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Taking Refuge in the Practice of Presence

Taking Refuge in the Practice of Presence

Upanishads usually close with different chants for peace and are tailed with OM Śānti Śānti Śānti inviting peace in the three loka (worlds) or my preferred interpretation is that they reflect the desire for peace in our hearts, communities and in the universe.

Śānti signifies many qualities connoted by peace – calmness, tranquillity; quietness, rest, ease, equilibrium, order, steadiness. Its roots are शम् : śam – to come to an end, finish, stop; to be calm, contented, quiet, or satisfied; to pacify, settle, soothe and -ति : ti – denoting a state of being.

BKS Iyengar wrote in Light on Life, ‘Before we find peace among nations we have to find peace in the small nation which is our own being’. Of course it is difficult to sit with the suffering of the world. Sometimes we ruminate on it, becoming sad, guilt ridden or feeling helpless to change anything. Other times we might experience a desire not to think of it, to distract ourselves from it. Instead of these extremes, what if we could sit with it, with what is. What if we could kindle peace in our hearts and imagine the boundaries of the body are permeable and visualise that the peace we kindle could pervade into our environment. Of course many of us feel through practice that we do become more peaceful, less reactive and kinder.

Why not for a moment now put this down, close your eyes and sit in silence for a minute or five for peace, if you will. You might consider this poem before you go into that period of silence. Can you sit in peace, ‘with them’ (those in extreme suffering) in mind?

Sylvia Ostertag Poem ‘Peace’

Sitting in silence, 

you should simply

let yourself fully arrive.

Let yourself fully arrive 

in the peace 

of this moment.

How can you actually do that,

let yourself arrive in peace,

given there are so many people 

who tragically 

have to suffer 

from the lack of peace in the world?

Given there are so many people 

who, in one way or another, 

find themselves

in overwhelming need 

and unspeakable suffering?

Can it do them good

if – with them in mind – 


let themselves arrive 

in the peace 

of this moment?

In the poem Ostertag refers to the importance of silence – it is interesting to consider why we offer silence in the face of suffering sometimes? Why might stillness/meditation/prayer have their place in certain situations as much as or more than action/activism?

In a podcast by Tara Brach, she introduces the following equation: obstruction X resistance = suffering. Of course some obstacles can be overcome and so we might jump into action/activism to do so. However, Brach uses the example of chronic pain as an obstacle, which – because it cannot be overcome – when resisted can lead to additional suffering. Hence, the equation above. It reminded me of the AA ‘Serenity Prayer’:

‘God grant me the serenity

To accept the things I cannot change;

Courage to change the things I can;

And wisdom to know the difference.’

Rather than guilt that others are suffering or denying or ignoring their suffering, maybe it is possible to acknowledge their pain, to offer meditation or ‘prayer’ if that word isn’t too loaded.

The role of practice in face of personal suffering and global suffering can be coined as one of taking refuge. I love this language more than that of  yoga providing tools or skills; tools sometimes make life and practice sound like ‘work’. For me, refuge is a wonderful expression for the role practising being present through yoga has in my life. It expresses my longing to remember that I am not the contracted vision I have of myself, that I am part of a greater web of humanity and universal energy and that through the practice of presence I experience acceptance, even love for myself as part of that oneness.

False Refuge

What could refuge mean in this context? Well, Brach delineates true refuge from the idea of false refuge. Let’s consider false refuges before coming to true refuge. Brach describes false refuge as our conditioning to pedal a bike away from presence when it feels uncomfortable, then the more we feel challenged the faster we pedal away.

When we are drawn into false refuges we get smaller, we contract and go into old strategies. Some of these might be, (1) staying busy; checking things off a list, we violate natural rhythms with the deep desire to remain productive. When busy we miss what is present. (2) Avoiding unpleasantness; over consuming – buying/eating/dopamine hits online, sleeping, destructive comfort patterns, caffeine and other addictions. (3) planning, worrying, craving, avoiding. (4) Anger and blame; instead of sitting with discomfort we lash out. Of course a little of these just make us human, but when we get into a relationship in which we are ‘using’ them for shelter from an uncomfortable experience, they can become harmful.

Brach suggests that false refuges keep us pedalling away from presence. However, our conditioning to pedal away from presence in the face of adversity is universal. So judging this in ourselves is unkind and another false refuge to take us further away from presence. 

True Refuge

First we might become aware of our relationship to false refuges. True refuge helps us to meet the reality of whatever is truly happening for us in the present with compassion. 

Practice: Taking refuge in the practice and the teachings of being present and cultivating awareness. In this, we entrust ourselves to the waves of experience. Importantly, we stop pedalling: we stay with what is, rather than reframing or avoiding. We step out of your own storyline to experience presence.

Community: Taking refuge in our loving relationships, common ground and shared experience: Brach relays that when asked, ‘Aren’t good friends half of this holy life’, the Buddha answered, ’No, good friends are the whole of this holy life’. False refuge is experienced as separation, isolation or feeling lesser than or better than. Refuge is a state of belonging. Desikachar said, ‘The success of Yoga does not lie in the ability to perform postures but in how it positively changes the way we live our lives and our relationships’.

Awakening into the present moment: Taking refuge in presence, awareness, a sense of oneness/stillness. Maybe we haven’t experienced this fully, but often when flow states are described there is a sense of being one with other beings or nature and maybe these experiences of oneness or awakening into presence can be glimpsed before they are fully experienced. 

A lovely teacher from the Oxford Zen Centre, Sandy Chubb, said to me in a private meeting, ‘There is so much compassion in the present moment’. I do believe that sitting with what is can help healing – whether that is a minute’s silence kindling peace for the war torn parts of the world each day or sitting for a minute to offer compassion to a pain or experience of your own, the moments of presence are powerful.

Of course it may seem trite for me, a woman of privilege living in the UK, to write of such things as war and finding inner peace. I have not experienced war. However, TS Elliott’s famous poem ‘The Wasteland’ was written after WWI and closes with Sanskrit lines from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad and it is one of his few hints of hope in the barrenness of the times.

‘Datta (to be charitable) Dayadhvam (to have compassion) Damyata (to be self controlled or restrained)

Śānti Śānti Śānti (peace, peace, peace)*’

*Translations in brackets are my addition.

Likewise, Etty Hillesum – a Dutch Jew in Amsterdam who died in the Holocaust – prior to her death wrote, ‘Ultimately we have just one moral duty, to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace and to reflect it to others,’ and elsewhere ‘sometimes the most important thing in a day is the rest we take between two breaths  or the turning inwards in prayer for five short minutes”. Where you can, if you can, find time to sit with peace in your heart and offer peace to yourself and those who most need it right now. 

Tara Brach ‘Taking Refuge’ : On Spotify