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Taking Refuge in Reality

Posted by on in Paths Blogs

Five of us, variously exhausted or uplifted, sat distributed on couches in the interview room. Our meditation teacher was checking in with us in the midst of a week-long silent retreat. One by one we responded. As usual, there were the usual happy yogis who had reached new heights of concentration, complete with interesting spiritual effects. The rest of us were detailing our rather more mundane struggles with the practice: distractions, obsessive thoughts, doubts. I had just finished adding my troubles to the pile when the teacher sent me a level look and said: “This is how it is right now.”


This is how it is right now. The whole of the Dharma in seven words.



The Dharma is the Buddhist understanding of the nature of reality: the way things are. We are told to “take refuge” in it. This seems odd, for how often are we truly happy with the way things are? But strangely, once we let go of hoping for things to be different, we can see the freedom—and yes refuge—that reality offers us.


Just look at the way the teacher said those seven words. She let them be impersonal. She was not judging or praising, merely stating a fact. But in the context, that dose of objectivity was rather bracing. I had been caught in a self-pitying mode, assailed by worries and doubts, frustrated that I couldn’t seem to wait them out as instructed. This mirrored how often I felt stuck in my life, dealing with the same patterns over and over. The teacher’s words reminded me that I had to step back and observe the feelings, without moving into self-indulgence or self-judgment. If I wanted to find ease with them, even insight, I had to stop identifying with them. I had to stop taking them so personally.


Because reality is not personal. Shit happens. Things beyond our control shape us and determine much of how we act and feel. Other’s opinions, our own burdensome thoughts—these arise from causes outside us and outside the present moment. They are conditioned by a myriad of factors, stretching back years or even generations. Seen in this light, they don’t speak to our worth or lack of it, but merely to where we’ve found ourselves in life. Knowing this, we can simply step back and witness our own inner drama—and that of others—without taking it too literally.


And there will always be drama. Along with the joy of living there is sorrow: pain, illness, death and the thousand smaller harms we endure every day. The Buddha himself said, “Life is dukkha”—unsatisfactory. Inherently imperfect. The refuge this recognition offers us is that if we find ourselves suffering, it’s not because we are somehow doing life wrong. Life is just like that. Gods and heroes, those we admire, ideals we hold—none are without some shortcoming, some natural limit, some need to compromise. 


The perfect can so easily become the enemy of the good. The desire to be perfect (or the belief that we are deeply flawed) can blind us to what is really going on in any given situation. Accepting our own imperfection lets us off the hook we may have hung ourselves on. It helps us let others off it too. If we stop demanding the ideal, we are freed from the obligation to measure others against it. If we stop defining ourselves as one thing or another, we are free to act more authentically in the moment. 


And that moment is full of potential, because life is change. “This is how it is right now.” The mountains are wearing down, we are growing older, what we feel in the morning has been forgotten by evening. Change means loss, but also openness and opportunity. Whatever is bothering us, no matter how powerfully, will not last, because nothing does. Any pleasure that we try to grasp too tightly becomes tainted with the anxiety of losing it. Only by “kissing the joy as it flies” can we know it fully, and so be at peace with the pain of its departure. Living in denial, as if we and all we love are safe forever, requires vast amounts of subconscious energy, draining us even as we look the other way. Living in reality frees that energy up, allowing us to be open to whatever comes. 


Life is impersonal, imperfect, impermanent. For all of us. We are all in the same boat, tossed on the same ocean of existence. Realizing this, we find our kinship with others, our instinct for compassionate connection. The qualities of reality form the boundary of human life. As we look to that horizon, we widen our vision, seeing beyond to the last and deepest reality: our true nature is aware and open. We are made for love.


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Archer has been trying to make sense of religion since her parents first abandoned her at Sunday School in the 60s. She’s a mom, yoga teacher and repository of useless bits of information on ancient religion, spiritual practices and English grammar. Check out her column “Connections” in Witches and Pagans.


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