As human beings, we’re highly skilled at fooling ourselves. Maybe other animals do it too. I don’t know. But I can say for sure, that we humans delude ourselves on a daily basis. Self-delusion is so entrenched in most of us that it feels natural.
We build our lives on a set of perceptions that we’ve already decided to believe. We do it because we’re scared. We’re uncomfortable with the unknown and so we try to fill in the gaps. We make up stories. We create structures that make us feel safe.
But our perceptions are ultimately always false. And while they might provide the illusion of support for a time, their very nature won’t allow them to hold strong forever.
In the Yoga Sutra-s we’re taught that our false perceptions emerge from ignorance. By ignorance here we’re not talking about a simple lack of knowledge—we’re talking about the spiritual ignorance of fundamentally misunderstanding the nature of reality. In Sanskrit the word is Avidya and it refers to a misidentification. We misidentify ourselves with the surface markers of our identity—such as our work or our status. Now, let’s be kind to ourselves and remember that it’s almost impossible to avoid falling into this habit of misidentification. Because every moment of our lives are filled with surface markers of identity that absolutely do shape the course of our life. But the yoga sutra-s teach us that when we’re trapped in the delusion of this ignorance, a whole series of afflictions are triggered.
When we root our identity in the changing nature of life, we create a false persona for ourselves. We believe in our separateness—our I-am-ness—or in western terms, our ego. And as we build the personality of our individual ego, we create attachments and aversions. We decide what we like and dislike. And then we begin to dedicate most of our energy to acquiring what we love and want and avoiding anything we deem unpleasant. And ultimately, we’re filled with fear. We’re terrified of losing this life we’ve created for ourselves.
As spiritual seekers it’s imperative that we directly confront our ignorance. Every day we must put forth effort to remember the Mystery that exists within us. Through our daily spiritual practice we can turn our attention inward and work to root our identity in the unnameable spark of Divine Light within. It’s so much easier to find our identity at the surface of our lives—with our constantly changing thoughts and desires, with the roller coaster of emotions, with perfectionism and anxiety. But every spiritual tradition I’ve studied reminds us in one way or another that when we root our identity at the surface, we suffer. Thankfully the traditions also offer us pathways out of the patterns of suffering.
Buddhist practice involves the act of ‘taking refuge.’ Taking refuge is a vow one makes. It’s known as the three jewels and involves taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön writes that:
“To take refuge in the Buddha is to take refuge in someone who has let go of holding back just as you can do. To take refuge in the dharma is to take refuge in all the teachings that encourage you and nurture your inherent ability to let go of holding back. And to take refuge in the sangha is to take refuge in the community of people who share this longing to let go and open rather than shield themselves.”
The word refuge is most straightforwardly defined as a condition of being safe or sheltered from pursuit, danger, or trouble. Finding refuge is an attractive idea. We’re naturally drawn toward the idea of safety and shelter. But nothing in the world can grant us absolute security.
The spiritual practice of taking refuge is not a guarantee of perfect, stable safety. It’s not a guarantee of an easy life. Taking refuge is a dedication. We dedicate ourselves to the hard work of looking inward and working to untie all the knots that keep us bound in ignorance and delusion.
I’m not a Buddhist and therefore haven’t made a vow to take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. But as a practicing yogi, these vows don’t feel foreign to me. The teachings of Buddhism and Yoga grew up together and while they’re not the same, they do have tremendous overlap. In my practice I’m committed to staying awake—to looking honestly at my self-delusions. I’m committed to my study of the ancient teachings. The teachings that show me how to stay awake and that light my path of practice. And I’m deeply committed to my sangha, to all my fellow practitioners—those of you who join me in the daily struggle of rooting our identity in the depths of our soul.
And even though I know there’s nothing in this world that can guarantee absolute security, through my practice I’ve come to understand that there is something that will aways offer comfort. I believe—because I’ve experienced it—that deep within us all is a place of inner refuge. Yoga calls it the hridaya guha, the Cave of the Heart. The Chandogya Upanishad says:
“As great as the infinite space beyond is the space within the lotus of the heart. Both heaven and earth are contained in that inner space, both fire and air, sun and moon, lightening and stars. Whether we know it in this world or know it not, everything is contained in that inner space.”
The only way to combat our habits of fear and self-delusion is to ground ourselves in something larger than the always changing surface of life. It’s hard work and it takes dedication. Every day we must work to clear ourselves some space. We must seek the inner refuge always, already within and feel our way into the spacious heart of Divine Mystery.
The great poet Rilke wrote:
She who reconciles the ill-matched threads
of her life, and weaves them gratefully
into a single cloth—
it’s she who drives the loudmouths from the hall
and clears it for a different celebration
where the one guest is you.
In the softness of evening
it’s you she receives.
You are the partner of her loneliness,
the unspeaking center of her monologues.
With each disclosure you encompass more
and she stretches beyond what limits her,
to hold you.