Finding Refuge in the Mind—A Guided Meditation

small island with trees

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What do you do when you’re alone? When you’re scared, anxious, lonely, afraid, or feeling strong craving? In our guided meditation we explore the Buddhist view on refuge and how to find a deep source of strength and peace within our own minds.

[00:00:00] Scott Snibbe: This meditation is on the subject of refuge, where our mind turns to in times of fear, pain, desire, or aspiration, especially when we’re alone.

Some of the greatest challenges each of us face occur when we’re alone. So we first look at where we actually go for refuge and then where we might want to go for refuge. The goal of this meditation isn’t any kind of self-criticism, but the opposite, to come to a deep place of self-acceptance and positive growth.

So start out by focusing on the breath for a minute. Bring your body into a meditation posture. Relax your body. Close your eyes and bring your mind to your nostrils, with the air coming in and out, or your abdomen rising and falling.

If your mind strays away, just bring it back gently. Focus on your breath just for a minute.

And now think about what you do when you’re alone, scared, anxious, wound up, or afraid. When you feel strong craving or when you feel overwhelmed, what do you turn to? You don’t have to tell anyone your answer.

They say what you do when you’re alone reveals your character in a deep and profound way.

In Buddhism the term for the place we go when we’re challenged is ‘refuge,’ taking refuge. So another way of asking this question is, What’s your refuge?

Taking refuge in work

man working on many different computers

One place people find refuge is their work because they love it, because it’s meaningful, because they have to do it. Or it could be because it’s an escape or an addiction or a source of prestige or power. Think for a minute about whether you take refuge in work and if you do, why?

Of course, there’s nothing inherently harmful or beneficial about taking refuge in work. As Buddhism says about any activity, the motivation is what counts most.

When your motivation goes beyond yourself, beyond your ego—to the greater good of all—that is when you’re generally most at peace with your work.

When your work forms a seamless continuity with your better nature.

Taking refuge in entertainment

women watching tv retro style

Another form of refuge—maybe the dominant one in our culture today—is entertainment: music, social media, Netflix, YouTube, Kindle, The New York Times, or Fox News.

These can be ways of educating and expanding our minds, or just filling up our minds with external stimulation or even agitation.

There’s nothing wrong with entertainment, but think for a moment about the habit of lurching to the phone or computer when there’s a free moment, to fill that space with something interesting or funny.

This might deprive us of the pleasure of getting to know ourselves and our own minds. Becoming aware of what’s immediately around us for that moment and seeing what’s within ourselves, as we experience unfiltered reality, unmediated relationships.

To experience the joy of simply being alive and present to the world inside and around us.

So think about what draws you to entertainment for a moment, whether that’s your refuge, and how it satisfies you.

Taking refuge in sex

two people hugging in bed

Another powerful refuge is sex.

Do we move towards sex out of genuine closeness and connection or feelings of incompleteness, insecurity, escape, or addiction?

Think about the role of sex in your life—pornography, intimacy—and see what place it has in your sense of refuge.

We all have substances we take refuge in—coffee, chocolate, alcohol, marijuana—none of these are intrinsically helpful or harmful, but it’s worth observing our mind as we crave them, as we enjoy them.

They can be sources of pleasure and rituals of connection, but our brain can also trick us into thinking that more and more of these substances will bring us more and more pleasure.

Yet when you test out this hypothesis, it doesn’t turn out to be true.

When we’re able to wield self-control around substances, we feel good about ourselves. It’s nice to have the feeling of having a choice about what to do in life, that you’re not mindlessly driven by urges.

A teacher once shared with me the view that true freedom isn’t the freedom to do whatever you like. It’s the freedom from doing things—freedom from compulsive desire, not the freedom to infinitely indulge.

Taking refuge in exercise, adventure, and creativity

kayaking in lake

Exercise, adventure, and creative pursuits are refuges that have a lot in common with meditation. They’re ritualized activities that connect the body and mind, where you lose track of your worries and plans and become completely engrossed in whatever you’re doing.

When you combine them with mindfulness, a motivation to come closer to your good nature or to others, exercise, adventure, creativity can become full-fledged forms of meditation.

The Buddhist perspective that it’s not the activity itself, but the motivation, comes into play.

Exercise, art, and adventure can be competitive, ego driven—like anything else—or forms of a spiritual practice. So what role do these play in your life?

Taking refuge in relationships

two friends hugging

For most of us, friends and family are a key source of refuge, but it’s also possible just to waste time with people. And it’s possible to have people close to you who don’t have your best interests in mind.

What’s the role of friends and family in your life? When do you turn to them for refuge? What effect does it have in your mind?

Friends and family can be a great source of compassion and love and the greatest field there is for demonstrating our best qualities and expanding our hearts.

They say you become like the people you spend time with: your friends, your family, your bosses, and teachers.

Who do you admire?

greta thunberg smiling and speaking

So who gets our highest respect? There’s some people in the world more highly realized than us people like the Dalai Lama, Pope Francis, Wangari Maathi, Desmond Tutu, Anne Frank, Nelson Mandela, maybe even McKenzie Scott, Edward Snowden, and Greta Thunberg.

In your immediate life, they may be mothers or artists, teachers or inventors, nurses or caretakers, or spiritual teachers.

Think about this for a minute, whether it’s someone famous, not well-known, or someone from your everyday life. Who do you admire?

This brings us to the point of looking inward for refuge, looking inside ourselves for an always available source of respect, meaning, joy, and comfort. Rejoicing in all the good we do in the world and more deeply in our innate capacity for good, the healthiest roots of self-respect and well-being.

These good qualities are natural and adaptive to a human race that mostly lives in harmony, despite the way it looks on newspapers and TV. Living a wholesome, connected life comes naturally to us and it’s natural to our minds.

The mind’s deepest qualities are ease, openness, and joy. The only reason we stray from our good nature is out of bad habits, thoughtlessness, and external conditioning.

The fundamental goodness of our minds is an ever present source of refuge that requires no elaborate preparations, that’s free and always available.

The mind presents an inner refuge in its natural clarity and awareness: its openness, plasticity, changeability. Our mind is always changing, malleable, flexible, open to any possibility. So we can take refuge in the fact that we’re constantly changing, always capable of change.

By being mindful, aware, and purposeful in what we mentally cultivate and what we let go, we can harness that changeability to mold our minds, to become a source of joy, meaning, purpose, and good for ourselves and for others. Try that for a minute now, just watching the mind.

Finding your ‘home inside’

thich nhat hanh book how to love

In How to Love Thich Nhat Hanh says that happiness comes from what he calls ‘a home inside.’ This is found by accepting yourself, learning to love and heal yourself, learning how to practice mindfulness that creates moments of happiness and joy for your own nourishment, and by simply being present and aware.

Let’s take a moment now to get to know ourselves in that way.

It doesn’t mean pushing away our pain and suffering; it’s not denial.

When we come to know, accept, and understand our own pain, paradoxically through this process, we can find calm, stillness, and joy that underlies all mental experience—even loneliness, anxiety, and fear.

So try now and steer your mind inward, without wishing to change your mind in any way, allow thoughts to appear, but find some distance from these thoughts. Notice how you can observe your thoughts. You can watch them arise, watch them take center stage in your consciousness, and then watch them fade away.

Simply watch your thoughts—whatever they are—accept your feelings. There’s no need to push away any fear, any loneliness; just accept it, observe it. And as you do, see that your heart can open. Observing your thoughts as if they’re someone else’s can allow you to understand them better.

You may see the cause and effect that brought them to your consciousness and you may come to feel love and compassion for yourself, to better understand your own joys and pains.

With careful observation, you see that your mental states are impermanent, changeable.

Your mind has a constant capacity to transform and this is a natural source of strength.

Observing cause and effect in your thoughts

dominos falling

So let’s meditate like this for a minute, observe and accept our thoughts and feelings without judgment. See them intertwined within an endless web of cause and effect. See how your feelings don’t last, how they appear and change and disappear, and how the changeability itself is a comfort.

Even as you hurt the most, those feelings are already fading away or your excitement or desire fades back to contentment.

So do this now for a minute, just observe your thoughts and watch them change.

And now, with this distance from your thoughts, see that there is a deeper part of yourself that’s always there beneath the thoughts, that’s hard to put into words.

Steer your mind away from those grosser thoughts and feelings—craving, fear, loneliness, desire—and see that there’s a deeper, ever-present part of yourself that has a different quality.

The qualities of clarity, of being unobscured, that allows anything—thoughts, feelings, perceptions—to arise within it, without itself being disturbed.

Just as science shows that unobstructed space itself underlies everything that sits within it, so is there also an open, unobstructed aspect of our mind, underlying all mental experience.

That deeper part of your mind is like a mirror. And like a mirror, there’s a certain beauty to it, regardless of what it reflects at any moment. It’s impossible to see a mirror directly. You only see it through what it reflects. But the mirror has this capacity to reflect. It’s a quality of the mirror and your mind has this capacity too, this quality of clarity and reflection.

There’s also a sense of knowing in that deeper, subtler part of the mind, of directly experiencing. A knowing that goes beyond words and even concepts. That knowing, that experiencing, has a quality to it, a kind of wisdom that if you probe it can feel joyful. It embraces even your most difficult thoughts and feelings.

Those difficult thoughts and feelings are made of the same awareness, that same profound quality of clarity and knowing, that underlies all mental phenomena.

Connecting to the deeper part of yourself

black and white photo woman underwater

So try now for a minute to connect with that deeper part of yourself, the part of yourself that you can usually find only when you’re quiet and alone. It may take some time and it may take more than one session.

Feel free to pause this meditation if you want to explore for more than one minute, for 10, 20, or even 30 minutes. The extra time you spend may reward you with experiences that you’ve never had before.

And now you may feel—or at least you may feel the possibility of—a comfort in being alone and inner joy. You might have felt this at other times alone: reading, cooking, listening to music, creating something, out for a walk, or working quietly alone.

But the point in meditation is to distill that happiness and joy and stability in being alone—in being your own best friend—away from any activity at all.

It’s a joy to be with yourself, to know yourself at that deepest level.

The particular activity isn’t what makes you happy. The activity is a pathway to finding an inner happiness that’s always there within you.

Meditation becomes a path to consistently find this happiness of connecting with yourself in ways that food, music, and even friends and family, don’t always stably provide.

Try and see how the joy and comfort you find in others is really a reflection of your own capacity to be present and aware—the capacity that’s always with you, always accessible.

They say the greatest gift you can give another person is your attention. And that’s the greatest gift you can give yourself as well.

Being alone isn’t a lonely way station between meetings with others or a stop gap before you get to the next busy project. Being alone in meditation is enough in itself. The more you meditate like this, the more you realize that you need nothing else to be happy than a little space, time, peace, and solitude.

The point of these meditations is getting to know yourself better, accepting yourself, and learning to stay with whatever’s arising in your mind. Diving deeper into your psyche to understand who you are beneath your thoughts, feelings, and perceptions, coming to know yourself better, to love yourself, and to be your own best friend.

Coming out of these phases of self-reflection, you then find more energy for others. With deep, consistent practice, you’re happy when you’re alone. You’re happy when you’re with others. You’re happy when life brings you good news. And you’re happy when problems arise.

Happiness comes from deep inside us and meditation’s a path to consistently find a stable calm and joy; to cultivate a happiness that is not dependent on other people, possessions, TV, social media, or anything else outside ourselves.

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