An Alternative to the Gaza Blame Game

An Alternative to the Gaza Blame Game

Blame is an interesting phenomenon. Generally when we find ourselves pointing fingers, we can be sure that there’s something we’re not taking responsibility for ourselves. Some reality that we’re not happy with, for which we don’t want to be held accountable. And voicing that blame rarely gets us any closer to solving the problem – but rising above it can.

This is what I’ve been thinking about the last few weeks while reading statuses, comments and discourse on social media channels about the recent violence in and from Gaza. And my “real life” conversations have been much the same. With Israelis, Palestinians and a host of international characters. Everyone seems so sure about who’s to blame – but it’s not getting us any closer to understanding, or to ending this conflict once and for all.

Many of the predominant accusations seem contradictory, but they could all be right simultaneously: Hamas and their murderous charter are evil. Living in Sderot or other Gaza-border towns under constant rocket fire is truly unbearable. Many of the men, women and children in Gaza are but pawns in a horrible, bloody game. Various media outlets are biased this way or that. The Israeli army does its best to minimize civilian casualties. These statements may well all be true. But so what? Rather than proving anything, this Blame Game merely shines a light on the pervading feeling of helplessness on all sides of the conflict. Instead of helping, each accusation adds its own tiny brick to the wall that divides the sides, taking us further and further away from a reality in which a solution is even possible. In which there’s any chance of turning this country – and indeed this region – into the place where we want our kids to grow up.

This discourse among my immediate circles mirrors the Blame Game that’s being played in leadership realms – with Israel repeatedly blaming Hamas for “making” the IDF invade Gaza and reek damage, death and destruction, Hamas blaming the Zionist regime for provoking the firing of rockets which aim to terrorize and kill Israeli civilians, world leaders picking sides according to political affiliations and millions around the world blaming the media for failing to accurately report the conflict. Someone else is always to blame.

What good does any of this do? We’re just continuing the horrible, bloody loop that Israeli author David Grossman articulated so eloquently in his New York Times op-ed this week.

The alternative is potentially much more difficult than pointing out who’s the wrongest and who’s the rightest – but it’s the only way we’re going to solve this mess. We need to take a mature stance, to school our inner children on being the ‘bigger man.’ This is the only way we’re ever going to achieve peace in this region – and ultimately that’s what we all want. To be happy and healthy and free. By taking responsibility for what we can and accepting the unsatisfactory nature of what we don’t like, we can rise above blame, and start taking steps towards actually making things better. Swallow our egos and the desire to shout “but he said!” “but look what!” and start speaking like we want to end this thing – not keep it going forever.

A common sentiment in mulling the Israel-Palestinian conflict is that both sides will need strong enough leaders to guide the peace process. Someone to stand up and say “yes, [the other side] has hurt us, but this is the way forward – come with me.” This may well be true, but here’s a revolutionary thought – what if the change in mindset came from the grassroots up? What if the voice of the people rang out strong, loud and mature, saying, “We refuse to play this Blame Game any longer”? What if instead of trying to score points to our Facebook friends and anyone else that will listen, we spread messages of peace and of hope? I’m talking more hashtags like #JewsAnd ArabsRefuseToBeEnemies and less #HitlerWasRight and #IsraelUnderFire.

Ultimately, we’re not gonna make peace with war, with more violence and bloodshed. We need to find creative, innovative solutions which stand a chance of opening the door for a long-lasting agreement – not another useless, until-next-time ceasefire. Israel needs to open ports, to garner international support, to choose the non-violent options. The Palestinian leadership needs to follow suit, to show its people how good their lives can be. It’s only by doing something completely different, and swallowing a whole lot of “wrong” that we’ll ever stand a chance of making things right.

My hope is that the 72-hour cease-fire declared today can be used as a springboard to a solution. Imagine if rather than another halfhearted, “until-next-time” truce, the Israeli and Palestinian leadership (with significant international backing) made a 5-year plan. If Israel lifted the blockade and the PA rallied support for peaceful statehood.

You may say I’m a dreamer. But (I hope) I’m not the only one.

Join me?

Gadi’s Journey to Sleeping Through the Night (and Rocket Alert Sirens)

Gadi’s Journey to Sleeping Through the Night (and Rocket Alert Sirens)

Third post this month on sleeping! Seriously who am I? If you would have told me a year and a half ago that these would be my blog posts I wouldn’t have believed you. And yet here we are.

So, after a fairly difficult month last month with Gadi’s sleep (and my own little slumber realization, to boot), a war raging in the South, and moving apartments this past weekend, it looks like we’ve finally turned a corner for the better – in the sleep department, that is. Of course it could be a total coincidence – that whatever developmental leap he was going through, tooth movement he was suffering from or whatever else ended exactly at the same time as we decided to take action. Anything’s possible. But let’s just pretend for a moment that I have some kind of control here, shall we?

About three weeks ago, we decided enough was enough – that an hour of screaming before bed, shrugging our shoulders and trying to laugh about the fact that we no longer had any idea how to help our baby go to sleep was not gonna fly anymore. We formed a plan to give Gadi some firmer boundaries around bedtime, while still keeping the flexibility that seems to work for us. We chose an earlier bedtime (7:30pm) and a little routine (bath, massage, book, feed, bed), and decided to give it a week and see what happened before considering talking to a sleep consultant.

And miraculously, within a matter of days it became downright easy for me to get Gadi to sleep. (If anyone has a direct line with fate please don’t pass on this blog post – tfu tfu tfu, throw salt over my shoulder, kiss the evil eye etc.)

There’s the main points that really helped us.

  • Recognizing overtiredness. We ended up moving bedtime to 6:30pm and even though he usually wakes for another feed around 7:30pm, both times going back to sleep is a breeze. I was making the (rookie) mistake of thinking that crying meant he didn’t want to go to sleep – while in fact the opposite was true. All that crying around bedtime actually meant that I had missed the window.
  • Connecting day and night. By the same token, the only way not to end up with an exhausted baby at the end of the day is to become a Sleep Sergeant 24/7. For Gadi, that means as soon as he’s been awake for two hours – it’s nap time. And all things being equal (ie if my own comings and goings don’t get in the way), he generally starts showing signs of tiredness like clockwork – 120 minutes after waking up.
  • Looking for what’s missing. One day I was watching him struggle to fall asleep, and it dawned on me that his flailing around might be related to a need to be more snuggled up. In 30 degree heat and at 5-months old I thought he was too old and too warm for swaddling or much clothing (if any). Turns out blasting the air-conditioning for a couple of hours before bed and using a thin sleeping bag was just what the sleep doctor ordered.
  • Confidence. It’s really easy to question yourself with a crying baby twisting and turning in your arms. Trust your instincts and your baby will, too. Question everything you do – and I’m guessing your baby will do that, too. Less than ideal. I found consciously reminding myself “he is tired, he needs to sleep” really useful, as well as helping Gadi understand those feelings too – “you’re having a hard time winding down bubba, I know. But you’ll get there soon and you’re gonna feel SO much better when you wake up.” I know he probably doesn’t understand my words but I like to think there’s something about the tone that does come across.

To finish the story, we have now moved apartments, and Gadi moved straight into his own room. As I suspected might happen, he seems to have quite taken to it – and last night he slept through the night. His last feed was at 8pm, at 10pm I carried him out of the apartment sound asleep to take cover during a rocket attack (surreal, yes), and at 5am I woke up to hear him singing, happy shrieking and clicking his tongue down the hallway. Amazing. I was so excited I woke my husband up to tell him – kind of defeats the point, I know. But seriously, I couldn’t be prouder if he’d gone and got a Harvard Law Degree while I was sleeping.

Of course, I know this too will pass; there will be more sleepless nights and the next challenge is just around the corner. But I feel that I learned a lesson in conscious parenting here – and I have my husband to thank for bringing up the issue and pushing me to do something. There’s a lot we can’t control when it comes to babies (and life in general) – but being mindful of our actions and setting some firm but flexible boundaries can go a long way.

A Loving-Kindness Meditation for Today

A Loving-Kindness Meditation for Today

At a bit of a loss for what to do with myself between packing up our apartment (moving this week), playing with Gadi (currently sleeping) and listening out for the next rocket warning siren (last one in Tel Aviv was about 18 hours ago), I decided to sit down and shut up. I usually end each meditation session with a few minutes of lovingkindness (metta) meditation. Here’s what I did today:

 

May I be happy;

May I be peaceful and harmonious;

May I be liberated from suffering;

May I be healthy and free.

 

May my family be happy;

May they be peaceful and harmonious;

May they be liberated from suffering;

May they be healthy and free.

 

May everyone in Tel Aviv be happy;

May they be peaceful and harmonious;

May they be liberated from suffering;

May they be healthy and free.

 

May all Israelis and Palestinians be happy;

May they be peaceful and harmonious;

May they be liberated from suffering;

May they be healthy and free.

 

May all beings be happy;

May they be peaceful and harmonious;

May they be liberated from suffering;

May all beings be healthy and free.

 

And for bonus points (NB: points not redeemable for anything tangible):

If I have harmed anyone, intentionally or unintentionally, I ask forgiveness.
If anyone has caused me harm, intentionally or unintentionally, I offer peace.
If I have caused myself harm, intentionally or unintentionally, I forgive myself.

 

Practicing metta meditation is pretty simple. It’s not a magic spell or prayer; just about creating some good vibes (I’m buzzing a bit now). If you feel inclined: sit down comfortably, straighten upwards, and focus on your breathing for a bit to settle into the present and give your mind a moment to quiet. If you have a regular meditation practice you can also do that before or after – whatever feels right to you. Then repeat the lines above quietly to yourself, in your heart. Repeat or ponder if you feel like it. Bring your mind back if it wanders. Feel the lovingkindness grow in and around you. 

 

May all beings be happy, peaceful and free. 

The Latest Gaza Conflict – In My Head

The Latest Gaza Conflict – In My Head

I’m so conflicted as I write this. I can’t even find a title I like, and that’s usually one of my fortes – it just comes to me in a flash of inspiration.

On one hand, the current reality of my life in Tel Aviv is completely unacceptable. Rockets the size of mini-buses are being fired multiple times a day on dense civilian populations. I don’t feel comfortable taking our five-month-old baby to the pool for fear of a siren going off and not having a protected space nearby in which to take cover. Driving even a few minutes away seems like an unnecessary risk. Every second time I put Gadi down for a nap I end up having to bundle him up and run into the stairwell to take cover during a rocket attack.

And yet. We just went for a walk (on a route with buildings to seek shelter close by) and it’s business as usual. The sun is shining. Families are picnicking on the boulevard. Cafes are full. In a strange, surreal way, the underlying anxiety is actually tolerable – probably even a better standard of living than most people around the world. Sure, there’s an uncomfortable uncertainty – when the rockets will hit, whether Iron Dome will intercept (and let’s face it, one of these days it’s going to miss), if the Neil Young concert next Thursday will be canceled or postponed. I’m not saying it’s not unsettling – but it is livable.

But what about the new mothers just like me in Gaza? All of the normal people in Gaza. As I make my way through this weird-ass week of sirens and bomb shelters, our Gazan counterparts are constantly on my mind. I keep thinking about the mothers who are just trying to protect their own little babies, as the IDF attacks terror targets left, right and center. And to be honest, it makes my considerations seem kind of precious.

I found it hard to sleep the night of the first rockets on Tel Aviv this week – I kept thinking I was hearing air raid sirens and worrying about what angle a rocket would hit if it slammed into our apartment. But there were none, and realistically I would have heard if there was, and eventually I did sleep. Do new mothers in the Gaza Strip have any time to relax between night feeds under these unrelenting attacks, night after night? Are their babies screaming non-stop? Do they have roofs? I can’t stop thinking about it.

I’m so conflicted as I write this. I simultaneously agree and disagree with so many of the arguments I see splattered across my Facebook News Feed. I think the Israeli management of the conflict is stupid – short-sighted and uninspired and aggressive. But yes, we do have the right to defend ourselves, and life for Israelis in the South under rocket fire is intolerable, and what would America do if Mexico…. bla bla. And of course Hamas is no better – the Islamist organization has no regard for human life, poor organization and planning at best and murderous intent at worst. And that’s to say nothing of efforts and failures at fair reporting locally and abroad.

Last time we lived through almost the exact same war – in 2012 – I was running the JPost.com news website. During one rocket attack I was walking home after a long day in the newsroom, blasting music in my headphones, and managed to completely miss a siren. I tweeted about it and received polarized responses – from “take care,” “shalom,” and “stay safe” to “oh poor you, no headphones – think about all the Gazans you’re killing.” Trying to keep an unbiased, journalistic voice, I said little. But you know what – both responses are right. Everyone should be able to walk down the street listening to The Prodigy and not have to worry about their personal safety. All human beings should have that luxury. And yet by the same token, it really was but a small inconvenience to my life – a cute anecdote, if that.

I’m conflicted because I don’t want to be political, and I want this blog to be about mindfulness and parenting and yoga and other such crunchy topics. But this is the reality of our lives at this moment, and I do want to give my internal conflict a voice. I believe that this dichotomy is shared by many, and ends up being the reason that nothing changes. Because for most Israelis (civilians in the South under constant attack notwithstanding) – it’s not bad enough to do anything. And for most Palestinians, it’s too bad to even imagine life any other way.

There has to be a better way. The bottom line is that we – Israelis in Tel Aviv – can deal with life like this. Possibly for a long time. I don’t know how long Gaza can hold out. And I shudder to think of the long term effect on the psyches of the Gazan people – will any of them ever really recover from these bi-yearly military operations? Is there any chance of the babies just like Gadi growing up not hating Israelis? I honestly doubt it.

And it doesn’t matter who’s to blame – this is exactly what we can’t afford to tolerate.

I’m bringing up a lot of questions, wishy-washy statements, emotions – and few answers, I know. Everyone has to take this situation and do with it what feels right for them. But for me – it’s gotta be a catalyst for change. Because if Israel keeps going the way it seems to be going – fast to the Right with no sign of it making anything any better, with regular mini wars with neighboring terrorist groups – then we’re not going to want to raise kids here. And I want to be clear – I wasn’t born into this society; I came here to realize a dream of bringing up children in an Israel of which I could be proud.

I’m not proud right now, and I want to be.

I can’t be responsible for everything, no one can, but I can do my bit to make this society into one that could make peace – when the conditions are ripe. I can speak up against intolerance, against senseless violence and against bolstering an “us and them” mentality which marginalizes the “other” and justifies all manner of unethical behavior. Without pointing fingers, without assigning blame – just calling a spade a spade when I can.

To this end, my husband and I just joined Israel’s left-wing party, Meretz. It’s a small step and you probably won’t see either of us leading the party any time soon, but at least we’ll be putting a little bit of time, money and energy where our proverbial mouths are. Doing something to prime Israel for peace, adding our voices to the whisper that still thinks it’s possible.

But even if every single Israeli followed suit right now, it still wouldn’t be enough – Palestinians are going to need to do the same. In Gaza, in the West Bank, wherever else – please, for your own sake. To those of you looking at your babies and wondering what will be – find some way to do the same. My life is already pretty good. It’s your lives that stand to get so much better if we can somehow find it in our hearts to make peace. Know that there are Israelis who believe in peace. Use the word. Convince your husbands and your fathers and your mothers and your sisters.

For our sons.

When you blame, you be lame

When you blame, you be lame

The Tel Aviv Marathon was scheduled for last Friday (March 15, 2013), but the main 42km event was postponed due to an unseasonable 35 degree Celcius heatwave which swept the country that day. Unfortunately the marathon itself has now been cancelled altogether due to a tragic death and dozens of injuries during the events which went ahead, including the 21km half marathon, and volleys of subsequent accusations levelled back and forth.

In response to the weather predictions, the Tel Aviv Municipality decided earlier in the week to postpone the main event, and to start the other races earlier than planned so as to miss the heat of the day. I started running in the 10km just after 7am and took the race pretty easy, and while it was hot I can honestly say that it wasn’t that bad. There were plenty of extra water stations, hoses literally watering down runners, and tips before the race on how to deal with the expected heat.

And yet despite all efforts, one person died (supposedly from heat stroke but the family decided against an autopsy) and some 80 people required medical attention.

It took no time at all for accusations started flying, from media and citizens alike. Against the Tel Aviv Municipality, the mayor, the Health Ministry – you  name it, someone blamed it. The question is – what does it help? It’s tragic that someone died, sure, but unfortunately – people die. They die in marathons, they die in car accidents, they die old and young, expected and suddenly. The death of a young father is a tragedy, no ifs or buts about it; in no way, shape or form do I wish to diminish that fact. I just question what purpose all of the blame surrounding this tragedy serves.

Growing up there was a well-known phrase about assumptions: “When you assume, you make an ass out of you and me” (ass+u+me = assume). Last week, as fingers were being pointed left, right and center before I’d even passed the finish line, a revision came to mind: When you blame, you be lame (b+lame = lame).

In Facebook posts and news articles, radio talk shows and countless personal conversations, people tried to find the authority to blame. Others turned the other direction entirely and pointed the finger at the casualties themselves, claiming they were obviously pushing themselves too hard or (as may well have been the case) didn’t know their own limits. Whichever way the accusations go, it doesn’t matter. The fact is, shit happens.

And, as it happens, deaths in marathon running are not as much of an anomaly as Israelis this past week would have you believe. A 30-year-old woman died running a London marathon earlier this year, a man collapsed and died on the finish line of the 2012 Mexico City marathon, and there were three deaths in as many Canadian marathons in 2011. Some likely didn’t train properly or pushed themselves too hard, others were found to have taken (legal) performance-enhancing stimulants. Though Israelis like to think they’re special, when it comes down to it we’re all the same.

But that’s not to say marathons are inherently dangerous; the benefits decidedly outweigh the risks. In the months leading up the events I saw hundreds of people training around the city. Fit people and overweight people alike, young and old, male and female – all taking the opportunity to challenge their minds and their bodies in a pretty damn healthy way. I have no statistics to quote but I’m willing to bet that many of them will keep running after the race (or the non-event, as the case may be). Again – it’s a terrible shame that one person had to die, but the societal gain seems worth it.

In fact, a retrospective analysis conducted in 2007 found that contrary to impressions given by the news media, marathons are not even responsible for an increase in deaths compared to those that would have occurred on the roads had they not been closed for such events. Rather, the risk of death was found to have decreased by 35%. Health gains aside, societies are benefiting merely by closing roads to hold these events.

No doubt, the authorities should conduct a proper investigation into whether or not anything could have been done to prevent the fatality and injuries. However, the bottom line is that tens of thousands of people made efforts towards their health in previous months, and will likely continue to do so. It is horrible that one person had to die, but the benefits far outweigh the risks, and people should keep that in mind before jumping to point fingers.

When you blame, you be lame.

 

Not-so-secret Samadhi: Part II

Not-so-secret Samadhi: Part II

My first 10-day Vipassana retreat (full run-down here) was by far the most intense meditation experience of my life thus far, so I’ve decided on a separate post for the nitty-gritty, nerdy details. While the main motivation for me in writing this is to sum it all up for myself, I’m also interested to hear if other Vipassana meditators have had similar experiences, any tips, etc. I’d love for everyone to read it but a disclaimer for those not into meditation: There’s a lot of jargon in this post.

Some background on my practice up until the retreat before I launch into the gory details: I’d been practicing a Mahasi noting technique for about two years, at first self-taught using the fantastic book, Progress of Insight. In the following years I attended a few relatively chilled weekend retreats, taught by the likes of Shinzen Young and Stephen Fulder as well as some day retreats and a bunch of group sittings at Miles Kessler’s Integral Dojo in Tel Aviv. Somehow I’d managed to navigate my way into a fairly serious practice (apart from the past few months when I slipped a bit due to various lifestyle factors), and seemed to be cultivating a keen understanding of physical and mental sensations, the interactions between them and the three universal characteristics of existence (impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and non-self).

Being on a longer, stricter retreat than I’d ever attended was a bit of a shock to the system at first, but on top of that learning a different anapana technique (with focus on the nostril and upper lip) and then panña technique (body scan) from what I was used to led to a fair bit of confusion and resistance. If I hadn’t previously learnt about the Five Hindrances to meditation (craving, aversion, tiredness, restlessness, doubt), I’m pretty sure I would have “packed up my bags and run away” (in Goenka’s words), cursing both his name and his teachings.

Apart from general resistance in the mind (“this makes no sense,” “who is this weird guy on tapes/video, tuning in from Planet Nibbana to preach to us poor prisoners,” “I’ve chosen a bad time for this retreat,” etc, etc), I suffered some pretty bad eye strain at a few different points in the course. It started on the first night (Day Zero) and continued throughout Day One, and eventually I realised it was caused by me literally going cross-eyed with my eyes closed by “looking” at my nose. I found that whenever I tried to consciously relax my eyes, my attention would slip down from my nostrils to my stomach, the area via which I was used to focusing on my breath. Eventually, after talking to the teacher and basically just reminding myself over and over to stop it, I managed to relax my eyes, and almost instantly dropped into what I believe to be a concentration state that I’ve experienced before but never really known how to deal with.

I’m pretty sure I used to experience this particular state as a child lying in bed at night, and it used to scare me then. As a result, when I’ve encountered it in recent years it still carries with it a certain fear, which I’d never quite been able to shake. Strange as it may sound, when I was young I was convinced that unlike “normal” people, I actually didn’t breathe. When I found out that actually I did respire, just like everyone else, I was sometimes gripped by an irrational fear that if I didn’t pay attention, I would stop. So sometimes I would lie in bed at night “checking” that I was still breathing, essentially practising my own little infant anapana meditation. During this practice, I’d suddenly get this odd sense that I was either really big or really small, though I’d open my eyes and find that everything looked completely in order. It still felt strange though, eerie but still very clear. This is exactly the same feeling I had on Day Two of the retreat, in one of the morning sessions right after I worked out how to relax my eyes.

I remember encountering this state before on a few day retreats last year and the year before, and every time I would become filled with that same fear from my childhood, get myself all freaked out that I’d “broken” my brain, and had to open my eyes and basically break my concentration completely. The same thing happened on Day Two, and – surprise, surprise – I found myself “falling” back into various aches, pains and doubts for the next few days.

By Day Four when we were taught the body scan technique my attention was pretty sharp, having spent so many days focusing on my nose, but again I felt resistance to the new technique, which I thought completely ignored a whole range of sensory experience (sounds, thoughts etc.) I spoke to the teacher about this and he gave a decent explanation, saying that with any sensation other than those on the body what we’re actually observing is the reaction to it (or the crude mental image), so it’s not as pure. Some combination of trusting him on this and wanting to give the technique a fair trial pushed me to keep going.

On Day Five I ended up in the creepy place again, but this time I had cultivated enough equanimity to push through the fear, to keep striving to observe sensations on the body despite the strange feeling. I discovered that I could actually feel things at a far more subtle level than ever before, and also properly understood that the weird feeling would pass as soon as I opened my eyes, that it was just another object coming and going (anicca – impermanence). I don’t know how else to describe it but to say that this drive propelled my practice to another level, and from here on in my attention was almost unbreakable (except for a coughing, crying and sneezing attack from the girl behind me on the night of Day Six, but that’s a story for another time).

On Day Six I found I could feel sensations all through my body, not just on the surface, and started exploring that, quickly getting to the point where everything dissolved into fine vibrations. I naturally started adding in an observation run up and down my spine, and it didn’t take long until I was experiencing what I think was the “Bhanga Nyana” that Goenka described in the Dhamma Discourse one of the following evenings.

I felt like I was making definite progress and tried as best I could not to let my (substantial) ego get in the way and ruin everything (most likely decide that I was the World’s Best Meditator, cling to this experience for dear life and then get annoyed every time it failed to arise in subsequent sessions). From then on my mind seemed razor sharp every time I sat down to meditate, quickly got to this state and then navigated it “with a calm and equanimous mind.” Straight after that, things got very gross and chunky and haven’t really changed since.

From about Day Two onwards, I thought a lot about was Daniel Ingram’s book, Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha. I went back and forth between wishing I’d never read the stupid thing (thought it is definitely one of my favourite books of all time), and trying to work out whether it would be worth making up a story to get the course manager to give me my phone back so I could google the section where he describes the samahdi states and the stages of insight, to try to work out where the hell I was. Of course in the end I didn’t, thought it was the first thing I looked up after I turned my phone on and called my boyfriend and my parents.

At the time I thought the experience of the body dissolving was something of a “Knowledge of Arising and Passing Away” (A&P) event, though I’ve since found that it is the 5th Stage of Insight, “Knowledge of the Dissolution of Formations.” After that (when everything goes gross again), it seems that I’m bouncing around up and down somewhere there in the “Dark Night.” I’m pretty sure I’ve not reached Equanimity (stage 11). I should note at this point that I feel completely ambiguous as to whether or not reading such maps and descriptions of other people’s experiences is more of a hindrance or a help, but either way I intend to keep up my practice and push through to see what’s next.

Alongside all of this on-cushion fun, from about Day Five onwards I found that had heightened understanding of the theory which goes along with all of this practice, which I detailed in my last post on the topic. Concepts of craving and aversion of sensations chrystallised like never before, as well as acceptance of the impermanence of my own body and the benefit of non-reactivity (to objects such as self-degrading thoughts, for example).

Since coming home I’m finding the usual resistance to long sits, with the mind conjuring up all sorts of excuses as to why I should sit for half an hour rather than an hour, why it’s better to wait a few hours rather than sitting as soon as I get up (not having a full-time job at the moment probably isn’t helping here) and why today should be an exception to the rule. However for the most part, I seem to be keeping up with long sessions morning and night, as well as a few minutes here and there throughout the day. I’ve also found that quite a few of my usual vices have all but slipped away, with no cravings whatsoever, I’m more than happy to go to sleep at a regular hour (which has always been a problem for me), and I’m very comfortable with long periods alone (also an issue in the past as something of a die-hard extrovert).

To sum up, I think that despite my early discomfort with the new technique, body scanning helps me keep the “me” out of my practice, and to see the Three Characteristics of each object clearly (specifically impermanence). While there was a certain intrigue to the noting technique for me, I think I was often getting caught up in the content, using it as a type of self-therapy to understand how my thought patterns and physical sensations interrelated rather than as the tool to see true nature of things that it’s meant to be. For now I plan to continue with the technique, until such a time as I might be able to attend a long Mahasi-style retreat (presumably in Asia rather than here in Israel) and get the thorough basic training in that technique that I got from Goenka this time around.

In other news, meanwhile, I’m running at 10km race in the morning and my primary training over the past couple of weeks was pacing up and down the small walking track on retreat (wearing Crocs no less!) Wish me luck!

Not-so-secret Samadhi: Part I

Not-so-secret Samadhi: Part I

I recently returned from my first 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat, which among many other inspirations and insights spurned the starting of this new blog. In the first few days of the course, after my initial shock cleared and before the more serious meditation drive set in, hours upon hours were spent planning out blog posts, writing and re-writing headlines and subheadlines (once an editor, always an editor), and generally trying to keep myself sane.

It seemed to me at the time that I would somehow store these posts in my brain, arrive home, sit in front of the computer, and type it all out (no writing is allowed on these retreats, so as to help cultivate quiet in the mind). Unfortunately – though not surprisingly – not all of the inspired, Pulitzer Prize-worthy material I dreamed up has remained intact in my mind. Now as I sit to write bits and pieces are coming back to me, though I’m pretty sure I left some stellar paragraphs and anecdotes floating around the greenery of Kibbutz Beit Zera. Ultimately, my purpose was served; I’m pretty sure I did not go insane and I hope that on top of that there will be some entertainment or interest in here somewhere.

The morning of the course my nerves were palpable. I’ve practised meditation for years and had been trying to find the right time to sit the retreat for just as long, but nonetheless was filled with doubt and anxiety. Would I be able to deal with it? Would the technique be right for me? Would I get hungry without a proper dinner? Would I go crazy without being able to talk? And yet, somehow as soon as I bid my boyfriend farewell and entered the grounds of the course, all the tension dissipated; I knew I’d be fine, though I still anticipated some tough times and hard work in the coming days.

Day One was fine; settling in, starting to learn a new concentration (Samadhi) technique which was similar enough to ones I’ve practised in the past to make me feel confident (read: arrogant), yet different enough to both challenge me and frustrate me at the same time. The food was good, accommodations simple but totally liveable and the meditation hall seemed vaguely conducive to meditation. To my surprise, falling asleep at 9:30pm and getting up at 4am wasn’t even that hard, and I didn’t miss home anywhere near as much as I’d anticipated.

Day Two was harder. I had a notable meditation experience in the morning and then grew edgier and edgier as I failed to replicate it and instead fell back into the usual aches, pains and distractions typical of the early stages of meditation (more on that in my next post). By the afternoon, I had two voices in my head (not to worry, they were both me) yelling back and forth at each other over a bowl of popcorn and a plate of thinly sliced fruit. While I didn’t actually consider packing up and leaving, I certainly didn’t have the peace of mind to see the experience for what it was – simply a bad mood.

A little background on the course is probably in order at this point: Vipassana Meditation, as taught by India’s S.N. Goenka, is taught in strict 10-day intensive residential courses, during which students are required to undertake a moral code (no intoxicants, no killing, lying or stealing, no sexual activity) in order to purify their minds enough to learn the technique. They also commit to a Noble Silence, meaning no communication whatsoever with other students (talking to the teacher about meditation and course staff about logistics is permitted). Men and women are separated, no religious or spiritual practice is allowed, reading and writing is also out, and dinner is just a light meal of popcorn and fruit (experienced students skip the meal altogether). It sounds strict, and it is, but it all serves a very important purpose. These factors combined help the head and the heart calm down enough to get the most of the training, and establish a solid base in meditation practice.

In terms the meditation itself, Vipassana (Pali for “insight into the true nature of reality”), involves observing physical and sometimes mental sensations in order break down and cleanse defilements of the mind and ultimately lead to liberation from suffering, enlightenment, Nirvana, call it what you will. The process involves understanding the true nature of what we call “I” and “mine,” by clearly seeing the factors that make up our physical and mental structures. It’s constantly stressed that this is a life-long endeavour (or potentially many lifetimes, depending on views on reincarnation and rebirth), and that learning the meditation technique is just a starter. That is to say, it’s not a 10-day course to fix everything and achieve enlightenment in one fell swoop.

I should note that I feel a tension here, a dichotomy, between the urge to share my experiences with friends and strangers, relatives and potential meditators alike, and the shift over the duration of the course in terms of my own identity and ego. In the first few days of the course, as I played around with posts in my head, with many “relative” insights on family, relationships, myself, etc. all of the details seemed terribly interesting. To myself and to others. The small idiosyncrasies of my brain, the little jokes I made to myself, etc. I don’t know whether I was actually just going a little nuts having no one to play with but myself, or that I’m taking the “I” in that sentence a little less seriously now, but either way, I hope the overall wisdom gained can shine though, over the playful voice that followed me around those few days, thinking of ways to share all this. Ultimately I’m only aiming to entertain and explain, though who knows, maybe there are a few seeds of inspiration in here somewhere too.

And so on Day Three, this blog was born in my head. Incidentally, this was the same day I discovered I am not a camel. That is to say, I properly understood that eating two plates of food at lunch because I was worried about being hungry in the evening wouldn’t actually keep me full for longer, and instead would only result in me feeling uncomfortable for a few hours in the afternoon. I also stopped piling a plate full of salad, bread and cheese every morning as though I was at a hotel breakfast buffet, and instead was satisfied with a bowl of porridge and stewed fruits, eaten at a normal pace. To me this is an example of one of many “relative,” (ie they’re relevant to my life now but not to my “ultimate” understanding of the world and the way things work) experiential understandings that I gained on the course. Things that I already understood on an intellectual level but had not yet quite sunk into my gut.

On Day Four I decided that the Meaning of Life is tehina, and discovered meditating on my bed in the hours we were allowed to practice outside of the hall (so soft! why was I torturing myself sitting on the floor??). It was also around this time that the chatter in my head started to die down, further supporting my meditation practice. By this, I don’t mean that my thoughts disappeared altogether, but rather that they faded into the background unless “thinking” was actually what I was doing at the time. Something like a radio turned down, that I could tune into at will, rather than me standing on the tip of my brain yelling at myself non-stop, demanding all of my own attention.

From the first night of the retreat onwards my night-time dreams were incredibly lucid, symbolic and basically text-book, and as a result occupied my thoughts during a substantial amount of non-meditation hours. Freud would have had a field day. It was as though each night my subconscious would pick a topic, say family or relationships or career, and then pick the most obvious symbol possible (knives for anger for example, or job interviews for career deliberations, I mean come on!) and weave profound tales for me to figure out the next day. I came to some solid realisations about myself with the help of these dreams, which I believe were able to come out due to the calmness of my mind and the effect of meditation on subconscious.

From Day Five onwards my concentration and balance of mind (“equanimity” as the jargon goes) reached such a point that my meditation experiences really took over. I was able to stay focused for long periods of time, my insights got deeper and deeper and all of the teachings started to come together. While I already had some understanding of the teachings of the Buddha, (again, primarily on an intellectual level) the concepts really chrystallised for me around the middle of the retreat and I was able to see them clearly both during and outside of meditation.

Specifically, I gained clear insights into the nature of craving and aversion. I’d always thought of these forces as being related purely to outside stimulus, substances or people or food or whatever, but instead I saw that it’s all about the sensations we feel on our bodies. To put it simply, that the alcoholic is not actually addicted to alcohol, but rather to how alcohol makes him feel. While I didn’t have any single malt whiskey on me at the time to test out that exact theory, my mind was clear enough to experience it during other situations. I felt subtle, pleasant tingles on my body when, say, I thought about something cute my boyfriend had said to me the previous week, as well as the way my left shoulder clenched up and strain started to spread up my neck as anger gripped me when the girl behind me coughed directly on my back for what seemed like the tenth time in a one-hour session.

But that was only the beginning. If the nice thought had come to my head, I felt the pleasant tingles, and then kept doing whatever I was doing, that would have been fine, but that’s not generally the way things went. Instead, my mind would crave the nice feeling again, so it kept clinging, trying to replay the thought, trying to get the tingles back. Similarly, long after the coughing behind me had subsided, every time I thought about it or anticipated the next cough, the pain in my shoulder would start to build again, without the initial stimulus. The problem wasn’t the good feelings or the bad feelings in and of themselves, but rather my reaction to them.

Of course, I’m just reinventing the wheel here. These have been the teachings of various enlightened beings through the course of history, from Buddha to Jesus to the spiritual leaders of modern times – I was just understanding them via observing sensations on the body without identifying with them. Watching reality unfold. And through this I started to realise the value of “reprogramming” my mind – to choose how to respond to real stimulus rather than reacting, reacting, reacting on autopilot. And this is exactly what I was learning via the meditation – how to watch the pain in my knee as it came and went (and it always did), rather than wriggling around trying to find the perfect position to make it go away. That suffering comes from struggling to make things other than they are, whether that be by craving something that isn’t or hating something that is.

Back to the day-to-day of the course. For the first half of the retreat, I had been convinced that once I got past Day Five and onto Day Six I’d start to feel like I was on the downhill, like it would all be over soon. That I’d soon be home applying all this wisdom to my real life, rather than living on this weird camp with all of these restrictive conditions. Of course, it didn’t go this way at all. In fact the numbers game I was playing in my head – how many more nights, hours, this time next week etc – just got harder once Day Six came around. Suddenly it was like, “Oh my god, I have to do ALL of that AGAIN?” As a result, it was somewhere around this point that I resolved to stop counting, to stop thinking forwards and back all the time, and to just be. Easier said than done, of course, but my understanding of the nature of craving and aversion seemed to help. Until about Day Eight, that is, when fantasies of talking again and getting home were inevitable. Still, I tried to keep them to a minimum so as not to waste the last few days of the retreat.

Days Six to Nine are kind of a blur at this point, to be honest, filled with leaps and bounds in my meditation practice, more insanely vivid dreams and lots of lentils. Somehow I settled into the routine and grueling schedule, giggled to myself as jokes came into my head without spending too much time lamenting the fact that I couldn’t share them with anyone, and put my inner coffee snob aside enough to actually look forward to instant coffee at breakfast every day.

One specific event that stands out from the last few days was on Day Eight, as I was flossing my teeth after the nightly popcorn break. I felt a seed stuck in one of my teeth and so was checking out the situation in the mirror, and I found a massive hole in one of my back teeth, which I decided was starting to rot. My mind, which had been relatively clear for days, whirred back into action. Thoughts of poison going into my bloodstream, painful root canal therapy and bad breath bounced and ricocheted around the inside of my skull, and I was sure I’d never be able to meditate again what with all this noise. While realistically I understood that we were only talking about 48 hours until I could get to a dentist – hardly the end of the world – my mind reacted to this stark reminder of my immortality, of the inevitable decay of my physical structure, and it didn’t like it. At one point I even considered taking the issue to the teacher, though technically we were only meant to discuss details of the meditation technique with him.

This all took place over the course of a few minutes, as I walked back to my room and sat down despondently on my bed, thoroughly depressed by ghoulish images of a dentist’s chair. Absent-mindedly, I began folding some clothes I’d washed earlier, and found a hole in the toe of a sock I really like. I threw the pair in the bin, giggling to myself as I imitated Goenka’s voice in my head saying “aniche, aniche” (Pali for “impermanent”). And then, instantaneously, I stopped worrying about my tooth, as another part of the teachings I’d been hearing about for days sunk in; it’s our attachment to the solidity and permanence of our physical and mental structure which causes human suffering. I’m 30 years old – of course my teeth were never going to remain in pristine condition forever! The gong sounded, I went back to the meditation hall and sat a compelling one-hour session, watching with wonder and heightened understanding as sensations arose and passed away, as they always do.

And then somehow it was Day Ten, the day that we moved from Noble Silence to Noble Speech (ie we were allowed to talk to other meditators while taking care not to lie or harm others). This was a serious shock to the system. Suddenly all the solemn faces I’d gotten used to around me turned into talking, laughing, expressive creatures, all wanting to share their experiences and gossip and ask questions and generally make noise. I found that at first I could only take it in short bursts, that I was far less interested in small talk and details than I had been in the past, and retired to my room for a nap after about an hour of talking, my head reeling from all the stimulation. While I do have some doubts about the structure of these courses, this “buffer zone” is definitely a stroke of genius. I can only imagine how it would have been to feel like this straight after leaving the retreat – I doubt it would have been pretty.

For the remaining 24 hours of the course we kept to a slightly altered schedule of meditation and talks, while chatting away in our rooms, common areas and the dining hall in between. I kept expecting the focus and concentration I’d built up to disappear what with all the extra noise both inside and outside my head, but in actuality it only took me an extra few minutes to get into the groove. Either way, when it was time to leave the following morning I was more than ready, and excited to share my experiences with the people closest to me rather than the perfect strangers I’d been wordlessly passing in the halls for 12 days.

My landing back in the real world was softer as a result of this buffer zone, and though the sharpness of mind I cultivated on the course has somewhat blunted since, definite benefits have remained. Things that used to get my blood boiling have left me feeling only slightly ruffled, and cravings for various things other than present reality, from food to whiskey to people saying what I want them to say have dwindled or seem to be almost non-existent. There’s still serious work to be done, don’t get me wrong, but the retreat certainly seemed to get the ball rolling.

To anyone thinking about going on such a retreat, don’t kid yourself that it’s going to be easy but I’d definitely say give it a go. To me, both Vipassana meditation and the clarity gained by taking a few days away from the countless stimuli of our modern lives teach lessons which are universal and can be applied to all sorts of situations. I feel like I’ve benefited tremendously and would highly recommend it.

For those meditation nerds, would-be medtiators, and general spiritual enthusiasts out there, stay tuned for my next post, on the actual nitty gritty of my practice on the retreat.

Oh – and a visit to the dentist since I returned home revealed that in fact my teeth are in fantastic condition and it seems the only decay is in my mind. Very glad I didn’t waste two days worrying about that one.

A flower (read: weed) with heart-shaped leaves which caught my attention during the retreat.
Note: Photo was taken after the retreat.