3 Steps to Find Refuge from Stress

Establish a place of refuge and weather even the toughest of times with grace.
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Establish a place of refuge and weather even the toughest of times with grace.
yoga woman relaxed meditation

When my students tell me they feel frazzled or overwhelmed, I often ask, "Is there a place you go to in order to take refuge—a safe space to sort yourself out?" Some people look at me blankly. Occasionally, one bursts into tears. Others admit that their antidote to stress is turning on the TV, having a few glasses of wine, or tearing into a bag of chips. Sometimes, even trying to find a more creative way to relax can feel like one more demand.

I was considering this the other day as I listened to Dennis, a 40-year-old who is trying to run a consulting business in a down economy. Dennis feels uncertain about his future. What grounds him, he says, is spending time in the woods on a Saturday afternoon. He'll sit on a fallen log or beside a creek and let his mind quiet down, noticing a beetle crawling up a tree or the texture of the moss on the rocks beside him. After an hour in the forest, his senses open to the natural energy around him. It's that energy, he says, that keeps him going.

Dennis has found a way to take refuge. For him, it's nature. For me, it's meditation. When everything starts to feel like too much, I take the frazzled feeling as a signal that I need to sit down, close my eyes, and let my attention sink into the heart. Nearly always, I come out feeling more centered and resourceful. Sometimes when I open my eyes, I find that a problem doesn't even look like a problem anymore. There have been many times when resting my attention in the heart for five minutes has turned a bad day into a good one, a feeling of being stuck into a creative breakthrough.

Everyone needs to know how to take refuge. No matter how much you love your life, no matter how strong or motivated you may be, you will be overwhelmed at times. Maybe you'll be trying to pick yourself up after a breakup, or maybe you'll lose your job. You may simply have a hard week. At such moments, if you don't have a habit of taking refuge, life begins to feel like an endless treadmill, like a circle game. You rely on the same old coping mechanisms, following the same grooves, wondering why you don't feel inspired or even, sometimes, able to cope. Consciously choosing to take refuge, and having a reliable way to do it, can help you find new reserves of strength, stamina, and inspiration.

What is Refuge?

The word "refuge" means "place of shelter." But I'm not talking here about the basic physical shelter that every human being needs and deserves. I'm talking about the kind of shelter that lets you get in touch with your deepest Self, especially at times when you feel lost or overwhelmed, buffeted by external pressures or inner conflict.

What defines a refuge? First, it should help your mind calm down. Second, it should help you feel safe, even protected. Whether you find refuge in a physical place, a person, or an inner state, a true refuge gives you a feeling of being at home. On a normal day, it helps you stay connected to your center, to peace, or to the feeling that other human beings share your concerns. On a bad day, when you're dealing with loss or just the existential suffering of a demanding life, your place of refuge can restore your soul.

A true space of refuge can also function as a kind of cocoon, where you retreat to do the sort of self-examination that leads to inner change. There, you can shed your masks, assimilate your failures, and savor your joys. Just as lying in Savasana can help you assimilate an hour of asana practice, consciously retreating to your place of refuge can help you digest your life experiences. It can give you both rest and the wherewithal to act from strength.

Your refuge place could have a physical location. It might be a place in your home—a meditation corner, a tree in your backyard, or even your bathtub. But another person can be a source of refuge, too—a friend, relative, or partner you can call when you're down or a mentor whose advice you trust intuitively. Likewise, a repetitive activity such as walking or biking can offer an entry point into the space of refuge. And so, of course, does asana practice. That deep sigh, the "Ahhh" you often hear in yoga class as one person after another slips into their first asana of the day—that's the sound of people finding refuge!

"Take Refuge in Me"

I know many people who find refuge by imagining themselves in a setting where they once felt real peace. My friend Jessica thinks of the beach at Hanalei Bay on Kaua'i, Hawai'i. Tom, a New York journalist, likes to mentally revisit a hillside in Big Sur, California. Elizabeth de-stresses from her demanding days by imagining herself sitting in the courtyard of her teacher's ashram in India.

The yogic sages warn, however, that a place, a person, or an activity will give you real refuge only when it connects you to something that feels timeless and eternal. To Spirit. To soul. To the inner Self.

In fact, the great yogic model for unfailing refuge is the one Lord Krishna offers his disciple Arjuna in one of India's most beloved texts, the Bhagavad Gita. In this epic tale, Krishna is Arjuna's guru and charioteer; he also represents the embodied form of Spirit itself.

On the eve of a great battle, the warrior Arjuna faces off against relatives and friends in a battle for the soul of his kingdom. Conflicted about whether it is right to fight, he turns to Krishna for advice. Krishna coaches him in the principles of yoga in action. But Krishna's final teaching is this: "Take refuge in me." He tells Arjuna that the very act of taking refuge will free him from fear of wrongdoing.

Sages of the yoga tradition often point out that the dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna represents the eternal conversation between our individual self and our higher Self, sometimes called the inner Source or inner Spirit. The mythic character of Krishna embodies the inner wisdom of Spirit, the underlying creative Presence that lies at the heart of reality.

At one point in the Gita, Krishna says, "I am the Self hidden in the heart." He's referring to one of the deepest pieces of wisdom in the yoga tradition: the teaching that in our own bodies, in the subtle center called the heart, we can tune in to our true Self, the part of us that isn't confused about what life is all about. That Presence is the "me" Krishna is referring to, and the great source of true refuge.

The mystic poet Kabir speaks of this Presence as "the breath inside the breath." His point is that it's always closer than you think. Once you've learned how to tune in to Presence, you have a refuge that you can turn to at any time, even in the middle of a stressful business meeting or an argument with your spouse.

One way to tune in to Presence right now is to focus on the space in and around your body. Inhale and exhale, feeling that, with the inhalation, you breathe that space in through your pores, and as you exhale, you breathe it out. After a while, you should begin to become aware of a subtle, delicate energy that is both inside your body and around it. According to the yoga tradition, this is Presence—and it is close to you at all times.

Doorway to Peace

Once you recognize what being in Presence feels like, you'll probably realize that it's always been implicated in your moments of peace and safety. For example, if you think about the times when you've felt deep refuge in your yoga practice, you'll probably recognize that those were times when you managed to tap into the sense of Presence, the living energy within your body and breath. You might also realize that the feeling of comfort you have when you're with certain friends, or when you open the door to your beloved, is not just the effect of a neurochemical rush. It comes from being connected to the living energy of Presence that runs through the two of you.

One of the timeless ways people experience the refuge of unconditional Presence is through the natural world. The great eco-philosopher Thomas Berry points out that "the mountains and rivers and all living things, the sky and its sun and moon and clouds, all constitute a healing, sustaining sacred presence for humans, which they need as much for their psychic integrity as for their physical nourishment." And though the most powerful experiences of Presence in nature often happen in wilderness, you can also find it in your backyard, a suburban woodlet, or a local park. When I lived in New York City, I sometimes used to find myself, during moments of stress, gazing out my window at the ailanthus tree that sprouted in a little patch of dirt carved out of the sidewalk. I didn't understand why I felt so soothed by that little tree, but I've since come to realize that in that highly urban environment, it offered me a doorway into that healing sacred Presence that Berry talks about.

Below, I offer you two approaches to taking refuge. The first is a way to cultivate a sense of Presence in nature; the second, in your own home.

Offer Yourself to Nature

According to the yoga tradition, every part of the natural world is imbued with consciousness. The key to finding refuge in nature is to open up to that Presence.

The next time you go for a walk in the woods, or even in your own front yard, stand still and take a few deep breaths. Then, rest your attention in your heart. Imagine for a few moments that a benign Presence regards you through the trees and the plants and even the earth. Instead of feeling as if you are the observer—the one who is seeing the sky and the trees— shift your perspective and sense that the sky and the trees are seeing you. Soon, you may begin to tune in to the subtle feeling that a palpable Presence is in the natural world and that its nature is benign. Even a moment of sensing Presence in the natural world can give you the feeling of refuge, the recognition of how much natural love is in the world around you.

Invite the Sacred Home

Another way to cultivate a place of refuge is to set up an altar in your home that you dedicate to Presence. Keep in mind that an altar doesn't have to be elaborate. You can start by choosing a small table or covering a box with a cloth and placing fresh flowers or a plant on it to create a connection with the natural world and its healing beauty. If possible, set up a candle or a lamp to represent the light of consciousness at the heart of your own being.

You might arrange some objects on your altar that have personal significance for you—a special box, perhaps, or a crystal, or a feather. If it makes sense to you, place a picture of a deity or a person who embodies sacredness for you (or a picture of a sacred site or a natural setting).

Make your altar inviting and comfortable, and place a seat there for yourself. Then, make a point of visiting it at least once a day. Keep the flowers fresh. Light the candle or the lamp. Meditate there, or write in your journal. Make sure that everything you do at your altar has a sense of sacredness about it.

As you continue spending time at your altar, you may notice that sense of Presence, of sacred energy, collecting there.

In time, you may discover that you can bring a problem to your altar, sit with it for a while, and receive the wisdom arising from within. You might also show up in a state of agitation and then feel the collected Presence at the altar subtly soothing you. In other words, you will have created for yourself a place of refuge.

A Beautiful World

I suggest doing one of these practices at least once or twice a week, adapting it to your own experience and your own understanding of sacred Presence. Then, make a point of tuning in to Presence a couple of times a day. You may want to say a simple prayer and ask to be sustained by Presence as you do your asana practice, as you meditate, even while you're at work.

And notice that as you get accustomed to taking refuge in Presence, you feel more grounded, more at ease in the world. Soon, your responsibilities may feel less burdensome. And perhaps, in a very natural way, you'll begin to notice yourself giving refuge to others—not by giving them advice, but by embodying the Presence that in itself can give comfort, succor, and a feeling of being at home in a beautiful world.

The Love Inside

Discover true peace and wisdom when you take refuge within.

1. Take 15 minutes to sit by yourself. Breathe into your belly, allowing the breath to gradually deepen. With each exhalation, imagine that you're letting go of tension in your body and mind. Now, visualize yourself sitting in a beautiful place where you feel safe and protected: by the ocean, in a garden, or in the woods; in a special room from your childhood; or in a holy site such as a temple, a church, or an ashram.

2. Imagine that there is a wise and loving being sitting in front of you. If it feels natural, you can imagine this being in the form of a great teacher, such as the Buddha, Christ, Kuan Yin, or even an animal guide. Alternatively, you might sense this being as one of your ancestors. Or this being might have no form at all.

3. Recognize that this being has the most profound wish for your happiness and is the embodiment of wisdom and love. As you sit with this spiritual being, focus on the thought "I take refuge in you." Notice the feeling state that arises as you consciously imagine taking refuge in this being. If you have a question or a problem, you can bring it before this guide and ask for wisdom. At the end of the meditation, imagine yourself drawing the energy of this spiritual being into your own heart. Then feel the wisdom and love that have, in some way, entered you.

Sally Kempton teaches meditation and yoga philosophy and is the author of Meditation for the Love of It.