Category Archives: Triple Gem

The Lasting Value of a Meditation Retreat

Last week we talked about the Three Refuges, ‘The Triple Gem’ of the Buddha, the dharma and the sangha, or as Rick Hanson in his book Buddha’s Brain calls them: teacher, truth and community. I shared how on a Buddhist retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, the gathered retreatants ‘take refuge’ formally by repeating a call and response chant the first evening before going into silence for the course of the retreat.

On a retreat this sense of refuge is palpable. Physically we are in a land apart from the hustle and bustle of normal life. No crowded noisy streets, no driving, no television, no telephone, no radio, no computers, no music except perhaps some evening chanting. No shopping. No reading. No writing. Just our own bubble of experience within the calm of a community in silence.

We are on retreat not just from busy-ness of our regular lives but from social interaction as well. We neither speak nor have eye contact with one another. We don’t need to think of the right thing to say or smile at someone.

There are many courtesies within this silence, but they are done synchronistically, needing no involved interaction. The only exception is during some yogi jobs that require teamwork and during short group meetings with a teacher, just to check in and see how we are doing. There are yogi jobs that require no interaction, and most teachers will respect your silence if you wish to maintain it in meeting, as long as they can sense you are okay.

This silent spaciousness to simply be can feel lovely or scary at various times throughout the retreat. Non-interaction is especially freeing for those who are compulsive talkers and interactors. Sometimes it’s a difficult adjustment, but mostly it is a deep and rich release, all the more profound for the contrast.

While silence does not free us from any interior turmoil that might arise, it does give us a lot of space in which to notice it. It’s similar to the way the refrigerator’s hum is hardly noticeable during the day, but in the middle of the night its sound is amplified. On retreat there is a lot of time to sit and walk with whatever arises, and a lot of support to stay with the experience, regardless of whether it is pleasant or unpleasant.

Usually by the end of a retreat the mind is clearer, the heart is softer, and the body is healthier. Having taken refuge in this safe environment that demands so little of us except to sit, eat, walk and do a yogi job for less than an hour a day, we settle in to ourselves and gain greater insight into the nature of our existence in this body at this time.

Most likely, having had a powerful positive experience on retreat, we set our intention to carry that clarity of mind and openness of heart out into the world, to give ourselves sufficient time to really meditate, to eat slowly with great appreciation for all who contributed to the meal from the sunshine and seeds to the cashier at the market to the cook, and to walk in nature at a pace we can really see, hear, smell and feel connected to the natural world.

We set these intentions and maybe to a certain degree we can keep them. We might come home and establish a more consistent meditation practice if we didn’t already have one, or renew our dedication to our existing practice, having seen how valuable it is. And at least for a while hopefully we are able to carry over some of that deep rich interaction with the world around us that we had on the retreat.

But it would be most unusual to be able to sustain that deep inner calm and clarity for very long. Out in the world, back in the fray, we find ourselves mindlessly munching, chatting away on our cell phone, watching something we don’t care about on television, and walking or running right by the trees and the lizards who whispered all their secrets to us on retreat. Chances are we barely notice the song of the birds or the sound of the water, or even the feel of the ground under our feet.

So what was the point of going on a retreat? Was it just an escape with no sustained value?

For most of us the lasting value of the retreat is learning that we do indeed have the capacity to be present. If we have never been on retreat and if we find meditation challenging, then this inner discovery is crucial. Even though we may not be present in every moment of our lives, we now know that we can be present. We know what being present feels like. We have learned what elements help us to be present and on retreat we have had extended opportunity to practice them.

These helpful elements include:

  • Setting our intention to be present.
  • Slowing down.
  • Making space in our lives for a regular meditation practice.
  • Intensive concentration training that shows us how to be with whatever arises.
  • Wisdom teachings in whatever form we receive them best.
  • A community of supportive practitioners who remind us that being present is possible in every moment.

So what we take home with us, when we have broken our long silence, is the Three Refuges – the Buddha, the dharma and the sangha.

We take home the Buddha in the inspiration of the historical Buddha and his followers right down to our teachers sitting before us, exemplifying dedication to spiritual development, helping us to understand that we each have access to our own Buddha nature.

We take home the Dharma from the nightly talks when the teachers tell stories to demonstrate the dharma, drawing from their own life experiences, their own unskillfulness, their own mindless moments, for the benefit of their students; and from our group meetings with teachers and the answers they give us to our questions.

And we take home the Dharma from the teachings of the natural world as we walk or sit in silence, opening to its wisdom, its ready answers to any question that is rising up within us.

And often the sweetest of all, we take home the Sangha – the feeling of being supported by each other during the retreat, inspired by each other’s dedication to the practice, to staying with our experience even when it is difficult. This may sound odd since we are in silence and have no eye contact and are in our own little bubbles of protected space. But during the days of the retreat, as the silence, relaxation and safety sinks in to our beings, we increasingly feel our deep interconnection. We begin to understand how it’s possible for that flock of birds to move together as one being, turning in unison as they fly. We sangha members move not in perfect unison, but with spaciousness and natural courtesy that feels as if our personal bubble is an energy field, and we all sense the energy fields when they touch, so that our bodies don’t bump into each other. Which is good, because in silence you can’t say ‘excuse me.’ I remember when we were given an hour of practicing coming out of silence the night before the close of the last retreat I was on, and suddenly we were bumping into each other and saying ‘sorry, sorry’ all the time! As if silence was what had kept us in a cohesive sense of unity.

Afterwards, when the retreatants have gone to their homes all over the world, there is still this awareness that they are there, connected through this shared intention to practice being mindful in our lives.

And having felt the sweetness of the sangha on retreat, we find our sangha in the outer world. Though they didn’t sit beside us in the meditation hall, or across the table in the dining hall, or share a room with us in the dormitory, or walk back and forth beside us in the walking hall, still we know them to be our sangha sisters and brothers, sharing our intention to hold the world in an open embrace. We recognize them in their compassion, their supportive or inspirational energy, and their willingness to be present. A sangha is not a clique or a club that let’s you in under certain conditions or has the right to keep you out. It is, in its broadest sense, those people in your life who nourish you, who support you in your practice, even if they don’t know it.

So after a retreat, even after the serenity has lessened, we take home the three refuges. In our daily lives we are supported by them. They comfort us, inspire us and keep us as present as we can be in this moment. That is the long lasting gift of the retreat. And it is a gift not just to ourselves but to those around us. Taking this time for ourselves is an act of generosity to the world.

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.