Living Joyfully: The Need for Sanctuary


We all need space. Space for the inner life, for creativity, for sanity – space to unwind, space to be ourselves.

This is a deeply felt need today, touching lives all over our planet, affecting all beings, a need reaching far beyond any one person’s story. And yet it is our individual experiences that make up the collective experiences of our time, and that hold the key to moving beyond the conflicts and challenges that undermine our well-being and threaten our very survival. Finding a sanctuary within, a space for loving-kindness, holds such a key.

Living Joyfully: The Need for Sanctuary

A heart made of tree bark my daughter Ava found

I found my first sanctuary on the school bus, on the way to grade school. Maybe it was the first time I needed one. I discovered that I could close my eyes softly, and turn my face to the window, and enter another world. Behind my eyelids, I could still “see” the play of light and shadow as the noisy bus zoomed down the old, dirt roads lined with trees, their leaves and branches dappling the reddish hue visible behind my eyes, now dark, now light, now dark, now light again. I could pretend I was a space traveler, zooming through a nebula with Flash Gordon, exploring new galaxies. I could dream I was a thousand miles away from the bullying kids who sat around me, calling me names, tugging at my pony tails. If I sat there long enough, focusing in on my reverie and the play of light, their voices would fall away. They would lose interest in tormenting me, and move on to other things. I could be “free.”

We all need sanctuary. A space where we can be ourselves, free from harm.

Living Joyfully: The Need for Sanctuary

Sacred space of mama-hood. Erin holding baby Aiden, March 2013

This childhood memory is no longer painful – in fact, it’s actually a very exciting and illuminating one for me, although that may sound strange; I can recall the feeling of freedom, and the sight of the dappled colors behind my eyes so vividly that I know this moment held a seed of transformation.

When I went into that space, I was not spinning aimlessly in the vacant space of dissociation. I was following a deeper calling, moving into meditative territory, finding sanctuary within.

I was reading this week in Jennifer Louden’s blog on this idea that our “shadows” and our “wounds” actually hold the direction of our calling – if we work with them. It’s not the story of “what happened to us” that’s so important, exactly, but the actions that come out of it – it’s what we do with it that counts.

I love this idea, because when I look back at my life and work, I can see that the things that feel most meaningful for me to teach and share come out of the discoveries I made in the process of seeking out the things I needed most.

Sanctuary. Space for the creative life. Space for sanity, space to be yourself.

When I first opened the Yoga studio I once had the privilege to own & run, my boyfriend at the time mockingly called it, “The Sanctuary.” (There’s a reason he’s an ex.) There’s nothing mocking about it: It has always been crucially important to me to find, and cultivate, and hold sacred the space we all need to feel welcome, and nourished, and loved.

When we don’t have such a space, within or without, we tend to react against the challenges we face with violence and hatred instead of compassion and loving-kindness.

Living Joyfully: The Need for Sanctuary

Erin at newly opened Avenues Yoga, 2009

In ancient times, a sanctuary could be a sacred grove, a chapel, a waterfall – holy ground. Since I left the studio to find new ground, I have been looking for a space, for a sanctuary to call home – one where I can live and work and share the teachings so dear to my heart.

Living Joyfully: The Need for Sanctuary

One of many lovely waterfalls behind my house

Sacred space can be as simple as a kitchen table covered with art supplies – as long as everyone’s expressions are welcomed and cherished.

Living Joyfully: The Need for Sanctuary

Aiden dabbling with watercolors, May 2015

Sanctuary can also be found in the guided visualizations and relaxation practices I hold so dear, and that work so well to draw us into unwinding, releasing the negativity and emotional gunk that sometimes clings to us, and finding our way again with a replenished heart. (I’ll be sharing some of these techniques in my free relaxation audio course later this month.) When I reflect on my personal story, I understand why sharing these practices mean so much to me.

We all need space. We all need the freedom and safety to explore our own creative impulses. We need a space within that’s free from harm, free from the inner critic, free from outer critics. We need space to be ourselves and space to find ourselves when we don’t know who we are any more. Such times need tenderness. Sanctuary.

Living Joyfully: The Need for Sanctuary

My writing sanctuary

Sacred space can be virtual. Not virtual as in “unreal,” but virtual as in its ancient meaning: “possessing certain virtues.” Guided reveries are “virtual” experiences in this sense, and our bodies and minds respond to them in the same way they respond to actual events. Just like our ability to go within, into the dream-time of meditation and inspiration, virtual space provides us with the ability to connect with our wiser selves, and with our kindred spirits across time and space, as we are doing now, through sharing this story. Sacred space like this possesses an incredible virtue: it is something we can share, even though I may be “here” and you may be “there.”

Do you ever fall into this trap? I know I do sometimes, and it can be so isolating. It’s when we think of the hardships we’ve faced, or the difficulties that have plagued us, as things to be ashamed of, to outgrow, to leave behind. I was reminded by my friend Marilyn Bosquin last week that owning these stories, welcoming them back into our lives, is an act of tremendous self-compassion. For a long time in my life, I would never have told anyone about those days on the bus. Now I understand that I have built my life on the wisdom that my child self discovered, through the pain that she endured, through experiences no parent would wish their child to have. She’s a part of me; she made me who I am. To leave her behind, fragmented from my being, disowned, denied, forgotten, would be to impoverish myself and those around me. Because to understand her story is to understand the passion behind the teacher I’ve become.

And I imagine that it is the same for you: the things you needed most became your calling too. I hope you find them, and when you do, I hope you share them. Because that’s what we’re here for. To help and love each other. To find the gifts we need in order to thrive and in order to live in joy.

I’ll leave you today with some words from one of my heroes…

Living Joyfully: The Need for SanctuaryMay I become at all times,
Both now and for ever,
A protector for the helpless,
A guide for the lost ones,
A ship for those to cross oceans,
And a bridge to cross rivers,
A sanctuary for those in danger,
A lamp for those in darkness,
A refuge for those who need shelter,
A servant to all in need.
-The Dalai Lama

With love,

p.s. Take this as a head’s-up – I’m working on a new Sanctuary project. Right here, from the sweet sanctuary of my writing space. And you can be here with me too. Want to learn more? Just hit “reply” and let me know what’s on your mind.