Dedication Prayer by His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama

May all beings everywhere
plagued by sufferings of body and mind,
obtain an ocean of happiness and joy
by virtue of my merits.

May no living creature suffer,
commit evil or ever fall ill.
May no one be afraid or belittled,
with a mind weighed down by depression.

May the blind see forms,
and the deaf hear sounds.
May those whose bodies are worn with toil
Be restored on finding repose.

May the naked find clothing,
the hungry find food.
May the thirsty find water
and delicious drink

May the poor find wealth,
those weak with sorrow find joy.
May the forlorn find hope
constant happiness and prosperity.

May there be timely rains
and bountiful harvests.
May all medicines be effective
and wholesome prayers bear fruit.

May all who are sick and ill
quickly be freed from their ailments.
Whatever diseases there are in the world
may they never occur again.

May the frightened cease to be afraid
and those bound be freed.
May the powerless find power
and may people everywhere think of benefiting each other.

sadhu sadhu sadhu

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Witnessing The Formation of a Humanitarian Crisis

A sunny August day in a village near Kharkiv in East Ukraine. A summer resort. A couple in their early 30s. Four children are playing in the surrounding wild green fields. A couple of teenagers are making their way for a swim in the nearby river.  A toddler is sat on the floor keeping himself busy.

A pastoral moment. Almost romantic. Except that this family, along hundreds of other families, have just disembarked an old bus that made its way from the city of Luhansk in South Ukraine. A city which has been under heavy shelling over the past couple of weeks. A city which was caught in the fire line between the Ukrainian army, armed militias, allegedly supported by Russia, and groups of Ukrainian partisans that don’t necessary  see eye to eye with  the Ukrainian government. It’s a lawless zone whereby everyone just shoots at everyone else.

For most of the residents of Luhansk, around 420,000 individuals, it doesn’t really matter who shoots, when or why. The heavy shelling over the past couple of weeks resulted in unknown figure of casualties, unofficial figures state 10,000 men, women and children have lost their lives in the conflict in south Ukraine. It also caused extreme damage to buildings and infrastructure and destroyed three out of the four exits of the city. Armed forces bombarded the major high way and the bridge that used to be the main entrance to the city. They also annihilated the steam boat which was used as an alternative to connect that city via the river to the northern part of the country. Today it seems as if the only remaining way in and out of the city is an old, poorly paved, road. Using that road is not only a safety hazard, it is literally life threatening.  None of the armed forces have so far agreed to negotiate the set up of a humanitarian corridor which will enable the residents of Luhansk an opportunity to leave the city thus save their lives. According to the International Red Cross the sides seem to keep an unwritten agreement whereby they avoid shooting at civilians between 10:00 to 14:00 daily. However, as this unofficial agreement has not been negotiated it can be revoked at any minute without warning. Nevertheless, thousands of individuals, literally running for their lives utilize that narrow window of opportunities. Most of them don’t really think about packing up, they take some food for the road and one or two supermarket plastic bags with a handful of personal items. Most of them don’t know where they are heading. They don’t know where they will end up, how long they will be away from home or when will they ever return.

Numerous individuals I met last week described how they queued up for three days to get a sit on the bus which took them 100km north. They shared stories with me of armed young men who roam the streets of Luhansk and arbitrarily take over houses and flats they fancy. They describe how their young neighbour have been kidnapped and forced to support an armed forces he has no affiliation with. They report on friends and acquaintances who have been imprisoned by unknown entities for arbitrarily periods of time without any charges being pressed against them, without seeing a judge or any other due process. They describe shortage of water supply and electricity; empty shops; banking and municipal systems that have not functioned for months and internet and phone lines that have been lost for weeks.

The young couple explained they decided to leave as their younger child have developed post traumatic physical and emotional reactions to the sounds of explosions. They added that as they were cut off from TV, radio, phone or internet for the past few weeks the new family game was identifying the different sound various weapons make and guess which armed forces is using it.

I asked “what about your parents? did they come along?” Her eyes watered. She explained they were unable to leave as they are too old and frail and had to stay behind to look after the 95 years old grandmother.  As phone and internet connection are off she is unable to let them know that she and the kids are OK,  nor can she contact them to ask how they are doing. “They must be worried sick” she whispered. She cried. I cried too.

I’ve been following the political and military crisis in Ukraine since November 2013. Over the past few months I’ve spent 30% of my life in that country, learning, supporting and managing 28 sustainable development programmes. I followed the events closely, spent hours listening to partners, rejoiced in their successful revolution, responded to stress and heightened levels of uncertainty, shared their concerns with regards to the future of the country and stood in awe in the face of extreme generosity of thousands of Ukrainians who open heartedly volunteered their time and resources to support complete strangers.

Over the past few months I’ve witnessed a great deal of hope as well as trauma and grief and above all an incredible level of uncertainty as events changed rapidly and unexpectedly. I must say that throughout the past few months I found in me a surprising level of emotional resilience. I kept being surprised by the capacity to stay equanimous amidst that chaos. Last week, however, for the first time, the magnitude of the conflict in Ukraine dawned on me.  Witnessing hundreds of individuals disembarking buses that fled conflict zones with nothing but plastic bags in their hands, not knowing where they will sleep, how they will make a living or if they will have food tomorrow, left me mortified.

I cried for those who ran for their lives. I cried when listening to reports on the atrocities that take place in the shelled cities. I cried worrying about those who are home bound, frail or disabled who simply don’t have the opportunity or means to save their lives.

We do try to offer support. I personally lead on a response plan. Yet working for a (relatively) small international development organisation, the support we offer will never suffice. Even worse, the reality in the acute crisis zones is  so dangerous and lawless that staff members of most Ukrainian organisation have left in order to save  their own lives the lives of their dear ones. Staff members of major international players, are, too, avoid working in these cities these days as it is simply too dangerous. And so I’m left witnessing a humanitarian crisis forming without being able to do much. Realizing how helpless I/ we are in the face of this catastrophe and how little we can do is painful.  This is one of those moments in life when I realize that despite my best intentions I can only do so much. And for a precious moment I’m face to face with an incredible level of helplessness. I cannot fix this reality. I cannot influence it. Yet accepting it is damn hard. So what to do? how to be?

The next day on a long car journey, passing through miles and miles of sunflower fields and blue skies I listen to Jack Kornfleid quoting the Dau Te Ching:

“You think you can improve the world?

It can’t be done

There’s a time for being ahead

And a time for being behind

A time for being in motion

A time for being at rest

A time for being vigorous

A time for being exhausted

A time for being in danger

A time for being safe

The wise ones see things as they are without resisting or grasping

She lets them go their own way

And resides in the Dau, in the centre of the circle”

Can I be with things in that way? Am I wise enough? Kind enough? Do I love enough? Can I really live with an undefended heart? Always? Sometimes? for three consecutive breaths?

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Patanjali – On Being Inspired

To Pete:

“When you are inspired by some great purpose, some extraordinary project, all your thoughts break their bonds: Your mind transcends limitations, your consciousness expands in every direction, and you find yourself in a new, great and wonderful world. Dormant forces, faculties and talents become alive, and you discover yourself to be a greater person by far than you ever dreamed yourself to be”

Go well.

Thank you for all the beauty you brought to my life.

May you find that which inspires you.

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Auschwitz – Birkenao

Yesterday I marched the march of the living together with my parents, my sister and 10,000 individuals from some 30 countries. We marched slowly and almost silently along the footsteps of nearly million and a half individuals. It was their via-dolorosa, the very last walk they ever took. Nearly 100% of those who marched that path between 1942-1944 found their death once they’ve reached their destination in Birkenao. They were gassed to death. One million and a half individuals!!!

We marched in their memory. For their wasted lives. For their suffering. With an inner movement which peacefully state that we will do whatever we can to assure that this kind of cruelty will never re-occur. We march to celebrate the preciousness of human life.

As the grandchild of four Holocaust survivors my life was and probably still is affected by the horrific experiences my grandparents suffered during the Holocaust and the post trauma that it incurred. The Holocaust has been a big part of my life at least since birth. Later in life, as a thirteen years old attending junior high school in Whitehall Pennsylvania, I was bullied by a Neo-Nazi gang for an entire year and had a first-hand encounter with Antisemitism. Still, I’ve managed to postpone the March for more than three and a half decades. I refused to go. I was terrified. Afraid I’d be crushed by what I will find there. Afraid I won’t be able to handle the pain. Afraid I won’t be able to comprehend the magnitude of that living hell. However, a few months ago, my parents asked me to join them in the march and I embraced the opportunity. I felt strong enough to face this part of my family history. Felt mature enough to share such a meaningful and intimate experience with my parents.

As expected, the experience was painful. Overwhelming. Sad. Inconceivable. A reminder to the potential of human kind to act in cruelty with no boundaries. A reminder of the moral dilemmas facing bystanders. And the pain anyone who has ever been a bystander to any atrocity must feel. Yet at the same time, as happens every single time I’ve been confronted with cruelty, alongside the overwhelming incomprehensible suffering, there were reminders to generosity and kindness and a first-hand recognition of the magnitude of human spirit and the capacity to love.

For example, our guide at Auschwitz shared with us the story of a young priest from block 11 who sacrificed his life asking a Nazi officer to kill him instead of his inmate – a Polish political prisoner who was sentenced to death and begged for his life.  Miraculously, despite the fact that 90% of the individuals who arrived at Auschwitz died there within 3-4 months, that Polish man whose life was spared lived on and died a natural death in 1995. Later, during the main ceremony, the March organizers commemorated the extraordinary act of kindness of Raul Gustaf Wallenberg , a Swedish architect, businessman and diplomat who single handedly saved over 100,000 Jews during the holocaust.

The spirit of wholeness continued yesterday as well with the Hungarian president who attended the ceremony and ceased the opportunity to apologize to the crowd. He stood in front of 10,000 individuals – survivors and descents of Holocaust survivors – and apologized for Hungary’s collaboration with the Nazis in 1944. A collaboration which resulted in the massacre of 600,000 out of 800,000 Hungarian Jews who found their death in just under a couple of months in 1944. 400,000 of them died in Auschwitz and Birkenao. He asked for our forgiveness and asked us to join him in a minute of silent commemoration in memory of those who lost their lives in these camps. I think my heart broke at that moment. As if it melted. I’ve been tearing more or less continuously ever-since.

Then there was the chief Rabbi of Israel – himself a Holocaust survivor – who in a cracking voice pleaded the elderly Holocaust survivors – today in their 90’s –to drop any anger or resentment they might still be holding towards God or mankind. Realizing they will not stay alive for many more years he practically begged them to “come home” and enable themselves to end this life in peace. He said God cannot be understood by reasoning.

And then I realized I too dropped my “reasoning” – I dropped the “why humans behave with so such cruelty”. Dropped the “how did so many human beings enabled that cruelty to take place”. Dropped even the “what can be done to prevent cruelty from happening again”. Suddenly I was just willing to sit there with the way things were. With the way it is. Not arguing with the past. Not resisting the present. Not trying to influence the future.

For a few hours of grace, surrounded by the remains of unbearable suffering, I just allowed it to be what it is. What it was. And also allowed my small self-centered mundane suffering to be what they were. A tooth ache. Losing my parents half way through the march (how symbolic). Embarrassed to  be vulnerable around my mother. Crying anyway. Getting annoyed with my sister complaining she is bored. Knowing I could not have done it without her. Feeling gratitude to my parents. Struggling to convey it. And all through the day the pain of saying good-bye to a man I love. The hurt. The anger. The sadness. The pain. The love. Of myself. Of the world.

And the birds chirping. And the trees. And the infinite clear blue sky.

The soft sound of rain.

The smell of the wet soil.

A yellow flower.

The space around everything.

The nothingness inside everything.

And the undefended heart that can live with all of it: The pain. The beauty. The deathless.

The oneness of duality.

This is the song that my heart has been singing over the past few days.

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