It is both human nature and culturally instilled behavior to seek lasting security, happiness and transcendent meaning amidst the roller coaster ride of fleeting conditions: sexy pleasures followed by gastric discomforts, financial gains followed by losses, approval one day, criticism the next; our 15 minutes of fame giving way to insignificance.
Just as the youth of today may respond with blank expressions when The Clash is mentioned (this has already happened), so too will Miley Cyrus’ ascendance prove ephemeral. In hunting down and latching onto what feels good, we inevitably experience the disappointment that arises when day gives way to night or, faster still, when we become accustomed to and bored with a shiny new iPad. In bad country songs they call this “looking for love in all the wrong places.”
The Buddha explained that the run-of-the-mill materialist pursuit of happiness turns quickly from a habit to addiction, as we chase new satisfactions to replace the old comforts that are slipping away. In other words, we need more approval, more fame, more wealth, more pleasure.
This “more is better” mindset is, as previously noted, enshrined by the vast information vehicles of capitalism, including its educational and cultural institutions, and such views resonate neatly with the human mind’s innate reward circuitry.
Our default setting is to reward ourselves with a jolt of dopamine when something gives us a moment’s feeling of power, advantage or control, even despite the downside; it may sound harsh, but the fast forward version of material happiness is revealed by those before and after photographs of meth addicts, who throw away vitality for an artificial high. Until we liberate ourselves, we’re all essentially addicts, though some of us are enslaved to what’s culturally permissible, such as shopping, gambling, work, sex, food, even the approval of narcissistic self-fixation. No matter what drug we choose, life is still slipping by and none of the above supplies us with lasting contentment.
As the rewards accrued from working and spending become increasingly hollow, a fear arises: “Holy shit. I’m still not happy! I must be missing out on something.” This leaves us even more exposed and susceptible to manipulation: We may even buy into the barrage of messages insinuating that “you are what you have” and the delusion that, somewhere out there, in those glassy modernist towers, people live without ever experiencing aging or illness, completely free of sadness, depression or frustration. If we could only find the perfect job to buy a roomy condo in one of those buildings with spectacular river views, closets wedged with fabulous clothes, our dinner parties would attract all the right people. And then, as sophisticated friends laughed at our jokes and never tired of offering admiration… we’d finally be inoculated from pain and everything would turn out just swell.
And so happiness is always somewhere down the line, and this very moment is incapable of providing us with anything worthwhile. If we can get through this moment, then that moment, surely some moment sometime will be a suitable one to really relax and enjoy life. It’s akin to a highway where signs tell us that the rest stop is always a little further down the road; we can only stop when we finally run out of gas.
Craving for more keeps the economy buzzing as it chews up our resources and turns us into competitors, mistrusting, viewing each other as obstacles, fighting over slices of an ever-dwindling cake. The result of trying to consume happiness via Amazon is the demise of few other small things, such as egalitarianism, freedom of thought and social purpose.
In the course of a couple of decades we’ve moved from connecting with each other by hanging out on stoops and in parks, known as shooting the breeze, to posting selfies on Facebook and snarky comments on Twitter. As they say, the silence we receive for all these efforts is deafening.
Meanwhile, renowned philanthropists assure us that the world’s continuing, all too pesky problems, such as starvation and genocidal conflicts, can be easily solved by the distribution of laptops and smart phones.
The Buddha compared such a life to “fish flapping about in a shrinking puddle of water.” One doesn’t need to be a psychologist to know that constant busyness is a symptom of avoidance, for when we run out of fuel and idle to a full stop, what do we experience? The voidness of meaning that is simply surviving in this world.
But, if we’re lucky, eventually we may stumble upon a powerful, if devastating insight: having more only leaves us wanting more; the karma of craving is a thirst that can never be quenched; as The Buddha noted, “the world is not enough to satisfy our craving.” This is known as samsara, the day after day a hustle on the treadmill of “I must make more to get more” existence.
Alienated from consumerism, we may try to locate alternative sources of happiness in other false refuges. For example, the flood of information provided by the internet, the capability to Wikipedia this or that, fosters a belief that knowledge alone offers us the higher meaning we seek. But filling the mind with information is essentially a prettified version of seeking security by lining ours pockets or filling up our living rooms with gadgets and flat screens.
No matter how many books we read about Buddhism, for example, we’ll never know true peace; it’s like claiming we know what it is to swim from descriptions and diagrams. Knowing what causes fear doesn’t make us any less afraid; understanding why we behave in one way or another doesn’t calm the mind or liberate our hearts.
Another existential dead end is the hope that lasting satisfaction can be found in filling our days with an endless array of exciting thrills and experiences. Many want to believe that in hiking the Himalayas, traversing the Andes, spelunking Mexico’s caves of crystals, or taking ayuasca in Peruvian sweat lodges will keep emptiness at bay and reveal life’s meaning, expunging our deep-rooted dissatisfaction.
While new experiences have their place, they provide as much lasting inner peace as impulsive sex with multiple partners provides true intimacy. Thrills are a lot of fun, they add spice to life, but we’re in for a big letdown if this is where we hoping serenity is hiding.
Some may answer all the above by replying that “belief in God” is the solution. And for many it is, I hear. However, for the rest of us who, in the darkest hours of insomnia or confusion or despair have found earnest prayers for direction unanswered, we are fortunate that the Buddha’s awakening provided us with another path, one that provides three sources of refuge, each of which can liberate the heart and fill our lives with purpose.
These refuges answer questions we’ve been asking over the course of lifetimes: What can I really rely on unconditionally? What can always provide me with comfort and direction, in any situation? What can nor will ever abandon me? And before we answer too quickly, note that refuge is not subject to change, nor does it desert us during times of affliction.
The key to these refuges lies in understanding one simple but profound truth: what really matters in life is how we react to situations and circumstances, rather than the situations and circumstances in and of themselves.
As neuroscientists explain, neurons that fire together wire together; how we use our brains shapes and molds our brains; our present attitudes produce our future perspectives. So we can travel to the most peaceful locations the world has to offer, spend our lives pampered in a spa, but it doesn’t mean that we’ll be serene in years to follow.
However, if we learn to respond to fear and ignorance with calmness and creativity, we will indeed be graced with a comfortable and unflappable psyche, and what could be more worthwhile?
So let’s explore these refuges.
1. We Take Refuge in the Buddha
As we abandon our shopping carts and gain a little distance from the bargain hunters, we are invited by the Buddha to contemplate being in and of itself. This means becoming aware of what we are left with when we drop the belief that true peace isn’t available right here and now. We’re asked to finally put to test the delusion that we’re something missing important, or there’s something wrong with us we need to fix. In cultivating a receptive, curious mindfulness, we release our fixation from the regime of improvement in favor of opening those vast wonders already available within.
Being alive is an amazing experience, filled with interwoven processes of breathing and movements that are all too easy to overlook. In meditation, we lie down not to sleep, nor do we walk to get anywhere; we lie down, sit, stand, or walk simply to experience those states for the depth, beauty and wisdom they contain.
Having a brain gives us more processing power than all the world’s computers combined; as the Buddha noted, we develop capabilities more astonishing than traveling the universe when we explore the inner resources of the mind.
In this journey we awaken to the intrinsic marvels of life itself. Breathing, in and of itself, is astonishing if we observe it with enough persistence. Under close inspection, each inhalation and exhalation are different than those which came before or may come after.
It’s as revolutionary as the insights of Marx, Freud or Darwin: taking a break from mundane narratives and dramas, we open to the unavoidable experiences of life; yes, we will have the pains and losses felt by all beings, but we can actually enjoy the ceaseless parade of perceptions, feelings, thoughts and moods, as we learn to rest in our seat of non-reactive awareness.
In opening to this wonder, we find refuge in the Buddha, whose name means nothing other than the state of being awake.
2. We Take Refuge in the Dharma
In the search for that which doesn’t abandon, we note that certain skills in life never go away. Neurally ingrained in the innermost mechanisms of the brain, the learned competence to swim, draw, play an instrument invariably remain intact, despite the passage of time.
Implicit memories and behaviors require little cognitive oversight and can be universally learned independent of our personal history, abilities or lack thereof, even despite numerous disadvantages or traumatic experiences.
Through patient repetition, we encode in our neural pathways the ability to pause rather than react defensively, to risk intimacy rather than avoid the unknown, to know that all conditions will eventually pass, to examine our own thoughts and behaviors when we hope to identify the cause of our suffering.
It has been written that it takes thousands of hours of practice to complete the transition from awkward dabbling to consummate expertise. As someone who’s been meditating for 30 years, I believe it takes longer, at least in my case. And spiritual progress does not always grow easier, for their are times when depression, fear, or uncertainty may feel overwhelming. Losses of all kinds will test our conviction.
Yet we continue the practice of letting go of distractions, developing some healthy doubt about the veracity of our inner autobiographies, we can trust instead in the simple wisdom of karma. As the Buddha explained about awakening: “Ignorance will be destroyed, and all that is true revealed to one who is aware and persistent.”
3. We Take Refuge in the Sangha
It should be noted that true refuge doesn’t come entirely from inner resources. Meaningful, secure, empathetic connection to others is an absolute requisite for developing any regulation of our emotions, respite from our feelings of uniqueness and separation.
In the reassuring glance of another spiritual practitioner, received as we disclose our most challenging urges and emotions, we locate a bond and care that heals even the deepest wounds inflicted when shamed, abandoned, rejected.
As the Buddha taught, “I do not see any quality by which the skillful arises and the unskillful subsides than friendship with admirable people… [From our teachers] we learn what is beautiful in the beginning, the middle and the end, surpassingly pure. The spiritual life is one of mutual dependence, for together we can cross over the flood of ignorance” by which he means the craving and influences that push us in the wrong direction.
Connecting with others is the most challenging of the refuge, for it requires a risk even greater than sitting and observing the inner horror shows and ludicrous fantasies the mind can project. In opening our hearts to others, we risk once again being deserted and shunned, that which we fear the most. But there’s really no alternative; openness and honesty are the foundations of trust, and so resilience, even if it’s born of the desperation of loneliness, is key.
We can develop this skill incrementally, taking calculated risks, that’s fine, but take the plunge — it’s worth it.
4. For the Purposes of Training, We Take the Precepts
In entering the spiritual journey, it’s not enough to commit ourselves to the destination, we have to “seal the deal” by renouncing actions that sabotage our pilgrimage, loading us down with the heavy baggage of guilt, shame and unworthiness.
To use the analogy of climbing a mountain to attain a beautiful vantage, the trails are often difficult and require relinquishing that which is slows us down; some trails may even lead us in the wrong direction. So the refuges do not appear merely by belief, as in other spiritual faiths; they result from actively letting go of what derails and detracts.
In leading peaceful, ethical lives, the relationships necessary to sustain harmony with others and gain strength from our peers would only be scarred by aggression, addiction, or careless impulses.
And so together, we undertake the most basic tenets found in the Buddha’s teaching of Pancila, or precepts. For the purposes of training, we abstain from taking life, taking what is not given, sexual misconduct, harmful speech, or heedless intoxication.
Finally, it should be noted that the precepts should not be mistaken for the commandments found in theistic spiritual paths.
In our spiritual transformation, we will stumble and fall short, and while others may judge us for our mistakes, its important to keep going and put aside self-judgment; the process is simply one of learning from mistakes and returning to our practice with renewed conviction. A slip of the tongue or reactive impulse does not require us to weigh down our minds with self-belittling verdicts or excuses. We’re on a journey that requires perseverance and forgiveness, of ourselves and others.
As the Buddha assures in the wonderful Kalammas sutta: “If there no life after this one, no rebirth, then, at the very least, by refraining from harmfulness in this life, I will live with ease, a mind clear of the agitation born of hostility, animosity, free from all the trouble such actions bring.”
What a wonderful promise, ease and freedom, a state more comforting than anything purchased and consumed. It is, as the saying goes, the only game in town.