...reflections from a Compassionate Listener

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. 

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog:

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
Bookmark and Share

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

Bookmark and Share

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.

Bookmark and Share

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.)

Bookmark and Share

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Gratitude from Sulhita Youth Project

 Dear compassionate listeners,
 In the name of Sulhita youth leaders and many more youth participants who have been and will be in our Sulhita meetings, we would like to thank you from the depth of our hearts for the experience with you. 
You gave us a great feeling of being listened to. At this time it's so hard to find someone to listen to you and to really be interested in who you are and how you feel. Sometimes our work can be so hard and exhausting, especially when the conflict and the violence is getting stronger...sometimes we feel so alone.
Your compassionate being was very energizing for all of us...we all went out full with vital energies and hope, with many ideas of more that can we do...you can't imagine.
I am excited to thank you for this. 
With love from us, 
Elad Vezana, Sulhita Youth Coordinator

(click here to read about our meeting with the Sulhita Youth Project director and participants)

to learn more: 
  • visit the Sulha website
  • click here to read the story of young Leaders who meet despite the "walls of fear" (wait for the pdf to load)
  • click here to support the work of Sulhita Youth Project      


Saturday, June 19, 2010

Thank you to the beautiful women of Palestine

...for your participation in the Compassionate Listening training. It was a great joy and honor to be with these women who came from Nablus, Jenin, Ramallah, Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Hebron.  A special thank you to the Holy Land Trust for hosting/organizing this training, and to the Foundation for Global Community, the Tikvah Fund, and individual donors for making this a reality. The women expressed great appreciation for the 2.5 day training, and we'll be considering next steps...including Palestinian men and women together, Advanced Training, and training for leaders from Palestinian factions.. Stay tuned!

Bookmark and SharePublish Post

Thursday, June 17, 2010

A Palestinian Boy

For the past two days I've been facilitating a Compassionate Listening training for Palestinian women from all corners of the West Bank. It's a privilege to listen to these strong and courageous women. I've heard a lot of stories about the children, so tonight, I decided to finish this post I began last week about Ibrahim, a fourteen year old boy whose parents we met two weeks ago, during our delegation. 

Our group of 25 compassionate listeners travelled to Jamal and Saadiye’s West Bank home to meet with members of "Wounded Crossing Borders" - Israeli Jews and West Bank Palestinians who have been wounded in the conflict, and have decided to reach out to do the hard work of seeking the humanity on the "other side". We were about forty people altogether, and we happily mingled on the patio, talking in small groups for the first hour, until we gathered for formal introductions and dialogue.

A Palestinian member introduced himself and told us that at the beginning it was very difficult for him to meet Israelis: “I was in prison 3 times and I was shot. I got an invitation to meet with Israelis at the Dead Sea. There have been many, many meetings, including in Bosnia, Switzerland, Jerusalem and in the West Bank.”

An Israeli member added: “We are forty members, working together for two and a half years now. ‘Working’ is a big word for us. Because we see this as a grassroots effort. We are, as you heard, wounded, and crossing borders. I am 85% disabled, and we’ve all spent much time in the hospital. Even now, it’s not so easy…our meetings are full of feelings and emotions. And I can say, is that we are friends. We visit each other. We don’t work on a political level, but we can’t avoid it either. Recently we worked on a document that expresses our values. We are all for a two state solution, and don’t believe in violence. Working people-to-people is not less important than anything else”.

Jamal’s brother Mohammad and sister-in-law (on the far right in the photo) looked quite agitated and depressed. Jamal invited them to speak to the group, so Mohammad shared their story: “The Israeli soldiers came to my house at midnight two nights ago. They surrounded the house for two hours, until 2:00am. Then they asked me to open the door. I have ten children, from age 1- 18. The soldiers asked me to wake all of the children up and to come outside of the house. They took my ID and looked at the IDs of all of the kids.

"Then they asked for my son Ibrahim, who is fourteen and a half years old. They took him with only a shirt, and nothing on his feet. I asked the soldiers if I could bring some clothes for Ibrahim, but they refused. They beat Ibrahim in front of all of his brothers and sisters, and put a blindfold on him and put him in the jeep. They took him to a nearby Israeli settlement called Karmi Tzur. I went to the Red Cross the next day to tell them what happened. That same day at 11:00 I got a call from Ofer prison to say that my son will be in court the next day. We went there about 5:30 am and stayed until 2:00 pm, waiting. When we got inside the court, they brought Ibrahim in, in handcuffs and footcuffs. They told us that they could not proceed with the trial because the report was not ready.

“Today we also went from 5:00am – 11:00am. As ususal, they cuffed his legs and hands, and his legs were bruised from the metal. The lawyer told Ibrahim to speak today and he told the judge that he had been beaten and threatened with electrocution, and that he had only admitted to throwing stones because he was tortured. He told the judge he did not do it.

"Today the court asked me to pay 1,500 shekels to release him (about $400). In addition, they said that every Sunday, Ibrahim must report to Gush Etzion police station from 4:00pm – 6:00pm. This is a child – not even 15 years old and I refused to let him go to Gush Etzion again. I refused to pay.”

Mohammad appealed to the Israeli members of Wounded Crossing Borders to come to the next court appointment, and speak on behalf of the family. They know that having Israeli civilians show up in court on your behalf would be a major event in their favor. But the Israelis told us that the case is complicated - that all is not as it seems. One of the men said, “We do our best to help each other to try to find solutions, but it’s complicated.” Apparently, one of the Israelis found out through army connections that there is strong evidence implicating young Ibrahim in the stone-throwing incident.

Jamal (our host and the boy’s uncle, in the photo on the right), said, “Last week, 25 Israeli soldiers surrounded me and my brother and beat us both. The children saw all of this – it happened close to our house. We live under the occupation – our homes are tear-gassed all of the time. We are prevented from going in and out of our village on a regular basis. The pressures on us are enormous. The children feel everything. They are frustrated. Throwing stones is a way the children release it. My brother, Mohammad, said to one of the soldiers, ‘I am an old man with 8 children, why are you hitting me?’”

We, Compassionate Listeners, managed  to continue breathing throughout this painful story. Ibrahim's mother was in tears and could barely speak. As the mother of a 17-year old son, my heart went out to her. It is so painful when we, as parents, cannot project our children. 

We found out two days later that Ibrahim was released from prison. Though the Israelis did not show up in court, they wrote a letter to the court about their long-standing relationship with Jamal’s family. The family was overjoyed with Ibrahim’s release. Apparently, hundreds of people came to welcome him home that evening.

Although this story had a positive ending, I was left with troubling thoughts. At Jamal’s house, when the boy’s imprisonment was being discussed, it was clear that the Israeli members had doubts about his innocence. But at no time did anyone stand up against or mention the beating and threat of electrocution. Let’s remember – this is a fourteen year old boy. And this is not an isolated story. I’ve spent too much time in Palestine to know that. 

According to Amnesty International in an April 2010 press release: 
"Palestinian children face routine beatings, torture and strip searches.
While some children only spend a few days in detention before their release, others could end up spending years behind bars, the report added.
"These measures run counter to international laws, especially the [United Nations] Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Israel has signed and agreed to," said lawyer Khaled Kuzmar.
There are currently 7,200 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, including 306 children under the age of 18."

I have a issue with imprisoning children. Nearly twenty years ago, during the first Intifada, I admit to taking part in "unarresting" Palestinian youth. It was 1991, and our delegation was staying in the National Palace Hotel in the heart of Palestinian East Jerusalem. There were almost daily skirmishes in the vicinity, and one day, our group was returning back to the hotel when we saw scores of Palestinian youth gathered in the street outside - the numbers quickly mounting. Israeli soldiers had arrested some teenagers, and an atmosphere of fear, panic and chaos ensued as more and more youth streamed into the street to protest. 

Some of us ventured into the crowd for a better look at what was going on. I soon found myself close to the military jeeps, and any time I witnessed a Palestinian youth arrested and placed in a jeep, a group of us would surround the jeep, pull the child out, and push him through the crowd behind us so that he could escape. To me, it felt like that story of the hummingbird who tried to put out a fire by dropping a beak's worth of water on it at a time. These efforts didn't amount to much, but it certainly meant a lot to the 14 and 15 year olds who ate dinner with their families that night instead of sitting in prison. 

1990 and 1991 were defining years for me. I had the opportunity to stay with Palestinian families, sometimes under Israeli curfew - which would trap me in a West Bank or Gaza home for hours or days. There was nothing to do but visit and listen to all of the people in the immediate vicinity. And I was shocked with what I heard and saw. Every single Palestinian family had many horror stories concerning life under occupation. There was simply no way to rationalize it. My Israeli friends had told me that if a Palestinian family was hurt, there had to be a reason for that. But I spoke with many mothers and elderly people during those years, since the husbands and older sons were often in prison, and I was left with no doubt that the violence was systemic.  

To this day, almost 20 years later, I see that it's very difficult for Israeli Jews to believe how harsh the occupation is. People that I speak with want to believe that if a Palestinian home is destroyed, or a family is beaten, or a child arrested, that they did something to deserve that treatment. Israelis predominantly see themselves as the victims in relation to Palestinians, and it's difficult for anyone who defines oneself as a victim to simultaneously see himself as an aggressor. Israeli leaders assure their citizens over and over that if an innocent Palestinian is hurt, it falls under the unfortunately broad banner of "collateral damage" in the line of self-defense. 

I don't hear many people talking about electrocution, except the boys themselves, prisoner rights groups, and international human rights agencies who collect testimonies from the youth. 
(To read Israeli soldiers' testimony directly, click on Breaking the Silence/Shovrim Stika; for testimonies from the children and reports on the subject, click on Defense for Children International). 

I interviewed a group of Palestinian college students today - all young men, who told me that most of the Palestinian youth in prison are boys from high-conflict areas - including refugee camps, Hebron, and towns like Jamal's where contact with the Israeli military presence is the highest. Indeed, Jamal's family lives in a high conflict zone. He wrote us after the delegation to let us know that his wife's nephew had been arrested and released after three days...and so it goes.  

I grieve for all the youth in this story - including the young Israeli soldiers who are asked to do the impossible by their government. There is simply no military solution...

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Nostalia and thoughts from the bus

I have weeks of editing and writing from the delegation to catch up with for the blog. This, however, is a personal entry. I am sitting on an Israeli bus. My destination is the beautiful hills of Galilee, overlooking the Sea. I’m going north for an interlude with dear Israeli friends for a couple of days to visit and relax.
Without being too scientific about it, I figure this must be about my 30th trip to Israel. And, sitting on this bus, I’m nostalgic. On my first flight over at age 19, I was sitting towards the back of the plane, engaged in conversation with a group of young travelers like myself. I was the only “first-timer” to Israel among them, so I was eager to pick up any tips and insights I could. After several hours of conversation, one of the guys looked at me, shook his head sadly, and said, “Israel is going to eat you up. You’re too nice for this country.” That worried me.
But it turned out that he was wrong. Not that I wasn't nice, but I found myself in a nest of nice Israelis. I ended up on a small kibbutz in the Judean hills, with kind Europeans, and sweet Israelis who valued my presence and made my time there a memorable experience that I’ll be forever grateful for. One of my former bosses in the orchard became a friend, and I even bring delegations to the kibbutz every few years, to walk the ruins that date back 3,000 years, meet some kibbutzniks, walk in their beautiful, intentional community and gardens, and listen to their stories.
But everyone here knows that the kibbutzim are (were) a different and unique slice of Israeli life. Especially the small, less wealthy ones where you didn’t find snobbery and rank issues that persisted elsewhere. That was the first Israel that I came to know, and it was a fit. It was a very sheltered life with 250 people on a huge piece of land. My love for the ancient “bible” terraces, archeology, and the Jerusalem hills was born that year. 
When I returned to Jerusalem at age 22, I met a vastly more multidimensional Israel, and it was a shock. I can’t tell you how many buses I missed, on account of the Israeli habit of pushing and shoving themselves through the bus doors as if their lives depended on boarding. It was not uncommon to see buses drive off with limbs and body parts hanging out of the hydraulically controlled doors.
Boarding my bus today, at the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem, brought it all back. The fight to board is something that is hard for me to engage in. And the cost of not engaging is that you may be left behind. My tiny, even insignificant experience at the bus station today, is a part of daily life for many Israelis, who use the practical bus system extensively in their small country. I’m afraid I didn’t do any better today than I did all those decades ago. And I nearly got left behind.
As it turned out, I did discover at age 22 that I was too sensitive to live comfortably in Israel. Nothing in my younger years had hardened me for the daily realities here. That year, it was Israel’s first invasion into Lebanon, and all of the horrible events that followed. I remember bursting out in tears on buses frequently – usually on the hour when the news came on and had nothing positive to offer. One time, just after the Sabra-Shatilla massacre, an elderly Israeli man called out to the bus driver, “Turn down the news – it’s making this girl cry!”
Yelling seemed to be the national outlet – for everything. The wars, the holocaust, two thousand years of “issues.” I tried to stay emotionally stable despite the daily dose of yelling. Anyone who remembers life in Jerusalem 30 years ago may smile with a shared memory. I was yelled at in all the places where one engages in regular life – there was no way to avoid it…I was yelled at in the grocery store, at the bus stop, book stores, the clothing stores, in the streets, even in the library…
My own mother once broke off an engagement because her fiancé yelled at her. I managed better than she would have. But I won’t deny the toll it took. I never asked for, nor wanted, citizenship here, but the problem was well acknowledged among those who did. Many new immigrants from North America did not last more than a year here, because of the aggressiveness of society. Maybe some will remember the campaigns to help Israelis learn to treat others kindly. I remember a radio jingle from that campaign that ended with a melodic plea to “be pleasant!” But I had already purchased my exit ticket.
No need to go into all of the reasons why there is such aggression here – it’s been studied and explained for decades. People are much more courteous than 30 years ago. But it can still be hard for a softy like me. On this bus I’m riding on, half of the passengers are soldiers with their guns awkwardly tucked to their sides or between their legs. Israel is a militaristic environment, with more and more sophisticated weapons. Right now I’m surrounded by M-16s...