Cultivating an inner refuge
(Source: Tara Brach “True refuge: Finding peace and freedom in your own awakened heart”)
Discovering a way to contact positive emotions, and especially a sense of care, strength, stability and safety in the present moment, is a key element in healing.
If we know how to develop an inner refuge where we feel loved and safe, it enables us to reduce the intensity of difficult emotions when they arise during our meditation practice, and in our day-today life. It changes our biochemistry, so that we are no longer in the grip of the fight flight freeze stress reactivity, and our mind and body become more adaptable, spacious and receptive. New associations, new inner resources, and new ways of coping and understanding begin to emerge spontaneously.
Most of all, it enables us to grow a sense of trust in ourselves, to know that we have within us whatever is needed to be present with our life.
You can begin to develop a reliable inner refuge on your own by drawing on whatever in your past experience has helped you to feel a sense of connection and safety. Once you have found these existing refuges for yourself, you can use the power of attention to make these states of mind more readily available.
To find your inner refuge, it is helpful to reflect on the following inquiry questions: today we will start this inquiry, and I invite you to continue these exploration at home in your journal. As you read, you can start sensing for yourself what your own answers might be…
- With whom do you feel connection or belonging? Feel cared for or loved? Feel at home, safe, secure?
For some people, it is easy to identify immediately a family member, friend, therapist or teacher whose presence creates the feeling of being “at home”.
For others, home might be a spiritual community, or a circle of intimate friends.
Or it could be a person you revere but have never met such as the Dalai llama, Mother Teresa…or it could be spiritual figure like the Buddha, Jesus, Mother Mary…
And even for some people, it could be bringing to mind their pet, dog or cat.
No figure is better than another, all that matters is choosing a source of safe and loving feelings.
- When and where do you feel most at home – safe, secure, relaxed or strong?
For some people it could be in the natural world, for others it could be in the city or the village of their grand-parents, it could be a church, a sports stadium, even your office, or a therapist’s room.
Some activities may offer a sense of ease and flow, like reading a book in bed, creating art, exercise (yoga, swimming, running…), playing a musical instrument, listening to music, gardening, cooking your favourite food.
Even if you almost never feel truly relaxed and secure, you can build on any setting or situation where you are closest to feeling at home.
- What events, experiences or relationships have best revealed to you your strength, your courage, your potential?
Remembering an especially meaningful experience that was a source of personal gratification or accomplishment helps to deepen our sense of trust within ourselves, to bring forward our inner strength. It could be anything from doing volunteer work, an artistic or professional endeavour, a service offered, an athletic feat, a generous gesture…
- What about yourself helps you to trust your goodness?
This inquiry can be a powerful entry into inner refuge. Considering the qualities you like about yourself (generosity, kindness, patience, creativity, curiosity, loyalty, honesty…), and recalling your deepest life aspirations (to love well, to serve others, to work towards peace or equality, to be true), will help you sense the goodness of your inner essence, and of your heart.
- When you’re caught in the grip of difficult and painful emotions what do you most want to feel?
When people are caught in self-blame, anger, grief, fear, shame, feeling lonely and isolated…they report wanting to feel more positive states such as to feel safe, to feel loved, valued, worthwhile, peaceful, trusting, to be embraced, held.
The words that name our longings and the images that arise with them, can become a valuable entry to inner refuge. The starting place is to offer ourselves wishes or prayers such as “May I feel safe and at home”, like in the classic loving kindness meditation, placing a hand on the heart, expressing our care towards ourselves. This opens us to an experience of belonging and ease.
When we repeatedly direct our minds towards thoughts and memories that evoke feelings of love, safety, strength, stability etc… it changes the structure of our brains, as neuroplasticity has shown. “Neurons that fire together wire together”, where attention goes, energy flows. We create new pathways in our brain that serve as vital channels for healing.
To counter-balance our in-built negativity bias, we need to install the positive experiences into our implicit memory for future retrieval (Rick Hanson, Hardwiring Happiness).
For this, there are two steps:
- the first one is to have the positive experience, either by recognising it when it arises spontaneously or by purposely eliciting it with a resource anchor.
- The second one is to offer our full, sustained attention to that positive state and the sense of self that arises. We allow it to fill our body, involve our senses, sink into our cells. The key to successful installation is repetition, so each time you touch a state like peacefulness or strength, let it fill you, stay with it for a while. It will make it more accessible when you encounter difficulty. “Whatever you practice grows stronger”.