Meditation on Refuge

Review — The Emotional State for Taking Refuge

In the previous session, we spoke about the importance and necessity of putting a positive direction in our life. We saw that refuge is a direction in which we protect ourselves from difficulties. We went through a whole list of difficulties that we face in life that prevent us from gaining happiness. 

Further, we saw that, on the most basic level, happiness comes from a feeling of connectedness with others. This sense of connection is developed by refraining from destructive behavior, and we experience it when people are now confident that we are not going to do anything to hurt them. Basically, they trust us; they know we’re not going to be nasty to them. Friendship is based on the foundation of this trust. With this as the basis, then, in order to be happy, to have more connection with others, we need to refrain from getting angry with them, from being pushy and selfish with others. Generally, we open up our hearts and do not just think about ourselves. 

All of these negative ways of behaving destructively – such as anger, closed-mindedness, closed-heartedness, etc. – lead us to develop a sense of being just horrified at our behavior; we usually refer to this as fear. “Well, I’m afraid that I’m going to continue to be like this, which will continue to cut me off from others, leading to loneliness, depression and unhappiness.” However, we realize that it’s not hopeless; we are not helpless in this situation. We recognize that there is a way to overcome all of these self-destructive obstacles. 

We also discussed how it is possible for the brain and the mind to forge new pathways, new habits. It is possible to change, as in that example of learning to use our left hand if our right hand is paralyzed. Then, if we forge new pathways, we can overcome fear − for example, the fear of opening our minds and hearts to others. The mind is perfectly capable of being open, not just closed, stubborn, or afraid of anything that is new or different. In short, we have this fear; we’re horrified of things continuing in a bad direction. We also have confidence that it is possible to change and open up. Then, there’s compassion. We do all of this because we’re thinking of others, so that we can be more connected with others, even if just on a selfish level, and then go from that selfish level all the way up to benefiting them.

Fear, confidence and compassion are the three causes of refuge that we have. We put them together as the emotional state for taking refuge, for putting this positive and safe direction in our lives. Please note that I’m presenting all of this on a very basic level before we get into, technically, Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. We first need to understand the general idea of what’s behind refuge and safe direction before we go into further details, because this whole idea of putting this safe direction in our life is actually very beneficial for everybody. We don’t have to be a Buddhist. What becomes uniquely Buddhist here is speaking in terms of, “What are the sources that we can be totally confident in and entrust ourselves to, who are capable of showing us the way to becoming a Buddha!” So, it’s not just about going in some more positive direction in general in life; instead, it’s about identifying and entrusting ourselves to those who can guide us, through all the stages, up to the ultimate goal of enlightenment, and being convinced that they are reliable guides and that we can reach these goals. Well, we don’t even have to believe in that ultimate goal to at least go in that direction. 

Meditation — Having an Effect on Ourselves

We speak of Dharma, just in a very general way, as the methods that Buddha taught. Many of these methods, anybody can follow, even without believing in rebirth and so on. If we speak in general of Sangha, we don’t have to necessarily think of the community of aryas who have had nonconceptual cognition of voidness. We can just gain some strength from knowing that there are others who are also working in this direction. So, when we speak about refuge, we need to start by having some fundamental level of it, which is this very basic level of working on ourselves. When we’re going in this direction, we’re horrified of just messing things up further and further in life, and we’re confident that we can change as we are working toward being more connected with others. 

Then, step by step, we can work through the lam-rim, checking our motivation, etc., to aim for enlightenment. However, this basic direction is underlying the whole path. It’s the foundation. Otherwise, it’s very easy to be practicing Buddhist methods – especially advanced ones of visualization, tantra, recitation and mantras and all these things – but we’re not really applying it to changing ourselves, to making some improvement in our life. We’re just sort of doing it for whatever reason it might be, and it’s not having an effect on the way that we deal with everyday situations in life. This is missing the whole point, as the main point of any of these practices is self-transformation. Working on ourselves, overcoming shortcomings, realizing more good qualities and being of more help to others – all the Dharma methods are intended to support our transformation.

Now, what are the basic methods that we use to actually meditate? Meditation means building up this habit of putting this safe direction in our life. There’s a general method that is used, which is applied to several different types of meditation in the Dharma teachings. It’s using the imagination – a lot of the methods in Buddhism employ the imagination – and here we imagine in three stages, three different situations. These are: 

  • Falling off a cliff 
  • Just about to fall off the edge of a cliff, and 
  • Going on a conveyor belt toward the edge of a cliff, where we are going to fall off. 

Whether we use a cliff or the roof of a skyscraper, it doesn’t really matter. 

First, we identify what it is that we are falling into. We can start with some general examples; like, for instance a state of depression, loneliness or isolation. These are all states that we would be horrified to fall into. For instance, thinking, “I’m an old person, and I just want to stay in my apartment, as I’m lonely, isolated and depressed.” First of all, we are horrified at this, and we really don’t want this to happen. Further, we understand that these feelings are being caused by our closed-mindedness, complaining all the time and thinking only of ourselves. Basically, any time that anybody visits, we are just completely unpleasant to be with.

Second, in addition to being horrified that this is happening, or continuing to happen, we are confident that it’s possible to stop this behavior and build up better habits. We think of others, “If I’m like this with everybody, not only do they not want to be with me, but it makes them unbelievably unhappy. It leaves them in a horrible state of mind after they have been with me. And I don’t want that. I don’t want them to experience this.” And so, with this three-step meditation, we first imagine that we are falling into that depression – we’re already on our way down into it, and we think, “Wow, I really don’t want this to happen; I want to put some safe direction in my life to avoid this depression.” 

And then the second step: we’re just on the edge of falling into that horrible state of mind, and feeling “Wow, I really don’t want this!” and then we put that safe direction in. Then the third step is where we’re a little way back from the cliff, but we’re heading in that direction, if we continue acting the way that we do. And so we say, “Wow, I’ve got to stop. There is a possible safe direction that I can go in, and I’m going to put that direction in my life, I’m going to work on myself, so that when I’m with others I’m not going to complain all the time.” That’s the threefold way that we meditate on refuge.

Obviously, we could do this with imagining falling into a hell, but we don’t have to restrict ourselves to that classic way of meditating. Going into some horrible, isolated depression – that’s a hell enough that we want to avoid. The classic form is imagining we are falling into a hell. So, let’s try to do this meditation.

Guided Threefold Meditation on Refuge

First, as with any meditation, we need to quiet down. We usually do this by focusing on the breath. The breath is quite helpful because we have to let go of each breath, as we can’t hold our breath forever. As we breathe out each time, whatever tension, whatever other thoughts we’re having, etc., we try to let go with our exhaling of the breath. This helps us to calm down, to quiet down. It also connects us with our body, so that we do not just become lost in our thoughts, and this, in a sense, helps to ground us. 

Then, we bring to mind what this state of being depressed, lonely, isolated, or bitter is like. For example, the state of mind that feels that “Nobody loves me.” We don’t have to actually generate it, but just remember it.  Then we think, “This is something really horrifying – a horrible state of mind. I certainly don’t want this. I would be horrified if this happened to me.” 

Then think, “I’m afraid that it’s going to happen if I don’t change. However, I’m confident that it is possible to change. The brain has this neuroplasticity, as the mind is flexible. It is possible to change my habits – to stop complaining and acting in such an unpleasant way that just drives people away.”

“I can open up my heart to others. I don’t have to be so closed off, thinking only of myself, and wanting to complain about everything that’s happening to me, me, me – not caring about anybody else.”

Then, we think, “I care about others and the effect my behavior has on them. I don’t want to make them unhappy by the way that I’m behaving.” So, we develop compassion.

Now, we imagine that we are falling into this state of depression, isolation or loneliness. We haven’t hit the complete bottom yet, but we’re falling into it. Being horrified at this, confident that we can change and having compassion for others, then, we have this strong resolution, this strong aim: “I’m going to put some positive direction in my life and work on overcoming my negative behavior.” It’s like we were falling, and now we want to change our direction and fly back up.

Then, we imagine a similar situation where we’re just on the edge of a cliff, about to fall. Again, horrified of falling, thinking: “Ahhh! But I’m confident that I can stop, as I’m concerned about everybody else.” And then in that mode of holding back from falling, go in a positive direction. 

And then, thirdly, we see that we’re heading toward the edge of a cliff. We’re not there yet, but we see that if we continue acting the way that we’ve been acting, it’s going to bring us closer and closer to that edge. We think, “I really want to avoid this, it’s so horrifying. So, I’m going to put this safe direction in my life now, to avoid this. I’m confident that I can go in that positive direction, as I’m concerned about the effect of what I’m doing on everybody else.” And we move instead in a safe direction.

Finally, we end the meditation with focusing on the breath again so that we can quiet and settle back down.

Basically, this is the structure of the meditation on refuge. We fill in many different hellish types of situations that we want to avoid, and then, on the other side, we can fill in a clearer idea of what it means to go in a positive direction, in terms of entrusting ourselves to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha and going in the safe direction of what they teach us. However, the structure of the meditation is the same three steps we just had. First, we need to understand the structure of the meditation, then we can fill in the details. 


Is there an instruction that doesn’t include fear? I’ve been working for a long time on developing the positive sides of things in my life, and I think that fear is the thing that blocks everything, and doesn’t allow good things to happen.

Well, this is why I think it’s important to differentiate two types of fear. There’s the fear that comes along with the feeling of “It’s hopeless. I’m helpless, there’s nothing I can do.” This paralyzes us, as it’s a very negative type of fear. However, there’s a positive type of fear, which is knowing that there is a way to avoid something that we want to avoid, and so we realize that we’re not helpless. This type of fear drives us to avoid what we don’t want to experience. 

For example, let’s say that we’re taking a splinter out of our finger or something out of our eye, we might think, “Well, I am afraid that I’m going to make it worse! But I know that if I’m careful, I can avoid that.” Why do we want to be careful? It’s because we don’t want to hurt ourselves. There’s a strong feeling that “I don’t want to hurt myself.” What do we call this? Is it fear? Is it dread? Are we just horrified at the idea that we’re going to stick this needle in our eye, or something like that? What do we call it? It’s really difficult here to identify the exact word to describe this strong feeling. 

I used to use the word “dread.” I don’t know if you have that word in Russian, but the example that I often used was: “I have this appointment with somebody that really is horribly boring, and I really don’t want to go to this meeting, but I have to go to this meeting. I’m not afraid of the meeting, but I dread going to it.” 

My latest thinking – it’s always changing – is that dread is not a strong enough emotion. For example, when I say that I dread being in an old age home, where nobody comes to visit me, and I’m just sitting there by myself feeling horrible, that word isn’t strong enough. In a sense, I do dread this, but even more, I find it horrifying. I really don’t want to have that horrible type of feeling. It’s not quite fear and it’s stronger than dread. Now, I’m playing with this word “horrifying,” as it has to be a strong emotion, but not one that paralyzes us.

In other words, this is supposed to be a helpful state of mind, not a state of mind that is going to be an obstacle. Then, we try to work with that horrified feeling of dread and have it be a helpful state of mind that fits this general category of being horrified, afraid of, or dreading happening – but not such that it is a feeling that paralyzes me, because it goes together with the confidence that there’s a way to avoid what we fear. It’s not just fear that is the only motivation. Fear, plus confidence that there’s a way to avoid it, plus thinking, “I want to avoid it not just because of me, but because I want to be better able to help others, as it’s hurting not just me, but everybody else! If I’m stuck in a hell, how can I help anybody, if I’m stuck there for a couple of eons?”

Remember, there are three types of belief, or confidence, that we combine here. The first is based on reason – that we can change and that it is reasonable to have confidence in that. Of course, it makes sense that we can change, we can avoid negative behavior. The clear-headed type of confidence is the one that clears us of any disturbing emotions. So that earlier type of helpless fear would be the negative aspect of fear; if we are confident that we can change and there is a trustworthy method we can follow, we don’t have that paralyzing type of fear. We have the healthy type of fear. And then, the aspiration type of confidence, where we feel, “I’m confident I can go in that direction and so I aspire to do that.”

It’s difficult for me to visualize my personal hellish situations, because it doesn’t stimulate fear so much. So, is it possible, in this case, to imagine the big problems of our society, for example? The ability to be involved in war for instance, or will it be just an attempt of my mind to avoid my personal real problems?

His Holiness the Dalai Lama always says that we need to think in terms of larger social problems, like war, etc. However, where we can have some effect is to start with ourselves. That’s why the main focus in the beginning is working on ourselves, and then spreading that more and more to those around us. This is the way to make some gradual social change, because most of us do not have the ability to make an enormous social change.

When we think of being in a war situation, what causes war? It’s caused by anger, being attached to one’s own position, and not thinking of the other side’s position. Then, we apply this to ourselves. “When I get into problems with other people, it might not be shooting with guns, a war, but it’s the same sort of problem – of anger, being attached to my own side, not considering other people’s opinion, what they are feeling, etc.”

In other words, if we’re afraid of being in a war – well, what can we do, effectively, to avoid it? We could go out and protest, but although that perhaps makes us feel better, we’re not really getting to the root of the problem. The main source of the problem is anger and attachment to one’s own side. It’s these qualities that we can only work on in ourselves. So, we have to be confident that what we do – working on ourselves – is going to help. We think about the two causes here, the two parts of the motivation – that “I am horrified at my anger, and I have the confidence that what I do really will have an effect that I can experience personally, now.” Working on ourselves can bring results sooner than working on society. Societal changes take an extraordinary amount of time. 

We could be afraid of an atomic bomb falling on our head, but what can we do to avoid that? Hide under the chair? I mean, what? 

In what way could refuge help to deal with this fear of atomic bombs? How could refuge help deal with our own emotional states? 

Again, by thinking in terms of “What is it that we can affect?” In other words, be realistic. So, “I’m afraid of an atomic bomb falling on my head. Well, there is very little that I can do to prevent that bomb from falling.” Being afraid of this is not going to help anything, as it’s just going to make us unhappy. Shantideva’s advice is that if there’s something we can change, why be upset and worry about it, just change it. And if it’s something that we can’t change because it’s out of our power, why worry and be upset; it’s not going to help either. 

Then, we have changed the focus; instead of wanting to work on saving ourselves from having a bomb dropped on our head, we want to save ourselves from the fear, from the unhappiness of the fear. The fear is something that we can work on – so, if there’s something we can do about it, do it. If we can’t do anything about it, well, then make the best of our life while the bomb isn’t falling on our head. Death is going to come at some time anyway – we could be hit by a truck; we don’t have to have an atomic bomb fall on our head. 

We change our focus to working to get rid of fear, rather than working to get rid of the atomic bomb. Working on ourselves is something we can handle. For instance, if there’s a fire, we’re afraid that we’re going to just run out of the house to save ourselves and forget about the children. So that’s something we want to work on, so that this fear and only thinking about ourselves is not going to override our concern for the rest of our family. This is a good type of fear to work on – the fear that we’re going to be too selfish and just think of saving ourselves. 

If we are afraid for others, and, at the same time, we don’t know how to help them, is this type of fear an obstacle, or not?

It depends on whether we feel that we can never learn, or whether we aim to be able to become a Buddha, so that we know every possible way to help others. We need to take steps in that direction. The first step is to actually listen to what others say. Don’t just imagine that what’s best for us is best for others. Listen to them, try to understand it from their side. However, this is not easy.

We use this three-step method for meditating on refuge progressively, thinking of each of the horrifying situations that we want to avoid. We went through some of them before in our previous sessions – for example, acting destructively toward others, having disturbing emotions, driving people away because we get angry with them, or clinging to them so they feel claustrophobic and have to run away. For instance, compulsively forcing our help onto others, causing them again to feel claustrophobic and resentful so that they say, “Stop telling me what to do all the time!”

Furthermore, it could be our preoccupation with ourselves – wanting to always have things our way – as in, “I’m the one that’s right all the time.” Uncontrollably repeating these patterns of behavior, and not knowing how best to help others, we make wrong decisions and give useless or bad advice. As we are working through the lam-rim stages, we can apply this basic idea of refuge at each of the stages. Then, we can add on renunciation, determination to be free, or bodhichitta and so on, which just strengthens our understanding of refuge. However, the structure is the same. Refuge is the basket in which everything fits. 

We can also apply this to disturbing emotions, just to make sure that we understand the method. For instance, let’s consider unpleasant states of mind such as getting angry with others, losing our patience, getting annoyed, being hostile or aggressive. These states not only disturb us, they also certainly disturb everyone else. 

Again, we first quiet down by focusing on the breath. Then, we think about the situation. However, we don’t have to visualize, but just imagine or think about this situation of getting horribly angry with others and having lots of arguments because of our disturbing emotions.  Since we’re really aggressive, our behavior just drives others away. 

We think to ourselves, “This is a pattern that I have, and I’m really horrified at it. It’s something I really don’t want to continue. Horrified at the effect that it has on me, and the effect that it has on others I interact with – it’s horrible! But I’m confident that I can change. It is possible to change. I can work on myself. There are plenty of methods that are available; it’s just a matter of doing them. The Buddha taught lots of methods for overcoming anger, and they work. I really want to stop disturbing others because of my bad temper and lack of patience with them.”

Now, let’s use the first image of falling off a cliff and we’re already falling. What’s the real-life situation associated with that? It’s where we’re in an interaction with somebody, and we’re getting more and more angry and impatient. So, we’re already falling into this pattern, and are about to reach the bottom, where both sides explode into having a big argument. We think that we really want to avoid this, that this reaction would be horrible. 

Then, we stop. We set our positive direction and apply all the methods to not get angry. We stop because our whole conversation is going in the absolute wrong direction that we don’t want it to go in. We recognize that it’s just making us disturbed, and it’s making the other person and everybody else in the room disturbed. We decide that’s not at all what we want. So, we go in that safe direction of avoiding a further fall into this argument.

Now, secondly, we imagine we are just on the edge of the cliff, about to fall off. What does this mean? It means that the other person in our conversation has said something very aggressive to us, and now we’re right on that edge of losing our temper and getting angry. At that point, we put this safe direction in our life, thinking that we really don’t want to go, to fall into, a big argument at this point. 

Then we have the third situation, where we’re heading toward the edge of the cliff. It’s like we’re going to have a meeting with this person, and we’re already defensive. We’re expecting that there’s going to be an argument. However, we haven’t gotten into the argument yet, but already we’re in this state of mind that’s ready to fight; we’re defensive, aggressive and ready to push our point. Before we even get to that edge of getting angry and having an argument, we decide that, no, we’re going to put safe direction in our life. We’re not going to meet the person with that state of mind and get into an argument, because we also don’t want to disturb that person by continuing toward this cliff of anger. 

So, this is the safe direction we want to go in – working on ourselves to avoid anger. We think, “I’m horrified at what anger does, I’m confident that I can get over it, and I’m concerned about the effect it has on others when I get angry, and I don’t want to hurt them.”

Finally, we return to focusing on the breath. 


It’s always helpful to dedicate at the end of our meditation: “May this act as a cause for really overcoming my anger; may it be the cause for having safe direction in my life so that I can truly be the best help to everyone.”

If we want it to be really complete, we would start with the intention. We set our intention right after quieting down by focusing on the breath.  We think, “I want to work on my negative behavior and disturbing emotions in order to be of more help to others and to stop having so many problems with anger.” Then we make the dedication at the end of our meditation.