The American novelist E. L. Doctorow once wrote that writing is “like driving a car at night: you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”* Many people have seen that this is a metaphor for life. I find it to be a particularly apt metaphor for the spiritual life. No amount of books, initiations, retreats, or even great teachers can guarantee the trajectory of one’s life, and certainly not the trajectory of one’s meditation practice. Looking into the nature of the mind will always bring surprises. Sometimes it’s more beautiful than expected and at other times it’s much more painful. Sometimes it just seems boring and tedious.
Every time I’ve thought I knew how my path would unfold I’ve been wrong, whether in terms of sitting meditation, transforming habits, or life as a whole. I didn’t know it at the time, but as I began to practice, I had subconscious expectations that I would develop deep states of blissful concentration, release all craving, and come to a fully embodied understanding of the Buddha’s path—all within a year or two! Even after 13 years I have not yet achieved this. Now that I see some of the hidden ideas and expectations that I brought to the path, I realize how absurd they were—and still are. What I have cultivated is much more patience with and acceptance of myself, a greater willingness to care for the suffering of the people who “make me suffer,” and the capacity to welcome not being in control of my mind or of my life. Although this is not what I expected, it’s just as valuable as the things I thought I would attain. And I still don’t know where the path will take me in the future, but I rarely worry about it anymore. What about your own life and practice? You might take a moment to reflect on where you thought your path would take you, and what different “locations” you now know to be equally valuable and more realistic.
An important part of the “driving at night in the fog” metaphor is the need to understand what we’re using as headlights. In other words, what lights your path? What do you trust to guide you? A Dharma teacher, a friend, or a community can be your headlights, but so too can the harsh words of a parent in childhood, subconscious messages from advertising, and the collective wounds of war and poverty.
On the path of the Buddha, we learn to take Refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.** But before we can do this, we first have to understand what it means to take Refuge, and what our habitual refuges are. A refuge is where we take shelter from the storms of life. Therefore, a refuge is what we trust to protect and guide us. Many of us take refuge in the opinions of our bosses and spouses. We take refuge in our work, in the achievements of our children, or in sensual pleasures like television and food. Anyone who has practiced the Buddha’s teachings will know that these are not stable, lasting places of refuge. But before we can take refuge in something stable and lasting, we need to be honest about our current places of refuge. It’s better not to try to appear humble, devoted, or enlightened as we look into this—clarity is far more important. In the face of difficulty, uncertainty, and suffering, what do we turn to? I see that I often turn to work, chocolate, walks in the woods, reading in bed, writing in my journal, meditating, and spirals of negative thinking that turn into despair and judgment. Some of these refuges are helpful (like meditating and walking in the woods), and others aren’t (like eating chocolate and negative thinking.) I see that the helpful habits take me through the storms and leave me clear. They have been developed through years of practice and coexist with older, less helpful habits. There is no problem with any of this. To see one’s habits is the only way to cultivate more helpful ones.
These habits, our default refuges, are like headlights in the dark because they are what guide us, even when we think our rational minds are in control. But if we keep finding ourselves in ditches, it’s time to adjust the headlights! It’s a good idea to take some time to contemplate what it is we take refuge in. What do we trust? What headlights do we use for our journey? Do they keep us on the road, or do they lead us into ditches? There’s no need to judge what we find. We can let the seeing be its own wisdom and refuge.
Returning to the image of the foggy road at night—how do we react to the image of the path of Dharma and life as a dark highway? Do we marvel at the beauty of nighttime fog, or do we dread the dark? Are we worried about making a wrong turn and losing our way, or can we see that losing our way is the only path to the places we don’t yet know? As humans, we crave certainty and try our best to control our lives, despite no one ever succeeding completely. Therefore, it is essential to learn to welcome the unknown, which arises due to impermanence and interdependence. When we can do this, fear loses its power, anger loses its sting, and ignorance has no place to grow. Greeting uncertainty is a direct path to greater peace, both in the mind and in the world.
If you can, study the historical and ancestral teachings. Practice with great teachers and build a community of Dharma friends to support you. Steer the car of your life, which can also be a boat or a bicycle. And at some point, let your inner wisdom, the Buddha within, become your headlights. This is the highest form of taking Refuge. When the Buddha within becomes your headlights, you can’t lose your way no matter how many wrong turns you make. And don’t forget to enjoy the ride!
** The Three Refuges, as chanted in the Plum Village Tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh
I take refuge in the Buddha, the one who shows me the way in this life.
I take refuge in the Dharma, the way of understanding and love.
I take refuge in the Sangha, the community that lives in harmony and awareness.
Dwelling in the refuge of Buddha, I clearly see the path of light and beauty in the world.
Dwelling in the refuge of Dharma, I learn to open many doors on the path of transformation.
Dwelling in the refuge of Sangha, shining light that supports me, keeping my practice free of obstruction.
Taking refuge in the Buddha in myself, I aspire to help all people recognize their own awakened nature, realizing the mind of love.
Taking refuge in the Dharma in myself, I aspire to help all people fully master the ways of practice and walk together on the path of liberation.
Taking refuge in the Sangha in myself, I aspire to help all people build fourfold communities, to embrace all beings and support their transformation.