13 April 2012

"We are our own S.S. men..."

The artwork of Marian Kolodziej
Auschwitz prisoner #432

While this post is actually reaction and commentary to the post Auschwitz One , I am posting it here so it's easier to find for anyone who might want another way to address suffering, their own or others'....

The Auschwitz Bearing Witness Retreat is multi-faith but the very idea of going to a place like Auschwitz to "bear witness" is a very Zen Buddhist practice. Gemmon and I spoke after she read and helped me fact-check the post, Auschwitz One. She liked that I caught myself, mid-post, avoiding my feelings about standing in the gas chamber by telling facts. And she added,  "I liked your breakdown about the expectation phase. See, Auschwitz still has something to tell you: maybe how hard you are on yourself? Aren't we our own worst SS men?" 
Gemmon leading one of her
Caregivers Workshops 

Yes, Gemmon, I am. I am brutal to myself and, when I sit with dear friends and we really tell each other the truth about how we talk to and feel about ourselves, I'm quite sure I'm not alone in this. I would not let anyone speak about the people I love the way they sometimes speak about themselves. And I know they would defend me against anyone who might judge me as harshly as I judge myself. I can bear witness to that.

But, months after the retreat, I still have no simple answer for the people who ask why I went "really" or "why anyone would put themselves through that?" In other words, what's the "purpose" of "bearing witness" and, when you do, how to cope with all that comes up?  Zen Master Bernie Glassman, who organized the retreat more than sixteen years ago, explains the purpose this way: 
Much of Zen practice, including many teaching techniques used by Zen masters, is aimed at bringing the Zen practitioner to this same place of unknowing, of letting go of what he or she knows. After walking through Auschwitz and Birkenau, there is an end to thought. We are numbed. All we can do is see the endless train tracks on the snow, feel the icy cold of a Polish winter on our bare hands, smell the rotting wood in the few remaining barracks, and listen to the names of the dead.  
Fine, but I still am left with some oxymoronic paralyzing need to act, to DO something when there is nothing to be done, at least about what happened to the people murdered at the Auschwitz camps.

12 April 2012

When everything crumbles, what is left?

Bernard Enginger was a member of the French Resistance when he was captured by the Nazis and put in concentration camps for a year and a half. After he was released, he spent years in India, among many other places, where he was given the name Satprem by his spiritual teacher. One of the Auschwitz Bearing Witness Retreat participants heard an interview he gave much later in life and transcribed what he said. It's astonishing...

…. A man only starts to BE when he reaches the complete nothingness of what he is, what he believes, that he thinks, what he loves. When we reach this complete nothingness, then something must BE, or we die, right? 

I experienced this in the concentration camps. There was nothing. All was destroyed, broken. Even I was broken. All the ideals, the nobility, everything was broken. There was nothing, nothing, nothing, You see? No politics, no religion, nothing to hold on to. So when there is nothing, what is left? What is left? There is a centre of strength, of being. There is something left. And that is the key. It’s not all that we think, all we feel or love. It’s not our ideals or God. It’s none of that! It’s something poignant, as if the whole being was wrapped up in an anguish that is so intense that it becomes a prayer. Or like love, it is warm, powerful. There are no words to describe it. It is our being, what we are. That is the question, the thing that everyone reaches. When everything crumbles, what is left?

Everything is broken to force us to reach that human moment, where we are what man truly is. What is man, really? We are completely fooled by philosophies, religions, politics. They are only outgrowths that were added from one century to the next, They have nothing to do with human reality. So, what is human reality? A man in a cell who will get shot the next morning, knows what that is, sometimes. 

In the morning, in my cell, I often heard steps in the hallway.