Here it is, the turn of the year – an ending and a beginning. For me it’s a new view, like coming around a gentle bend in the road. It’s a lovely time to pause, catch my breath, reflect on the last year and get ready to begin again.
Take a moment to remember some of your own experiences of the last year, what stands out? The joys and sorrows, the successes and difficulties, the ways you’ve changed and have been changed. It’s extraordinary what happens on any given day in any of our lives, let alone a whole year. As I consider what it takes just to manage my own life and then multiply that by 7 billion people around that planet, not to mention all of the non-human living beings, the amount of life lived everywhere in every moment is mindboggling.
As the days begin to lengthen and we move forward into the New Year, I like the feeling of settling into the ground of my life. What’s going well? What could use some attention? What can I let go of? It’s a natural time for renewing or setting some intentions. Not resolutions or goals necessarily, but intentions. Unlike goals, which can be achieved, intentions are a compass setting – we set our course in a direction and live our lives accordingly. It’s like moving towards the horizon, taking one step at a time with the patience, curiosity and courage to see and feel what’s here on this day, in this moment. We make adjustments as we go, yet we keep the horizon in sight.
Suzuki Roshi, the founder of San Francisco Zen Center was once asked, “Roshi, what’s the most important thing?” and he answered, “To find out what’s the most important thing.” How do we want to live? We make this choice every day. And we also need a little help.
Central to Buddhist practice is what is known as “taking refuge,” refuge in the sense of both resting in and living from a reliable place of safety, support and clarity, and a place that stimulates and nurtures our growth. Traditionally, one formally takes refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha as an aspect of practice that re-affirms one’s commitment to the practice through chant, spoken word or silently . Some people take refuge every time they sit to meditate, others at periodic intervals. The New Year is a wonderful time to be reminded of this practice.
Taking refuge in the Buddha does not mean to worship or idolize the literal historical figure of the Buddha. But rather to recognize that like the Buddha and all of our teachers, we too, have the capacity to access and cultivate our very real innate wisdom and compassion. We can live a more skillful life by not adding undue suffering to an already complex and challenging life. This is what is thought of as waking up, and like the Buddha, we can do it, too.
The Dharma is classically defined as the teachings of the Buddha. But dharma itself is simply the way things are, the truth of how it is. So we take refuge in the Dharma through our practice of training ourselves to see our lives as they are.
The Sangha is our community; our family, our friends and our spiritual communities, those groups that provide fundamental support. Whether you practice meditation with others, belong to a synagogue or church, ride your bike or paddle your kayak with friends each week, this is your sangha and perhaps the most important of the three refuges. We are undeniably interconnected and we need each other to thrive.
Another Japanese Zen teacher, Kobun Chino Roshi said “The more you sense the rareness and value of your own life, the more you realize that how you use it, how you manifest it, is all your responsibility. We face such a big task, so naturally such a person sits down for a while.”
And so we begin again. We come back to ourselves, to our practice, to our lives and the ground of our being to discover the most important thing. We round bend, see the horizon, and settle in to do the best we can.