December 17-20, 2014 San Francisco, California
Led by: Roshi Grover Genro Gauntt
Retreat Coordinator: The Embodied Life School (Russell Delman, Founder; Valerie Nordby, Administrator)
To Sign up: Please email firstname.lastname@example.org
WHAT IS A STREET RETREAT?
A street retreat is a plunge into the unknown. It is an opportunity to go beyond our imagined limits. It's the barest poke at renunciation. We will live on the streets of San Francisco with no resources other than our true nature, experiencing homelessness first-hand, having to beg for money, find places to get food, shelter, to use the bathroom, etc. By bearing witness to homelessness, we begin to see our prejudices and boundaries directly and to recognize our common humanness. It is a way to experience our interconnection and realize our responsibilities.
"When we go... to bear witness to life on the streets, we're offering ourselves. Not blankets, not food, not clothes, just ourselves." -Bernie Glassman, Bearing Witness
In doing a ‘street retreat’ we are not under the illusion that we know what it is to be homeless. Having homes with showers and beds to return to is quite different than living on the streets without these possibilities. As Bernie has made clear, if asked, we do say that we are homeless rather that we are part of a spiritual retreat of people from many faiths living on the streets for a few days. Our intention is to bear witness to: 1) asking for help, 2) the people in our community who live on the streets and 3) learning from the streets.
San Francisco Streets Preparation- “Taking the Plunge”
Meeting Point: We will meet in Dolores Park at the corner of 18th and Dolores Ave.
Duration: The retreat starts on Wednesday December 17 at 3:00PM and will end on Saturday the 20th by noon.
Street Retreat Logistics: Our group will be together most of the time, breaking into packs for short times during the day and always secured by buddies. We will meet twice a day for meditation, liturgy, and council. Partial time participation is not an option. You can only join for the entire retreat. At the beginning of the retreat, we will conduct an orientation. You will meet your street cohorts and facilitators. We will discuss what to expect, but the unexpected will be our root teacher on the street.
1. Do not shave, nor wash your hair for five days prior to the retreat. This will also start your street experience prior to leaving home.
2. Wear old clothes, as many layers as you feel appropriate for the time of year, and do not bring any change of clothes for the retreat duration, except, possibly, for an extra pair of socks. Be prepared for weather extremes. 3. Wear good, but not new, walking shoes. We walk a great deal. 4. Bring one piece of Photo ID only - your Driver’s License or a government issued I.D. with your picture on it. 5. Bring a Poncho for rain. Mandatory.
6. Do not bring any money, illegal drugs, alcohol, weapons, or cell phones. Do not wear any jewelry including earrings, bracelets and watches. 7. Besides the clothes you are wearing bring only an empty bag (shopping, plastic) or small (not new) day pack for collecting food from shelters, etc. Women may bring one change of underwear.
8. You should not bring any books or personal items such as a toothbrush.
9. Necessary prescription medication of course is permitted. 10. Be sure to practice rooting through garbage cans and picking up pennies on the street. It keeps us humble, and, truly, the treasures are unbeatable. 11. Bring a water bottle if you like. They are available in trash bins. 12. Bring a light blanket that will roll up - or you can wear it.
Raising a Mala
On this street retreat we will be supported by social service agencies and public non-profit organizations. Since we are not truly homeless, we need to make donations to those who will be supporting our lives. For all of the street retreats that organized by Zen Peacemakers, a donation has been requested of the participants in order to be able to offer donations to the social service agencies that support us. Prior to this retreat we ask that you each beg of your family, friends, associates or just on the street for $500 – to be distributed to those social service agencies that have helped us.
We as a group will decide at the end of the retreat where two-thirds 2/3 the offerings should go. One-third of the funds will go to the social service activities of the Hudson River Peacemaker Center.
It is not acceptable for you to use your own funds for this purpose. To sincerely engage in this experience we need to humble ourselves at the outset, attempt to explain to others our reasons for participating and beg for their support. This is a hugely challenging and ultimately hugely rewarding experience. You need to ask at least five people – more would be great. Your donors could give you cash, or give you checks made out to the Hudson River Peacemaker Center.
In our Zen Buddhist practice we call this assembling a Mala – prayer beads. If you assemble a Mala of 18 or 108 beads, for example, you could beg proportionate donations for each bead. Your mala could also be, say, five or ten beads. Sincerely promise your donors that they will be traveling with you on the retreat and you will personally tell them about your experience when you return home. It is a lovely gesture to label the beads with your donors' names and wear them during your time on the streets.
Once you have raised the funds, make a check to "Hudson River Peacemaker Center" and mail it to:
The Embodied Life School
c/o Russell Delman
2836 Bloomfield Rd
Sebastopol, CA 95472
To give others the opportunity to give is a true gift. Don't doubt it. When we are truly and selflessly motivated, people will support us. Trust in this all your life.
Thank you for considering joining us on this retreat.
Roshi Grover Genro Gauntt
December 17-20, 2014 San Francisco, California
The following story is an example. Enjoy and hopefully be inspired.........
Inside the Stone Buddha was a Golden Buddha. It was so clear, one Buddha housed in the other. This incredibly beautiful, vibrant, warm and radiant Being was living inside the Stone Buddha. At first I thought with joy and relief, 'ah, this is the real me, I am seeing my True Self'. Then with great clarity and a sense of wholeness, I realized that I was all of these: the Stone Buddha, the Golden Buddha, the one witnessing both of these images AND all the voices, opinions and reactions to them. In this moment everything inside me seemed to have value and importance not only the Golden Buddha (though I must admit THIS Buddha was especially welcomed)!"
My good friend Rebbe Zalman Schacter died July 3 in Boulder, Colorado. He was a man of great influence for literally hundreds of thousands of people throughout the world for the past 50 years. He is a great model for me of a life lived with courage, joy and love at the center. I am so grateful for his presence in this world and in my life. A biography will follow my reflections.
I can not describe his importance to my inner life. Though I never practiced or identified as Jewish, he did not care. He saw into my essence before I did. Despite his huge following, great number of dedicated students and many obligations throughout the world, he always had time for me. We Skyped a few weeks ago, making plans for my visit in August. I miss him very much right now.
My heart is a large, empty/full space filled with loss, gratitude and, more than anything, love. Zalman befriended me in 1978 when he came for Feldenkrais sessions to help his ailing back. Each week we would meet, of course, I received more from him than he from me. One day he said "Russell, please come to my week-end retreats and help the people get into their bodies on Friday night so my work is easier for the rest of the week-end". Can you imagine an acclaimed rabbi having such an insight about embodiment and making such a request?
He was always so supportive of the changes in my life.
I am remembering my 30th birthday party, back in 1982 when he led us in a raucous dance around our whole apartment, joyfully, loudly singing and shaking his large body.
Back in 1984, this orthodox trained, Hassidic Rabbi agreed to perform a completely non-sectarian, universalist wedding between my Christian wife and mostly Buddhist me. When he realized that our wedding would occur when he was on sabbatical in Israel, he taught two of his ordained Rabbi's, a couple, how to perform a wedding for us.
When I was forming The Embodied Life School, he assured me that this is the direction Moshe would have gone.
When I left my Zen teacher of 30 years, he was a rock of support for my new direction. He thought my allegiance to traditional Zen and to my teacher was holding me back. He saw something that I could not see.
After a wonderful session back in 1980 he said: "when I am dying, G-d willing, I hope to have your hands on my head so I can just float away".Many times over the years and during our most recent conversation he repeated that request. I can feel his sweet head in my hands right now, how I miss that we never shared that moment.
OH, he had such a heart, I can feel his loving embrace in my chest right now. Our world lost a light that will shine forever............
My heart is so full of gratitude and love and loss..............Russell
A bio: "Reb Zalman" (1924-July 3, 2014) Born in Poland in 1924 and raised in Vienna where he was simultaneously immersed in both traditional Judaism and secular modernism by attending a yeshiva and a leftist-Zionist high school. After fleeing from Nazi advance and imprisonment by the Vichy-French government, his flight from Europe led him to New York City when he was 17. He entered the Lubavitch Yeshiva and was ordained in 1947. He received an M.A. in the Psychology of Religion (Boston University, '56); Doctor of Hebrew Letters (Hebrew Union College, '68).
For 20 years he was Professor of Religion and Head of the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at the University of Manitoba, Canada. In 1975 he became Professor of Religion in Jewish Mysticism and Psychology of Religion at Temple University in Philadelphia where he was Professor Emeritus. In 1995 he was called to the world Wisdom Chair at Naropa University and later joined the faculty in the Dept. of Religion. He retired from the faculty and was also emeritus at Naropa University.
His own experience of aging and eldering compelled him to found the Spiritual Eldering Institute in 1989, encouraged and assisted by professionals and colleagues in the field of aging. NOTE: Reb Zalman was a founder of the Legacy of Wisdom project, archiving and publishing his own Legacy teachings.
"How scary, entering the classroom for the first time. Will they make fun of me? Will they hurt me? Am I safe?"
"Knocking at the door, an anxious, shy look in her eye. Not knowing - would the one who opened the door be welcoming?
"Stepping on the crowded bus, few seats remaining, he catches the eye of a passenger who has her suitcase on the seat. Will she make room for him?
Our lives are full of these moments. Are we welcomed, rejected or simply unacknowledged?So much turns on these interactions. Whether we are a child or elder we seek inclusion. We all have these very sensitive antennae, quivering with information about the friendliness of our environment. Our nervous system, being deeply social and always concerned with safety, listens fervently to these cues.
In my opinion, this exact same process occurs with our inner life. The thoughts, feelings and sensations that arise are like guests, wondering, "will I be welcomed", "is this a safe place" "is this a friendly host"? IF safety is the first and primary concern of the nervous system, which I suggest it is, then becoming a friendly host for all that arises in your inner world is a most important thing.
Hosting the moment . . .
I like to imagine that I am hosting this moment. The moment comes, a rich plethora of everything- sun-light, shadows, pulsing excitement in my chest, car horn blasting, bird chirping, person talking, smiling face, uncertainty lingering, an itch, a mosquito buzzing, a phone ringing, thirst, swallowing-on and on and on. What is it like to be a friendly host for all the visitors that come?
For me this is a beautiful way of describing a central element of The Embodied Life- how to be a welcoming presence for all that arises? I call this Presencing. It is learning to be a friendly host for all that comes into our world. Inner world and outer world become one world-, which is none other than our living experience. Being friendly does not mean liking or approving of, it means relating to "what is" as our ground. This is the aikido of everyday.
Imagine- this moment and everything in it are your True Life. You are living in the actuality, right now, right here, so obvious yet so elusive.
Being a friendly host helps enormously to encourage us to come alive to the reality of our living experience. Buddha suggests that we can trust this moment. Even though "bad" things happen, we can learn to find our safety as well as our joy and peace and love itself in this present moment. Where else will we find it?
This is the third in a series of writings about my experience from a “Bearing Witness Retreat” in Rwanda.
Recently I heard this story: A woman’s son is killed. The killer is convicted and sent to prison for a 10-25 year sentence. The distraught mother visits the man in prison trying to make sense of how he could do such a thing. After numerous visits, the woman’s heart softens to the man. She eventually adopts him. Upon release from prison, he lives with his new mother.
As I reflect on the impact of my journey to Rwanda, a huge question emerges: how does a person live with an open, loving, heart that includes the rampant violence and suffering all around us? How does one live with a heart that has been broken open?
Opening the newspaper this morning I see: 31 killed by a car bomb in Bagdad. Unlike in the past, before turning the page, I reflect that each of them was a father, mother, sister, brother, son, or daughter. Being in Rwanda creates this sense of intimacy, recognition that each of these victims are real people, like you and me. How did I filter that out before? How do I let that in now? 31people do not constitute genocide, but they are 31 individuals with pain and joy and dreams. Can one experience this and still turn the page? How can we live as empathetic people without turning away from this reality? This is a deep question living in me right now.
When overwhelmed, humans have three stereotypical reactions: fighting, fleeing, or freezing. Our biology leans toward self-protection and protecting our identified social group. The impulse to fight, unless tempered by a sense of inter-connection will result in some kind of violence that perpetuates what we are fighting against. Fleeing or running away from the world by turning a blind eye to the violence around us creates an implicit sense of disconnectedness and isolation, a strategy with painful results. Freezing in shock hurts the frozen one and offers no beneficial action to the world. Sitting here with the morning newspaper I think, what is “right relationship” to all this? Or how does one open to the reality of 31 people dead and still enjoy the gift of the tulips sitting in front of me blossoming in the sunlight?
Safety and Freedom
I see that it is only because of my privilege as a physically, economically, and socially secure human being that I can even contemplate these questions. One must be free from survival needs, especially immediate threats to life, to have the freedom to ask these questions. This is the second profound learning that comes to me from Rwanda: before freedom can be experienced either individually or in social groups, one must feel safe. Safety precedes freedom! This is so simple, yet it is important that we remember this.
In the U.S. we can see that the attacks on September 11 created enough fear for our collective safety that we were very willing to curtail many of our basic freedoms. The fear based reactions to this traumatic event still lives in many people and in our leadership. We can see how it influences behavior today. As Benjamin Franklin famously said: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Still, there needs to be enough safety to move toward freedom. Traumatized individuals will often bond with anyone who offers a feeling of safety, even those who have hurt them. Hostages often become aligned with the kidnappers who have been feeding and caring for them.
In Rwanda, the sometimes-fascist, violent government of President Paul Kagame creates enough sense of safety for most people that some degree of normalcy can return to social interactions. I feel a need to say that this is politically complex. Some astute people believe that this government is the source of current genocide in Congo and resent the fact that the world has accepted Kagame’s sophisticated propaganda. Still, the fact that most Rwandans feel safer with this strong leader seems to create enough security for daily functioning. I believe a sense of safety is a requirement for life to unfold, even as this tight-fisted control creates limitations on freedom of speech and self-expression. Each of us individually and collectively works with this dynamic relationship between ‘playing it safe’ and ‘speaking/enacting our truth’.
Presencing: In and With
Bearing witness to the great suffering within and around us is essential for human life to blossom. Bearing witness or what I call “presencing” is like the radiant sun and a healing balm. The only other option that I can see is a closed, defended heart. For me “presencing” has two interconnected aspects. First is the sense that we are not turning away, we are turning toward, we are entering into the situation. Rather than running from the places of sorrow, we embrace them, we allow ourselves to feel the sorrow. Embracing does not mean that we like or want these feelings, rather that we welcome them with a warm heart as we might meet a good friend who is in pain. I call this being “in” the feelings or “in” the situation. Second, presencing means being “with” the sorrow not only “in” the sorrow. “With” implies enough distance that one can offer the challenging situation the light of our presence. In classical spiritual language this is called cultivating a witness or the capacity for witnessing. “Challenging situation” refers to both the external situations that we encounter and the internal feelings/voices that one experiences. If one is lost inside the suffering, it becomes too difficult to take care of that situation. We need some space- too much space, we become disconnected- too little, we become lost in it. In a paradoxical positioning, to be “one” with something we need to be both “in” and “with” it.
When being present with anything, finding the most helpful and accurate spatial relationship- not too close, not too far-is most important. In my experience, this sense of right relationship is a dynamic, ever-changing, living process. Sometimes we need more distance; sometimes we need to be right in the middle of the situation. Ultimately, and again paradoxically, we might find that being ONE with something has a simultaneous sense of in and with. One finds oneself in a large field of awareness that is simultaneously much vaster than the immediate situation, yet right inside it also. This difficult to describe experience creates a deep sense of intimacy.
Bearing Witness to Blessings, Cultivating Gratitude
The Zen Peacemakers speak of bearing witness to both joy and suffering. It seems easy to forget the joy when overwhelmed by the suffering. In my practice, this means to experience the shower of blessings inherent in every moment and thereby cultivating the field of gratitude.
As I reflect on Rwanda, I am reminded of my first years as a Feldenkrais teacher. As a young practitioner, I felt overwhelmed by the suffering of the people who came for help. I am remembering the young quadriplegic man who following an automobile accident, lost all functioning below his neck. Next I recall the parents of a brilliant, beautiful, severely brain injured teenage girl who suddenly had a devastating stroke. There are many others. There was a part of me that just wanted to run away from all this, something went a little numb in my heart.
Quickly, I came to see that to live well with all this suffering I needed to grow my capacity for joy. The most direct and simplest path for me was through the experience of gratitude. I saw that gratitude is our spontaneous response when something wonderful occurs. When surprised by an unexpected gift, even a parking place in a crowded parking lot, “thank you” arises. When a potential disaster is averted, say an imminent automobile accident, even the most committed atheist is likely to utter ‘thank you’. I saw that I could experience a sense of gratitude just by giving my attention to the small gifts that seemed to always be present. I call these gifts “the shower of blessings”. When I give my whole-hearted attention to anything for even 5-10 seconds, a color, a sound, a breath or the smile on someone’s face, I experience a feeling of being touched by life. This is a blessing and gratitude naturally arises.
Working with Mother Teresa in Calcutta produced an identical lesson. She would always say: “if there is not joy in the action, there is no love”. Whether working with the brain-injured children in her center or navigating the suffering on the streets, blessings were always available when I learned to attend to the world in certain ways. To perceive a situation directly and not be lost in mental stories about the situation almost always allows the shower of blessings to emerge.
Something similar occurs now in integrating my responses to Rwanda. At first I could sense how my troubled heart could darken a bit, as I struggled to include the suffering into my sphere of caring. Yet, the joy, love, bright eyes and positive intentions of all the people I met enlivens my heart. I see this as one of the current challenges for awakening humanity: to open to the world’s pain and to keep experiencing the constant blessings that are showering at each moment.
Lessons from Rwanda: Growing your Sphere of Caring
In the Buddhist world, the Bodhisattva (Awakening/Awakened Being) of compassion goes by various names: Avalokiteshvara, Kanzeon, Kannon. Avalokiteshvara is pictured as a Being with 10,000 ears and 10,000 arms: the former to hear the cries of suffering and the latter to take action to ease the pain. She is a model for current and future humanity whereby all of life is cared for and all people live together in brotherly and sisterly love.
In esoteric Christianity she is called the Mother of All Peoples or Sophia. One form that Sophia takes is that of Mother Earth, the great Being who carries and feeds us. She also bears witness to the suffering of all her children. Her tears are endless. Can we, ordinary people like you and me, grow this spirit of great compassion for all the beings in our world? This is the unfolding of Love as our basic condition, the ground state, as we enter our potential as truly human beings.
Learning to open my heart toward the unthinkable darkness that can inflict humanity is one important lesson for me from Rwanda. Recognizing this potential for darkness in myself seems vital. Seeing the beauty, joy and courage of my Rwandan friends amidst their life situation is another lesson. The human need for safety as the ground for freedom becomes tragically clear to me. Recognizing my own life in their suffering and joys invites a profound sense of closeness and inter-being.
Even as our biology veers us in the direction of self-protection, self-interest and narrow group identities, our task is to widen the sphere of caring to include ALL of life. To include the earth, animals, people of every culture, even those who out of ignorance violate others is our collective direction. I can imagine a world in which the intentional killing and violation of others is unthinkable. How many life times will it take for enough of us to experience unconditional love toward all? I have no idea… but what other direction could possibly be worthy of awakening humanity?
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This is the second in a series of writings based on my recent experiences in Rwanda
It is the last day of the retreat; I am walking with Claudia (name changed for confidentiality), a new Rwandan friend. Earlier in the retreat, she asked for guidance in meditation to help with painful thoughts that won’t stop. I am grateful for the opportunity to offer some guidance.
On this day she tells me about the killing of her parents and four of five siblings when she is about 6 years old. A Hutu man protects her. Later he is killed by other Hutu’s angered at his kindness. Luckily she meets her one remaining elder sister who can take care of her. Being with this tender young woman, bearing witness to her courage, pain, intelligence and life-forward intention my heart is deeply touched.
Zen teacher Bernie Glassman has created forms for bringing the practice of sitting meditation into social action. The “Bearing Witness Retreat”. For more than 20 years, the Zen Peacemaker Order (ZPO) has been conducting these retreats at Auschwitz and Birkenau, the concentration camps in Poland. About 6 years ago members of a Rwandan reconciliation group, Memos-Learning from History attended the retreat and asked for something similar in their country. This retreat grew from that request.
ZPO has three main views or tenets: 1) Not-knowing (putting aside all opinions, conclusions, and certainties), 2) Bearing witness (being present with all the joy and sorrow within the situation you are in and 3) Loving actions (if some beneficial possibility arises to offer your care).
At Auschwitz the practice is to invite healing by being present with the suffering of all beings: prisoners, guards, survivors, the dead and the land itself. Through meditation, chanting of names of the deceased, respectfully walking around the entire site, the history is recalled and experienced with tender, open and broken hearts.
In the unique situation of Rwanda, where every person is carrying the trauma of the recent past (see previous writing), sitting with the intention of Bearing Witness is a huge challenge. Our group of about 56 was equally divided between Rwandans, plus two Congolese and westerners from seven different countries. We went every day to the Murambi Memorial Site, a place where 50,000 people were massacred.
Each day we would start “council” sitting together around a candle and some sacred objects with the intention of speaking from our hearts. Being in the presence of authentic, heartfelt, truth telling allows an intimacy and trust to grow. Bearing witness to ourselves and to each other creates a healing environment. The power of humans connecting from their hearts cannot be underestimated.
Each person, African or westerner, was processing deep personal and societal wounds through the power of the Memorial site. In numerous rooms, lying on wooden tables, there are many skeletons including babies and children that have been preserved in lime emitting a sickening stench. The smell lives in my nostrils. The bits of clothing and tufts of hair make this so indelibly real. The idea is to make the reality undeniable. As with the German holocaust, there are those who will deny or minimize the horror. We must create conditions so that humanity never forgets that this is possible.
In the first days we meditated by the mass graves sometimes in silence and at other times reading the names of the dead. It took some time to realize that this was socially inappropriate and very frightening for the Rwandans. The next days we sat in a more neutral setting at the Memorial Site and spoke the names there. For me, saying and hearing the names was very important. As I said in my previous writing, I cannot process a large number of deaths, my body goes numb. With each name, I can sense this one individual and my heart gets torn open. Maybe this kind of remembering brings some kind of solace to the soul of that person, this I do not know. I do know that in the process of remembering, in experiencing our heart connections to unknown people, we become more human. I had the added potency of reading names on Good Friday, recalling the suffering of Jesus Christ on the cross in this Christian country added a whole other level of meaning.
In the evenings we would hear “testimony” from members of the three groups: Survivors, Perpetrators and Rescuers. Hearing the stories of people who I was getting to know was the most compelling, heart wrenching part of the whole retreat. People just like you and me went through these experiences. I could feel my deep inner connection to each person and each story. Each individual is part of a whole family of tragic stories. Through the eyes and words of one person, their relatives also somehow appear in the room. This experience lives deeply in my heart.
(In the following examples from our group, I altered their names for confidentiality. Some of these stories are very challenging to read, some readers might choose to skip this section. I offer them not to shock but to awaken our hearts. Listen well to your inner life and take breaks as needed)
Anna tells her story of hiding in the marshes, crawling in the mud with snakes for many days. Dead and dying bodies would surround her. Teeming with lice and desperate with fear, she experienced the daily struggle to survive. As she spoke, sitting nearby was Aaron the man who cut off her hand and helped kill her family. Aaron expresses sorrow for his actions yet his testimony, which includes various deflections, does not satisfy many of the Tutsi’s who are present. Is the greatest expression of human compassion, forgiveness, even thinkable?
Rosanne, a Hutu sat with Theodore, a 31 year old Tutsi man who she saved when he was 11, at the immediate risk of her own life. Her husband was scared and angry that she was saving Tutsi’s. Theodore’s family had been killed while he escaped by running and hiding. After 5 days without food or water, Rosanne came upon him. Rather than turning him in, she sheltered him. How does one person find such courageous kindness when almost all others cannot?
Jeannette, participating in the retreat with her 21-year-old daughter Paula showed us the place where she hid 20 years ago holding Paula to her chest. She had watched as her husband and two sons were killed nearby. She was attacked with rocks and barely escaped. What lives in mother and daughter after such an event?
Roland is an ex-Belgian soldier who tried to help in Rwanda gave his harrowing, tearful story for the first time in 20 years. What does it mean to help in such a situation? The Belgian government was part of the horrific, colonial history that created the great division amongst these people. What is our collective responsibility for the actions of our governments? As an American, I have my first experience of collective shame for the actions and negligence of my country as I sit with all these people.
Can we see that every one of us is a survivor, a perpetrator and a rescuer? Can such an extreme situation as Rwanda help us to reflect on our own life?
Within me is one who has survived challenging situations. I am also a survivor. Raised by alcoholic parents, my mom dealing with manic-depression, I witnessed some harrowing scenes. Attacked at gun point while counseling a distressed ex-convict at a drug rehabilitation center, my life was threatened. As with all of us, my list goes on. While my challenges were not near the level of my Rwandan friends, it is not helpful to compare suffering. Mine is mine. Yours is yours. Had I been born elsewhere I might have been one of the survivors in Rwanda.
I have perpetrated violence on others in my life. Whether through word, thought or deed I have violated others. At times I have asserted my desire to dominate others, through the use of my voice and intellect. As a young man I hit people with my fists. I have often treated the earth with carelessness as if I had dominion over it. Also, who has not violated their own bodies, by treating it as an object to be manipulated. Who has not violated their own inner life with vicious judgments? Our self- talk can be filled with much violence. For deep healing to occur these perpetrations must be seen, acknowledged and alternatives uncovered. From my point of view, we do not have the right to violate the sanctity of LIFE even when it appears to be OUR life. Life is a gift that requires our care. Seeing all this, I recognize that had I been born elsewhere I could have been a killer. It is the same impulse toward domination of life that exists in me acted out in another social milieu.
I have rescued others in my life. Who has not served as the dove of peace and healing in at least some situations? Who has not protected the weak, fed the hungry at least some of the time? I have been blessed many times in my life with opportunities to offer healing, solace and care. Had I been in born in another place I might have saved some threatened people.
In The Embodied Life work we speak of being present with all that arises in body, feelings and thoughts. I use the term ‘presencing’. This is the same as “Bearing Witness”. Holding presence for our inner world and/or our external situation is the essential ground for healing. Anything exiled from our care will remain unprocessed and therefore keep us from feeling whole. All that is rejected must be carried as a kind of tension in our bodies and will create a closing of our hearts. Opening to the entirety of life, to the inner and outer suffering as well as to the joy is our collective direction.
Integrating my experiences from Rwanda brings vivid questions to the fore: when do I turn my back on life? How do I turn away from the suffering within and around me? What in my inner and outer world do I exile from my realm of care? For me this is clear- bearing witness or presencing is the ground of true healing for individuals and for our world.
In my third writing, I will explore the process of integrating this learning and implications for the future.
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Recently, I wrote in this newsletter about an upcoming retreat in Rwanda. I have now returned. Over the next days I will be send three pieces of reflections.
As most of you know, I recently participated in a “Bearing Witness Retreat” sponsored by both the Zen Peacemaker Order, based in the U.S. and Memos- Learning from History, based in Rwanda in commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda. Having just returned, I am both deeply grateful for the inspiring human beings I have met and reeling as I process what I have experienced. I come away both devastated and extremely hopeful for our potential as human beings.
Brief history: in 1994, inflamed by their leaders, the largest group in Rwanda called Hutu’s, went on a 100 day rampage of collective insanity with the intention of eliminating the minority, yet socially dominant group, called Tutsi’s. This genocidal campaign in which neighbor turned on neighbor with machete’s and clubs is perhaps the most violent short term instance of genocide in human history. (Note- there is, of course, much more to the story and many angles: how colonialism worked to divide people, aggressions by the Tutsi’s etc., I am only focusing on the specific genocide in the spring of 1994.)
“Genocide is not one million deaths, it is one death a million times”
(quote seen in the Rwanda genocide museum)
We are in the genocide museum in Kigali the capital of Rwanda. The history of these incomprehensible acts is presented through words and large panoramic pictures. I see Allison (name changed for confidentiality), one of the Rwandan retreat participants lingering in front of one picture. Although we do not share a common language we have exchanged deep, warm looks over the previous day. As I stand next to Allison she leans into me. I put my arm around her. She points to the picture: the woman in the picture is missing much of her right arm as is Allison. The woman in the picture has a large cut on the right side of her face as does Allison. Suddenly I see- we are looking at Allison!
I discovered that it is impossible for me to process so many deaths. My body freezes, a lump in my belly won’t move, stuck like an undigested mass. The feelings can not move. When I sit with one person, someone with a name, perhaps their picture, then I can feel my heart torn open and the visceral feeling can actually move through my body. My love and care can come forth. The pain of one is more real that the mass of bodies. Yet to experience this one million times is impossible.
Genocide is a rather new term created in 1944 by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish born Jewish-American jurist to signify the attempt to exterminate an ethnic, religious or racial group. It is more than war for territory. It is the ultimate demonization of a group of people. It is the creation of Us and Them.
Genocide and Otherness
Us and Them. This is the question for all of us. Who is other? Who do we deem unworthy of life? Close to a million people viciously killed by their neighbors. How is it possible to take this into one’s heart? Each one of these people was an individual- a mother, a daughter, son, brother, father. This is not mass killing, it is one real person at a time receiving machete blows or clubbed to death.
Yet this is one instance of many just in the 20th century. Nazi Germany, Cambodia, Armenia, Kosovo and others. We humans do such things, how can we understand that? In each case the group to be exterminated (note the word itself implies insects or vermin) is made to seem less than human. Even in “regular” war soldiers need to create names for the enemy to put aside their connections to humanity. In Vietnam it was “gooks” or “slants”, language used to dehumanize. In Rwanda the Tutsi’s were called “cockroaches” and “snakes” even on the radio and in song.
Roots of Genocide in Everyday Life
I notice we even do this with our ordinary insults of the “other”. Much of our profanity and name-calling has this same message. In politics, calling people “right wing nut jobs” or “socialist a…holes” has a similar intention. It is so easy to create ‘enemy images’ and thus cast-out people from our sense of common humanity and field of caring.
Perhaps we can see the roots of this malicious casting-out in our own self-violence. Our often mean spirited inner dialogue has an intention of exiling that which we can not tolerate. We can not really heal (make whole) anything that has been exiled. Every inner voice is part of who we are and needs to be integrated into our Being. This is true internally and equally true of society’s outcasts- the homeless, the drug dealers, the corporate polluters, and child molesters. How do we learn to differentiate the behavior from the person? We need to vehemently say “no” to certain human actions without casting the person out of our heart. This is the lesson of most genuine spiritual teachings. This is the lesson of good parenting. This is lesson of genocide. Dehumanization is the polar opposite of interconnectedness.
If Africa is the cradle of human life, Rwanda sits near its center. How startling to experience both the greatest darkness and the greatest potential for healing coming forth from one location. Somehow, healing (again, making whole) must occur or the killing will repeat. Rwanda is a potent learning opportunity for humanity. It is not “them” over “there” but “us” over “here”. “They” did not do this to “them”, “we” did this to “us”. We must see our own potential for inhumanity, for unconscionable mass behavior and the implicit dangers of group-think.
The goal in Rwanda is reconciliation. Here in the smallest, most densely populated country on the continent, these people must live with each other. There is no place to move to and they need each other to survive. As most Tutsi’s will tell you, forgiveness is not yet possible. Perhaps some day but not yet. There is a deep, deep level of mistrust. Tolerance of each other is the beginning. This can be followed by some normal human interactions. Working in the fields or meeting in the marketplace. After learning to tolerate the presence of the other and having some interactions, hearing each other’s stories is essential. This includes apologies but even this is tricky as many apologies can be strategic and not from deep in the heart. A big step can occur in a retreat like this in which enough safety is created for truth to be spoken. At this retreat some Tutsi’s sat with Hutu’s for the first time since the genocide. ome even hugged.
Seeing one’s neighbors enter a collective insanity in which your loved one’s are viciously killed creates a hole in the heart that may never be filled. As I said, forgiveness is too big a step for most Tutsi’s. Deep contrition is too much for most Hutu’s. To truly acknowledge what one did without the hedge of “I was one of many”, “others did much more” or “Satan took me over” is extremely difficult. Thankfully, healing does not require forgiveness. This is an important distinction. The whole process of forgiveness takes time and perhaps may never be actualized. Healing one’s own wounds is often reflected in the ability to laugh easily, sleep well and deeply connect with others. These abilities might well occur long before true forgiveness is possible.
Every person over 20 years old in Rwanda falls into three categories: Survivor, Perpetrator or Rescuer. All the others are children of someone in these categories. Every person! The whole culture lives in collective trauma. How can you move forward when you have experienced the potential of your neighbor to brutally kill you? Can you ever trust another human again?
This potential for darkness lives in all human beings. For humanity to prosper, to realize our True place as “Human Beings”, I believe our sense of “Inter-being” or interconnectivity must be experienced. The essence of morality comes from the deep experience of connectedness. When we feel “a part of” rather than “apart from” we will act life-giving ways. This begins with a diligent and dedicated practice of self-awareness. Who do I exile from the field of care? Which parts of my inner life are similarly exiled? As I said before, “they” did not do this to “them”, “we” did this to “us”.
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Peaceful Abiding: Equanimity Before Happiness
About twenty-five years ago I had the following conversation with my former Zen teacher.
Student: “Roshi (respected teacher), in our practice, I miss the dynamic, exuberant quality that I see in characters like Zorba the Greek”.
Roshi: “Our school emphasizes a quiet realization”.
Student: “But Roshi, there is something so wonderful about expressing joyous delight and growing happiness”.
Roshi: “You can learn to experience great delight in a quieter way”.
Student: “But, but, but………
I deeply appreciate the experience of joy. When I am in Presence and undistracted, the color of the sunlight on the grass each morning, the smell of the air, the taste of good coffee, the smile on a friends face can bring great delight. Relishing the simple gifts of life, what I call the “shower of blessings” is central to my life. Still, there is something significant in Roshi’s emphasis on quiet realization that has taken years to ripen within me. I see that the inner attitude of “peaceful abiding”, resting in ‘what is’ rather than clinging to personal preferences allows a profound deepening into life.
When we strive after happiness we will experience more and more wanting. This leads to dissatisfaction, a sense of ‘never enough’. There is a kind of “experiential materialism” where we want to acquire happy moments. To value happiness above all else creates a kind of grasping and a devaluing of many of our experiences as human beings.
Gautama Buddha emphasized equanimity more than happiness. One could even say, equanimity or peaceful abiding in ‘what is’ is the back door to genuine happiness.
Beyond liking or disliking, equanimity emphasizes present moment awareness. This is NOT bland neutrality. It includes welcoming a full range of emotional experience. It encourages the bodily felt joy that arises in many moments of deeply connecting to Life. Equanimity or peaceful abiding means “non-fighting” with reality.
Non-fighting is NOT passive acceptance. It has bite to it, biting into the moment, like biting into an apple. There is a sense of welcoming the moment even when not ‘liking it’. Being friendly with our circumstances is the ground for effective action. Equanimity implies a warm-hearted objectivity. From this realism comes effective action. If someone is physically or verbally attacking you, seeing clearly will create the most advantageous response.
Comfort Within Discomfort
Recently, The Embodied Life School organized an all-day meditation for planetary peace, one of four that occurs each year. When sitting for many hours uncomfortable bodily sensations will arise, challenging thoughts and feelings might appear. The great opportunity is to be “comfortable within discomfort” or to find a way of being friendly with our conditions. Sitting this way is a microcosm of our whole life. Often the discomforts will pass away on their own if one does not fight with them. Sometimes it is skillful to change position or move one’s attention, slowly with awareness. From this ground of deep acceptance, intelligent actions can arise. This is learning to live. This is equanimity. How can we cultivate a non-violent relationship to our conditions as we take care of Life?
Every day we will have moments that challenge us. Either something we want does not happen or something we do not want, happens. Someone disappoints us, we fail in our own eyes. How do we start from where we are, with ‘what is’, as the undisputed ground of our life?
Not Fighting, Fighting: Reactivity and Peaceful Abiding
Deep acceptance is the root of peaceful abiding. While this statement is true, it can also seem too idealistic and incomplete. When life is challenging we often fight against our circumstances. We have a big, sometimes healthy, “NO”. The fact that we have desires and preferences is not the problem. These will always be here. Sometimes these big “NO’s” lead us toward positive life choices. The real question is how do we live with our reactivity. This requires great care.
“Not fighting, fighting” means to include the reactive voices and sensations in our field of awareness. Rather than judging ourselves for hating the back pain or for being angry with the person who stole our purse, we find space inside for the painful states that arise. Allowing the anger without perpetuating it requires high levels of awareness. When we can not immediately embrace ‘what is’ we open our attention to this fighting of reality. Welcoming and taking care of these inner voices and contractions will lead us back to friendliness with the present moment. Also, notice carefully if equanimity becomes another ideal that creates self-judgment.
Cultivating equanimity or peaceful abiding in the moment is the key to living our lives. Quite different from resignation, this means stepping into our reality. How?
Grounding in your body is a great ally. Bringing your presence to bodily sensations is very helpful.
Once we have our bodily-felt experience, we can open to our feeling states, be they desirable or undesirable. Painful moments can be met with care. We can invite moments of positive energy to permeate our whole body. Fully embracing the small gifts that appear each day, each moment, will encourage this peaceful abiding.
Kindness toward your own limitations and those of others will pave the way back home.
Our inner needs and the needs of others can all be acknowledged from the spaciousness of equanimity. This skill is a lifetime practice. Working toward equanimity rather than happiness is a good hint for skillfully embracing our lives.
Student: After all these years, I now see how important it is to put equanimity in the foreground. Thank you.
Roshi: And don’t forget to fully enjoy and celebrate the Living Moment!
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Being with Mother Teresa
Russell Delman January 2014
Thirty years ago, on Feb 1, 1984, my wife Linda and I began the extraordinary adventure of working with Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta. We created the Feldenkrais-India Project in which we would work seven days a week with brain injured children at Shishu Bhavan, their main center for parentless infants. Many of these little children were newborns left on the street or late term abortions that were rescued by the Sisters.
Our main supporter at Shishu Bahavn, Sister Barbara along two other Sisters were so excited to learn our methods for helping the older children, 2-5 years, to move more independently. Each day we would teach them along with the children. In addition to some basic hands-on methodologies, we were able to institute some simple yet transformative practices that are still in use at the center.
For example, we explained to the Sisters that the children needed time on the floor to have the opportunity to move. We noticed that 24 hours a day, 7 days a week these brain-injured children remained in their cribs. It is tragic yet true that while the floor is both the playground and the learning laboratory for all children, those that need it the most are often given the least access. Just this change has helped innumerable children.
Another simple example was our realization that since the kids were kept in cribs all day and their feeding always came from the same side, most developed functional scoliosis from always turning in one direction. We encouraged the Sisters to reverse on which end they placed the head of each child. Needing to turn in both directions transformed their vertebral columns.
Much to our surprise Mother Teresa took great personal interest in our project and invited us to private meetings with her in her sitting room/bedroom each week. How remarkable to knock on her door, walk up long, narrow stairs and sit in her little room. Each meeting was a rich lesson.
For example, one day we were feeling like God's gift to humanity because one of the children had begun to walk for the first time. Her response was to look out the window at the busy street and say with a sigh: "there is so little we can do, for each child we save a hundred more are born". Quite sobering for our pride-filled egos.
A few weeks later, feeling somewhat weighed down by Calcutta and all the suffering, we trudged up her stairs to meet her smiling broadly. With a heavy voice I said, "Mother what are you so happy about today". She said, " I was just thinking of how each drop of goodness adds to the bucket and makes it that much fuller". Like meeting a Zen master, we were lifted into another dimension.
In honor of the grace we received thirty years ago, I offer these exquisite reminders from Mother Teresa:
People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered.
Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives.
Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies.
If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you.
Be honest and sincere anyway.
What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight.
If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous.
Be happy anyway.
The good you do today, will often be forgotten.
Do good anyway.
Give the best you have, and it will never be enough.
Give your best anyway.
In the final analysis, it is between you and God.
It was never between you and them anyway.
Sending many Blessings.....Russell
So much in life seems complex, yet the important issues are often very simple. For example, who does not want the world to be a kinder place? Does anyone say: “I would like my grandchildren living in a world that is less kind? Do you think there is any person in Africa, Asia, South America, New Guinea- anywhere on our small planet- who has this thought?
Remarkably, there is an absolutely foolproof way to create more kindness in the world- BE KINDER!
As a child growing up in NewYork City, my parents would warn me against offering kindness to strangers. Implicit was the message that if you are kind people will take advantage of you. Many of us absorbed a harmful, erroneous message that about the dangers of kindness: “if you are kind to the wrong people you will be hurt”, “kindness is weakness”, “don’t be foolish (childish, naive, stupid…), grow up already”. How strange that our culture assumes that being kind means that we can not also be wise/careful/observant/discerning, etc.
The Dalai Lama is often quoted as saying “Kindness is my religion”. His complete quote is:
“This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.”
How easy it is to offer a bit more kindness in our everyday interactions. Observing the needs of the people around you creates many opportunities for “random acts of kindness”. Little actions make a big difference. A smile, a kind word, a held door, a bag carried: our hearts lighten when we find ways of caring for our world. Offering a kind thought or prayer for someone who is struggling will help you feel more connected and perhaps have a positive influence simply through your presence.
IMAGINE you are the center of a universe and you are the main arbiter of the rules, attitudes and the overall atmosphere within that universe. All the people that you meet, all the situations that you are living in are instances of your universe. Imagine that by choosing to offer small acts of care you cultivate greater kindness in the universe in which you live. Could it be that your “atmosphere” will actually influence the attitudes, feelings and actions of the people in your universe?
Try this experiment. Over the next two weeks test the following hypothesis: “My experience of living is enhanced enormously and not diminished in anyway when I commit myself to small, extra, unexpected acts of kindness everyday.” Do an empirical study and please send me your results.
One of the twentieth centuries most erudite and creative thinkers, the writer, social philosopher and explorer of consciousness Aldous Huxley said it so clearly:
“It’s a little embarrassing that after 45 years of research and study, the best advice I can give to people is to be a little kinder to each other”.
Imagine growing a kinder world together!