painting of person standing far away in dense forest

Every few months I have a recurring dream: I’m walking through my home and notice a door I’ve never seen before. I open the door to find an enormous room—a cathedral, actually—with sky-high ceilings and glorious stained-glass windows. My reaction isn’t surprise, but recognition. “Oh, yeah!” I think in the dream. “I knew this was here all along! I just forgot.” Along with the memory of the space comes the memory of its function. The cathedral in my dream is there to offer sanctuary.

A lot of us could use a little sanctuary right now. As I write this, cases of Covid-19 are increasing faster than ever in the USA. Jobs and businesses are still disappearing. Doctors and financial experts say we haven’t begun to see the full negative impact of the pandemic. As for recovery—well, the experts tell us, that won’t happen for a long time.

All of that said, there’s a sense in which we can recover from all our problems at any time, any place. The word “cover” can mean a place of safety, as in “take cover,” so “re-covery” can mean “to find safety again.” Inside each of us is that unassuming little door that opens to a cathedral. While we’re waiting for human bodies, careers, and social institutions to heal, we can “re-cover,” over and over again, by going to that sacred space and claiming sanctuary.

Seeking sanctuary in a time of chaos

The tradition of creating a sacred space where anyone can find refuge is so pervasive, throughout history and geography, that some social scientists call it a “primordial” concept, something we feel almost biologically. Even in this chaotic time—perhaps now more than ever—we instinctively look for a sanctum sanctorum, a holy place where we can rest, catch our breath, regain our strength.

Historically, people could find such spaces in literal buildings or rooms. I’m always fascinated by the interfaith chapels in some airports—modern rooms carrying on a tradition that has existed since history began. Whenever we feel especially vulnerable—when we’re traveling, when we’re sick, when we’re out of work—such spaces can calm our nerves. But in a pandemic, literally sharing sacred spaces may not protect us; in fact, it can be a vector for viral contagion.

Safe sacred spaces

Happily, there are at least three kinds of sanctuary we can use any time to recover our balance and serenity: virtual, natural, and purely spiritual. We can turn these “spaces” into healing sanctuaries by entering them consciously, focused on recovering. Here are some suggestions to get you started.

Sanctuary Option 1: Virtual recovery space

  • I have friends “in recovery” who attend twelve-step meetings—sometimes several a day—all on Zoom. Sometimes they arrange for “a meeting after the meeting” where they can just feel safe and heal from the buffeting of the world. If you feel such meetings would be helpful, they’re always available.
  • Every Sunday I hop on Facebook for half an hour, sharing a sacred virtual space I call “the gathering room” with people I know and people I’ve never met. I started this one day after having my cathedral dream. I saw that my computer was one example of the little door that could open on a virtually infinite sacred space. You may want to start or join a virtual gathering of your own.
  • You can also use computer technology to have regular conversations with people you love all over the world. My family does this. Seeing one another’s faces, laughing with and speaking to loved ones—including those who are physically healing from Covid—is most definitely a sacred space where we all recover a bit of hope and happiness.

Sanctuary Option 2: Natural recovery space

  • Since the pandemic began, doctors have been telling us to open windows and go outside (at a safe distance from other people). Fresh air disperses viruses. Sunshine cheers us up. Just a few hours around natural foliage increases the human body’s ability to fight disease. Take sanctuary in nature by going outside every day if you possibly can.
  • If you’re stuck inside, surround yourself with the images of natural environments. Such images—even just photographs of nature—have been shown to aid in recovery from surgery and disease.
  • Even more important to establishing a recovery space is sound. There are many free online video/audio recordings of forests, savannahs, rainstorms, rivers, and other natural settings. Go find one now, click on it, and feel the sense of sacredness, of sanctuary, spreading through your body and mind.

Sanctuary Option 3: Spiritual recovery space

  • The most accessible sanctuary we have is spiritual presence: the ability to focus all our attention on whatever is happening right here and now—not “out there,” in the world of bad news, not in the future when things may go terribly wrong, but this moment, as you’re reading these words. You’re okay right now. And right now is all you’ll ever have to deal with.
  • If you can’t rivet your attention on the here and now, if you find your mind wandering to regrets and especially worries, don’t attack yourself. Instead, notice what’s happening (“I’m worried”) and offer yourself loving support, and gently return to presence (“Of course you’re worried. So many people are. But you’re okay in this moment. Take a breath, you’ll be all right.”) The choice to offer compassion rather than criticism moves you into the sanctuary of spirit.
  • If you enjoy any form of prayer, singing, chanting, or breathing, use it to access your spirituality. In some languages “breath” means spirit. In his book Breath, James Nestor writes that Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist, and Native American prayer chants all cause people to breathe at almost exactly the same speed (5.5 breaths per minute). This slow, deep breathing settles your nervous system and allows you into a sanctum sanctorum in your own psyche, where you can recover a bit of sanity.

The ritual of claiming sanctuary

In the Middle Ages, anyone could gain protection from other people—even the legal authorities—by simply running into a sacred building and saying the word “Sanctuary!” This ritual triggered a system of safety respected by everyone in the society.

Simple rituals like saying “Sanctuary!” signal to our bodies and minds that we’ve entered a sacred recovery space. By creating your own small rituals, you can teach your mind and body to drop into this healing state.

Here’s how to do it:

  • The first step is to specify a time—five minutes, ten minutes, an hour if you can get it—to take time away from the stresses of your life. That time is sacred; you will devote it completely to recovering a sense of safety.
  • Spend that designated time in a specific place. It doesn’t have to be fancy, just calming. I have a little meditation space in my house—but I never use it. I always find myself going to a certain chair that feels especially comfortable. I push this chair over to a window, where I can see the trees. Find a place that feels right to you, even if it looks a bit odd.
  • Pushing my special chair to my favorite window may seem like extra effort. In fact, it’s become a ritual that immediately calms me down. Begin all your recovery sessions with a ritual: light a candle, read from a favorite book, or spend one minute listening to your own heartbeat. It doesn’t matter what your “sanctuary” ritual is; only that you do it consistently.

Sanctuary whenever you need it

Once you have a place, a time, and a ritual, you can touch in with the peaceful energy of sanctuary any time you feel especially vulnerable.

For example, I recently watched the news just before going to bed. Big mistake. The headlines were unnerving, the details truly frightening. It took a long time to fall asleep. But when I finally did, I had that dream again. There I was in my house. There was the little door. And there, behind that door, was the cathedral.

I woke up before dawn, feeling tired and a bit anxious. So I went to my favorite chair, pushed it over to my favorite window, sat down, and relaxed into the moment. Sure enough, I began to recover. Not from everything, and not forever, but in that sacred space, that sacred moment. Which was enough.

We can all recover a bit of peace, confidence, and hope whenever we need it. The door inside us—the state of mind that leads to peace—is real. It opens to an infinite sacred space in our own hearts, minds, and souls. And that is real as well. If we go there and ask for sanctuary, we can always find it. Little by little, breath by breath, our spirits can recover from anything.

This essay was featured in Maria Shriver’s The Sunday Paper. The Sunday Paper inspires hearts and minds to rise above the noise.