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…..
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.
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!!
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.
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.
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 minutes 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 here
P.S. ** If you’re curious about the work I’ve been carrying out in Ukraine you can find more information
****all photos from Ukraine were taken by the gifted Ilia at Iluhis.com