I have been involved with the Omega Institute—a nonprofit, mission-driven, and donor-supported educational organization—in many capacities over several years. Its reach has captured my heart and held my attention. For more than 40 years Omega has been a pioneer in holistic studies—helping people and organizations integrate personal growth and social change, moving beyond “the way it is” toward “the way it can be.” At various times during my association with Omega, I have served as its Chair and Development Director.
When Omega first moved to its current location, it was blessed with a fine facility that offered classrooms for teaching and residential opportunities for participants and staff to live on campus. The Omega store sold books, yoga materials, and clothing. The campus also provided a spacious and welcoming dining hall and a wellness center. What its new location did not offer, however, was a place reserved exclusively for meditation, prayer, and introspection. It was essential to create such a spiritual facility on campus that would be available to both participants and staff.
I was serving as board chair when Omega decided to build a sanctuary that would serve the need of participants and staff. We formed a leadership group devoted to the success of the project. For over two years, members of the leadership group regularly brought people on walks to the site where the Sanctuary would be built. We invited participants to join us in creating a circle that would be the perimeter of the site, and asked them to offer a silent prayer that the Sanctuary be built with the best of intentions, that it serve the need of all those who visit, and that it be a place of serenity for people to either be alone or gather with others.
There is an expression that life is lived forward but understood backward. The notion of imbuing the site with prayers was part of the attention that was paid to all aspects of the Sanctuary’s development. Omega’s goal was to introduce the concept of sanctuary to as many of its participants as possible. Their questions informed our answers. We learned a great deal from each visit. What we hadn’t anticipated was that the power of prayer would linger in the land, would be enveloped within the building structure, and would be manifest when you entered the Sanctuary to meditate.
We have since built many other facilities on campus—a retreat house for teachers who exchange dharma talks for retreat time, a library which now houses some 10,000 books that is named in honor of Ram Dass, one of the early and stalwart supporters of Omega. Next came the Omega Center for Sustainable Living, an environmental center that is ecologically among the best in the world, but nothing prepared Omega to experience the benevolent power that emanated from the land on which the Sanctuary is located. The hundreds of walks taken and the thousands of prayers offered had become a permanent part of the Sanctuary site.
When the Sanctuary officially opened, Omega held a private ceremony attended by the more than 200 people who helped in its development. We gave everybody a small slip of paper and asked them to write a note, wish, or prayer associated with the Sanctuary. The heart of the Sanctuary consists of an interior stone wall that runs along two of the Sanctuary’s sides. We had not yet attached the final stone – and the space it offered became the repository for all those slips of paper. Once the written wishes were put into the available space, the final stone sealed the prayers in place forever.
The Sanctuary can be accessed in two ways. The shorter path involves a steep climb up slate steps to the entrance of the building. The second path involves a more circuitous route from the base of the campus to the formal entrance, where you remove your shoes before entering.
One route is shorter and more athletic. The other is more contemplative and surrounded by woods. The choice is dictated by our time availability. When we are rushed for time, we fit things in, often touching only the surface of an opportunity and foregoing the rich potential to settle down and settle in. Rushing is a disease that infects our very being. Even though it is quite contagious, it is hard to recognize.
When time is the controlling factor, we limit the depth of our experience. We’ll be back, we promise, and when we return we will bring no agenda with us other than a desire to melt into and be part of the peace that quiet provides. Occasionally we fulfill our promise and we return, eager to embrace the space provided within the Sanctuary. As we settle down and settle in, we expand into the fullness of who we are, whispering inside ourselves, “Welcome, welcome home.” As we sit quietly in the Sanctuary, it finally dawns on us that there is nothing else to do, nothing else to say.
Sanctuaries—often churches or other religious buildings—are places of refuge that are frequently referred to as the “Holy of Holies.” When sequestered in a Sanctuary, occupants were considered to be protected from attack and exposure. The space provided a refuge—a safe haven—from invasion and mayhem.
How often in life I have yearned for a Sanctuary where I could find respite from daily challenges—a place of refuge. Some find refuge by moving into an ashram or attending long retreats, while others visit churches hoping to connect with some power greater than themselves that will provide answers, offer a sign, or at the least listen to our plea to know, “Why me, why now?”
When I worked at Omega, the Sanctuary was the building I went to when I needed to separate myself from the daily demands of work. My issues would still be waiting patiently for me when I left the building, so I didn’t separate myself from the problems that needed to be addressed. But they were now coated with a universal energy that let me listen without prejudging, ask without expectation, and act without malice.
Sitting in the Sanctuary brought great comfort. My pace slowed, my mind quieted, my actions stilled. You could hear the silence and sense the calm within the room. There was no distraction. In Buddhism there is a breathing meditation in which you breathe in the evils of the world on the in-breath and on the out-breath you breathe out love. Whenever I sat in the Sanctuary, I reversed the process. I breathed in the energy of the Sanctuary and breathed out my troubles or my challenges or my failures, allowing them to be absorbed, diffused, and altered by the power in the room. When I left the Sanctuary, the challenges I entered with may not have been resolved, but they had been reduced in size and scope.
I carry that feeling with me every time I conjure up my memory of the Sanctuary. I now live in Oregon, so frequent trips to the Sanctuary are no longer possible. But when I do return, I sense that I am recharging a battery that has run down. The terrain is familiar, the interior an old friend, the quiet a blessing.
I want this experience to be available to everyone, but am uncertain which approach would best accomplish this goal. The suggestion I offer below represents how I would explore finding personal sanctuaries. Build on this suggestion as you form your own sacred space.
Convert part of where you live into sacred space. It can be a room in a house or a corner of an apartment. Let your own prayers make this space become holy, your spiritual retreat, your grounding where you can find solace, strength, and renewal. Over time there will evolve a space that has been filled with your prayers and wishes. Add photographs, special letters, candles, poetry. Draw on personal items that have special meaning to you. In good times add more prayers and blessings to the space. In hard times, draw on the power of the space you have created to sustain you.
George Kaufman ©
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Thanks to the Omega Institute for the beautiful picture of the inside of the Sanctuary at the top of this page.
as George's gift to you