Creating a Sanctuary Within
This post appeared In SageWoman Magazine in 2015.
Creating a Sanctuary Within
By instinct, we women build nests to protect ourselves and those we love. We secure our homes with the necessities of modern life, those things that keep us warm and whole and comforted. We fill our pantries in times of plenty; we light candles at dusk; we tend the fire hour by hour. In winter, we plug cracks around windows to lessen drafts. Some of us who are wary, and perhaps weary, install sensors at the doors against intruders. And we build strong communities that help us cope.
All sensible acts as mistress of the home, guardian of the hearth, shared or not. And we often think in the most sensible terms when it comes to protecting ourselves and our families, as those fortifications, attending to immediate needs, keep body and soul firmly together.
But in our careful readying, we might neglect to think outside the box, so to speak, beyond the four walls of our material homes. We might forget to secure an inner peace, without which the outer, physical protections are incomplete.
Of course, there are many avenues open for this. Ritual is one. Contemplative prayer, another. Guided imagery is also a powerful way to strengthen your inner reserves. Through this practice, you can build a sanctuary within, one you can retreat inside to recharge your energies at will.
Remember when you were a young child, and your imagination ran wild? We are all creative at heart; many of us spent long afternoons as children concocting strange worlds, drawing maps of places we’d never been, and dreaming up fantasy lands in which we encountered the most astonishing creatures, before we were told that that sort of thing was just for artists or writers, and then, only those destined to cut off an ear one day, or drink themselves to death in an unheated room.
A vivid imagination, we were instructed, was something that could run amok and do us harm; it was to be admired in a few perhaps, but always at a distance, and for ordinary folks like us, kept well in check.
With this practice, I invite you to let your imagination roam free.
Steps to Building an Inner Sanctuary
Get comfortable; lying in bed on your back is most likely the best position for this meditation. Close your eyes. Place your hands at your sides, or perhaps rest one over your heart and the other on your abdomen.
Breathe deeply, slowly, rhythmically. Be aware of your breathing; enjoy the sensation of air filling your lungs, refreshing your being. Then imagine as you exhale any pain or sadness leaving your body with the spent air.
Next, imagine a healing, golden light filling you along with each breathe. Let the gentle heat of a lovely summer day’s sun warm you as you breathe in and out.
If at any time during this guided imagery your attention wanders, simply call it back. Do not scold yourself in any way. Continue this breathing exercise for several minutes, until you find yourself feeling relaxed in both body and mind.
Here you may take either of two paths. The first creates a ‘grounded’ sanctuary, which might be better for those suffering from illness or mental anguish. The second allows you to imagine leaving the body behind and traveling to a distant place of harmony and healing. Read through the directions for both to see which sounds most appealing and helpful. Remember, you are free to depart from these guidelines and craft you own inner journeys.
For a grounded sanctuary:
Continue to imagine healing, golden light filling your being. But also imagine that your surroundings have changed. You have been transported to a place of complete safety and tranquility. Where have you landed?
Are you in a lush, gorgeous garden filled with your favorite flowers? Do lovely statues populate expansive lawns? Can you hear water flowing from exquisitely carved marble fountains? Is the scent of blossoming orange tress in the air?
Are you on an ocean shoreline, untouched by man? Are you lying on the beach, your body cradled in the warm sand? Can you hear waves crashing on the rocks, seagulls cawing as they fly overhead? Can you smell the salt on the gentle breeze?
Are you in a darkening forest after a rain, the earth damp and the air cool? Can you smell the rich aroma of cypress? Are creatures of the woods watching over you?
Are you on a portico lined with Greek columns, blossoming bougainvillea winding up into the air? Or are you in the moss-covered ruins of an ancient castle?
Create a sanctuary that is yours alone, as clearly described or simple in detail as you wish. It is better perhaps to imagine a place, rather than try to wholly recreate a favorite location from memory. No need to limit yourself to pesky reality! And feel free to pick and chose, to combine beautiful architecture with scenic vistas, your favorite music playing softly, and animals with whom you feel a kinship keeping watch.
Or, you can ‘travel’ to your sanctuary:
A variation on this theme: Imagine the golden healing light is changing. The sun is setting in the sky, turning the horizon a beautiful violet. It is the violet that comes just before darkness falls. Imagine that you are moving toward this welcoming violet horizon. Stars appear high above your head as you leave your body behind and, weightless and fearless, your inner being travels toward that hazy horizon.
Let yourself move as you will, slowly or quickly, toward that line in the sky. What do you see along the way? Whatever passes above or beneath you, let it be peaceful. Create in your mind a calm earth below, and beckoning sky overhead. Or perhaps you will sense only a swirl of color and motion. There is no need to force the fantasy into a preconceived shape. Trust that your inner self will fill in the blanks as you need best. Fly at will, for as long as you feel pulled toward this horizon, remaining aware of your breathing.
Then, when you’re ready, allow yourself to settle into the place that will become your sanctuary. As in the previous directions, imagine it as fully as seems fit; create in your mind a rich and gorgeous landscape in which you can feel protected and entirely safe from harm, able to gather fortitude from the beauty surrounding you and recharge your energies.
Once you have found yourself safely nestled in your sanctuary, hold the images in your mind as you monitor your breath. Breathe rhythmically, enjoying the aroma of the flowers you have envisioned or the salt of the ocean breeze.
Perhaps you will add the silent recitation of a mantra. A simple phrase such as “I am safe,” or “I am loved,” becomes a powerful affirmation for either version of this practice.
Be aware of your body as well as your breath. Allow yourself to feel the warmth of the sun or the coolness of the shade on your skin, or maybe the snug cocoon of a blanket, real or imagined, wrapped tight around you. Feel free to blend an awareness of lying tranquilly in your own bed with the fantasy of being in your sanctuary.
This second guided journey can be tailored for many purposes. You might travel outside of your everyday reality in search of strength or peace, an answer to a pressing question, or guidance on how to handle an urgent need. You may find you travel far away from your sanctuary, that it becomes a base of exploration for spiritual journeys of many types. Trust that you will find the path you must take. Your inner wisdom is always with you, waiting to be tapped.
Often, these guided imagery exercises will lead to a deep sleep. This is not a bad thing at all; your rest afterward should feel restorative and calming.
What you can expect:
With consistent practice, these exercises and other guided journeys can enhance your sense of vitality and contentedness as they create a place of protection to visit at any time to regroup, recharge, refresh. Once established in your mind, you will find that place becoming real to you; the knowledge that you can simply ‘think’ yourself there is itself powerful, and the rewards you find in quieting your mind and spending time in your sanctuary will be rich.
As with any skill, practice is essential. The more you ‘work’ your imaginative muscles, the more easily you will transport yourself to your sanctuary. In time, simply attending to your breath and picturing key elements – such as perhaps a flower or its scent, or simply the comforting ‘feel’ of the place -- will take you there.
While writing this piece, I remembered learning years ago about an inspiring woman, Gerda Weissman Klein, whose memoir, All But My Life, recounts six years of horrifying experiences during the Holocaust. Speaking about the book, Ms. Klein added that during a three month march from one camp to another as the war neared its end, she gave herself over to a long, richly imagined fantasy of throwing parties once she was free, spending many hours debating if she should wear a red velvet dress or one in blue. She has credited the power of her vivid imagination with helping her survive.
May we never have the need to put our imaginations to such a dire test. But even in our comparatively secure lives, we can find courage in her testament. Open your mind to an inner journey, and see where it takes you.
I created the sanctuary that follows many years ago to aid with emotional healing; it has served me well in times of distress or simply restlessness. I share it here to allow you to see how idiosyncratic and personalized your own sanctuary can be.
I imagine I am on a high, secluded cliff above the sea. I am lying on a raised platform, richly adorned with a plush, velvet coverlet. This platform is located within a sacred circle devoted to healing; around the circle stand Greek columns. Wisps of netting wrap from the top of one column to the next.
Lush potted geraniums, my mother’s favorite garden flower, are set on stands nearby. Pink roses, in honor of St. Therese and Mother Mary, are nearby as well. The aroma from their blossoms is gentle yet apparent.
Overhead, the sky is blue, though dotted with fluffy white clouds held aloft by a slight breeze. Far below, I can hear the ocean roar against the rocks. Sometimes crows enter the sanctuary; occasionally, a lone beautiful wolf wanders through.
Sounds like a set for a low-budget remake of Anthony and Cleopatra, doesn’t it? But it works for me. Each piece has a meaning, or is a source of comfort.
Early in the creation of this guided imagery, I fully imagined each element. Now, it is often enough to slow my breathing and become attentive to it, while focusing on the gorgeous flowers or the rhythmic crashing of the ocean waves, or the feeling itself of being in that healing place.
With practice, you too will likely find that holding in your mind one or two images, or a sensation, will transport you to your private sanctuary. For more inspiration, try Peace, Love and Healing by Bernie Siegel, M. D., or 20-Minute Retreats, by Rachel Harris, Ph. D.