Building a Refuge from Fear
Editor’s Note: We’re proud to feature this exclusive excerpt from Koshin Paley Ellison’s new book, Untangled: Walking the Eightfold Path to Clarity, Courage, and Compassion, which is being published this week. Please note this essay has themes that some may find disturbing.
I grew up in a home that held violence and fear: an unstable, unpredictable home. I was raised by loving, ethically idealistic people with, at times, a huge gap between their values and how they actually functioned in the world.
At a very young age I learned that my body could end. One of the people who lived in my house would often go into rages. I would hide in the locked upstairs bathroom, hearing the sound of the knife drawer opening, and the screaming after that, without knowing exactly what was going on. I wish I could tell you more details of what happened. I can tell you my body was on high alert. I felt the lack of safety and was keenly aware that this body—my body— was in danger.
This feeling was reinforced through other experiences of violence. In my middle school years, while waiting at the bus stop, I would often find myself alone with the school bully. I was very small, so I was a favorite target to throw to the ground, liberally sprinkled with name-calling: fag and queer and so on. Often, I would see blood and realize: this is real, this vulnerable body bleeding. Inside the house that could happen; outside the house that could happen. It felt like there was no way out.
I’m not that child anymore. Today, I am a Zen monk dedicated to serving my students and training people in contemplative approaches to care and medicine. All the time I work with dying people, and only a few of them know they are dying. I am also a sensual person. I have always loved to feel the warmth of the sun on my arm, run my fingers through the grass, or notice the light flickering through the autumn leaves.
Yet because of my history, the feeling of fear is still a powerful place of practice for me. Thoughts like I’m in trouble, I’m in danger—mortal danger! can come to me quickly.
When that happens, I ground myself in my body and in my breath. I come into the softness of the belly, placing my hands on it, putting my feet on the ground, and remembering I’m here, here, here. I ask myself, Is that true that I am in literal danger? Am I safe right now? My thoughts may say, Yes, yes, you are in grave danger!
But am I really? Usually, I can realize that I am not. There is nothing that is really about to hurt me or threaten me at the level I am feeling afraid. I am safe. I reach down to touch the earth like the Buddha in the famous image of the moment of his awakening. We can do that at any time. Right now, we can take the earth as our witness.
We can practice building this kind of refuge in daily meditation. After you’ve settled into your meditation space, become aware of your breathing, and then let your awareness of your breath draw you into your lower belly. Allow your belly to be soft. Let your awareness arrive fully in the body, flowing throughout it until you can feel the sensations throughout your body. Feel clearly that your body is your place. This body of sensations right here, with its tension and pleasures, its tingling and its vibrations, this body of sensations is your home. This is your refuge.
Over time, if we practice entering this refuge in meditation over and over again, we begin to find it everywhere we are. Every place in our lives becomes a place of practice, a place where we can find refuge.
One night I was biking home along the Hudson River, a bit later than I normally do. It was getting dark, and there is a part of the path that leaves the riverside and goes into a more wooded area. It was dark, and I was seized by this terrible fear. It came so intensely, and I felt unsafe and frightened. I felt cornered, and it reminded me of those nights at home as a child.
At that moment I said to myself, “You can do this,” and I brought my attention into my belly and breathed through it. It was so magical that a moment later I was able to notice that in the darkness the fireflies had come out. What had seemed scary and dark revealed these bursts and beams of light flickering everywhere inside it.
Adapted with permission from Untangled: Walking the Eightfold Path to Clarity, Courage, and Compassion, available for presale now from Balance Books.
Sensei Koshin Paley Ellison, MFA, LMSW, DMIN, is an author, Zen teacher, Jungian psychotherapist, and Certified Chaplaincy Educator. Koshin co-founded the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care, which offers contemplative approaches to care through education, direct service, and Zen practice. He is the author of Wholehearted: Slow Down, Help Out, Wake Up..