the preliminaries step 3: take refuge

Step 0: Set the conditions for a new start

Step 1: Attend the breath

Step 2: Connect to a teacher

Step 3: Take refuge

It was early March 2010 and I had just spent the better part of the winter pushing and puling my way through a shitty love affair. Every time that I tried to narrate the story of how I had spent the last 6 months it made me more nervous. The stories kept showing me how I had been putting my trust in people and situations that weren't healthy or supportive and I became wary of putting it anywhere at all. I was afraid that I had been devolving and I was terrified that I didn't have the strength to get my shit together and start evolving, meaning that the spiral would just persist ever-downward. When I looked backwards I felt fear, when I looked forward I felt fear. And the present was not a place where I even knew how to be.

The antidote to all that fear? Trust. Step 3 of the Preliminaries is all about finding something that you can really trust and building a relationship with it.  It's about connecting to the support that exists when we have a regular spiritual practice and all that comes with it. We are meant to feel into what it is like to be held, protected, provided for, sheltered. When I get to this step I begin by just asking myself, what support do I have today? What comfort is there here for me in my life right now? And then I generate some gratitude for these conditions as they come to mind. The best way to appreciate comfort and support is to BE comforted and supported. In other words, lean into these forces, to relax and allow them to hold you, envelop you, bear your weight and shelter your being. The best way to fight fear is to develop trust. The best way to gather strength along the path toward your next big evolution is to take refuge. 

Traditionally, a Buddhist doing this exercise will take refuge in the Three Jewels. The Buddha, the dharma and the sangha. And though it took me years to realize it, it was a profound experience of these Three Jewels giving me refuge that took me from the winter of fear into a spring of trust. One split second of refuge pushed me right onto the path of becoming a meditator and a teacher.

 photo by Kevin Cooley

photo by Kevin Cooley


"Without trust there is no peace...Of all people, the knower of the self, the liberated man, is the most trustworthy." - Nisargadatta Maharaj

Nisargadatta says that you should figure out whom you can trust and rely on them, for without that you will not have the requisite peace to do the work of evolving. That boyfriend and I were having such a hard time because our small, scared selves were always meeting one another and in those clashing interactions we kept trying to seem big by making the other feel smaller. The reason that the liberated man is so trustworthy, is because he is not trying to prove anything or sell anything; his Big self to do the steering, which means that real love and real wisdom are in charge. He has a little self, he has a body and a brain and a personality, but he doesn't live in service those aspects. This makes him free. And he will help you learn to do the same. Not for pay, not for glory, not for anything that caters to that small desire to get big. But simply because that's what Buddhas do. Simply finding this kind of person to interact with is a game changer.

To take refuge in the Buddha means to connect with the support of an enlightened being or guru. Yes, we talked about calling the teacher in the last step, and here is the teacher again. The spiritual guide is a big deal and at the start and center of almost all the foremost spiritual traditions. In some, such as Buddhism, the guru is seen as a person who achieved some advanced level of realization and, instead of hanging out and keeping all that bliss and wisdom for himself, went around teaching from his enlightened perspective, bringing us all along with him. Many people take refuge in the literal historical figure of the Buddha. But taking refuge suggests coming home, and your home, by definition, isn't everybody's home. So, by all means, study the stories of the Buddha and spend time getting to know him. But I would recommend also experimenting with bringing to mind a person to whom you feel a more personal connection when you get to this step. Think of someone who has helped you and remain present for any sense of gratitude that arises.

When I first started meditating, many obstacles arose. Skepticism for one. Maybe this whole thing was a waste of time, I thought. Maybe I would be better off doing something else besides meditating, studying, chanting, changing. But these teachers seemed so intelligent and grounded and content, and they told me awesome stories of other meditators, culled from a long, rich history of others who had walked this path. That gave me the inspiration to hop on the path myself. Plain laziness is another huge obstacle, of course. I was used to sleeping in late and doing whatever I pleased, but now I was expected to meditate every morning and attend classes and do homework. But I had these teachers whom I respected greatly, and they were there holding me accountable. That motivated me to ditch old lazy habits and get to work. And then there was all that self-doubt. Maybe I'm not smart enough, kind enough, good enough. And in those moments, the teachers, who saw potential in me to which I myself still remained blind, offered little pushes of encouragement that got me through. 

This brings us to a third sense of "taking refuge in the Buddha" which is really referring to your Buddha nature--your own innate capacity for becoming enlightened. This is what my teachers saw in me before I could. To take refuge in this sense of the Buddha, is to take heart in the fact that we are actually all, always, moving forward toward the goal of enlightenment, even if it sometimes feel that we got lost along the way, or stalled out or started moving in the wrong direction. According to some teachers, we will all arrive eventually and inevitably. According to some, we are already there, we just have to wake up from the dream of being un-enlightened. 



Dharma is a Sanskrit word, of hefty and diverse significance for all of the spiritual traditions that can trace roots back to the Ancient Indus Valley. I'm going to offer 3 basic definitions. One translation is "the cosmic order," the laws of the universe, the way things are. In this sense dharma refers to something similar to the tao of Chinese traditions. When we try to fight against the laws of this universe, guess who wins?  So to take refuge in the dharma, in this sense, means to study the way things are, to get comfortable with these laws, to surrender to them and sync with them. We tend to try to work really hard to get things done, but if only we can become aligned with the divine order we enter into flow, we find that power, clarity and accomplishment can become ours with minimal effort. To take refuge in this way is to appreciate the gift of being a participant in this universe with its incredible design, its mystery and beauty, and to relax into that belonging.

For Buddhists, dharma refers to the actual teachings of the actual Buddha. But it can also refer to the teachings of any great guru from any lineage. There is so much value to be gained in going to the source of one of these traditions and dwelling there a while. If you have a particular tradition then this step is all about reflecting on how the teachings of your lineage give you something trustworthy, tried and true. As one of my teacher's said, if you want the cake to rise, follow a good recipe. Now, there is no escaping that every individual seeker must take responsibility for her own journey and make her own discoveries as she goes. But the teachings of those who went before you means that you don't have start from scratch. If you listen, trust and follow the instructions you will have a map and a vehicle for moving forward.

Going to a good yoga class or listening to a recording of a teacher that you love, or reading a classic spiritual text are great ways to start to connect to the dharma. But it is important to remember that you can only connect with what someone else says, because there is somewhere within you that already knows it. In colloquial English we say that wisdom is what you know, not in your brain, but somewhere deeper. We say "I know it in my heart" or "feel it in my bones" or "in my gut." They all point to the same thing. That real wisdom, the wisdom of the universe, is different from an opinion or a data point or a storyline because it is IN us. It can't be so easily articulated, brushed aside, extracted, forgotten or altered. So taking refuge in the dharma means to start trusting those deeper instincts that guide you. If you do this then everything that you do begins to move from an authentic center, and your presence becomes a refuge for others. 

You may also hear of someone "living his dharma" which speaks to the idea that each individual has a path that he or she is meant to travel in order to achieve this lifetime's purpose. One of my favorite moments in the Bhagavad Gita is when Krishna tells Arjuna that "It is better to live one own's dharma poorly than to succeed at another's dharma." What he means is that there are callings, pastimes, partners, careers, friendships, styles, journeys, ways of being, that feel authentic for an individual. Almost everyone I know has gone through a period of time when he looks around and attempts to imitate another person's path--some people build much of their lives upon this attempt. But, again, refuge means home. To walk someone else's path is always accompanied by a sense of unease, of being a stranger, of being slightly unsupported. When you find your dharma you will have something special in which to take refuge. Even when you stumble, as we all must along the way, it is your own ground which will catch your fall.

When I take refuge I celebrate all three senses of the dharma, humbling myself in gratitude toward the ways of the universe, the wisdom passed down by my teachers, and this unique path that I have been given to walk. I bow down to all the wisdom that I've accumulated over my 33 years of living, embracing the victories and the failures, the triumphs and the mistakes that brought me here. Try it. Sit for a while in the sweet, sturdy home that you have built out of your own intuitive sense of what's really important in your life. Any other issues that are whispering around your door, any worries about the resources that are coming and going aren't so troubling to you from in here. Only ignorance can truly harm you and doing this reminds you that you dwell in wisdom. Take a deep breath in, exhale slowly and be still. 

 Lord Krisna advising Arjuna on the battlefield. A scene from the Bhagavad Gita, one of the most famous and beloved books of the great Indian epic, the  Mahabharata . 

Lord Krisna advising Arjuna on the battlefield. A scene from the Bhagavad Gita, one of the most famous and beloved books of the great Indian epic, the Mahabharata



In his Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle made the point that "no one would choose to live without friends even if he had all other material goods." If there were no humans with whom to share our material wealth (or to whom to show it off!) what would be the significance of wealth? We are truly communal beings, everything given value within the context of living among other humans and the final of the three jewels recognizes and celebrates this. Sangha translates into "community," "association," "assembly," or "company." It refers to a group of people who are gathered together under a common aspiration. To take refuge in sangha means recognizing the support of a community, rallying it to you and reveling in its dynamic embrace. 

In its most literal sense "sangha" means a community of faith, more or less interchangeable with the words, "satsang" or "kula." But I believe that you can have sangha without being part of a spiritual group--you can have it, even, without identifying as a spiritual person. The question is: what do you care about most and where are there other people who also care about that? Can you build relationships of deep trust with these people. 

Growing up my mom used to say that theater was our church. And, though she didn't know this word at the time, we had a strong sangha, made up of the artists and writers and performers that filled our dramatic church. We all cared about something bigger than ourselves--in some communities it's a teacher, or a set of teachings or a mission, and in our case it was the play. No matter how brightly a single individual shone, the play would be a failure unless we all came together as a community. This meant that, especially when we were in production, petty personal differences were left at the door so that we could all open into the vulnerable creative space. We had to build discipline, mutual respect, and a shared set of priorities and guidelines for interaction, otherwise the play would never get up. That took us all some place deeper than personality, into the powerful, transformative, communal work of theater. 

 Me as Wong the Water boy (front and center with the little hair and big grin) in a promo shot for a play that mom directed. Chestertown, MD, 1997. The theater community was our  sangha.  

Me as Wong the Water boy (front and center with the little hair and big grin) in a promo shot for a play that mom directed. Chestertown, MD, 1997. The theater community was our sangha. 

When I started meditating, connecting with the 16 other students in my training was at least as important as connecting with the teachers. I remember the moment when it first struck me that I had a sangha. I was really excited about a romantic interest and then terrified that it might work out badly--like the break up that I described at the beginning of this post! But then I realized that it was different now, because I had 16 people who would pick me back up if I fell down. I knew that I could call any one of them at any hour and be received with a hug, a cup of tea and a dose of empowering wisdom to warm me and set me aright. This is taking refuge in the sangha. The darkness that arose in that moment doesn't visit much anymore. And if begins to, I just reach out for the light of a good friend--or even just reflect on all those people who would be there if I called--and the fear disappears.

Seek out others who share your passions and, when you find them, respect them deeply and give them the opportunity and the impetus to do the same to you. Be real, be vulnerable and take risks in their presence. Have great conversations where, instead of protecting and projecting your own ideas about things, you actually dare to listen to the other person. Eventually we want to treat the whole world as our sangha, respecting and loving and listening and being real in everyone's presence, but for most of us this takes much practice. And a small family of dear friends is the best practice space. 



While I was in the midst of that breakup and so afraid of fear, I did one simple, smart thing and that changed everything. I went to my favorite yoga class with my favorite teacher, Lesley Desaulniers. I had just come down out of a full wheel pose and was resting there on my back, one hand weighing on my heart and one on my belly, when a greet surge of hope went through me.

In that moment I felt a deep certainty that I was being held and supported. I felt that if I could continue to come back to this sacred space more often, if I could spend more time in the presence of this teacher, if I could practice yoga in a more dedicated way, if I could connect with the people all around me who were feeling their breath fall and rise beneath their hands too, who were also on a journey of healing and growth, then I was going to be fine. In that moment the truth broke through and I saw that the stories about me being such a lost cause were available to be rewritten. All of those negative moves that I had made before, all of those "mistakes," had set me up perfectly for this positive experience, for this utterly transformative encounter with wisdom and love. Fear itself had prepared for its dissolution. It had made me available to trust. 

I had been practicing yoga for 7 years but had not dared to deepen my commitment beyond a little 10 minute morning practice each day and 3-5 drop-in classes per month that I would attend willy-nilly, whenever I felt like it. Immediately after this class I signed up to do karma yoga at the studio--cleaning the floors, lighting candles, signing in students, in exchange for free classes. This deepened my commitment to the studio, to the Buddhas who taught there, to the ancient practices that were being passed down there and to the sangha that was its soul. My karma yoga shifts became my favorite times of the week and that inspired me to do a yoga teacher training. 

It was in that training, about six months after my holy heartbreak, that I learned about the Preliminaries and the Three Jewels. I realized that all three of those Jewels had been there to give me refuge on that Sunday morning: 

In Lesley's presence there was a real Buddha, someone who had put aside her ego's agenda to hold and serve the students. She taught real dharma: philosophies, practices and poses for health, evolution and wellbeing that had been passed down through an authentic lineage and tested over the years by her own experience. I was getting a glimpse of my personal dharma path too, connecting to a calling to become a yoga teacher myself. And I was in the presence of a sangha, a group of people gathered to do this deep work, to get vulnerable and get healed, and therefore I could meet my pain and struggle held by their unconditional care.

You have already come a long way. You've stumbled, fallen and gotten back up, you've feared and you've hoped, you've written and re-written the story. And, in the coming stages of the Preliminaries you will be asked to do some more hard work. So this is the moment of pausing in recognition that there is something truly trust-worthy in your life that wants to hold you. Take refuge. Find where your best self is honored, come in from the storm of doubts and shelter yourself there.