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Taking Refuge

Posted by on in Paths Blogs

“Gurudev is in town!”—my fellow yoga teacher’s eyes were glowing, nay, glistening with unshed tears. But I couldn’t share her excitement. While she was still under the sway of the charismatic yogi who had brought my brand of yoga to North America, I had been taught by one of his disenchanted disciples. The guru had been thrown out of his own ashram after sleeping with all the wrong people (including those underage) and icing the criminal cake with some financial malfeasance. I hadn’t experienced his powers first hand, but I gathered from my friend’s reactions, and her easy dismissal of his crimes, that they must have been significant. 


Hero-worship seems to be a natural and powerful human need. When the darkness starts creeping in at the edges, we want to take refuge in a shining being who can lift us up. Buddhists are taught to “take refuge in the Buddha”—this can mean to be inspired by his example and comforted by the power of his teachings, but for many it can also mean depending on him as a god who offers grace and salvation (despite his declaration that he was not divine).


The aura that surrounds charismatic characters—whether deities, leaders or movie stars—can be intoxicating and, in the case of all-too-human teachers like “Gurudev," dangerous. We may feed our ego fantasizing about their approval and go against our nature to win it. But there is also the chance that, dreaming of who we may become under the influence of an inspirational figure, we may delve into our own potential to effect that transformation.  


I have been inspired by those I’ve had spiritual crushes on, from Jesus to Hermes to—don’t laugh—a handsome British television presenter called Alistair Appleton. A few years ago he trained as a therapist and, after several years study of Tibetan Buddhism, took on the teacher’s mantle himself, leading retreats and counselling seekers. His dulcet tones make his online meditations and podcasts the ultimate cure for my dreary days.  I’ll admit there’s a certain youthful (nay, adolescent) enjoyment in all this, but that playful lightness is what keeps me on the path when life seems too serious. 


Perhaps I should be looking higher for my inspiration, to Gandhi or Martin Luther King, but frankly they seem too far off and intimidating for my modest ambitions. Or maybe I should find an admired teacher to surrender myself to, someone to put me through my spiritual paces. But I fear my cautious and sceptical nature makes that unlikely to work out well. (I am still a witch after all, prone to rebellion when least expected).


No, when I think of who touched my life most deeply, the one whom I truly hope to emulate, I find my true hero is someone much closer to the ground.


It was early days in grade one. I was the smallest person in the class, cursed with a homemade pixie cut. I sat at at a minuscule desk and could barely see over the heads of the other children. The classroom seemed enormous. But our teacher, Mrs. Wallbridge (hair like a billow pad, krinkly eyes) had a kind voice and gentle manner. She sang songs and played piano with one finger. She was straight as a ramrod and bendy as a willow. And when one day I finally had the courage to put my hand up with the answer, she looked me straight in the eye.


“That’s right!” Her voice rang with pleasure. I felt enveloped in light. My whole body flushed with excitement. She had seen me, and recognized me and praised me.


I announced it that night at the family dinner table, surrounded by three brothers and two distracted parents. No one really heard me, and in any case I was unable to convey the transcendent nature of the event. But I’ve never forgotten it. 


And I've never lost my love and admiration for Mrs. Wallbridge. Once I just showed up at her house near the school, armed with a small plaid suitcase filled with treasures I wanted to show her. She was so gracious, inviting me in, and though I was too young to realize how unusual the occasion was, I still remember the sheer joy of being in her presence. 


When I really need to take refuge, it’s her image I call up. Someone who seemed to think I was amazing. Someone who saw me. Someone who saw all the children in her class, as people, as vulnerable and precious beings. 


Imagine if we all emulated her? If we cultivated the ability to see the other’s inner child, their basic worth and goodness, their fragility and potential. That would make us my kind of hero. And then we could take refuge in each other.




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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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