Lightning flashed and a minute later, thunder rumbled. Towering black anvil-headed clouds loomed over Eagle Cap, the tallest peak of the Wallowa Mountains. My previous wife, Kathleen, and I, hurried our children along a high mountain trail toward our intended camp in a sheltered meadow a half-mile ahead. Luke, then eight, and Tara, four, sporting daypacks, scurried along ahead of our pack llamas, Titan and Buttercup. The llamas, accustomed to the altitudes of the high Andes, were unimpressed by the changing weather. They padded along on soft sturdy feet.
Suddenly tree branches whipped back and forth and our nylon jackets flapped and snapped in the wind. My face stung with the sudden drop in air temperature to near
freezing. The children huddled close in fear as I studied the map. Now the lightning and the echoing kaboom crashed in tight sequence. I realized the storm was ripping in our direction. I knew we shouldn’t risk exposure to the thunderstorm at such an altitude. I had to decide quickly. I thought: it would be fifteen minutes to the meadow. Too long. Could we pull out the tent fly and bivouac under the trees? Too cold, I reasoned, and too vulnerable to lightning.
The map indicated an “abandoned structure” two hundred yards to the west. I wondered: Will it still be there? Will it provide refuge for us?
FLASH. KABOOM. One second apart. The storm loomed overhead.
“Okay,” I said, “let’s head for the abandoned cabin. We can run there in just a few minutes.”
We crashed through the forest, panting. Huge drops of rain began to splatter as we burst into a small clearing holding a dilapidated log structure, about the size of a one
car garage, and just tall enough to stand up in. All I could think about was getting the family under cover. Just before entering, I checked for bears and noticed the roof was partly caved in.
Once my three loved ones were safe inside, I sped around securing the llamas under a pine tree, unloaded the packs, and threw our gear inside. At that moment a blast of
half-inch hail beat through the ragged ceiling. The explosions of light and thunder were almost continuous.
Kathleen and I swept away porcupine quills and set up the tent. Soon everyone was bundled in sleeping bags and happily cradling cups of hot chocolate. The children’s fear turned to giddiness as they realized we were safe. I breathed a quiet sigh of relief. Mapmakers and cabin builders of long ago had provided guidance and refuge for us, and I was thankful.
Since the time of the Buddha, countless people have taken refuge of another sort in a spiritual community, or sangha. They have sought ways to awaken and support one another in weathering the inner and outer storms of life. You and I are the beneficiaries of a long lineage of beings who discovered the teachings of the Buddha and grew wise, compassionate and loving, and who passed these teachings on to us.
Our need of refuge is as great as ever in human history. Despite the protections and comforts of modern life, the possibility of all forms of suffering threatens us more than any approaching storm. We are born into soft human/mammalian bodies that are vulnerable to injury, and hypersensitive to pleasure and pain. Our capacity of thinking allows the ignorant mind to create suffering based on the remembered past and the imagined future. Sickness, disappointment, separation, old age, and death, are some of our closest companions. Recent events in the world have revealed that we cannot truly be safe anywhere. The supports of tribe and extended family have practically vanished. We live in the midst of many people, yet often without the kind of contact we need. No wonder there is so much anxiety and depression.
When we are buffeted by the storms of our daily lives and have exhausted our methods of avoidance and defense, a moment of intuition sometimes arises and we become interested in what is happening inside our being. This desire to understand ourselves leads some of us to the Dharma and the systematic study of the body/mind in meditation. We often begin this inner journey thinking tha t it will reduce stress, or
give us some relief from a mood or physical pain. The result of meditation practice, however, is not only a change in perception or the ability to relax. Instead it is a transformation of worldview and our sense of identity. It precipitates a revolution in consciousness that makes all of our beliefs, thoughts and perceptions transparent.
As this revelatory process continues and accelerates, we may begin to discover that the world is not as it has seemed, and that we don’t quite fit into it as we once did. Our values may shift, imperceptibly but profoundly, and we sometimes experience a need for new kinds of friendship and community that our former acquaintances are unable to provide. Sometimes a quiet and profound loneliness, confusion, or sense of isolation, will arise as we realize the futility of trying to find lasting happiness through the senses. We wonder what is wrong with us when the old satisfactions begin wearing thin. We become interested in talking about our inner experiences. As our awareness deepens, we start noticing that even our most cherished separate self is fluid. We feel a need to huddle among others on the same trail.
Without the sheltering refuge of community, when such challenges as these are experienced, many of us will abandon meditation. Just when it is most essential to pause, sit down, and allow the reality of the moment to reveal itself, we distract ourselves. We become disinterested, bored, or filled with doubts about our practice. It’s as if we’ve wadded the map and tossed it into the forest.