The world is very noisy right now, and there is a growing discourse of intolerance. Many people are feeling afraid, threatened, and overwhelmed. The echoes of the US election and its aftermath are reverberating around the planet, reminding us of dark and ugly times that took place not so long ago, and that seem to be returning. Politicians in high office are espousing fascist and white supremacist notions that have been disallowed in public conversation in democracies for many decades.
Many of us heard family stories growing up, and have had adult experience of the types of prejudice that presage persecution when the world goes dark. We may also carry memories of persecution in our DNA. None of us, however privileged, is immune to the terrors of tyranny.
The serious press is trying to do its job in informing us, but in so doing, also spreads fear. Activism is really important, and we are all called in times of trial to play our part. But even so, every now and then, to protect psyche and heart, we have to close it all out. This is a form of taking refuge.
When life gets tough, when the outside world is either literally or symbolically hurting us, when our inner selves are too upset or fragile to face the world, when we know we need to restore ourselves before the next stage — we take refuge.
The dictionary definition of refuge is “shelter or protection from danger or distress.” The word comes from the Old French refuge which meant “hiding place” (12th century), which in turn comes from the Latin refugium meaning “a taking refuge; place to flee back to”. (http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=refuge)
When we take refuge, we are temporarily a refugee from the outer world. Given the horrors of the refugee crisis today, it seems a ludicrous and heartless privilege to use the same word in a self-nurturing context. But there is merit in understanding that all of us are refugees at one time or another, in one way or another. There is no us and them. Even those of us fortunate enough right now to have a home and sense of security in a national identity (even if conflicted) need to take refuge, to flee the world for even an hour or two. We are lucky if we can do so in a way that is nourishing and not traumatic.
All the religions have their concepts of refuge, and spiritual leaders and deities are seen as refuge hosts. In Buddhism, refuge is a central concept, and the original initiation/commitment is called “taking refuge”. From that point on you accept and are given lifelong refuge in the Buddha (symbol of individual wisdom and compassion), the Sangha (symbol of community wisdom and compassion) and the Dharma (symbol of collective spiritual wisdom and compassion).
If you don’t espouse any religion, you can take refuge in a humanistic way, by relaxing into silence, into nature, into the goodness of your own heart, into your knowledge of the goodness of others’ hearts, and the power of our collective understanding and experience. Think of and visualise a panoply of venerable elders and wonderful people, all the wise and creative humans who have lived before us, and those bright lights whom you know today. Focus on that depth of humanity.
For anyone, at any time, religious or not, refuge is always an option. If life feels like it is just too much, just take a little time to go within, to foster quiet and peace, to let your nervous system properly relax.
For women who menstruate, your period is the ideal time to take refuge. For everyone else, the New Moon is the traditional time for closing out the outside world and dwelling within. In times of trial, any time is a good time.
All you need is a safe space where you can shut out disturbance. Maybe you’d like to light a candle, wrap yourself in a blanket, have a cup of tea by your side. Then just sit, and rest within. We all have inner knowing. Silence and stillness foster and grow that inner wisdom. This is a simple and amazingly restorative practice. Doing it on a regular basis builds inner strength.
And remember, what we take refuge in is also what we become.