Wednesday, December 7, 2011

To Know You is Not to Love You

I just returned from a Jewish, silent meditation retreat up in the Lower Galilee’s Or HaLev.  Although I live in the middle of the Negev, overlooking nothing but desert, I needed this retreat; my mind has been active with clutter.  There is a spiritual teaching, energy flows where attention goes, and lately, I’ve been addicted to comment threads on, a challenging news blog from Israeli and Palestinian journalists, where I’ve been engaging in political discourse with a regular cast of characters. No matter what thoughtful commentary the 972 Journalists offer, most readers fire back with pre-programmed responses aligned with whatever beliefs they clung to before reading.  The few moments we’ve managed to break free of talking points have been moving, but, sadly, rare.  More often, commenters are committed to their certainty that they know everything about everyone else.

Some labels thrown around in these threads include:  settler, Zionist, liberal Zionist, religious right winger, anti-Israeli/Zionist leftist, and this just in from a Jewish American man, “obscenely hypocritical” leftist Jewish immigrants to Israel (that’s me).  We use these labels the way highschoolers do to make sense of their world:  jocks, druggies, popular kids… And we do so for the same reasons:  to separate, through judgment, ourselves from others in order to feel superior, in order to know where to sit in the cafeteria, in order to have a place to sit in the cafeteria, and mostly to avoid the complexities of this world, ourselves.  This is the age of separation via the very religions that connect us—consciously or unconsciously—to this Land.  It is one of the greatest tragedies of our time that the essence of God—the interconnectedness of everything—is used, including by vehement non-believers, for the purpose of disconnection. 

We first arrived at the meditation retreat just in time for one meal before entering silence.  As we registered, I filled out a form about my meditation history and was told by a man I’d just met that he did not like my old teacher.  During the meal, some American new immigrants were talking loudly about their Israeli army service, and a dear friend of mine—a peace activist—whispered, “I didn’t come here to listen to that,” to which I whispered back, “don’t worry—soon we won’t have to know anything about each other.”  Another woman, who, incidentally, is orthodox and lives in a settlement, discovered that a group of young women were from Be’er Sheva and asked, “How did they know about this?”  Across the room, I could see someone I knew who worked with Rabbis for Human Rights, several men (and one woman) in kippot, a Haredi man, a man with an artificial ear (had he lost his to war?), religious students from Jerusalem, and secular residents of Tel Aviv.  The tables were lined up as one, long banquet, yet people sat in packs.   

There is nothing inherently Jewish about a silent meditation retreat:  stay in silence for a prolonged period, practice mindfulness in everything from eating to walking to washing your face, sit on your cushion often, follow your breath, and when thoughts or feelings arise, as they do in humans, simply observe them before waving them goodbye.  When that same thought or feeling returns (and it will—the mind is persistent), acknowledge it again, return to your breath.  This action is not unlike the tool “redirect” that I used to train my dog, except in this case, I’m the dog and the trainer.  Through this practice, one experiences a knowing that you are not your thoughts, you are not your feelings; you are more expansive than your mind, even than your “you”.

What makes silent retreats like this one “Jewish”—besides that the teachers talk a lot and the retreatants, too, can ask unlimited questions—is that they are run by Jews, many of whom are rabbis, and when we wake, we gather together to chant the morning prayers—our voices arising out of silence—about gratitude, compassion, and awe.  Sometimes, teachers will connect basic mindfulness teachings to Judaism, though they’re just as likely to connect them to teachings of monks or Sufis.  If the retreat runs over Shabbat, there are Shabbat meals, prayers, and practice, together in silent communion. 

On this retreat, there was also an option to go to the community mikveh, something that, because I am not married, I’ve never had permission to do according to Jewish Law.  As we waited for our turn to disrobe, shower, and immerse ourselves in ritual water before God with whatever intentions we were bringing for purification, healing, or rebirth, the woman helping at the Mikveh asked us, since many of us were first-timers, if we had any questions.  What began with quiet questions about what to expect quickly snowballed into judgments of various tones:  Did the Jewish laws around mikveh imply that menstruation made women unclean?  Did the fact that only married women could participate mean that the Orthodox world denied the reality of non-marital sex?  Did our own religion deem us unholy?  Yet for some reason, nearly every woman returning to that waiting room after her mikveh was moved to tears.  We lingered in that room, together, long after our turn had come and gone, our hair wet from timeless ritual, from inclusion, immersion; from our womb-like experience, alone with God.

At the end of the retreat, there is a gratitude circle, and people were invited to share their experiences.   One woman told us she had never felt connected to Judaism until the retreat.  A Haredi man, who had sat beside me the whole time, shared that although it was strange for him to practice with women, he felt more connected to prayer on these retreats than ever before.  I shared how surprised I’d been to care about being included in the mikveh.  And then one of the young men my friend and I had heard, days earlier, talking about his army service, spoke.  He said that just after going into silence, he’d regretted not asking a man he’d met that evening about where exactly he lived, what he did for work, or how many children he had in order to know this man, but now, none of those things seemed to matter.  Now, he’d experienced this man through his small, kind gestures; the essence of his being.  In fact, he'd seen all of us this way; so much beauty.  He vowed from this point forward to truly experience people, rather than to try to know them.  

It took me one hour upon returning home to check in with +972 Magazine’s comment threads.  They hadn’t changed.  What had changed was that now, I could feel the pain of everyone involved; the longing to connect to the beauty within ourselves, each other, each piece of fruit, spider, clump of soil.  I could feel our yearning to be included, to include; to recognize and be recognized.  I could feel the suffering we endure in order to deny ourselves the love this world is offering us, every moment of every day.          

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Family Therapy for the Whole World

I’m an American Jew, living in Israel.  In fact, I just became a dual citizen.  This is the only language I’m comfortable using when I tell anyone about my status change—a change I made for the spiritual purpose of being in one place at one time; to reflect the truth—that this is currently my home where I live, work, and pay taxes; and for the logistic purpose of allowing me to stay beyond the expiration of my visa—how much longer, I do not know.  The majority of Jews in the diaspora call this “making aliyah”—ascending, and moving one’s life to the Promised Land. I wasn’t raised with Zionist ideals or even Zionist awareness; moving here was never on my radar.  Even now, I don’t feel I’ve moved to the State of Israel, but rather to the Negev, a desert whose rocks and land called me to come, then called me to stay, and then to stay longer; a desert whose voice long precedes this State, but certainly holds the voices of my own ancestors, along with so many others’.  Nonetheless, I cannot pretend that having Israeli Citizenship—a controversial privilege as well as status—does not come with the responsibility of being a part, now, of the conflict, here. 

This land is full of such rich narratives, each of them carrying truth; what makes the news, by the time it’s boiled down to the jargon of good guys and bad guys, is not even the 10% of the visible iceberg.  As a writer, and a human being, I collect these narratives.  I absorb them.  I try to find a way to carry them all within me.  Even when some narratives don’t seem to include much objective truth, I listen with my heart to the person whose story has led them to their understanding.  There is always truth, there, and often it is more powerful than facts.

Because this is the way I experience the world, I am often accused by friends who are personally connected to this land of not seeing The Real Truth, and willfully not letting that Truth in.  They come at me armed with information—so much information!—about what really happened in 1948 and long before, or 1967, or about Hamas, or about the ethics of the Israeli Army, or etc.  As a writer, I understand that there is a way in which this very essay would be stronger if I were including more concrete examples, yet it is those very examples that lead us into the downward spiral of our own personal hell.  If I add any detail to these arguments, someone reading will need to respond with counter arguments, and we’ll all go home feeling sick and hopeless.    This is exactly why the current “Social Justice Revolution” in Israel is struggling with how to take on certain issues; they know where that snowball goes, and are enjoying an unprecedented moment of unified, if vague, activism. 

Recently, however, something happened, my reaction to which will, tragically, make some of my Jewish friends in the diaspora feel gratified.  I was talking to one of my dearest friends here—to protect her identity I’ll say only that she is Arab and Muslim—and she told me that it was obvious that Al-Qaeda wasn’t behind the September Eleventh attacks; after all, why had over 500 Jews known not to be in the Twin Towers that day?  How could some camel-riding men from Afghanistan have pulled off such a high tech operation without the help of the CIA?  And my heart sank.  I had seen this story floating around the web at some point, but I never expected to hear it from my friend.   

One of the many things my Jewish, Israel-loving friends have accused me of is not grasping the magnitude of brainwashing and revisionist history in the Arab world.  I tell them that I am aware of this (and, I am); it is simply not where I put my energy, nor where I want to put my energy.  I believe that we create each other, and our future, with how we see each other.  If we’re always reacting to the places that bring up pain for us, always feeling victimized and defending ourselves, we can never move forward, personally or collectively.  This is Family Therapy 101; also Couples Counseling 101.   If we spend our energy trying to Right ourselves and make the other side and/or the world see how We are right and They are wrong, we get stuck in our own personal hell.

Instead, I look for the equally true goodness, with empathy, as I find that not only is this better for me, but it actually brings out the true goodness and helps to create a better world.  I don't look at a rose-colored surface; I dig deep.  I meditate until I experience the ways in which we are all one, not a We and They.  And when I do break things down—I look to my own people, Jews and Israelis and Americans, for how we and I can do better.  There is, of course, a lot to look at, there.  I stand by this way of being. I find this layer of truth to be truer, and more heart-driven, than the reactive surface on which we usually operate.

But when one of my dearest friends, whom I respect tremendously, who is highly educated, has plenty of access to good journalism including English language journalism, and plenty of Jewish friends (Israeli and American alike)—so, plenty of access to the multi-layered tapestry of reality—tells me this Conspiracy Theory as if it is Fact, and tells me that I have bought into the American Story, I feel the weight of how far we have to go.

All you have to do is incite Jews in the Arab world—why did 500 Jews know to stay home that day?—and then you can add any other fiction you want, and it works.  Of course, Jews didn’t stay home that day and September Eleventh had exactly nothing to do with Jews, who died in the Twin Towers along with their fellow Arab Americans and everyone else—a demographic melting pot the scope of which is beyond the imagination of most people who have never lived in New York City, a city I resided in for ten years, which I often refer to as my true homeland; New Yorkers, My People.    

Here in my heart’s other homeland, the Negev, I just spent a day and night with my surrogate Bedouin family, fasting during Ramadan, praying, watching hundreds of thousands praying in Mecca via television, listening to televised sermons of Imams based on the Quran.  The values of the Quran are beautiful, and the content full of stories of Moses and Aaron resembling the Torah. 

When Islamic terrorist attacks are carried out throughout the world by a small yet organized percentage of Islam, why aren’t respected Islamic Leaders joining together and raising their voice against these attacks carried out in the name of the Quran?  Why aren’t they speaking to their own people about this problem in their world, rather than allowing the problem to be ignored, or worse, denied?   

There’s another lesson I learned in Family Therapy.  We can only take responsibility for ourselves, and our own reactions.  I will not allow the fact that my dear friend buys into this revisionist history to make me operate from a reactive place, trying to get the truth out.  Even here, I had written a paragraph about the September Eleventh hijackers, and then deleted it; this is a level on which I maintain I do not want to engage any more today than I did last week, when my friends accused me of not seeing The Truth. 

But I will ask my Arab, Muslim friends to join me in self-reflection, and to call upon their leaders to do the same. 

And I will call upon the readers of this entry who are satisfied to see me writing about this subject, in this way, to join me in feeling sad, not gratified.  Any response of gratification to this post is just as destructive as denial or reactive accusations against it.  If we really want to score any points, let’s feel something.