On Ants and the Meaning of Compassion – Between Myanmar and Ukraine

On Saving Lives

It’s 05:00 am in  Panditarama Forest monastery situated not far from the city of Bago, Myanmar. We have just completed our morning meditation session and queue up to walk to the dining hall where we would have our first meal of the day, a meal  which will break the 18 hours daily fast. There are about 70 of us, a mixture of Buddhist monks and nuns and meditating yogis. We walk slowly, in a long row, mindful of every aspect of walking: the lifting the foot, forwarding it and lowering it to touch the earth. We are being mindful to the shift of balance between the right and left foot, mindful to the intention to take the next step, mindful to just standing or stopping or the wish to turn around. Dawn has not yet arisen so we each carry a torch and focus our gaze at the earth, about half a meter ahead, in order to avoid stepping on and/or killing ants.


It’s been a few years since the last time I walked that way yet somehow it feels like I’ve never walked otherwise. I feel at home. I actually enjoy slowing down so significantly. Enjoy being present for the mundane act of simply walking. Somewhere in the back of the mind I know it might be considered weird but it doesn’t feel weird. It is as if a group of 70 individuals walking at an average rate of 600 meter per hour (literally), intentionally attempting to refrain from killing even a single insect, is the normal way to live. The only way to be. Right. Left. Right left. Walking. Walking. Just walking. Ssssslllllooooowwww…..

On Killing 

I walk that way everywhere for two weeks. Then at 09:00 am on the very last morning of the retreat, I experienced (an unfortunately) too common a phenomenon I refer to as “selfing” whereby an act of remembering, inventing and re-inventing of “Adva” is taking place. So there I was, trying to be mindful to the presence of walking, when I had a flash back to an incident which took place a few weeks previously. Back in Ukraine I  was involved in attempts to evacuate 483 bed ridden elderly and severely disabled adults from a psycho-neurological institution located in small village who has been under heavy fire for weeks. It was challenging on many levels not only because of heavy fire but also because it was extremely difficult to track down someone with technical and operational capacities to carry out such a complicated evacuation. Additionally, we were also struggling to find a place that can absorb so many vulnerable people.  But we tried nonetheless. Then one Tuesday morning Galina called from Kiev to let me know that our programme cannot manifest as armed masked men have mined the road leading to the institution. Thus, making it impossible to reach these vulnerable individuals to neither evacuate them nor provide basic needs such as food, medicine or water supply. And so as I was standing barefoot on a pathway in a monastery in Myanmar, surrounded by majestic nature, it suddenly dawned on me how in stark contradiction to our attempts to avoid killing insects, there are people who intentionally harm and even kill others.

war6 That “selfing” experience was so powerful that I was unable to immediately return to just walking mindfully so I remained standing barefoot at the edge of the walking path, staring at the pond, flashed with visionary and audio memories from “my life”. I recalled a needs analysis “I” conducted a month ago to the village of Simyonivska, where armed men deliberately demolished the villager’s homes. Having seen the results of war previously the damage in Simyonivska didn’t feel as a matter of a missile taking down a balcony or a roof. Rather, it looks as if someone deliberately mined, destroyed and intentionally demolished residential homes making them impossible to live in.


I remember my shock of spotting an elderly lady who insisted on living in her home in Simyonivska although it was now a home with no walls. I mean it in the most literal sense – a home with no walls!!

war2war5 And as I was standing there, in a tropical jungle in Burma, remembering these incidents, I felt my heart biting a little faster, my breath became shallower and tears rolled out my cheeks. And I couldn’t help but continue walking down memory lane, remembering the hospital in Slavyansk with 90 windows which were broken as a result of shock waves. A hospital with no windows is de-facto inoperable in the harsh upcoming winter in Ukraine thus an actual threat to life of tens of thousands who rely on it.


And I remembered also that communal building in the village of Mikalayevska and the hole in its midst. And I thought of those who died in that incident and of their neighbors who  go on to living around that open graveyard, wondering how they must be feeling coming home to that every day.


I then had an audio memory of a phone call whereby someone asked us if we knew of a community shelter in Kramatursk as people were fleeing the city of Mariopul. And in the mind eye I saw beautiful Svetlana from Luhansk who has lost her home and business and two cars and how she stated it was not at all a problem for her to walk away from all of it. And I remember my amazement at her wisdom and ability to renounce and me thinking to myself if I could have done the same.  And still I remember the people I met in a community shelter in Shpola, some desperate to return home, while others gave up on that future.  I remembered we were told that they expected their hosts to do everything for them to an extent they even refused to wash their own laundry. And I remembered my initial judgement and how later I considered that they might just have a point.

People rest inside Mikhailovsky Zlatoverkhy Cathedral, which serves as a temporary shelter and a first-aid post for anti-government protesters, in Kiev And so I stood barefoot on a pathway in forest in Myanmar, partially desperate to get back to the present moment bodily manifestation, yet surrendering to the “selfing” process which now extended the boundaries of Ukraine and moved between different continents reflecting on previous suffering resulting of wars and conflicts.

I remembered  Suhila, a Palestinian mother who was granted  permission to be with her kids who were living on  “the Israeli” side of the separation wall only during day time. She had to cross over to “the Palestinian” side of the wall before dusk as it was illegal for her to remain in Israel over night. I remembered dust and burning sun and bad roads and long fences and air raids and the sights of bulldozers demolishing homes and one horrific audio memory of the cry of men surviving the bombardment of the central market in Gaza. I was also reminded of how me and my father once witnessed a bomb exploding inside a bus full of passengers. I remembered ducking, and running to shelter and my granny wearing a ridiculous gas mask and Yafa, my friend, who lost her 19 years old daughter, Yael, in a terrorist attack.

And as the mind continued to wander away from Burma and away from the meditation object for more than 20 minutes  I gave up for a while on the attempt to be aware of the sensations of the foot touching the earth. Instead, I found myself radiating compassion to victims of wars.  A very particular type of Dukkha.

From East Europe to the Middle East to Africa I was remembering  Zabib and Tsaga and the beloved group of Eritrean women I worked with a couple of years ago and their heroic attempts to improve their lives. Attempts that involved hardships such as crossing two deserts by foot, rape, being kidnapped and/or trafficked, imprisoned,  and in some cases also having their organs harvested without their consent, not to mention the daily struggle to get water (let alone food). And I remembered how impressed I was with the graceful way they endured their sufferings.


But I also remembered that while teaching and sharing dharma and meditation practices with them I suggested that we create our own suffering by continuously dwelling on the pain and reliving what went wrong. I will never forget the first time I said that. I remembered that as the words came out of my mouth there was a following thought saying something like “who said that?” and “how dare you? what do you even know about THAT kind of suffering?” and I remembered how, to my complete astonishment,  they all nodded in agreement.

 erit women

And I could sense clearly the physical manifestation to the content of these thoughts: changes of body temperature, water filling the eye socket, throbbing sharp localized pain in the temples, itchiness in the inner ear, the third tooth on the lower left side vibrates, slight trembling behind the right knee and very shallow breath, almost gasping for air. I felt incredibly sensitive, as if I was turned inside out, as if the body became formless and life just went through it: sounds and smells and sensations.  And I was thinking, Oh, so this is how the body responds to the idea of acute suffering? Or, perhaps, is that the physical response to compassion? and I remembered the last verse from John O’Donohue magnificent  poet, Beannacht / Blessing and wished it to myself and to all beings.

“…May the nourishment of the earth be yours, may the clarity of light be yours, may the fluency of the ocean be yours, may the protection of the ancestors be yours. And so may a slow wind work these words of love around you, an invisible cloak to mind your life…”

Compassion is a verb

30 minantsutes later, same session, after traveling the world I finally managed to be where I was: walking slowly on a pathway in a Burmese forest meditation center, minding my steps, gazing at the floor. I saw a herd of precious red ants hunting a black beetle. The poor thing was still alive. So I did the only thing that felt normal, I bent down, reached out, rescued the beetle  and removed it to a safer location, all the while not sure if I did it a solid as it was clearly dying and bound to be caught up again by another herd of ants. I left it alone, covered it with some leaves, blessed and wished it a better next incarnation.

And as I went back to the lifting, forwarding and lowering of the foot I contemplated that the poor ants, too, need food to survive. Was I doing the right thing intervening? Should I have left nature to do it’s own thing and just accept the death of creatures as part of life? the death of humans as part of life? simply as Karma playing out? what is my role? what should I do? I knew then that I will continue and do what I can to save lives of insects although we might not share the same ethical code. So OK I have compassion for ants. I will save them and accept that they kill. But can I exert the same level of compassion towards those in the city of Luhansk who forces young men to behead and cut the hands of dead bodies in order for them to be unrecognized? Can I feel this limitless kindness towards  those individuals in Donetsk who imprisoned the director of a neuro-psychiatric institute for wanting to save the lives of the residents of the facility?  Can I be at peace even with those those who intentionally kill ? Am I wise enough? Do I love enough?

wondering mind. selfing. selfing. intending to walk. Standing standing. Lifting. Forwarding. Lowering. Touching touching. Stopping.  sensations. Shifting balance. Intending to walk. Lifting. Forwarding. Lowering. Touching touching touching……

may all beings be well happy and peaceful.

may all beings be free from all suffering

may all beings know the absolute joy of their absolute nature.

And this is dedicated from the small self to the ultimate P.S. ** If you’re curious about the work I’ve been carrying out in Ukraine you can find more information here

****all photos from Ukraine were taken by the gifted Ilia at Iluhis.com

Posted in Embodiment | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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

Posted in Embodiment | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

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 East 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 east 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 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 small relief 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, and me too, refrain  from working in cities like Luhansk 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?

Posted in Embodiment | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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.

Posted in Embodiment | Leave a comment