Kibbutz Nir-Oz this past week:
At the Col-bo (our little store): “When are you going to start doing meditation?”
At the Communa (our communal laundry service): “Judih, when is the meditation going to start?”
Text message: “I want to come to meditate. Where is it?”
During the past week, various people approached me and asked when the meditation sessions were beginning. “We’ve begun. Come join us this time. Welcome!”, I said to one and all.
Some asked if they needed to pay. No, of course not, I said. We’re kibbutzniks. As an old-fashioned communal kibbutz, we pool our various incomes and receive a set budget, and so I wouldn’t dream of asking for payment.
* Note: these next few paragraphs are an aside.
As usual, my mind started in on the idea of how people pay for meditation sessions, especially in light of my participation in the Vipassana Retreat. We were told that the usual method of support is called “dana“, Pali for “charity” or a freely given donation, indicating one’s appreciation and wish to support someone offering a valued service. In my case, I thought I had understood the philosophy and I arrived at the Retreat with a certain amount of cash in a sealed envelope. At the end of the session, however, we were directed to look at a printed page outlining the costs involved per person for the retreat (to give us an indication of a reasonable ‘dana’ amount). That sum was more than I had brought. In addition, we were told, the teachers would be receiving none of that. We, the students, were therefore invited to offer “dana” to the teachers, as well, and again the amount we gave would be based on our heart’s wishes and wallet.
This is a system that seems optimistic but also misleading. If my presence costs a certain amount, then I would like to be able to pay for my stay. If the teachers require payment, I would like to make sure they receive it. I, however, as a kibbutznik, have no private income and live on a modest monthly allowance. The principal of ‘dana’ seems like a good set-up for those who are in the position to give freely, but for those of us who aren’t, it’s an exercise in confrontation with capitalism. It’s a heart-shrinking act for those who are not economically fluid. Now, that I know the approximate score, I will be on the lookout for ways to save money so that I can come prepared to offer the expected ‘dana’.
But that’s another story, and luckily, one that is irrelevant to opening the door to meditation sessions on a kibbutz.
Back to Sangha Hatching
Thursday evening, just before 7:30, I opened the doors to the Open Center, removed my shoes and readied our room. Air conditioner and fans were turned on, lighting was adjusted and I brought in a few extra mattresses for any latecomers.
I arranged my meditation cushion close to the breeze of the wall fan, and my Tibetan singing bowl at arm’s reach, and then greeted a few new meditators.
I explained that we were practicing Mindfulness meditation, paying attention to the breath and the body. There’d be no mantras and no religious ties. Our task was simply to notice what went on in our bodies and minds, any thoughts, emotions or sensations. Our job wasn’t to try to stop thought and emotion, only to notice them, set them aside and then return to noticing our breathing.
We began in a prone position and as I watched people settle into their spaces, I used minimal guidance to help them scan their bodies – from their heels on the mattress to the tops of their heads, to noticing sensations such as a passing breeze, or change of temperature. I prompted them to check for tension or relaxation, if the sensations were pleasant or unpleasant. Not to change anything, but to merely notice.
We placed our hands on our bellies to notice the rising and falling of our stomachs, the mind on the ‘in’ and ‘out’ of our breathing.
We transitioned to sitting meditation. My guidance was minimal at the beginning and I set the timer for 15 minutes.
Here was my first experiment. How would these dear people deal with 16 minutes of sitting, 15 of them in near-silence.
After about 10 minutes, I could hear sighs and shifting, but still people were upright and conscious!
At the end of the time, we returned to ‘reality’ through some stretches. Then I asked if there were comments or questions. One woman said she barely made it to five minutes. Another said she’d lost patience after 10 minutes. These were very good efforts for first-timers. I was pleased!
S said that she had to shift positions. I suggested that next time, perhaps she could wait and notice the discomfort for a little while before she allowed herself to move.
“What? Why suffer?” she asked. I agreed, that there’s no need to suffer, but that there was something else we were working on, something like a muscle within our brain, that if developed would allow us to override responses that are automatic.
This particular idea rings even truer to me now when I am fortunate enough to listen to others ask the question: Why suffer?
Simi Levi-Yeshuvi, my wonderful teacher and creator of the curriculum called the ‘Language of Attentiveness’, told us of her experience as a nun in a monastery for 4 years. At the beginning, there was no instruction other than to sit. She had no idea of what was expected of her but, she said, long hours of sitting day after day. Eventually she dared to approach the Master and asked why she had to sit and suffer all day. The monk looked at her and said, “What, do you imagine that if you were not here, you would not be suffering?”
We suffer. In our daily life, we live and suffer. Someone looks at us and we imagine that they don’t like us, that we did something wrong, or that they knew something about us and that they disapproved. Just like that we create our own suffering. We chide ourselves based on someone else’s chance glance in our direction. Chance, indeed. Who knows what was in their minds when their eyes happened to meet ours. It could have been that they had forgotten to do something, or that they were passing gas at that very moment! It could have been a breeze or a noise disturbing them from their own daydreams. A million circumstances could have lead to that second when those eyes met mine, but I choose to interpret a glance in a way that causes me suffering!
Who suffers? Which part of my brain is causing me to suffer? The chance act of seeing someone’s look at me? Or hearing a chance word? Or the stories I make up, the elaborate hyper-linked fictions I create to explain the look, or word.
And would I suffer less if I were walking the streets and while choosing peaches, I would suddenly recall past injustices or possible future problems?
The fact is that when I sit, when I practice noticing my breathing, I deal with my own body, my own thoughts. I disturb myself. I invent reasons to suffer but if I’m lucky, I begin to notice that I’m writing fictions and then, through a moment of clarity, I allow myself to disengage, before I get caught up again in some other brain talk (often referred to as the Monkey Brain – that active little rascal that just waits to pounce and grab my attention).
I must say “Thank you, Simi, for offering your own tale to help me understand my own experience. Thus, I have a chance to answer S, when she asks, Why suffer?
Back to Sangha, Nir Oz
I like to end our kibbutz sessions with an opening of our hearts. This is the time for the Lovingkindness meditation or metta, a chance to offer ourselves safety, health, happiness and the wish that we may live in peace. Five minutes is not a long time for such an exercise but it serves to enrich our experience.
As we say goodnight, and head out into the darkness of evening beyond the doors of the Open Center, each one may choose to hang on to an element of self-respect and self-compassion and, who knows, perhaps remember to use the anchor of noticing the breath in daily life.
Next week might be time to assign homework!