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Taking Refuge in My Own Island

By Jan Goss 

photo by Lisa Berman

At the beginning of 2020, I recall saying to myself and others that I felt this year was going to be a time of great change. Of course, I could not envisage the magnitude of the change or how it would manifest in my personal life, particularly as physical separation from those I love. 

I am living in a Quaker community in the heart of the Peak District in Derbyshire, England. I had first stayed here in November 2019 when I needed accommodation for a 5Rhythms course I was attending. My experience of being here was so much more than simply “somewhere to stay.” It was a spiritual experience. In July 2020, I decided to move in for three months as a volunteer. I am still here and enjoying the deepening of my practice by being in community and by being held by Bodhisattva Gaia. 

We sit every morning and evening in silence. Once a month, I offer the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings ceremony, when a small group of us enjoys chanting, reciting, and sharing. This gives me great joy. I hadn’t foreseen this opportunity for Sangha building or this wonderful support in my practice. 

For several years now, I have wanted to live in a community with the mindfulness trainings as the teacher guiding the whole community. As yet, the causes and conditions have not arisen for that so I feel a deep gratitude to have this opportunity to be with this Sangha. It is a wonderful opportunity to practise with an inclusive community, with whom I can deepen my understanding and compassion. Through relationship, I am coming to understand myself more deeply, and learning to be more accepting of difference and be more inclusive. 

With Sangha, I also have a unique opportunity to embody my Dharma name, True Deep Communication. The Dharma, particularly the mindfulness trainings, serves as the boat carrying me in all situations. I see how the trainings light my path and help me navigate my way through each moment of community life. Through this experience, I have developed an even greater gratitude for my path, Thay’s teachings, and the understanding of self and others that they have given me. 

In addition to sitting with community, each morning I take refuge in the morning chant, “The Insight That Brings Us to the Other Shore,” Touching the Earth, and the Three Refuges. A meditation that I very much enjoy practising is this one from Thich Nhat Hanh’s book The Blooming of a Lotus:

Breathing in, I go back to myself.
Breathing out, I take refuge in
my own island.
Going back
My own island

Breathing in, Buddha is
My mindfulness.
Breathing out, my mindfulness
Shines near and far.
Buddha is mindfulness
Shining near and far

Breathing in, Dharma is my
Conscious breath.
Breathing out, the conscious breath
Protects my body and mind
Dharma is conscious breath
Protecting body and mind

Breathing in, Sangha is my
Five skandhas
Breathing out, my skandhas are
Practicing in harmony.
Sangha is five skandhas
Practicing in harmony

Chanting the Three Refuges each day reminds me of this meditation and how to connect with my Buddha nature by coming back to my own island and simultaneously feeling the stream of all my ancestral teachers and blood ancestors within me. In that experience, I am infinitely connected to all life and know I am not here by myself, alone. In a very real way, “I” becomes “we.” We are here, in this body.

This meditation reminds me of the diversity of Sangha and the importance of my conscious breathing in uniting and nourishing body, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. My five skandhas are my immediate Sangha and ultimately, my cells are cells in the Buddha body. Bodhisattva Gaia too is my Sangha. The trees and the hills envelop me and wrap me in their love. They support, nourish, and replenish me. At every turn and in each moment, I find Sangha. Anything that supports me in my practice and in being more mindful, I have come to see as Sangha.

This in turn helps me to feel connected to my son and partner and my gestating granddaughter. In meditation I hold her precious little body in my hands, close to my beating heart. We are one; we are here for her, and I lose the feeling of separation that the Atlantic Ocean brings. Not knowing when I will see them, I feel a deep gratitude for having some understanding and experience of interbeing.

Living in community, I am able to see the strength and fruits of my practice and also the need to find greater solidity and presence. I am deeply grateful for the clarity and insight that taking refuge in the mindfulness trainings gives me every day, and for the clear and specific guidance they offer in all situations. Here, with brothers and sisters on a spiritual path, I am able to live a more mindful life. As my life has been simplified and I have relaxed into the slower pace of it, I am more easily able to bring my full attention to whatever I am engaged with. I can see how my practice also contributes to the stability of the whole community. 

Until such time as I am able to become part of a residential community practising in Thay’s tradition, I will devote my days to mindfully chopping wood, washing dishes, walking, cooking, eating, and communicating. I will continue to deepen my practice of taking refuge in the Buddha in me—in my mindfulness—and I will share the fruits of my practice knowing that:

One breath, one step is all we need to feel at home in the here and the now. When we can come back to ourselves like this and take refuge in our inner island, we become a home for ourselves and we become a refuge for others at the same time.


Thich Nhat Hanh, Love Letter to the Earth 

Jan Goss, True Deep Communication, practises with Heart of Lytham Sangha in the UK and offers coaching, mentoring, and therapeutic mindfulness via Zoom. 

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What is Mindfulness

Thich Nhat Hanh January 15, 2020

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