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.
Gemmon and I talked a lot about this while we were in Oscwiecim but in the middle of fact-checking that post, Gemmon and I began to talk about some of what she discusses with those who care for the sick and dying in workshops she's given. (Gemmon works as a palliative care nurse in Switzerland.) I asked that she send me some of those materials but she did more than that. She actually took one of her handouts and noted in the text how some of the same Buddhist practices that can help people who work in hospice care could be helpful to people like me when confronted by something like Auschwitz. I am very grateful to her for this. Below is a rather long excerpt. 

The Background and Practice 
of the Four Boundless Abodes


To go to Auschwitz on a retreat seems to dive into a spiritual dimension that scares the shit out of us. Still there is something that draws us to go, otherwise we would not do so. Our attitude towards Auschwitz confronts us often with a kind of helplessness that we otherwise usually just get in contact with when we are facing death, injustice, torture or the like. 

To go deeper into our relationship with Auschwitz often indicates also a certain kind of hopelessness towards ourselves or doubt about certain beliefs we carry. One dares rarely to talk about this spiritual dimension or to ask for help.

The destructiveness itself can turn and inspire us to keep going, to make a shift for ourselves and for life itself. That is what we call a healing process.

The principle of this practice is not to offer truth to you on a silver platter. To teach something in a Buddhist context means always that these are suggestions and ideas that you yourself have to investigate, to make them alive for you. So, the whole thing is like an expedition into our inner world. We will find out how we tick.

Two of the means Buddhism offers that might be useful for us are the observation of the emotions (from the second part of the mindfulness practice from the Satipatthana Sutta) and the Four Boundless Abodes (from the Brahma Viharas also called MettaPractice.)

Most people in the West grow up with the idea that we are born with the qualities of love and compassion -- or not. In the East, the assumption is rather that we have the responsibility to practice these qualities so we can grow as spiritually mature people. We observe and explore our feelings which can lead to uncomfortable reflections about ourselves and ethical actions. On the other hand, it also helps us feel less powerless towards death, cruelty, and injustice. It can strengthen qualities like compassion, love, sympathetic joy, equanimity, and wholehearted living. 

Mindfulness Practice on Basic Emotions

In Buddhism, we distinguish only three basic emotions: comfortable, uncomfortable and neutral. They are necessary for survival as they set impulses for actions like to sleep when we are tired, to run away when we are threatened, or to open up when we are inspired. The problem is not the emotion in itself. What gets us in trouble are our conditioned reactions toward them.

Towards our comfortable emotions we usually react with clinging and that we want more of it. In Auschwitz, when we hear the stories of the people who sacrificed themselves so others could live, for most of us our first thoughts are probably  “Great! Certainly there were far more like him! I have to get out and do research on this topic! This will give me hope in the humanness of the situation again. It was not all bad.” Behind this reaction is mostly fear or the need to dampen our discomfort. We do not want to look deeper, to seek the full truth of what happened. In the greed for more of these kind of stories, we miss the strength in this human being at least in that moment and that this brings us in contact with our own strength, with the resources of each human being, and that it can encourage us to stand up when we face injustice or death.

Towards uncomfortable emotions we usually react immediately with a strategy to get rid of them. This is so brisk and our mind is so smart at it, we rarely are able to catch it in the moment. We develop coping strategies so we must not feel the discomfort. For example: if we had an emotional breakdown when we were standing in the gas chamber, what did we do when we arrived back in the Dialogue Center? Drink coffee? Smoke cigarettes? Gossip with our friends about the feelings we had or even about something that has nothing to do with the place? Or do we sit down, write in our diaries, and reflect on the situation? Do we allow ourselves to hear our heart beating, to feel our tears rising and our heart hurting? Can we feel, where and why we were reactive and what triggered us? Are we searching to talk to someone who mirrors us and helps us to see more clearly what is going on? Are we sharing in council our vulnerability, our shame, our guilt, our anger and so on? Or are we hiding out behind heroic insights, experiences, comparisons of suffering in our personal stories? Triggers, sadly enough, never pass by themselves; we need to recognize them and change our strategies when confronted by them. Out of this grows true inner strength.

Neutral feelings we usually don’t realize. They pass our minds without an impression. If this is our main emotion, it might be that we have the impression that our life is boring or we feel disconnected from life overall. In the extreme, we do not feel our life has meaning. The medicine for this emotion is interest. If we become more awake and more interested in what is happening in our minds, then the neutrality can shift into openness that gets us in contact with the wholeness and interconnectedness of life. Auschwitz confronts us with so many emotions, it can teach us to look at what is happening. Sometimes it comes as long suppressed tears, sometimes as a hug, sometimes in the wish to know what was really happening and what it has to do with us.

In regards to the Holocaust, our emotions are often suppressed because we do feel quite helpless. Who are we to deal with the matter of this kind of cruelty? There is no concrete enemy now, nobody we can fight with, argue with, or make a deal. So we usually tend to project our helplessness, fear, and anger onto others. The Four Boundless Abodes offer us a way that helps us with our own process so we do not just dwell in destructive thoughts but act out constructively. It is a method that gives us something to do when there is nothing left to do.

The Four Boundless Abodes are: Loving Kindness, Compassion, Sympathetic Joy, and Equanimity

Every Abode has a "close enemy" or attitude with which we often confuse it, and a "far enemy" or attitude that is its opposite. When we are able to recognize that we are reacting with a close or far enemy, we can use the practice of the Abode as a balancing tool.

The first Boundless Abode is Loving Kindness. The close enemy of love is attachment; the far enemy is hate. It is often difficult to distinguish between love and attachment; however, there are certain criteria that can help us.

Love arises out of contact with wholeness (remember that wholeness and healing have the same roots), and from this wholeness manifests an inner richness that can see the other person and the circumstance clearly.

Attachment arises from expectations, which come from feelings of an inner lack or impoverishment. This inner lacking will then project that which is missing onto another person. This is what it means when a teacher asks, “What is your story?”

We barely have access to our expectations or stories because they are so habitual. Under the surface, we believe that physical inviolability is a human birthright, political leaders have to be heroic and ideal, life has to be just, and there is, somewhere, an instance that will take care of this, that will make it all so.  To have these ideas and be aware of them is all right but mostly, we are not aware so we’re attached to our expectations which will inevitably result in suffering.

The result of attachment is disappointment, because reality will never meet our idealistic expectations. When this happens, our habitual reaction is that the near enemy turns into the far enemy and we react with anger, separation and fear – and a lot of judgment. At the end of this thought chain, we KNOW who the victim and the perpetrator are and we set out to rescue the world or break down in a guilt trip.

So whenever we feel disappointment, we have an opportunity to stop and ask ourselves, “Where did my expectation and reality miss their appointment with each other?” When you feel disappointed, you can use it as a learning tool to find out what your story is. With the recognition of your story you have the option to question it and to empower yourself.

Many methods in Buddhism and other traditions seek tools to break these habitual patterns. Examples are Byron Katie’s “The Work”, Tsuldrim Allione’s “Feeding the Demon”, or therapies like Richards Schwartz “the Internal Family System.” The Boundless Abode method is an easy accessible tool to start with.

Back to love. To love means to be free of these kinds of stories and to see openly what is there. Love does the best it can in the moment and is not attached to an outcome. Love always increases. This complete acceptance is the reason why we sometimes feel this incredible openness although we face pain and loss. It is the experience of being connected and of appreciation for the whole of life.

The second Boundless Abode is compassion. For me, this is the most difficult Abode for all caregivers and people who feel drawn to do good. Its near enemy is pity and its far enemy is aversion.

When we are not aware of our emotions about the Holocaust, then what at first glance appears to be compassion is often really pity, which quickly turns into the far enemy of aversion.

If our hidden story is that we are afraid of injustice, torture, dehumanization, humiliation, loss, and the smell of death, then we try outwardly to combat these things. We believe that, with the right tool, the right medicine, when everyone acts the right way, then everything will turn out well. And we believe we know what “the right” is. To sustain this story, we try to get the situation and the people involved under our control and on our side. If our emotions get out of our control, we feel that we are the victim, it’s someone’s fault that we feel so miserable.  Soon we become caught up in a cycle of fighting, righteousness, defensiveness and so on. When this happens, our so-called compassion transforms itself into aversion, which over time results in burnout.

Real compassion comes from the wish to serve, to take care of, and to provide for what is needed, without attachment to the outcome or circumstances. Compassion comes from the deep wish that all beings may be free of suffering. To act from this state requires that we know ourselves without judgment and shame. This is the most important skill we can develop as caregivers or social activists: to face our emotions without being torn apart by them or acting them out.

I want to emphasize that, while this is important for our interactions with others, it is far more important that we develop this attitude and treatment towards ourselves. To take care for ourselves is to listen to all of what we are, including and mostly to those parts that are hurting and suffering. I deeply believe that if we are taken care of by our selves, our fellows are taken care of, too. We are all wounded healers -- and it will be okay.

When we embody and manifest equanimity in difficult situations, we are able to help others to relax and accept. Then we have the opportunity to become what Frank Osteseski calls “compassionate companions.” It is not our purpose to rescue others, to be a hero or to nourish our “helper disease.” To come from a serving mind is what really supports us and allows us to walk hand in hand through life together. Because of the attitude of equanimity, we do not become overburdened when it gets difficult, and similarly, we do not become so uplifted when we face love that we space out  or become disconnected from our lives at those times.   

True compassion includes everyone and believes that everyone gives his or her best. The best might not always be the most skillful and we might suffer from that inadequacy. However, when we are able to sit down together, acknowledging that the other person is really trying to give his/her best as well, we can create a different starting point for a dialogue. When we are open enough to listen to and understand the other person, we prevent the cycle of self-defense, frustration and competition.

When we understand this, then our deep compassion embraces the suffering under the surface of anger and fear, and we are able to be a container with a hole at the bottom, where what flows in can flow out unhindered.

The third Boundless Abode is Sympathetic Joy. The close enemy of sympathetic joy is dissimulation and the far is either envy or aversion.

If we view the world as if we are always on the short end of the stick, the world will show us this picture. If we view the world as a place of abundance and enjoy every bit of it, our mind will sustain us even in difficult moments. It is our choice which view we take. At every moment during our life, we can train a joyful mind.

Now you might tell me, “We are talking here about the Holocaust. Go away with joy; there is no such thing in this situation.” We need to get out of our dark views about human beings and their abilities to do bad, without denying it. How about trying to imagine the good we are able to do as humans? How about learning to trust our inherent goodness? Life itself is not dark; it is our mind that makes it such. When we sit in council, we sometimes know how joyful the real silence and peace which comes from a moment of eye contact, or a word of love, can be. These moments are a joint view through the window. This has nothing to do with comforting the other or creating a light moment. It is the joy of sharing from the heart. When facing the cruelties of Auschwitz, these moments can be very deep and very intimate. Perhaps it is the fear of this intimacy that causes us to create a semblance of joy rather then really sharing joy. True sympathetic joy is very intimate; it allows the other person to see through our eyes into our heart.

Can we bear it when another person telling us, “I love you,” or “You are an angel,” or a wholehearted “Thank you so much?” I confess I couldn’t. I always answered something like “Oh, this is nothing special.” Can we receive joy and love in the same way we want to give it? Can we be a light in the presence of the suffering of another person? It is a precious and intimate moment of life.

Sympathetic joy also includes our joy towards ourselves. Be good to yourself. If you have had a hard day, treat yourself to something special. That does not mean eating a lot or watching endless TV or drinking another pot of coffee. We often think that indulging our addictions is enhancing our joy. This does not work in the long term. Nourish your body and mind with something healthy and refreshing: a nice dinner with a friend or your partner, a bouquet of fresh flowers, an inspiring book or movie, or a long nap. And enjoy it one hundred percent.

The fourth and very important Boundless Abode is Equanimity. Its close enemy is disregard or being disinterested; its far enemy is restlessness. Equanimity is very important because it is the mind of non-judgment and just bearing witness. From equanimity arises healing action or non-action according to the situation.

Equanimity is the ability to simply be without the need to fix or do something. This is the quality of sitting like a mountain in the midst of a storm. The mountain does not reject the storm, nor does it complain about the hot summer. It is like the ocean, which does not refuse any river.

This does not mean that we shut down – we do feel our emotions completely. However, we do not make a drama out of it. We no longer need the highs of satisfaction or the lows of despair to help us feel alive. When we love, we love, and when we are angry, we are angry. We accept those feelings as they are and without value judgment. In this sense, equanimity is the medicine for dark emotions. If we can be fully present with whatever situation or feelings arise, we do not let our reactions to emotions dictate our lives. We no longer need to judge ourselves or be ashamed. We can simply accept our feelings for what they are.

The close enemy of equanimity is disinterest and the far enemy is restlessness. The difference between disinterest and equanimity is that disinterest does not relate - it separates. Disinterest looks away, equanimity looks towards. Disinterest denies, equanimity accepts.

In a state of denial, disinterest gets busy and engages in ten thousand things in order not to feel what is there under our surface. Soon disinterest turns into restlessness.

We all know the truth of this. We do not want to be with our feelings of powerlessness over the Holocaust, so we keep ourselves busy until we are burned out or our body gets sick. Yes, we are powerless against genocides; just show up and speak up for your black neighbor in the bus when he is mistreated. Yes, we are angry because the situation is as it is; just sit down and feel the anger. It does not get better when you pass the beggar looking in the other direction. That medicine does not help. Practice compassion toward someone else’s limited view, or toward your own righteousness or your feeling of being powerless.

Equanimity accepts the ten thousand things in the universe without preference. There is love and hate, there is war and peace, there is life and death, and there is Jesus, Buddha, Yahweh and Mohammed. This is only a problem when we make it one.

What the Four Boundless Abodes teach us is to relax, take care, open up and also to enjoy life in the midst of suffering.

The Buddha forgot the fifth abode and that is humor. Develop some humor. When you realize you are getting tense, look for your story. Don’t take yourself so seriously, and don’t believe what you think. It is mostly not true. Mostly, don’t feel compelled to rescue the world all by yourself. I promise you, it will not work.

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