Mindfulness - Our Own Refuge

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When we find ourselves trapped in a big storm, with strong winds and rain bucketing down, it can be quite scary; our first reaction is to find shelter, a refuge from the storm. This is because to stay outside in the storm, unprotected, could bring harm to ourselves, with the pelting rain and objects blowing around. Being amidst it we confront something more powerful then ourselves, this makes us feel fear due to lack of control.

If we have no place of safety then we will find ourselves in the middle of chaos, confused and feeling alone. We are unable to make clear decisions, possibly making ones that will create more harm then good. Finding a refuge, a safe haven, gives us space, a place where we can watch the storm and access the damage without being carried away by it. From this place of safety we can settle down, understand our options more clearly and therefore take a more informed course of action.

The Storm of Life

There are periods of our life that seem to run smoothly, everything is sunshine, not that it is perfect, nothing ever is, but periods where there is more good then bad. We all know how quickly this can change, life isn’t always ‘smooth sailing’, if we look over our whole life it tends to be more like a rollercoaster, lots of ups and downs. In this respect, the only difference between our life and everyone else’s is that the size of the peaks and troughs are different. Regardless of where we fit into this, there are times when, everyone would agree, that life feels like it is stuck in a raging storm. And whilst we are in it, it feels like it will never end.

Wouldn’t it be good to have a refuge, one that we could run to whenever we encounter the ‘storm of life’?

If we were a scientist studying this particular type of storm we would find that it has certain characteristics. It would have a basis of thinking about the past or future, our emotional attachment to these thoughts would create its intensity and length. The storm would then be further fuelled by liking or disliking, which then would gain energy from memories of the past and future. The storm would finally come to its peak with waves of feelings moving through the body and drowning anyone in its way.

Looking at the storm of thoughts, feelings and emotions all we can see is a big mess, no wonder we feel confused and overwhelmed when we are amongst it.

‘The storm of life’ happens inside of us, it manifests from our relationship to what is happening in any given moment. It is conditioned by our relationship to storms in the past; every time we get lost in a storm we create conditions for a new one. If we want to be free from these storms we first need to find a place of refuge, somewhere where we will not feel overwhelmed and not react blindly.

Finding a Refuge

An external refuge and place of safety can only heal the wounds so much; drugs, sex and partying are other refuges that we may take to escape emotional pain. These don’t really provide shelter but distract us from the storm, we forget about it for a while, but even while we are denying it the storm is still raging, still creating damage. If we want a place of safety from emotional pain, from tormenting thoughts, we need to look within ourselves; we need a place within that is with us everywhere we go. This place needs to have the quality of stillness, one that we can rely on, and one that is easily accessible.

Fortunately we have such a place, one that is still, tranquil, peaceful, one that will act as an anchor in daily life. This refuge is our body, not our physical body but our experience of the sensations within it. We all know what our body looks like; we even have a relationship with it, especially when we walk past a mirror or reflection. It is hard not to look at our image, we are very fascinated with our bodies outside appearance, but how many of us really know what it ‘feels’ like?

Our Own Refuge

Mindfulness is the factor of mind that remembers what being experienced in any moment, this factor of remembering is the key to open the door to the experience of our body. By turning our attention towards the ‘feeling’ of our body the awareness cultivated will start to absorb into it. By turning our attention away from the outside world and within, the awareness will grow, it will permeate the body, will fill every cell.

Once awareness has filled our body and permeated every cell, it will naturally want to sit there. As long as we anchor our attention in this way the feeling of ‘being’ inside our body will grow, and as it grows it creates a more stable and unshakable anchor. Once it is strong enough this ‘being’ becomes a base from which we can interact with the world without getting swept away by it.

Inhabiting our body with awareness can be maintained during any activity, whether we are taking the children to school, sitting on a train or working in a highly stressful environment it is possible to do this. When practiced regularly it takes the ‘edge’ off any emotions; that is they no longer control us. It settles and clarifies our thinking, creates a place of rest throughout the day so we stay energised and refreshed.

Try it Now
1) Regardless of what posture you are in now turn your attention to the feeling of your feet touching the floor
2) Mentally ‘feel’ the sensations within, don’t think about it just ‘feel’
3) Hold your attention on your feet for a little while and feel the awareness of the sensations within them grow
4) Now allow your awareness to travel up your whole body, ‘feeling’ the sensations within the same as you did with your feet
5) Once you can ‘feel’ your whole body hold your attention there, relax and allow it to grow, breathing normally
6) Notice that when you hold your attention on your body that your thinking slows down or even stops
7) Keep holding your attention here and feel the vastness, enjoy the peace
8) At first, practice this when you have some quiet time, then when you can maintain it, carry it into everything that you do
9) Notice how your life starts to change now that you have your own refuge to live it through 10) Any time your attention wanders and you have realised you have forgotten to be aware of your body don’t get upset, just re-establish your awareness, ‘feel’ your body
11) Through practice, the gaps between doing and forgetting to do will become smaller

Refuge When Meditating

Establishing a refuge through life will aid our concentration when we sit down to do formal meditation because our Mindfulness will already be established. Because of this it takes less time for our mind to settle down making it easier to develop our meditation object. The sensations of the body are easier to establish attention on and build up concentration then more traditional subtle meditation objects like the breath.

If we build up Mindfulness of the body first we will find it easier to settle on our object of meditation and to quieten the mind. Once we have built up this awareness it can be held in the background while we watch the breath, this will give us a solid anchor / reference point to the present moment and help to control imbalances associated with too much or too little effort during meditation. It helps prevent restlessness and also daydream type sleepiness, as it is easier to feel the awareness of body slipping away then the breath, before solid concentration is developed.

Refuge in Daily Life

It is important to maintain awareness of body in everyday life; this protection goes from the cushion into our life. Meditation is more then having some peaceful time out; it is meant to change our whole life. If it didn’t affect our life and relationships then it would just be another exercise, meditation done properly is more then just an exercise; it is a way of reprogramming the way we relate to the world.

We are all like blackboards with writing all over them, the writing is our past and to look at the blackboard we can see what it was involved in and where that information is headed. But just because there is a mathematical equation on the board it doesn’t mean that we can’t write English, geography or science, in fact we can write whatever we want, the writing is in erasable ink

In the same way our relationship to past experiences defines how our mind has been programmed and how it will most likely react in any given situation. But this isn’t fixed; it can be erased and replaced in the same way as the blackboard. The process of meditation does this; it allows us to erase what is not useful and replace it with what is. This is not to say that it makes us forget things, it doesn’t, what it does is change our relationship to the conditioned patterns that are already there.

Once we are no longer attached to them they will start to weaken and fade, through encouraging more skilful patterns the old ones will eventually be erased and replaced with ones that are prone to bring more happiness into our lives. Meditation if practiced correctly will always encourage patterns that lead to happiness and discourage ones that don’t, this is because meditation has a strong base of ethics at its core. If we live of life through hurtful actions and speech towards ourself or others this causes the mind to be agitated making it impossible to concentrate. Therefore we can’t meditate.

This is real karma, the result of our actions affecting our happiness in the future. Meditation has its own ‘built in gate’, and there is no negotiating, lying or cheating that can get us through. The key is simple, don’t do or say anything to hurt ourself or others, then the mind will settle and the door will open.


Our brains are pliable, they can be reprogrammed, we are a blank slate, an open canvas on which we are responsible for painting the life that we want to live. Anything is possible, we are always starting from the beginning, we have the choice to make it a Rembrandt or an unknown, to suffer or not to suffer. The effort we make and the direction we choose defines every moment we experience.

Anchoring our attention in the body, using it as a refuge protects us, it anchors our attention, stops our mind from running wild, creates the conditions for concentration and eventually freedom, freedom from mental suffering.

There isn’t anything more valuable then that

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© Copyright © 2013. All rights reserved

This article was written by Stephen Procter, instructor from Tai Chi Health for Life, Australian College of Tai Chi & Qi Gong and Meditation Instructor from Meditation in the Shire, Kirrawee NSW, Australia. If you wish to post this article on another website or in a publication please respect the author and reference / link back to this website, thank you

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