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The Way I See It: Winter Refuge

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“Stepping out of the busyness, stopping our endless pursuit of getting somewhere else, is perhaps the most beautiful offering we can make to our spirit.” 

—Tara Brach, “True Refuge: Finding Peace and Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart”

Recently, I was gifted the completely unexpected pleasure of a four-day solo retreat, not too far from where I live, but just far enough to make a difference. 

My retreat — a small, cozy home, nestled on the eastern flank of the Green Mountains — was perfect for a few days to myself. 

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I even savored the novelty of visiting the local grocery store to purchase some supplies for retreating: candles, cheese, pasta, chocolate chip cookies, and some extra rolls of toilet paper. In the store, I relished the feeling of anonymity, even though geographically I was just a few rolling hills and valleys from home. 

During those four days, I quickly settled into a simple rhythm that nourished my soul. I went to bed early and woke up refreshed. I walked, journaled, read, and savored simple meals cooked mindfully. I ate in front of a picture window instead of my computer. 

Sometimes I just listened. I felt present, alive, grateful, and content. I marveled that I had no plans for this brief winter respite, but there it was, laid out before me like a sacred opportunity. 

Slowly, my pandemic-weary spirit awakened to the simple beauty of sunrises, morning birdsong, the flow of crystal clear water in the brook behind the house, the immense quiet of a starry winter night, and an intimacy with my own spirit that I hadn’t felt so acutely in quite some time. 

At other times, I might have been afraid. I haven’t always relished being “way out in the country,” alone, in rural Vermont. This time was different. I felt a sense of true belonging, of welcome and even hospitality. It was as if the tall trees were saying “Welcome, you have arrived, you are home.” 

Upon reflection, I had no idea how much I needed space for solitude and introspection. For stepping out of my normal routine and into what philosopher Micheal Meade calls “deep time.” 

Going “on retreat” was not on my list of New Year’s intentions. In fact, these days it’s felt pretty impossible. I’ve made peace with letting go of the yearly pilgrimage to my favorite yoga center and the necessity of cancelling all the retreats I lead as part of my business. Fully accustomed to a totally new “pandemic rhythm” that requires much time at home, grounded, I had forgotten how much my spirit craves intermittent time away.

Recently, I attended a weekly meditation with Tara Brach, one of my favorite teachers, who explained the Buddhist concept of “true refuge.” I found it to be a perfect contemplation for the new year. 

False refuges are the “easy buttons” we reach for when we don’t want to feel our feelings. They include things such as addictions, over-consumption of television and media, workaholism, seeking approval, and even over-thinking. In essence, anything that keeps us from being truly present with the moment, as it is.

True refuge, by contrast, is resting into the truth of the moment, no matter what is happening; leaning into our support circles of friends and healthy connections; and waking up to our own “buddha (or true) nature,” beyond the layers of fear, shame, doubt, and conditioning. 

In essence, it’s resting at home in ourselves and the full raw, wild experience of life without reaching for things to numb, suppress, or control it. It’s also our sense of deep belonging to each other and to the life that is right in front of us.

Quite honestly, we don’t have to “go somewhere” on retreat to find this refuge that lives right inside of our souls. Yet sometimes a little distance from our daily hustle can help support us in gaining a new perspective or just refilling the well of our spirit.  

I am grateful for a few days of retreat during this quiet, contemplative time of year, for the refuge of a cozy home in the mountains, and the renewal that comes when we allow ourselves to slow down for a while.