Finding Refuge in Daily Life: It Takes Practice
“We think rest comes at the end of something. At the end of the day.
At the end of a meeting. When work is done.
We think we will rest when we change our living conditions,
but it is possible to rest right in the middle of chaos
if you bring your full attention to what you are doing.
You only have to turn inward to find the quiet space that’s always present
under your mind, your body, and your emotions.”
Frank Ostaseski’s “Third Precept”
A series of events in December 2017 challenged my ability to find refuge in the middle of things, yet somehow I did—over and over again. During the first week of the month, it became clear that a friend and neighbor was approaching her death from advanced lung cancer. I had been one of the main coordinators of her large caring network for several years. Now we were all working diligently and courageously together to get her out of the nursing home and rehab facility, where she had landed after an emergency hospitalization, and back to her own apartment. As hospice care was being set up for her in her home across the street from mine, the domestic hot water in my own house, which comes from the furnace, gradually stopped working. This turned out to be part of a complex situation, which took about two weeks to fully manifest, figure out, and completely resolve.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the street, after eight days in her wonderful home, my dear friend died, easily and peacefully. I’d been with her all that morning and had come home to make some phone calls to her friends and family and to her minister, and perhaps to take some time to meditate; but I was abruptly called back for her death by the home health aide’s calm voice on the phone saying simply, “She is dying now.” I literally ran across the street, and thankfully, I got back to her a few minutes before her last breath. I took some time then to sit with her body and the manifest stillness of her passing—to savor cessation—while in another room, the others who were present quickly picked up the momentum of life. All too soon I had to join them in the tasks of notifying relatives and friends, calling the undertaker, disposing of medications, making plans, washing her body…. There is always something for the living to do.
Over the next days, while the work of cleaning out my friend’s apartment and giving away her belongings got underway, the little bit of Christmas shopping and mailing that I do each year got started and finished in one day. I even managed to have everything at the post office at five p.m. on that last possible day for them to arrive in time for the holiday. As soon as I got home from mailing the packages, I learned that an upstairs apartment in my building was without any heat. The wondrous furnace man arrived early the next day at the beginning of a snowstorm to grapple with what seemed like a second, totally unrelated boiler issue. He got it fixed by evening, just before a rainy ice storm made traveling in our area nearly impossible.
On that icy day, I learned that though the heat was indeed on in the apartment, it would not shut off. The air temperature in the unit got up to nearly 80 degrees and windows had to be opened. Then the Christmas snowstorm arrived, complicating not only the fixing of the heat problem, but also my much-loved yearly job of delivering meals from the community dinner to people in their homes. On the day after Christmas, the furnace problem was finally understood and resolved, and I began to think about how “finding refuge in the middle of things” is an invaluable practice.
Mindful awareness—intentionally bringing my full attention to what I was doing, intentionally knowing the anxiety as it arose and passed, knowing the aversion and confusion—had not only saved me from reactivity and from succumbing to the despair of feeling overwhelmed and helpless; it had allowed me to savor the many moments of December and to feel a deep gratitude and awe for any number of things: the knowledge and skill of the furnace man—the beauty of fresh-fallen snow—the last conversations with my dear dying friend—her telling what she called her “last joke”—the active compassion and solidarity of a team of loving caregivers—the lightness of laughter—the felt sense of being of help—joy—the ache in my heart as my friend’s cat was taken away to her new home in the country—the free playfulness of walking on ice with micro-cleats on my boots to have an “oat milk steamer” with a friend at Lucky’s Café—the kindness of neighbors shoveling a path for me to deliver a Christmas meal—the miracle of a warm home—warm clothing—a car that starts easily in subzero temperatures—the “motions of tenderness all around me.”
At one time I wanted to find a place where I could take shelter,
but I never saw such a place. There is nothing in this world
that is solid at base, is changeless and not a part of it.
The Buddha, Sutta Nipata
Fear, anxiety, and a feeling of being overwhelmed can easily give rise to an agitated state of fight or flight or freeze. Remorse, regret, worry, or doubt can torment my mind. They can make things worse. They can contribute to increasing distress for me and for the others around me. Sometimes refuge might entail the absence of these states; sometimes, though, for me it must be found in their midst—through the practice of knowing them directly, with interest, clarity and kindness, and for a moment, not identifying them as me or mine. To paraphrase the Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, this is not just a matter of faith; it really is a matter of practice.
In a discourse that describes the Buddha’s final weeks of life, his chief attendant, Ananda, senses and expresses great confusion and despair at his teacher’s impending death. The Buddha affirms kindly that indeed he is going to die and gives this advice:
you should live as islands unto yourselves,
being your own refuge,
with no one else as your refuge,
with the Dhamma as an island,
with the Dhamma as your refuge
with no other refuge.
The Buddha, Mahaparinibbana Sutta
Doreen Schweizer helped establish Valley Insight Meditation Society in the mid-state region of Vermont and New Hampshire in 1992 and served as guiding teacher for this Sangha through 2017. A long-time practitioner in the Insight Tradition, she continues to teach Buddhist Study and Practice through regular weekly classes, a monthly group in the NH State Prison for Men, and occasional day-long and weekend retreats. Doreen served as director and social worker in a rural hospice program for many years. She is currently a licensed clinical social worker in private practice. She has lived in the same house and the same, ever-changing neighborhood for almost 40 years. She is a landlord and is gently active in local politics and social action groups. Writing helps her understand this world.