Connecting Israel and Plum Village

January 25, 2010

I spent a month at Plum Village (Thich Nhat Hanh’s monastery in Southern France: before I came to Israel. In many ways, that month was my preparation, my inner preparation, to giving me support and capacity to be here in Israel in the way I value – open to what is in the heart of the other person, open to the first Palestinian man I spoke to in the shuk who was telling me that Israel itself is an illegal occupation, and open to the Jews who tell me that all “Arabs” want Israel to disappear.  How can I stay open, and not just open, but as we used to say, “to keep hope alive.” (That was Jesse Jackson, whom I worked with in the 70’s in Chicago, and now I remember him standing at Obama’s inauguration, crying……) So yes, how to keep hope alive……….

For me, a key to being here in openness, open heartedness, open mind, clear calm mind, is to transform any judgments – any images of people as enemies, good, bad, right, wrong – as they arise in my mind.

At Plum Village I asked a Vietnamese nun and dharma teacher, called Sister TT, how the Plum Village practice transforms judgments and works with judgments that arise in our minds. She explained that judgments arise when we allow our energy to go outside of ourself, to the other person’s experience (similar to  Byron Katie, if you know her work); the practice of Plum Village (Thich Nhat Hanh’s practice), is to return to yourself – to return to the sensations that came into your sense consciousness, before the judgment arose.

For example, I hear the words, “All Arabs hate us and want Israel to disappear.”  Or, “there can be no peace unless Israelis admit that they are wrong and we are the victims.”

I get triggered by the concepts, images, judgments that arise in my mind to create my own meaning to the words; and at the same time, the meaning I make of them really blocks me from trust, safety, compassion and connection.

It’s not that my meaning or analysis  is “right “or  “wrong”- it’s that the meaning I am giving to the words creates separation, prevents me from connecting to the speaker, prevents me from understanding what is in their heart that leads them to say that – because what is in their heart is what I can connect with; where we can create peace, connection and understanding.  That’s where life is. What’s in the heart, not the head.

So I want to understand and practice ways of listening to people, of digesting my own experience, that can connect my heart to the other person’s. Usually, when I connect to my experience of hearing certain words by giving a meaning, an analysis to the words, my analysis, judgment, image, causes me to get “triggered”- and that triggered state leads to more thinking and judgment, like – she is bigoted, he hates us, they are all like that, there is no hope…….

So the practice at Plum Village, is to “return to myself”- first, breathe, (giving me some space to get off automatic pilot, to bring calm energy to myself) and then to choose to return to my own actual experience – I heard words; I just heard words, these are the words I heard. That’s all, just the hearing.   Return to just hearing. (This is like returning to Observation, the Nonviolent Communciation method: – backing away from the judgments and story, to the observation. If there was a video camera, what would it show – nothing more than that).

What happened?  I heard some words; when I heard the words, my heart sped up. I held my breath. I felt scared. I felt hopeless. I really want hope. Hope for peace. Here.  Now. Returning again and again to my experience. (I am combining NVC and Thay’s  (Thich Nhat Hanh’s) mindfulness practice.)  Ah. As I return to my experience, I notice my body calming, relaxing, my mind clearing.  Restoring me to a place of choice – off automatic pilot – now I can choose to react or not, from the energy I choose to come from. Energy that, for me, is life enriching, that may contribute to bringing peace and understanding into the world.

To strengthen my “muscle” for actually doing this in the face of really difficult messages, hard to hear words, I spent the month at Plum Village practicing this in my sitting meditation and also in day to day monastery living.

It was especially sweet and effective to practice this with hearing sounds during sitting meditation. For example,  I am sitting in the meditation hall and hear something I name as a cough, or a rustling, or a door shutting (in my mind, I say – door is slamming – from there, mind takes off to amazing stories – inconsiderate, bad practitioner, slamming a door during meditation…to…what’s wrong with Plum Village that they let people go out and in during meditation… to, why don’t they do it the way they used to do it at Fire Lotus  in the City, or Crestone- hang a sign outside saying if this sign is up, please enjoy walking outside until you hear the bell.. to…, why didn’t I stick with that practice, this is the wrong path for me…to…well, I got involved in a romance and…to what happened to that romance…to…I’ve wasted my life with romances…   on and on and on, until the meditation period is ended. Remember Mark Twain’s quote: “I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened. “  All that from telling myself that “she slammed the door!”)

So the practice is to return to just the hearing. Experiencing one of the sense consciousnesses – in this case, hearing. Just resting in my actual experience, hearing. There was only hearing.  There are no judgments. Only hearing.  (In addition to experiencing how this really is effective in freeing me from my own limited perception of the world, as manifested in a judgment, it also was my first time really experiencing the different sense consciousnesses, in this case, hearing. I found it much harder to do this with eye or seeing consciousness – the stimulation was so strong. So more practice for me………)

I practiced this in daily living at Plum Village – for example, when I walked into my room and my roommate didn’t smile at me. Noting the physical constriction in my chest I felt when she didn’t smile when I walked in the room. Seeing how this triggered loneliness and dissatisfaction in me. Returned to just the experience, to myself (mixing NVC and Mindfulness practices- so not ignoring that “when I walk in the room and she didn’t smile, I felt sad and uneasy because I love warmth and connection) but this is very different from “she didn’t smile because she’s unfriendly or she doesn’t like me so I must have done something wrong, there must be something wrong with me….”  Like Mark Twain said….

When I return to my own experience in this way, my heart naturally opens, first to myself, and, then,  if my attention wanders back to the other person, it’s usually with curiosity or compassion – I wonder what’s up with her that she isn’t smiling – and now I am in a place of true choice – either to stay with my own experience or to consider asking her, without any judgment, are you ok? Are you feeling well? OR to take in, she is in an inner space and wants support for remaining there……so I am happy to support her practice of silence and give her space.  Maybe later, when we are both enjoying a time to talk, I will share with her that I would love for her to smile at me when I come in the room, if that would contribute to her happiness too. (And I did and she did and we did!)

So maybe you can imagine how helpful this is to being here in Jerusalem. How can I abide in a place where I don’t assume I know how anyone is going to react to anything. Where I hear words, or see something, and stay in awareness of how I feel hearing or seeing. So I can empty myself of stories and judgments and hear what the other person wants me to hear about their experience.  Connecting to the life in them, and in myself, instead of my thoughts about them or my thinking about what I am experiencing.

This is all freeing and scary at the same time. It’s scary for me to stay in a place of really not knowing what “the wall” means  (is it a separation wall, a barrier, a border, the beginning of two states or the end, a ghetto or a safety net?), of releasing evaluations and judgments, positions I’ve held and espoused. Of recognizing over and over how I was taking a side or holding more compassion for one over the other, without realizing that I was doing that. Over and over.  And then the freedom that comes with seeing that. The way my heart opens when I let go of needing to do that. And breathing in and returning to a place of trusting that being present here in this way somehow is contributing to peace, to bringing in the new light that Jews pray for every day –

And I want to add that returning to this place of not knowing does not paralyze me or create indifference – not at all.  This week, on Wednesday I will go to Bethlehem to offer an NVC class to Palestinian women. Later that day I will join a group of Orthodox Jewish women at a checkpoint to witness. Just to witness. A few weeks ago I went to Sarah’s Tomb and Rachael’s Tomb, with orthodox women, to pray for light and healing.  All of this in between classes in Jewish practice and thought with a wide range of participants – some waiting for moshiach  (messiah- a central belief in some of the orthodox world), some not believing that at all.

I keep reminding myself, everyone here is in pain.  When I feel surprised after hearing a response like, “well, when they change, maybe something can shift,” I connect with my own surprise, my fear, my hopelessness…how I felt hearing what I heard, then,  more deeply, opening to the pain I am feeling and hearing – I am hearing the pain of everyone, on “all sides,” living through bombings and disappointments,  aborted dialogues and dashed hopes.  Pain over what they describe as their experience of and call and believe to be hate from others – other Jews, or Palestinians if you are Jewish; all or some Jews if you are Palestinian.

I remember what Thich Nhat Hanh says – that people are saying and doing things because they believe their words and actions will alleviate their pain.  Marshall Rosenberg says, people are either saying ”please” or “thank you.” Here, “please” hear my fear, understand me, give me support and trust and safety and freedom and acceptance.

And here, in Jerusalem, every day I chant a prayer as I learned it from Shoshana Cooper at Elat Chayyim – Or chadash al tzion tayir. Viniske chulanu meira l’oro.

There is a new light coming to Zion, May we be ready to receive it.  May all the prayers and work we do now prepare us to receive a new light.

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” — Mark Twain