Refuge in troubled times


At a local cafe with tables too close for privacy, two women are deep in conversation, one sharing with the other her concerns about her husband since the election. “He’s angry all the time. Our dinner hour’s been overtaken by non-stop cable news. He goes to sleep angry and wakes up angry. I tell him I’m worried about him. He says, ‘Where IS your anger? What kind of American ARE you?’

“I love my country,” she continues. “I’m prepared to do all I can to be part of the solution. I just can’t live like that.”

Neither can the rest of us.

The acute stress response that seems to be engulfing our nation would be necessary and even desirable if we were four-legged creatures roaming the Serengeti in search of a meal (or refusing to become one). Within that framework, we’d be grateful for our central nervous system’s DEFCON 1 activation—accelerated heart rate, fuel-injected muscles, dilated pupils with laser-beam focus, adrenaline, epinephrine and cortisol coursing through the veins, all in a miraculous choreography designed to ensure survival.

Here at home, though, acute stress reactions do the opposite. They threaten survival in scientifically-substantiated ways. Chronic stress can never be part of any solution for its corrosiveness to mind, body and spirit. Vitriolic fervor says more about our reptilian ancestry than it’ll ever say about our level of patriotism.

We’re hard-wired for the acute stress response by that 100-million-year-old part of the brain that sits like a clenched fist on top of the spine and knows exactly three songs—fight, flee or freeze. Fortunately, we’ve also been bequeathed a newer arrival, the 40,000-year-old neocortex, a veritable cerebral iPod capable of working in concert with other parts of the brain to offer countless songs, to say nothing of poems, paintings and performances.

This evolutionary cortical inheritance can provide a reliable refuge in these troubled times, but only when we invest in it, develop it and cultivate practices for harnessing the energy and power of the “lower” brain and all its percolating fear and fury in the service of effective action, problem-solving and creativity.

How can we do this? In his book, Just One Thing, neuropsychologist and mindfulness expert Rick Hanson, Ph.D. offers a collection of brain-training practices that promote resilience, effectiveness, and inner peace, predicated on the principle that the mind can be engaged in the service of changing the brain.

Practice #28 suggests that we Take Refuge:

Refuges include people, places, memories, and ideas—anyone or anything that provides reliable sanctuary and protection, that’s reassuring, comforting, and supportive, so you can let down your guard and gather strength and wisdom.

A refuge could be curling up in bed with a good book, having a meal with friends, or making a To Do list to organize your day. Or remembering your grandmother, feeling strength in your body, trusting the findings of science, talking with a trusted friend or counselor, having faith, or reminding yourself that although you’re not rich, you’re financially okay.

The world’s religions also have refuges that may speak to you, such as sacred settings, texts, individuals, teachings, rituals, objects and congregations.

Art-making is a refuge with an illustrious history. In The Three Marriages, David Whyte details the challenging, at-times deplorable conditions under which Robert Louis Stevenson, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and others wrote their finest works. Marc Chagall survived two world wars, famine, antisemitism resulting in the complete destruction of his entire body of work in Berlin and the death of his beloved wife. His response was always the same—he painted. Mary Oliver’s Upstream highlights two refuges which, against the backdrop of a childhood marked by traumatic privation and abuse, were instrumental in setting the course of the future poet’s creative life:

In the first of these—the natural world—I felt at ease; nature was full of beauty and interest and mystery, also good and bad luck, but never misuse. The second world—the world of literature—offered me, besides the pleasures of form, the sustentation of empathy…and I ran for it. I relaxed in it. I stood willingly and gladly in the characters of everything—other people, trees, clouds. And this is what I learned: that the world’s otherness is antidote to confusion, that standing within this otherness—the beauty and the mystery of the world, out in the fields or deep inside books—can re-dignify the worst-stung heart.

Where is your refuge? Do you commit to spending time there? In these challenging times, are you managing to reserve enough time and attention for those people, places and things that buoy the human spirit, sustain you and make it possible for you to be part of the solution in meaningful and rewarding ways?