...reflections from a Compassionate Listener

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

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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