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Refuge in the Truth of Change

Refuge in the Truth of Change with Kate Johnson from Turning Wheel Media on Vimeo.

Part of Refuge & Resistance class series, more at

Video Image Description & Transcript

[Image: “Refuge & Resistance” in shades of purple lettering overlaying an aqua blue-green curving river flanked by wooded hills]

Welcome to Refuge + Resistance. This week we take Refuge in the Truth of Change.

[Image: Close up of Kate Johnson, brown-skinned with dark curly hair wearing a blue and white checked shirt. Behind Kate is her altar, with soft white lights framing a floral fabric with soft green, gold, and red colors. ]

My name is Kate Johnson. I’m a meditation teacher in the Insight meditation tradition. I’m also part of Buddhist Peace Fellowship’s extended crew, and I’m really excited to share a few thoughts today about refuge in the truth of change.

So last week’s video featured Dawn Haney talking about the framework of the Three Refuges that is offered in the Buddha’s teachings. They are sometimes called the Three Jewels. They are refuge in the Buddha — the historical Buddha but also our own capacity to awaken that’s in each and every one of us. The Dharma — the teachings of the historical Buddha but also the teachings of our own everyday life that we all have the capacity to access. And the third is the Sangha — the community of spiritual friends and practitioners and also all of the beings we share this planet with.

So this concept of refuge. I think of a song that my mother used to play by Bob Dylan. It’s called “Shelter from the Storm,” and it talks about imagining a place where we’re always safe and warm. That’s what I think about when I think about a refuge, that when the storm comes there’s a place where we can feel protected, that we can feel comforted, that we can feel safe and warm even with the conditions just as they are. And where we can find resource in order to rest and then prepare ourselves to move back out into the world.

So the teaching that I’m going to offer today comes out of the Second Refuge of the Dhamma or Dharma. And it’s the teaching on Anicca, which in the ancient Indian language of Pali is often translated as impermanence or change. This teaching states that all conditioned phenomena are subject to change. So the cushion that I’m sitting on will break apart and decay, and will not be a cushion anymore. The lights that are framing my altar (we’re here in front of my home altar in Brooklyn, New York. This is where I often go for refuge). The lights will someday burn out. That the weather will change, the political systems will change. So that we can be unsurprised and unafraid when we discover that something that was true before has shifted.

This really demonstrates one quality that I value in refuge, one that I think actually qualifies refuges as refuges, which is that they are accessible to us. So it’s not like in order to take refuge I have to get on a plane and fly halfway across the world in order to be safe. That actually this is a refuge that is close to me. Just as I mentioned with impermanence, it’s everywhere we look. And so if we’re able to stay awake in a moment to moment way with any conditioned phenomena, we’ll notice that it changes. Whether it’s internally, whether it’s externally. Whether there’s some kind of cause and effect relationship between the internal and external worlds.

Another quality I really value in refuge is that of protection. I mentioned earlier that refuge is a place where we feel we can inhabit and reside in a comfortable space. It offers protection for us in a way that doesn’t even necessarily mean we have to escape. But rather we can find refuge internally in a moment just by accessing one of these jewels.

And with impermanence, the protection comes in the practice of mindfulness where we are noticing change moment to moment to moment, without — in the formal meditation practice — reacting to it. This practice allows us to maintain our groundedness in the face of change. To not freak out or scare easily when things suddenly shift. But rather to dance with the movement of — whether it’s our own emotions and thoughts or whether it’s the changing social climate, we have a sense of being able to rebound and continue to engage based on our experience noticing change.

[Image: While talking, Kate moves her shoulders sharply left to right to demonstrate shifting, and more roundly moves her shoulders to demonstrate dancing.]

The second way I feel like this truth of change offers a sense of protection is just to take refuge in the fact that we also initiate change. That our actions are in some ways planting wholesome seeds that will eventually sprout. That this is also the nature of things. So we can trust that our positive skillful actions, the actions that are reflective of our values contribute to change in a way that we can feel good about.

So I’d like for us to work with these two aspects of change: noticing change and contemplating our contribution to change in this short practice.

So if you wouldn’t mind, please — if it’s safe wherever you are to close your eyes, you may close them or just lower them to the space in front of you. Notice your body position and allow yourself to fully inhabit the entire body — top to bottom, side to side, 360 degrees. Really filling out the whole body with your awareness.

And if it’s possible, invite the body to soften and relax into whatever is supporting it — whether it’s a chair or bed or cushion like I’m in.

And notice that as you rest here you are breathing. So as the breath comes in, sensations arise in the nostrils, throat, chest, belly. Tracking the changing sensations all the way up to the top of the inhalation. Then as you exhale, noticing the sensations as they change — air exiting the nostrils, softening of the chest, and the falling of the belly. Starting to follow the changing sensations of breath with your awareness. As you breathe in, you might silently say “Breathing in” and as you breathe out, you might silently say “Breathing out” just to help yourself track what’s happening now.

Noticing also the qualities of the breath. Without forcing the breath to be different than it is, notice if it’s long or short, deep or shallow. Just receiving, “How is the breath now?” And staying with it moment to moment as it changes. So that the awareness is just like a small boat in the big ocean, rising on the inhalation and falling on the exhalation, and riding the waves of breath with the awareness.

And then take a moment to notice how it is now. How does it feel in the breath now, how does the body feel now. Perhaps noticing some shifts just in the couple minutes we’ve been practicing mindfulness of breathing. How is the awareness now? Maybe noticing that you can notice more of the breath. More subtle sensations, noticing a pause at the top of inhalation or at the bottom of the exhalation. Just maintaining a kind curiosity toward this changing experience.

And now having used this exploration of change as a way to settle, ground, and unify the attention, I’ll ask you to remember a time when you took an action that contributed to change in a healthy, skillful way. It might be something from your personal life — drinking more water and feeling better. Or this could be an action you took in a workplace or community.

Take a moment to reflect and actually allow yourself to feel good about that experience, and establish a sense of trust in your capacity to contribute to change in a wholesome way.

And then before we close the practice, please think of one action that you can take today, with whatever remaining hours of the day you have left, to contribute to a change you would like to see. Trusting that that action will have an effect.

And then keeping that intention, letting the meditative mood soften. You can take a couple of deep breaths if you like, floating the eyes open if they are not already, taking in your environment again.

So thank you for being with me for practice today. I hope this is very useful for you as a contemplation of refuge, as a way to access refuge and change. Thank you for allowing me to share these thoughts with you, and I look forward to seeing you on the Zoom call at the end of the month. Peace.

[Image: Words appear on the screen next to Kate. Buddhist Peace Fellowship | Learn more at]

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