Refuge: Finding a Place of Rest in the Middle of Things

Doreen Schweizer

Find rest in the middle of things (Frank Ostaseski’s Third Precept).

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 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.

For me, December 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 death. I had been one of the main coordinators of her large caring network for several years. We worked diligently and courageously together to get her home, out of the nursing home and rehab facility she had landed in after an emergency hospitalization. As hospice care was being set up for her in her home across the street from me, the domestic hot water in my own house, which comes from the furnace, gradually stopped working. This situation 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 morning and had come home to make some phone calls to her friends and family and her minister, and perhaps to take some time to meditate; but I was abruptly called back for her death. Thankfully, I took some time then to sit with her body and the manifest stillness of her passing: cessation. The others picked up the momentum of life. Soon I joined them in the tasks of notifying relatives and friends, washing her body, calling the undertaker …. There is always another thing for the living to do.

Over the next days, the work of cleaning out my friend’s apartment and her belongings got underway. The little Christmas shopping and mailing that I do got started and finished in one day. I got everything to the post office at five p.m. on the last possible day for them to arrive on time. 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 a second, totally unrelated boiler issue. He got it fixed by evening, just before a rainy ice storm made traveling around 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 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 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 ethnic 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.”

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. Remorse, regret, worry, or doubt can torment our minds. These are considered unskillful states because they make things worse. They contribute to increasing distress for oneself and for others. For me, Refuge entails the absence of these states, or at least the non-identification with them. Sharon Salzberg once framed the Buddha’s quest to be finding lasting happiness in a world where everything is changing.

In a discourse that describes the Buddha’s final weeks of life, his chief attendant, Ananda, senses and expresses great fear, confusion, and despair at the Buddha’s impending death. The Buddha answers with this advice:

Therefore, Ananda,
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.

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