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“The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.” – Maya Angelou

Sometimes life is just too much to bear. Stressors pile up and we begin to feel frazzled and overwhelmed. These feelings of overwhelm come in all shapes and sizes. We may be having a week filled with too many work commitments but too little time to fulfill them. We may find ourselves struggling to pick up the emotional pieces after a relationship break-up. We can feel buried in the relentless obligations of daily caregiving. We may be flooded with anxiety and fatigue while striving to regain footing after an illness or the death of a loved one.

You don’t have to look any farther than your own heart and mind to uncover a place of solace and belonging

At times like these, the short term fixes that we often employ to bring us comfort fall short. After several glasses of wine, binge watching TV for hours, or an impulse shopping spree, we feel even more spent, depleted, and discouraged.

Feeling overwhelmed at times is an inevitable reality of our human existence. We all need and deserve a place of respite and rest to replace these familiar but ineffective coping mechanisms. Our health calls us to develop new habits that we can rely on to re-center, calm and encourage us back to well-being.

The good news is that we can learn how to create a soothing shelter of refuge and comfort right in the midst of our vital, ever-changing and relentlessly challenging lives.

A Soothing Shelter

A refuge is defined as a place or condition of safety and shelter. It provides protection, solace and sanctuary from danger or trouble. Physical shelter is a basic human need. But we also need the kind of shelter that allows us to get in touch with our mental, emotional and spiritual well-being. This is especially true at times when we feel lost, overpowered and buffeted about by external and internal conflicts.

We can find refuge in a person, a special place or in an internal state. This soothing shelter, regardless of the form, provides the nurturing required for regaining a sense of balance, safety and support. It is here that we are able to retreat, relax and restore.

Finding Shelter in Relationship

A significant other, whether it is a partner, a family member, a friend, counselor or mentor can be a port in the storm of our perceived troubles. During times of vulnerability the compassion of a trusted other can provide us with a cocoon of caring and empathy. In their sheltering presence we can let our hair down and simply be ourselves. We can come out from behind the masks of social acceptance and approval seeking. In the nurturing environment of their gentle companionship, we have the freedom and support to self-examine without adding judgment, shame and blame to our already burdened hearts.

Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen is an author, teacher and pioneer in mind/body holistic health. She is co-founder and medical director of the Commonweal Cancer Help Program. In her book, My Grandfather’s Blessings, she shares a touching story of her personal suffering and how she found refuge in the kindness and caring of a fellow physician. She had been living with Crohn’s disease for 47 years when she began to have mysterious and frightening symptoms that she had never experienced before. Over several months the scary symptoms grew more frequent and severe. In spite of continuing visits to her doctors and countless sophisticated tests, she became sicker and sicker. In desperation, she made an appointment with a surgeon, Dr. Smith, who was a professional colleague. Almost immediately she began to regret her decision to meet with him. After all, she thought, what could this man possibly do to help her in a 15 minute visit that her longtime physicians had not been able to do despite hours of their time and efforts?

Dr. Remen described her isolation and fear this way, “It seemed to me that I was looking at the world through a plate-glass window, caught up in a set of events that dominated my life, and that no one else understood.” But when she looked into Dr. Smith’s face, she saw genuine concern. Warmly, he asked her to tell him her story.

She recounted detail after detail of her past history and present, disturbing symptoms. Dr. Smith said nothing to interrupt and just listened closely. She began to tell him deeply personal things she had not told anyone else, like the recent death of her father and about her ill mother whom she had recently brought across the country to live with her. She spoke of her fears, anxieties and deep loneliness. When she had said it all, she broke down and wept. Dr. Smith told her he understood as he reached for her hand. He validated her concerns.

“There is no question that there is something going on that we do not yet understand,” he told her. He also shared his belief that eventually whatever this was would reveal itself more clearly. And in one sentence he invited her into the shelter of his care. “We will wait together.” he told her.

Although he could not offer her a diagnosis, what he offered was his caring and his companionship. Dr. Remen wrote, “His willingness to face the unknown with me lifted the loneliness that had separated me from others and from my own strength. In some way that I didn’t understand, this made all the difference in the world. Someone else knew, someone else cared, and because of this I found I had the courage to deal with whatever was going to happen.” As it turns out, several months later a hidden abscess deep in her abdomen finally made itself known on an x-ray. Dr. Smith extended his sheltering care of Dr. Remen by successfully performing the necessary surgery.

Finding Shelter in a Special Place

Retreating to a natural setting of peace can help us digest and make sense of our life experiences. Certain places elicit in us feelings of calm, gentleness and joy. We turn to the forests, the mountains, our lakes and oceans in order to gratefully surrender to and absorb the refuge of their life-giving bounty.

In his book, The Great Work: Our Way into the Future, the late, world renowned eco-philosopher, Thomas Berry, wrote “The mountains and rivers and all living things, the sky and its sun and moon and clouds, all constitute a healing, sustaining sacred presence for humans, which they need as much for their psychic integrity as for their physical nourishment.”

Nature has a way of soothing us and lifting our spirits. As we expand our senses and begin to unwind, we are often able to reclaim the feeling of awe and wonder that we felt as children. (See Ornish Living article, Nature: Fuel For Your Health)

Spending time in the woods, sitting beside a creek, or in your favorite soft chair on your back porch can be the needed prescription for recouping your equilibrium and providing the much- needed antidote to mounting stressors.

Your place of refuge can also be found within your own home. It might be in a corner of a room that you have set aside as your meditation space. You may find a place of sheltering relaxation in your bathtub or bed or cozy couch.

Settings of peace can be found in the unlikeliest of places. In Viktor E. Frankl’s riveting memoir of life in the Nazi death camps, Man’s Search For Meaning, he recounts the story of a young woman and fellow prisoner who was sick with illness and starvation. She found shelter and sustenance by focusing on tree branches that she could see outside of the prison window. Pointing through the window, she told Frankl, “This tree here is my friend in my loneliness. I often talk to this tree.” Frankl asked her if it spoke to her as well. She replied, “Yes, it said, “I am here- I am here-I am life, eternal life.”

Finding Shelter Within

You don’t have to look any farther than your own heart and mind to uncover a place of solace, safety and belonging. Inviting attunement of your body, mind and spirit doesn’t require any fancy tools or complicated techniques.

When you feel frazzled, simply sit down, close your eyes, and let your attention sink into the gentle rhythm of your breathing. Susi Amendola, a longtime yoga teacher and my cherished colleague, instructs: “Repeat silently, slowly and compassionately to yourself, “I am breathing in. I am breathing out.”.After practicing this focusing meditation, I invariably come away feeling more centered and relaxed. When I open my eyes, I often find that my problems or worries feel much more manageable.

Try this gentle, 4 minute guided meditation, Breathing with the Full Body.

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Finding shelter within ourselves is not an act of separation and isolation from the world. Rather, it involves taking responsibility for developing a nurturing experience on the interior in order to be able to extend and share that same healing quality in all of the exterior places in our lives. We can’t give what we don’t have. Cultivating peace within is an inside job that requires our attention, intention and devotion. With continuing practice we can learn how to extend to ourselves the same degree of time, love and sustenance that we so willingly offer to others.

Coming Home

It is human nature to get caught in a “when-then” cycle of stressful thinking. Our crazy-busy minds tell us, “When I get everything to fall into place, then I’ll find peace.” But that still, small voice of knowing within the heart gently calls us back to this truth, “When you focus on peace first, then all else will fall into place.” On the challenging road to wholeness, we deserve to find pockets of sheltering peace, respite and rest all along the way.

What sheltering ways have you found to rest, renew and recoup a sense of well-being?


Contributed by

Mimi O' Connor
Group Support Specialist

Hearts linked, together we heal…

Better Health Begins With You...

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