we discuss them. Perhaps not. But here they are:

First we take refuge in the Buddha. We take refuge in the historical Buddha’s generosity of spirit, thinking upon how he shared his wisdom freely for forty years as a dedicated teacher. We take refuge in knowing about the struggles he went through, allowing ourselves to be inspired by his dedication to liberate himself and all beings from suffering. We take refuge in the fact that for over 2500 years in this tradition, and in many other traditions as well, there have been other awakened beings, and many practitioners and teachers from whom we can draw strength and inspiration.

We take refuge in the faith that, given all who have trod this path before us, we too have the seed of Buddha nature within us, the potential to wake up to this moment in every moment, if only we set our intention to be available for it’s wisdom to inform us. This is taking refuge in the Buddha.

Secondly we take refuge in the Dharma. Dharma is the Sanskrit word that means ‘truth’ or ‘the teachings.’ (In Pali it is dhamma, and even though the Theravada tradition is based in the Pali language, dharma is often used because it was introduced to the West earlier and it stuck, so either one is acceptable.)

Dharma is the recognition that suffering exists in the world, and in ourselves — the First Noble Truth.

It is the recognition that the cause of suffering is our grasping and pushing away — the Second Noble Truth.

It is the recognition that while pain is unavoidable, it is possible to not amplify the pain by the suffering we cause ourselves and others through our unskillfulness — the Third Noble Truth.

And it is recognizing that the path to skillfulness in overcoming suffering is The Eightfold Path: Right (or Wise) View, Intention, Mindfulness, Concentration, Effort, Action, Speech and Livelihood — the Fourth Noble Truth.

These Four Noble Truths form a solid foundation of Buddhist teachings. We take refuge in this solid foundation for our own exploration of the truth for ourselves in each moment.

Third, we take refuge in the Sangha. Sangha is the pali word for the community of meditation practitioners whose presence helps us to stay on the path, whose wisdom and insights in their own lives helps us to see more clearly when we are suffering or unskillfully trying to escape from the pain in our lives. Like the network of roots in a redwood grove, the sangha supports us all, allowing us to be flexible and resilient.

The Three Refuges are also called the Triple Gem or the Pali word tisarana.

At the beginning of each Buddhist retreat, the assembled retreatants together take these Three Refuges, in a chant. To see the chant, click here.

But we don’t have to be on retreat, the refuges are available to each of us in every moment, and it was so nice to be reminded as I was reading Buddha’s Brain, that this might be a time for me to take refuge.

If the Pali or Sanskrit words don’t resonate for you, or the Buddha isn’t your cuppa, it’s worth taking a little time to determine first of all, the inspirational figure whose wisdom and values you aspire to. This is not in order to be like them, but to notice and strengthen the resonant qualities in yourself through recognition and appreciation.

Accessing the dharma is to tap into the universal wisdom from which the dharma springs. During my almost year-long period of illness back in the early 1990’s, I meditated so intensively that I accessed this universal source of wisdom, through my own quirky lens, and chronicled it in my book long before beginning to study Buddhism.

So it’s not that Buddhism has the corner on the wisdom market. It’s just that it expresses it with such clarity, and has transmitted these teachings through millennia with great success at retaining the original message and inspiring us to look within rather than requiring us to trust blindly in the findings of others.

In different cultures this will take on different forms of expression, but there will be an underlying clarity of truth that brings forth compassion for ourselves and others, a sense of interconnection so that we know that we are not alone in the world, and how that brings both comfort and responsibility, and a willingness to be with whatever arises in the moment with an open heart.

So find the words of wisdom that speak most clearly to you.
Whatever teachings resonate truth for you, work with them in a state of curiosity. Question ‘Is this true?” and sit with the answer. Insight meditation is this active openness to exploration. It is this continual opening and exploring that keeps spiritual life alive. To simply memorize and spout words is not taking them in in a meaningful way. Certainly there are religious personages throughout history who insist that dogma be force-fed and taken on their word alone, but this is not the tradition that the Buddha taught. He taught his own findings along with the means for each of us to find out the truth for ourselves. His way was to empower each of us to find our way, rather than use his knowledge as power over others.

The third refuge, the Sangha, is the people in our lives who support our practice and our spiritual well being. It’s worthwhile to consider who those people are, so that when we are feeling overwhelmed and less able to make such considerations, we will have a ready idea of whom we might call upon to be a refuge in time of need.

When we ourselves are feeling overwhelmed is not the time to spend with those whose energy depletes us. When we are feeling more in balance, we can be there for them, of course. But for now, we send them metta, loving kindness, but take refuge in company that nourishes us.

I have heard it said that taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha is the only requirement to be a Buddhist. And although we’re not about ‘being’ Buddhists, but about studying Buddhist concepts and practicing Buddhist techniques for awakening, we can still see that this act of taking refuge is a valuable one, whatever words we use.

Freed from the Fortress

We have been looking at the freedom that rises out of the regular practice of meditation. These are not things we have to strive for or changes that we need to make in ourselves. These are the naturally arising benefits of spending say, a half hour each day in meditation. I mention all these freedoms not as commodities to be acquired or goals to be reached, but as gifts that you might notice receiving as you continue to practice.

We each receive these gifts in different orders, in different ways, to varying degrees, and there are probably many gifts that I cannot tell you about, because they are not my experience. All Buddhist teachings come from the direct personal experience of its teachers. There is an established framework of concepts and terms to help interpret the experience, but there must be the experience. It is through this encouragement of direct experience that Buddhism has stayed a living teaching rather than desiccated dogma. It’s like sourdough bread making. Buddha provided the initial starter, but each of us adds our own flour, our own practice and intention, to make the dharma dough fresh each day.

The Buddha ended his dharma talks by saying, “Don’t believe me. Go find out for yourself if this is true.” And every Buddhist teacher’s greatest hope is that students will question the ideas proposed in dharma talks, take them out into the world for a test drive, take them into their own lives, their own experience, their own hearts, and ask “Is this true?”

Teachers speaking from direct experience end up sharing their lives in anecdotes as grist for the mill of sharing the dharma. And the freedom I share with you today is certainly the one that is most intimate to me and that has probably made the biggest difference in my relationships with others. It is the story of being freed from the fortress of my defensiveness.

When we were first married forty years ago this week, Will told me I was the most defensive person he had ever met. It seemed that he couldn’t say anything without me bristling with hurt feelings.

It is hard for me to imagine now, yet I know it was true. If you had asked me about my childhood memories back then, I would recount every experience where my feelings had been hurt, where I had been humiliated, slighted or made to feel stupid.

I remember being teased, and it is easy to see in retrospect how I used all these experiences as building blocks for the fortress. Every comment that anyone made, no matter how benign or light-hearted or even loving, I took in and interpreted through complex filters that turned everything into slights, criticisms, or name calling that somehow made me wrong, stupid, naïve or ugly. Then every time someone DIDN’T say something, I would interpret that negatively as well. For me at that time, silence was not golden, it was leaden and toxic.

Thus experienced, it’s not surprising that my relationships with others were difficult. To befriend me was to walk through a mine field and try not set off any of the millions of land mines I had planted as tests of your love for me. Agh! That anyone bothered is amazing to me now.

How fortunate that I came upon meditation when I was still relatively young, in my twenties. And how surprised I was to suddenly see that fortress for what it was, and to watch as it crumbled away with regular meditative practice. Over the course of years as I continue to meditate, I still on occasion find more leftover bits of the fortress, lone walls standing with no foundation or purpose, but still sending little messages into my system that might, if I’m not noticing, prompt a habitual reaction. My awareness of them lets them disintegrate, at least for now. These walls are leftover unquestioned assumptions that, under the light of insight, can’t justify their existence. As long as I keep the light of insight shining, this freedom from defensiveness is a gift to myself and all around me. (Trust me!)

So what is it that actually happened to me? What is it that happens to meditators in general? Why does a simple practice of meditation produce such radical changes in our psyches? Scientific studies show some of the physiological changes that happen with meditation, including the raised levels of gamma waves. Studies show that during meditation, a flux in blood flow and activity excites certain neurons. The act of maintaining attention sustains activity in designated regions. The brain’s grey matter begins to grow, actually changing its physiological shape.

Of course scientists can’t put a value on whether this change is for the better. But as meditators, we know the value from our own felt experience of living our lives with the benefits of meditation.

Now, I didn’t know about the physiological aspects of any of this, but I suspected there was a chemical component. When I lived in San Francisco’s HaightAshbury in 1966, not surprisingly I had a few chemically-induced psychedelic experiences. I called my experience ‘losing my ego.’ In sharp contrast to my normal life as a typical disgruntled, critical, judgmental adolescent, suddenly I was simply delighted to be alive and engaged in the senses. I recognized the gift of life, the humor, the beauty, the complexity and the simplicity. In that state, I seemed to have none of the bristly, defensive qualities that usually plagued me.

But even as great as it was, at some point I would turn to a friend and say, “Remind me not to do this again.” I could feel the extreme and unnatural strain on my body, suddenly flooded with an overload of mind-altering chemicals.

A pivotal point for me was one ‘trip’ when I had a vision of a mountain with many paths going up it. Some of the paths were vertical, some gently switch backing up the mountain. Some were rocky, some lush — all different, but all eventually went to the top of the mountain. I observed people on these paths, earnestly plodding, one footstep after the other. It looked boring, and I noticed that I was already at the height of the top of the mountain, already experiencing what they were seeking. But then I noticed that they were on solid ground and I was in a balloon that was deflating and descending. I may have been experiencing the benefits of this heightened perspective where I could see the wholeness of life, the interconnection and rejoice in that awareness, but I was losing altitude rapidly. There was no way I could sustain my mountain top experience. I realized the only thing to do was to set the intention to climb the mountain myself.

So I have been climbing the mountain ever since, first on a path fueled by an eclectic variety of teachers and books, then for a while with Dances of Universal Peace, then a more intensive period of group and independent meditation that resulted in my book Tapping the Wisdom Within, and for the past couple of decades I have been plodding along on the Buddhist path. I have found it to be a path that is well-traveled over the past 2500 years, but always fresh, not worn out. I travel in silence but feel surrounded by a loving and supportive sangha (community) of practitioners, with teachers who, if I get lost, shine a light on the path so I can find my way again.

Do I feel the way I did when I was tripping? Sometimes. One time on a retreat I even had some of the visual effects I remember while walking in the woods, not the patterning but the luminosity of life shining so brilliantly, even in the shadows; that same day I remember hearing a symphony in the clattering sounds of utensils on dishes and chairs scraping in the dining hall. On my most recent retreat I became intensely aware of the mystery of all that is, how so much is hidden, and it’s absolutely okay. I relaxed into the delights of the don’t know mind.

But these experiences are so much better than those brief trips from back in the day, because these are naturally arising rather than ingested, and my body is comfortable, wholesome and cared for. Even when I don’t have that same intense experience, I feel the awareness, the clarity and the sense of connection. In my daily life this has become a constant presence, this feeling of being very present. I can trust in these gifts of joyous awareness as long as I continue to meditate on a daily basis. I am on the mountain path, and it hasn’t been boring at all!

Thanks to dedicated meditation practice, I no longer see myself as the object of others perceptions but as the universal life force expressing itself through this perspective from this particular point in space and time. When I do think of myself as a unique and separate being, I feel compassion for my humanness as I would for any other unique and separate being I know or see in the world. I am more in touch with my child self than before, and therefore more in touch with creativity, fresh eyes, carefree laughter and pure pleasure.

The fortress of my defensiveness has crumbled, for there is nothing left to defend. Instead there are all these universally shared experiences and traits to be curious about, and the shared joys and challenges of this human experience. The fear of being judged seems to have fallen away. I admit I have not been put to any real test. I am surrounded by the kindest of family members, friends and colleagues who have no intention to harm me. But I subject my creative work to critique, my speeches to evaluation, and my commercial writing and design work to committee, so I have many opportunities to get my feelings hurt or receive confirmation of any negative belief I might hold about my lack of ability. Now if people love something I do, I thank them but don’t feel the same kind of relief I used to feel. When people have negative comments, I appreciate their interest, their creative assessment, and consider their comments seriously, but don’t feel they have attacked me in any way. What a difference! Now I have a sense of collaborating to increase clarity and connection through these various forms of expression. Much more fun!

Being freed from the fortress of my defensiveness is a sweet surrendering of all that had seemed so vitally important for my own survival. I thought I had to be smart, pretty, clever, talented, skillful, savvy, knowledgeable, etc. in order to be acceptable. In order to be loved. What a set up for misery that was! I didn’t stop to notice that what I loved about people, the traits I found most endearing, were often the least ‘perfect’ aspects, and certainly the least striving.

Freed from the fortress of my defensiveness, I am happier, safer, more supported and enriched. I am acceptable in my imperfection. I am fine with saying “I don’t have a clue!” I am fine with being totally uncool. Because cool or uncool, in this moment I am free.