...reflections from a Compassionate Listener

Monday, February 25, 2013

Guatemala...Welcome to Palestine

In 1982 when I was a student at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, my good friend and I put ourselves at risk to research the Israeli military’s puppet Palestinian administration in the West Bank. The “Village Leagues” could be described as armed militias, staffed by Palestinian collaborators and former criminals who were appointed by the Israeli military. Not only did my friend and I get an eye-full about the Israeli occupation, but while we were interviewing one of the Israeli military leaders in the West Bank, he made it clear that they had watched our every move and knew of every one of our meetings with Palestinians. (At that time, Israelis could be arrested for speaking with members of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which included almost every Palestinian in the West Bank.)

Back to the Village Leagues: If you were Palestinian at that time and needed any help at all, for example a visa for your son who was accepted to attend university in Europe, or even if you needed something as simple as a driver's license, you were forced to collaborate with the Village Leagues and turn in neighbors and even family members...which in turn meant arrest, imprisonment, torture, and sometimes death.

At around the same time, for another university course, I wrote a long paper on the United States' and Israel’s unholy alliance with the dictators of Central America. I learned about Israel’s arming and counter-insurgency training of the Guatemalan military. Many sources credited Israel as the “brains” behind the Guatemalan genocide of the Mayans, which spiked significantly in 1982 with stepped up Israeli aide.

A quote from ABC News: “'The Israeli soldier is the model for our soldiers,' proclaimed the chief of staff of the Guatemalan army. In 1982, Efraín Ríos Montt—the country’s first evangelical president and a general who took power by a coup—told ABC that his success was due to the fact that 'our soldiers were trained by Israelis.'"

What I experience here in this Mayan village of 13,000, is continual evidence of the devastating loss of trust between people and families. Even now, 16 years after the Peace Accords were signed, the effects of the war are glaring. When I first heard about the “Civilian Patrol” that operated here in San Pedro and in just about every other Mayan village in Guatemala during the war, I thought it sounded strangely similar to what I witnessed in Palestine. What I finally realized and confirmed through research, is that the Israeli system of forced collaboration in Palestine through the Village Leagues, is exactly what was exported to Guatemala.

From another article: “It is no accident that the Guatemalans looked to the Israelis for assistance in organizing their campaign against the Maya, and having followed their mentors' advice, wound up with something that looked quite a bit like the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and the Gaza strip. One of the most oppressive features of Guatemala's pacification program was the 'Civilian Patrols' whose ranks were filled by coercion, with most joining out of fear of being called subversive, and thus marked for torture or execution.

“Those who did serve in the Patrols had to turn in their quota of 'subversives'. Otherwise they were forced to denounce their own neighbors and to execute them with clubs and fists in the village plaza.

“The Patrols are believed by most analysts to have been created by Israel. They had a profound effect on Mayan society, both psychologically, ‘a permanent violation of our values,’ as the country's Catholic bishops charged, and practically, as long shifts on Patrol prevented fulfillment of family and economic obligations.

“In 1983 the Guatemalan government estimated that 850 villages in the highlands had ‘Civilian Patrol’ units. The following year the U.S. embassy in Guatemala estimated that 900,000 men had been enrolled in the units, armed with Israeli assistance.

“In 1982 Israeli military advisers helped develop and carry out Guatemala's 'Plan Victoria,' the devastating scorched earth campaign that Rios Montt unleashed on the highland population. Rios Montt himself told the Washington Times that the Israeli government was giving his administration help with the counterinsurgency plan called "Techo, tortilla y trabajo" (shelter, food and work). The "three T's" followed an earlier Rios program called Fusiles y Fridoles, or beans and bullets, where wholesale slaughter was combined with the provision of life's necessities to those willing to cooperate with the military.”

Guatemala...welcome to Palestine.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Hitting Home: The American Dream

U.S. - Mexican Border Wall

Here in San Pedro La Laguna, I am part of a group of Guatemalans and foreigners who have been meeting over the past month with the goal of founding a center to promote Mayan Culture. Many tourists here would love a deeper dive into Mayan culture and spirituality but are challenged to find a way in. We wish to help fill that gap, while supporting the growing efforts of locals who are working to revive their culture.

Currently, if you meet the right person, you will be able to visit and learn about a sacred site, attend a fire ceremony, have a reading of your Mayan Cross, visit a traditional bone healer (curandero), or learn about traditional plant medicine. You could even find the one woman in the village who you can pay to fire up a Mayan sauna, called a temescal or "toj". The new center will help people connect with these teachers, healers, leaders and families who are keeping Mayan traditions alive. It will also offer classes in the local indigenous language, Tz'utujil, and Spanish lessons that focus on Mayan spirituality, known as "Cosmovision". We also envision the center as a place where people can contribute their unique skills and collaborate on community projects. For example, Compassionate Listening circles will be offered as a way to help build relationships and trust, in a community that is suffering the trans-generational effects of war. 

By now you might be wondering what the connection is between this beautiful new effort and the picture of the U.S. - Mexican Wall at the top of this post? As our group was meeting a few nights ago to discuss a possible location for the new center, our host received a phone call and left the room to take it. He returned visibly shaken. He told us he just learned that a close friend of his had been shot by U.S. border police at the U.S. - Mexican Wall, while trying to enter the United States. This friend had only recently shared his decision to try to make it to the U.S. It was an economic decision, as it is for the vast majority of Guatemalan's who enter the U.S. illegally every year. 

Here in San Pedro, the majority of workers and farmers make $6.50 for a long day of hard work. A cleaning woman earns about $1.00 per hour. A Spanish teacher can make $2.00 per hour and $3.00 per hour is considered a high wage. With the combination of racism and oppression against the indigenous Maya in Guatemala, many young men feel the temptation to journey to the U.S. to work, in hopes of supporting their families and returning with enough money to build a house or start a business. 

Upon hearing this sad news, we lit a candle and stuck it on the red concrete floor with melted wax, turned out the light, and prayed for Antonio. We then listened quietly to our friend Juan, as he tried to make sense of this tragic news. Another Mayan friend leaned over and whispered to me, "This is the 'American Dream'. I also wanted to go at one time, but it's not my dream anymore." 

This post is in honor of a young man named Antonio, and his family and friends who are mourning his early departure. It's also in honor of Antonio's friend Juan, who he left behind in San Pedro with a dream of helping to rebuild his culture. Juan is bursting with energy to share his passion for culture with the children of San Pedro, this village of 13,000 Tz'utujil Maya. I pray for his success and for the success of all of the people working hard for a better future for their children; I pray for a future where the beautiful young men of San Pedro no longer think about the American Dream. 

(**Please contact me if you'd like Spanish lessons on Skype with one of the men involved with the new center. They are linguists and Spanish teachers, and have a lot to teach about Mayan spirituality and culture. Wherever you live, this is one way that you can directly support the reclaiming of indigenous culture that is taking place here in San Pedro.)

Here are a few resources that I've collected about the Wall: 

Article from Democracy Now website: Texas Agent Shoots Dead 2 Guatemalans Near Border

Video from The Onion: Mexico Builds Border Wall to Keep Out U.S. Assholes


A short piece about illegal immigration by an anonymous author that I stumbled on:

“Tortilla Curtain” or “Iron Curtain”

We have a long way to go to resolve why anyone wants to risk everything to come to an ungrateful country. Yes, illegal immigrants are a strain on our health system and our government provided human services. In exchange, they go to work in places most young workers perceive as undignified - yucky jobs that even the poorest Americans would turn away from. These enthusiastic pioneers step right in and roll up their sleeves without complaint, mostly out of fear. After improving their language skills, they move forward into their own service businesses. They are motivated and focused on upward mobility. Strange enough, they even send support back to their families back home. 
They endure all the injustice America can dump on them. They are prey to crooked scams and believe the most despicable among us. They are profiled by police and set upon by bigoted youth gangs. Yes, crooks cross into this country, too. They become targets for America’s home-grown crooks who resent intrusions into their turf. 
Illegal immigrants are the under-belly for our foundation service industries. Get used to cleaning up your own hotel room, paying more for child and elderly care and mowing your own lawn. These immigrants leave a poor system that offers respect from their peers to a ‘rich’ system that treats them like garbage.
Oh yeah, they must be crazy. Send them back to Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras. Lets start recruiting replacement workers from your family. Start now. The wages will surely improve because you are an American. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Altar of this Moment

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Place everything you can perceive –
Everything you can
See, hear, smell, taste, or touch,
Upon the altar of this moment
And give thanks.
It is over so soon –
This expression,
This single moment of your precious life,
This one heart
Pounding itself open
With fear or wild joy,
This one breath rising
In the cold winter air
Smoothly and gently
Or coughing and sputtering,
Bow, while you can, before
This one taste
Of afternoon tea
Warming its way to your belly,
Or the fragrant orange
Exploding its sweet juice
In your grateful mouth.
You have to love
The antics of your mind,
Imagining life should only be sweet.
The bitter makes the sweet; and life is both.
It is whole, like you,
Before you think yourself to pieces.
Place this moment’s pain and confusion on the altar, too,
And give special thanks for such grace
That wakes you up from sleeping through life.
Pain is greatly under-rated as a pointer to Unknowing,
Yet greatly over-rated when taken as identity.
In this moment,
Your eyes meet mine and there is a single looking.
What is peering from behind our masks?
Can it touch itself across the room?
Place your palms together;
Touch your holy skin.
In another moment it will shed itself.
What will you be then?
What were you before you had two hands?
What are you now?
You cannot capture That
And place It on the altar of this moment.
It is the altar,
And this moment’s infinite expressions,
And the Seeing,
And its own devotion to itself.
You are That.
~Dorothy S. Hunt

Saturday, July 16, 2011

My Birthday Wish, by Leah Green

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Today is my birthday. As facebook posts came in last night with birthday wishes from Palestinian and Israeli peacemakers – people who I’ve been so privileged to meet, listen to, work with and learn from over the past several decades, I realized that I have a birthday wish also.

Writing today as a woman, as a mother, a peacemaker, a global citizen, a spiritual human being and American Jew, my wish this year is for a Palestinian state. Not because I’m some great fan of the modern nation state with all of its many perils, not the least of which is nationalism and ethnocentrism…but because Palestine is a nation, and deserves its place among the other 192 sister countries that comprise the United Nations.

This September, the Palestinian Authority will petition the United Nations for membership, with plans to declare statehood by the end of the year. Most analysts believe that if it came to a vote today, the resolution would pass the U.N. General Assembly with the support of at least 130 out of 193 member nations. Gearing up to face what one Israeli leader called a “political and diplomatic tsunami” coming their way, some of our own political leaders in the U.S. are beginning to threaten the Palestinian leadership with severe measures if they persist with their “audacious” request for independence, including a Security Council veto on the vote, and cutting U.S. aid.

“Statehood is a game-changer,” said Gershon Baskin, co-Director of the respected think tank, Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information. “Once Palestine is a member state of the United Nations, Israel is no longer occupying ‘undefined disputed territory.’”

"Palestinians prayed near Israeli soldiers on Friday.
They were protesting land confiscation
 in the village of Qusra, near Nablus."

from NY times, April 2, 2011
This “game” is sorely in need of changing. These past decades, I’ve not only been listening, I’ve been watching. The territorial views from all of the high hills and vistas in the West Bank reveal a vast and sprawling network of Israeli settlements extending deep into the heart of Palestinian territory. Half a million settlers – roughly 15% of the Israeli population, now inhabit over 200 trailer outposts, towns and large cities in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and their growth continues unabated. A comprehensive report published last year by the Israeli Human Rights Organization B’tselem, which included analysis of aerial photography and relied on Israeli military data, shows that settlements control 42% of West Bank land (this figure does not include substantial additional territory controlled by the Israeli military).

This year, we in the international community have a significant opportunity to help bring sanity and international law to bear on this disastrous and even suicidal settlement policy, by encouraging our lawmakers and governments to support Palestinian statehood, and nurture a healthy future for Israelis and Palestinians.

Even if this is not “your” cause; even if you don’t know much about it, please take some time today and join me in a heartfelt vision for historical and ancestral healing for Israel and Palestine. Send your love – because this is how it’s going to happen, with love, not with more hatred or anger or violence. We don’t need more arguing about victims and perpetrators, we need loving acts that will relieve this vicious polarization and acknowledge the humanity of everyone involved. Send your love – imagine the most graceful, peaceful transition to Palestinian statehood, with humane relations with her neighbors; imagine dignity, justice and safety for all…and please, peaceful nights and sweet dreams.

Thank you for listening. This has been my wish for decades, actually. I hope it will be your wish too. I’m blowing out the candles now.

Leah Green

"To be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, 
but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others."

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Walking with Death, by Leah Green

Ten years ago, I discovered a beautiful guided mediation created by Joanna Macy, based on the four divine abodes of the Buddha, and I began to use it in my trainings. At one point in the exercise, you gaze in silence into the eyes of a partner, imagining that you have known this partner through all time and all relations: as a parent, as a child, as lovers, and as an enemy. The meditation - in its entirety - helps us experience the depth of our interconnectedness and awakens compassion for ourselves and others.

I don’t think I’ve ever experienced the power of this practice as strongly as I have over these past two months. My mother is dying, and with the turning of this wheel, our relationship has transformed - following an unspoken, natural order, where parent and child switch roles. And I find myself once again like a new mother, often with a fierce desire to take care of her needs and ease her discomforts.

For all those who have walked this path of losing a parent, my compassion flows out to you with new eyes. Like childbirth, there is no way I could possibly have known the taste and texture of this experience before walking this road myself. It is a unique experience for each person, and grief is often a common denominator. Wise teachers remind us that in our grief is our praise, because we can only grieve that which we love. 

Grief comes in powerful, rolling waves. Sometimes the waves are gentle and they fill my heart with a kind of soft heat and light. Sometimes the waves are intense and knock me over. There’s no predicting when or where they will come, but I am learning to open to these waves, and the powerful opportunities they bring for praising and celebrating my mother’s life.

As I watch my mother turn inward day by day, losing her strength, losing her grip on her memory and other physical processes, there is also a more subtle process going on. It’s as if the onion-like layers of her self – her persona and personality, are shedding. And as these layers drop away, her essence shines more brightly. I see her with fresh eyes – I see the loving woman who so easily connects heart to heart with people; who hears their stories; who wants to bring a smile to their face. I see the gentle mother who did the best she could. There is nothing to forgive – there is only praise for her good intentions and for the greatest gift that a child can possibly receive in life – unconditional love.

As my mother is surrounded now by loving family and friends, it’s as if she is storing up all the love that she can for her great journey home. And we become her midwives – holding vigil with her and offering her the comforts that we can: scratching her back (her greatest joy), reading poetry, playing soft music, feeding her ice chips and sips of ginger ale, massaging her feet, sharing simple stories from our lives, holding her hand while she sleeps. Through it all, she is still joking – still making us and the hospice nurses laugh sometimes.

As I feel her struggle to let go of her attachments and surrender to the great mystery, I witness the immense courage that it takes for her to let go of all that she has loved in life. These days, there are moments when I see the beauty around me with a new intensity – as if I’m seeing it all for her, too. And I know that this is preparation for my own death as well - as I, too, must find the strength and courage to say goodbye.

by Naomi Shihab Nye

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go 
so you know how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you every where
like a shadow or a friend. 

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Easthampton, MA with Yael Petretti, October 16/17
Raleigh, NC with Jan Hutton, October 16/17
Bainbridge Island, WA with Leah Green, October 23/24
Baltimore, MD, with Amy Rakusin and Phil Fratesi, December 11/12
Seattle, WA with Andrea Cohen and Susan Partnow, December 11/12

Friday, August 20, 2010

Rethinking Our Idea of the 'Perpetrator'

by guest blogger, Catherine Keene

Catherine Keene
When I first begin to talk to people about Compassionate Listening, I explain that our work requires us to listen to all sides of a conflict – both victims and perpetrators – in order to get a better understanding of the whole situation and find the humanity in all parties involved. Although most of the people I speak to believe compassion to be an important virtue, many of them have a difficult time understanding why we would want to listen to those whom we believe to be perpetrators. At best, they believe this is a misuse of our time, as we should be listening more to the ones who are suffering than to the ones who are causing the suffering. At worst, they worry that our work will cause us inadvertently to validate the actions of the perpetrators and thereby encourage them to continue doing harm. So although they admire our compassion for others and our good intentions, they think we are somewhat misled.

I've spent a lot of time thinking about this concern, and I've come to realize that it arises from a disagreement over what it is that causes someone to become a "perpetrator." If you believe a perpetrator has no conscience and is fundamentally destined toward committing evil actions, there might be no incentive to listen to this person, as there would be no hope for change. Or if you believe the perpetrator is completely illogical or even insane, you might see listening to this person as a waste of time because their perspective is outside reality and there is no point at which you can connect with them. In both instances, you might easily feel justified in listening only to the victims, rather than to all sides of a conflict.

But what if the party we think of as a perpetrator is neither sociopathic nor insane, but simply confused or acting out of fear? Will we help them see why they are wrong if we isolate ourselves from them or physically or emotionally attack them? Can we, as listeners, help to resolve a conflict by taking sides and labeling people? Based on my own personal experience – as well as the listening I have done overseas – I would argue that taking sides only causes all involved parties to cling more tightly to their own views and actions, regardless of which label they are given. Those who are called "perpetrators" often feel that they are being attacked by the outside party that labels them (and thus believe they are the victims), so in order to defend and justify themselves, they act out in retaliation and cause more pain. Similarly, those who are used to being called "victims" often believe themselves to be morally superior to the opposing party and look forward to a time when they can get their revenge. In this way, they become the next perpetrators. This polarization causes both parties to remain stuck in conflict, and the pain continues on.

I am reminded of Einstein's claim that "we can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them." So what new type of thinking can we use to break out of this cycle? I believe the answer comes in listening to both sides and admitting to ourselves and to others that we are all to blame for these conflicts. Every one of us has said and done things that hurt others – sometimes daily – and the more we attempt to justify ourselves and protect our egos, the more conflict we create. We are all victims and perpetrators in a multitude of ways. Even when we know that we are extremely fallible ourselves, it is so difficult for us to stop judging others and attempting to make them wrong, in order to assert our own identities. But we must keep in mind that when we label someone and judge them, we are internally distancing ourselves from this person. This eliminates the possibility for us to feel compassion towards them, as there can be no "suffering with" when we are caught up in making them wrong.

Just today I found myself becoming trapped in this polarization when I was reading the morning news. I read about a Christian Republican groupin Florida that is planning to commemorate September 11 this year by burning copies of the Quran. I will confess that my first reaction was outrage at the people planning this event, as I disagree that we will be able to make up for the trauma and loss of life in 2001 by insulting almost one quarter of the world's population and causing them to feel unsafe. At that moment, I most wanted to call these organizers and yell at them and tell them that their actions will only spread more hatred. But the more I thought about this response, the more I realized it would not be any more helpful for me to yell at them than it is for them to blame all Muslims for the 9/11 attacks. If I were to call them in anger, they would feel as though I were attacking them and not recognizing their right to observe the anniversary as they wish. They would then see themselves as the victims in this situation and try to convince others to stand up for their cause. I would get angrier, and they would feel more justified in planning their event. Nothing would be solved, and the tension would grow deeper.

So let's see if Compassionate Listening can free us from this trap. Instead of verbally attacking them and trying to make them wrong, I would like to do something truly courageous and attempt to listen to them. I will still call them, but instead of going in with the intent to "hit people with my peace sign," as Pema Chodron would say, I want to remain compassionate towards them and find out why they are so frightened of Muslims that they feel the need to launch an assault against them. If given the opportunity, I will explain that my fiancé is Muslim and I'm reading the Quran this month for Ramadan and that it is actually a book of peace that is full of wisdom, if we take the time to read it. Maybe I'll even ask them if one person there would be willing to read it, before they decide to burn it. (Of course this is based on the assumption that they have not yet read the Quran, but I find that most people who rant about how evil it is have never opened it.) But mostly I want to take the time to listen to them – not by pretending that I agree with what they are doing, but by explaining that it's important for me to understand why they feel the need to do this. It's important for me to remain connected to everyone, especially those with whom I most disagree.

In conclusion, I hope one day we will realize that the peace so many of us desire can never come from anger and hatred – it can only come when we are in harmony with all beings. So long as we insist on labeling some people "perpetrators," we must continue to label others "victims." But if we have the desire and courage, we can eventually get beyond these judgments and begin to practice real compassion.

Cathy Keene is the Managing Director of the Compassionate Listening Project
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Tuesday, August 3, 2010

In Praise of Gene Knudsen Hoffman, Founder of Compassionate Listening

Gene Knudsen Hoffman, the founder of Compassionate Listening, died peacefully on July 19, 2010. Gene was a mother and grandmother, international peacemaker, counselor, Quaker, poet, actress, writer, teacher and so much more. She was a remarkable individual who influenced many during her lifetime. 

Gene was my treasured mentor from 1996 - 2004, until her mind rejected coherent patterns of recognition and communication. Even though I lost her years ago, her death has touched me deeply. 

Over the past two weeks I've been sifting and reading through a huge file of her letters, transmissions, and articles. Carrying around my three-inch thick “Gene file” like a precious jewel, I have been amazed at her voluminous outpouring and sharing. Some people never find or recognize their mentors in life. I am grateful that I found Gene, and that we both recognized the nature of our relationship. (Photo of Gene and Leah by Carol Hwoschinsky, 1997)

In the early 1990s, I was leading citizen delegations to Israel and Palestine for the Earthstewards Network. I felt frustrated that my work seemed to be adding to the polarization of the conflict in a part of the world where I had lived, and that I loved so dearly. I brought participants from the United States who were mostly pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli. Almost everyone seemed to be caught up with side-taking. I was seeking a new framework for my efforts and continued to be drawn to the field of reconciliation. I found
the framework I was looking for in Gene's articles.

had begun her international listening work in the 1980s in the former Soviet Union. After Glasnost, like many working in the citizen diplomacy arena, she turned her reconciliation efforts to Israel and Palestine. As a young peace activist, I came across Gene’s articles and pamphlets regularly. We were both members of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (F.O.R.), an organization she joined in 1952 and had worked with intimately. We both began our listening work in the Middle East in 1990 and had overlapping interests.

I finally called Gene in the spring of 1996, and invited her to join my next delegation and teach us how to practice Compassionate Listening with Israelis and Palestinians. Gene and I met the following week in Oregon. Despite our forty-year age difference, we discovered an instant “soul sister” connection that bridged the generation gap. It seemed that with every subject we discussed, we found another nest of connections. We knew and loved the same people, the same projects, authors, and ideas. We shared similar experiences and feelings about our activist histories, and the "enemy making" we experienced in the peace movement. We acknowledged the challenges of working with our own self-righteousness.

Gene immediately agreed to come with me to the Middle East that November. She also felt that Richard Deats, former Director of F.O.R. and then editor of Fellowship magazine, would be ideal for the delegation. Richard was an expert in nonviolence whom Gene had wanted to introduce to Yasser Arafat, founder of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

From the day we met, Gene had a mission to educate me about her reconciliation efforts, and most specifically, her “Compassionate Listening” work, and I had an equal hunger to absorb her transmissions. After our first delegation together, it was clear that she recognized me as one who would carry her work forward.

Gene writes about our partnership and our mutual commitment to reconciliation: “Sixteen years of one-on-one listening passed. My journeys resulted in more articles, more explanations, but no converts, as far as I knew. Before Leah, no one else had wanted to work with me because they said I didn’t advocate for anything. When you advocate, you pick a side and you have enemies. I didn’t take a side. When people asked me who I was advocating for, I told them, ‘I’m advocating for reconciliation.’ “
(excerpt from: “A Lifetime of Global Peacemaking: An Interview with Gene Knudsen Hoffman,” The Mindfulness Bell, 2002, and her 1997 essay, “An Enemy Is One Whose Story We Have Not Heard”)

I was the eager recipient of Gene’s typed notes, letters and articles on Compassionate Listening, Love, Forgiveness, Anger, and
post traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD). She sent hand-written letters outlining details of our shared projects and practical applications. She sent notes and cards about her favorite books, and quotes and teachings from various teachers she admired. Two of the people she considered her closest mentors were Adam Curle, Senior Quaker Mediator, and Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist Monk, peacemaker, and poet.

It was F.O.R. who had sponsored Thich Nhat Hanh’s first U.S. and international speaking tour in 1966. Gene wrote, “I was so interested in this young Buddhist who had so much to contribute to peace. In 1985 I went for a month to Plum Village, his center in France. While there, he asked me to organize his first retreat with Vietnam Veterans, which I did. Thay, as we learned to call him, is particularly strong and powerful in his teachings on reconciliation. The international program I founded, Compassionate Listening, is based on his teachings.” (from the Mindfulness Bell)

Gene helped me secure funding to produce a film of our second Compassionate Listening delegation in Israel and Palestine – this time for Jewish participants only, including religious leaders. We dedicated the film,
Children of Abraham, to “Gene Knudsen Hoffman, Compassionate Listening Pioneer.” In early 1999, shortly after the release of the film, Gene began to receive so many invitations to screen the film that she thought she would have to hire someone to help her. She wrote that she was “overwhelmed, but of course thrilled” to watch the active spread of Compassionate Listening. (In the same letter, she encouraged me to lead delegations to listen to Milosevic and Saddam Hussein.)

Gene developed a Compassionate Listening curriculum in 1998 and began offering classes in Santa Barbara. The following year, I began to offer Compassionate Listening trainings in the U.S. with a different training model. Neither of our trainings focused on the Middle East. By this point, we were teaching what we called the “pure practice” of Compassionate Listening in the U.S., which was applicable to everyone in daily life. Several times, Gene, our Training Director Carol Hwoschinsky and I would gather with our growing community of Compassionate Listening practitioners for special weekends to deepen our collective understanding and practices. (Gene’s curriculum is included in her Sourcebook on Compassionate Listening, referenced at the end of this article. You will find our calendar of trainings

Despite Gene’s intention of being a full partner in the non-profit organization (we had changed the name from Mid-East Citizen Diplomacy to the Compassionate Listening Project), she eventually came to terms with her limitations and wrote to me that her traveling days were over. She asked to remain on the Board of Directors as “Co-Founder, and originator of Compassionate Listening.”

In 2002, I founded the Jewish-German Compassionate Listening track with my German friend Beate Ronnefeldt, a trainer of Nonviolent Communication. In the last letter I received from Gene, dated April 10, 2004, she thanked and honored me for pioneering the Jewish-German work, which she called “thrilling” and “an ambitious undertaking.”

Gene had thanked me profusely those last two years for this project - a testimony to her passion for Jewish-German reconciliation. In her work in Israel in the early 1990s, Gene had researched and written extensively about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder among Jewish Holocaust survivors in Israel, and the role of PTSD in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She had interviewed Israeli psychologists who were considered experts in the field, and published articles and a pamphlet on the subject called “No Royal Road to Reconciliation.”

Those of us who study, practice, and teach Compassionate Listening can continue to learn much from Gene’s articles and essays. We practitioners have a powerful lineage, and our work is infused with Gene’s research, study, and practice in the art of reconciliation.

She was a pioneer in a new field, always seeking to clarify and challenge her fellow peacemakers. In a letter from Gene to a fellow colleague, dated June 3, 2000, Gene writes:
“About nonviolence: I question whether a gospel of nonviolence will save us. I think we have the doctrine, but not the necessary respect and concern for the unhealed suffering of oppressors and other violent people. It seems we rarely consider listening to them as a possibility for wider understanding. Instead, we have Nuremberg laws, and kill or otherwise destroy perpetrators through vengeance. We forget that Gandhi spent much of his time with his ‘enemies,’ listening to them and learning how to love them. I think it was his loving truth which was grounded in his respect for them as human beings that enabled them to set India free.”

In August 2001, Gene wrote to me: “I think I’ve found a motto we can all use as the subtitle of ‘Compassionate Listening’ on publications, stationary, and brochures. I think it expresses in a ‘nutshell’ what we are doing. It’s the title of one of my essays – ‘An Enemy is One Whose Story We Have Not Heard.’ What do you think of that?”

I love to think about Gene’s delight, knowing how far her work has traveled, and how many thousands have embraced her understanding of listening to those we consider the “other” or our “enemy.” Anthony Manousos’ book about Gene has brought her life and teachings into the hands of thousands (I've referenced Anthony's book below. You can also read his beautiful
tribute to Gene.)
We at the Compassionate Listening Project have taught all over the world at conferences, universities, churches, synagogues, mediation centers…with untold numbers of individuals integrating it into their own work and projects. We have taught Israeli and Palestinian peace leaders over the past decade, and in 2003 we created an Advanced Training and Facilitator Certification track in the U.S. We now have 23 facilitators with almost half that number currently working towards their certification. As a non-profit organization, our key challenge is having adequate staff to keep up with the requests for training.

The Compassionate Listening Project extends our loving arms to Gene and her family during this time of loss. We offer our deep respect and gratitude for all she gifted to us and to the world.

I honor you, Gene, for your remarkable lifetime quest in service to personal and collective healing. Thank you for your love, belief and investment in me personally, and in our wider community of compassionate listeners. You are and will remain the founder of Compassionate Listening, and the birth-mother of a movement.

With great love for you,

Executive Director, Compassionate Listening Project

To learn more about Gene and her Compassionate Listening work, I highly recommend reading:

Compassionate Listening and Other Writings, Essays by Gene Knudsen Hoffman, Quaker Peace Activist and Mystic;
Edited, with introductory biography, by Anthony Manousos Click here to learn more about the book.

Sourcebook on Compassionate Listening
Click here to download Gene's free sourcebook.

Gene’s essays: Click here to read. 
Gene’s memorial will be Sunday, August 8, at 2pm at La Casa de Maria (800 El Bosque Road, Santa Barbara 93108).

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Listening Through Dementia

By Guest Blogger, YS Thorpe

My friend, who is 91, has non-Altzheimer's dementia. In 2003, already experiencing the frightening signs, she said "I think I'm entering a new phase of my life. I want to think of it as an adventure." She lives today in a locked-door Altzheimer's care facility. She does not know my name.

I cannot not go see her there. Some days I think I just can't go. I go anyway.

Once she was verbal, colorful, vivacious, an accomplished writer, actress, poet, outspoken activist. Now words escape her. All her story lines have come untied.

I think this relationship now asks more of me than lies within my capabilities, yet I show up. Something beyond understanding holds me steady just past what I'd think I'd choose. I listen.

With my entire body, the only listening that counts now, I take in her gestures and her eyes. The rhythms of her breathing, her uncertain gait, her changing face speak for her, teach me to hear.

When she still spoke she said of her condition "The worst is when I don't remember that I don't remember." Today there is nothing for this space without a past but to be a listening presence, embodied: beyond my preferences, my dread (will I be next?), beyond any other place I might think I'd rather be, beyond the insidious desire to make it better, to contribute something of more measurable value, to do something, I am required simply to be simple, bare attention with no frills no fix no facile hope.

On occasion she strikes out with trembling fists against those who would "redirect" her. She has always been a majestic force of nature and does not take easily to operating within reduced autonomy. I am grateful for those whose job it is to get her to the shower, then the dining room, to bed.

At times in spite of high intention my heart wilts. I promise to return tomorrow, or the next day, another day, soon. I wish I weren't so grateful I know the door code, I can leave.

I always return, refreshed. Kiss, touch, eyes, skin, gesture give back my friend to me through ever-changing rhythms, textures, and I hear her present "yes" with a sweetness I've not found in the fleeting enchantments of romance, the delights of measurable worldly success.

No romance, no measuring this! At best clear sight, clear-hearing heart, willing steps into a deep unknowing, a vast home I could find easy to resist.

The Buddhists speak of awareness, of sickness, old age, death as "dukkha" / "suffering." Of our shared time I catch myself starting to say "profound," then the word itself seems a rude, heavy timber crashing into the subtleties of body and mind I dreamed of telling you, lived only beyond words.

Her total silence offers a new and reassuring place for me to discover my own ways of knowing home.

It seems to me she is almost completely focused on an internal "beyond," in relation to which all else is peripheral. So that in brief moments of "reconnecting" it is as if her attention has slipped back out to us through a window, then retreats and the window silently closes again.

She resists intrusion, and I say bless her! I am with her mostly in silence. Yesterday I was feeding her and she smiled the most beatific smile & I melted, but when I whispered "I love you so much" the window closed; even whispered words seemed too much, intrusive. I think there was too much of "I" in them.

"For better or for worse." Plain friendship's vow. Who is not asked to befriend?

There is no escaping this call to care. I'll go today and every cell of my body will be required—no, invited—to be this stripped-down living unnamed yet recognized presence, a new compassion, a way of being listening itself. No more, no less, and absolutely nothing "else."

Within the condition our world calls dementia, I hear the angels sing. They sing for my friend, they sing for me.
(c)2010 YS Thorpe

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Extending a hand in peace

By Guest Blogger, Yael Petretti, Jerusalem

For over four years, captive Israel Defense Forces soldier, Gilad Shalit, has been held by Hamas in Gaza. His fate has been the subject of an intensely emotional debate here in Israel. His parents, Noam and Aviva Shalit, have led the campaign to pressure the Israeli government to procure Gilad’s release, even if it means releasing hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, many of them perpetrators of violence against Israelis, from Israeli prisons. The Shalits are supported by much of the citizenry here, especially because almost everyone serves in the army, an army whose morale depends in large part on the assurance that no soldier will be left behind or abandoned in enemy hands.

Others point to the danger posed by freeing as many as a thousand potentially violent Palestinian prisoners into our midst. They say that, as painful as it is to decide against making the prisoner trade with Hamas, the greater public security demands it. Shalit’s family and their supporters counter that Israel’s security forces are capable of handling the threat. Besides, Aviva Shalit points out, Israel released hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in 2006, after Gilad’s abduction.

As this debate rages, a number of Palestinian families in East Jerusalem will be reaching the first anniversary of their being forcibly thrown out of their homes onto the street on August 2, 2009. Their homes have been taken over by Jewish settlers. Those who moved into the Ghawi family house placed a giant menorah and Israeli flag on its roof, just in case there was any question about ownership. Every Friday afternoon since November, there has been a demonstration against this settler takeover of Palestinian homes at the entrance of the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood where the Ghawi and Hanoun families live.

Despite their own suffering, Nasser Ghawi persuaded his family and others in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood to “extend a hand in peace” to the Shalit family by joining the massive march from Shoresh into Jerusalem last week. When I learned of this, I called him to tell him what a strong and beautiful gesture this was.

Between 15,000 and 20,000 marchers arrived in Jerusalem’s Independence Park for a rally on behalf of Gilad Shalit. Just before the rally, I found Gilad’s father, Noam, behind the stage. I wanted him to know of the Sheikh Jarrah Palestinian families’ expression of solidarity with him and his family. He replied that he was grateful for support from everyone, regardless of religion or ethnicity. He asked me to relay his thanks to them.

Sadly, I was unsuccessful in getting the MC of the rally to name the Palestinian families along with all the others he thanked for joining the march.

A few days later, Nasser Ghawi told me, with his characteristic crooked smile, that he and his family had been stopped by the police near the Prime Minister's residence, as theiy marched with the Shalit supporters. They were held there, one block away from the rally, for two and a half hours until the rally was finished. I do not know how Nasser and his family manage to maintain their humanity and even a sense of sad-sack humor in the face of the brutal treatment they have received at the hands of the Israelis. I do know that Israeli society is the poorer for missing this opportunity to take that hand extended in human caring. 

Yael Petretti is a Compassionate Listening facilitator. currently living in Jerusalem.

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Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Israel and Palestine, from a Buddhist Perspective

By Guest Blogger, Catherine Keene

"However innumerable sentient beings are, I vow to save them."

So begins the first line of the Bodhisattva Vow, a sacred prayer that Mahayana Buddhists recite when they make the commitment to postpone their own path to Nirvana so that they might stay behind on this earth and help free others from suffering. The purpose of the vow is to reassign one's own good deeds to the rest of humanity and to promise to return to this life again and again in order to offer assistance until all beings have reached enlightenment. For Mahayana Buddhists, this is the ultimate show of solidarity and compassion.

I took this vow three years ago out of my love for humanity and compulsion to help others, but I had no way of knowing then just how much this vow would affect my everyday life until I began traveling to Israel and Palestine. In a land trapped in the creation of enemies and violence and polarization, the concept of not resting until *all beings* have been saved is a bit unfamiliar, to say the least. Most people feel compassion for those who are suffering and want justice, but only when it's for the side that they determine is most deserving. If you call their attention to pain felt by the "others," they either refuse to accept that such pain exists, or they minimize it, as though it were inconsequential. Unfortunately, it seems that few people even attempt to "hold the whole" when it comes to the Holy Land.

I often joke that practicing Compassionate Listening makes you become strangely unpopular, and this is never as true as when it comes to discussing this conflict. Many of my Israeli and Jewish and Christian friends have simply told me that I must be lying when I've tried to talk to them about the settler violence in Hebron or the military actions taken in Gaza. I've been accused of being brainwashed and flat out anti-Semitic. Similarly, when I've tried to talk to some of my Palestinian and Muslim friends about why Israel needs to exist and why violence is immoral and hurts everyone, I've been called anti-Muslim and been told to "go back to America, because you'll never understand." No one is hated as much as the one who refuses to choose a side.

So what is a Buddhist to do? How do we tell people from both sides that we want to help them, but only when it doesn't involve forsaking anyone else? If we end the occupation of the West Bank and knock down the Separation Wall and end the blockade around Gaza, the status of human rights in the Middle East will be considerably better, but our work will still not be done until the Israelis are also safe. And if we stop the rocket attacks on Sderot and make it possible for Israelis to travel anywhere in the world and obliterate anti-Semitism once and for all, it will be a glorious day, but it won't be true progress until violence and racism against the Palestinians also end. No solution will be complete until it treats everyone on both sides as equals and protects them all from suffering.

This conflict is so intense and disturbing that I sometimes find myself at a loss for how to help or even what to think about the situation. It can become very easy to blame individual politicians or one particular subgroup - be them the settlers or Hamas - for all the violence and atrocities. But no matter how inhumane the situation becomes, my Buddhist practice reminds me that it does no good to take sides. The ones with the worst inner pain - who then act out in violence against others - are the ones with whom we will spend the most time, as they will continue to be reborn again and again. So we must remember that there is no separation or difference between us and them. We are just as responsible for their actions as we are our own. And the more we try to isolate ourselves and judge one another for our differences, the longer we're all going to be stuck here together.

In summary, I am reminded of a brief but wise koan that I call upon anytime I wish to regain inner balance and deepen my Compassionate Listening practice:

A group of monks once asked their Zen master how it was that he was always able to feel compassion for other people. His response: "What *other* people?"

Cathy Keene is the Administrative Director of the Compassionate Listening Project. She will be co-leading our next training delegation in Israel and Palestine, in late March, 2011

(Please feel free to post a comment. You won't see it immediately, as we have to confirm it, but we deeply appreciate your contributions.)

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