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Last night I returned from a weekend retreat.  This was a meditation retreat like no other.  Half silent Vipassana meditation, half activities and discussions about activism in the world and approaching it from a Dharma perspective.  In other words, Engaged Dharma. This post’s a bit long – if it’s too long, skip to the last 2-3 paragraphs or so. Would love your thoughts.

Dharma (Sanskrit: धर्म) or Dhamma (Pāli: धम्म) in general terms refers to the teachings of the Buddha.  If I can encapsulate the entire message and purpose of Buddhism, it is this: there is suffering, it can be understood, and there is a way to end suffering.   This was the first and most important teaching of the Buddha (the four noble truths).

Taking Buddhism up and away from the meditation cushion isn’t necessarily easy.  Serious introspection is a personal process.  That said, we live in the real world.  Even monks have to get up, clean house, and eat food.  For people who are socially engaged, trying to better the world, whether it be battling poverty, cleaning the environment, empowering abused women, etc, and who come from the Buddhist world, this can be both an inspiring experience and also a more difficult one.

Activists can be very angry.  Anger gets people to take up arms and take action.  Buddhists come from a peaceful place.  I feel that it comes quite naturally that people who are learning about or who follow the teachings of the Buddha, which all center around ending suffering, would be people who want to extend this to the world.

When I returned from the first Vipassana retreat about 4 months ago, I vowed to myself that I would become engaged in the world again.  Volunteer, give back, participate in activities that matter.  It took some time, but this was my first step.  But I have to admit, it was quite daunting.  I feel that I’ve gained some firmer footing with my dhamma practice.  I wanted to go to this retreat in order to retreat.  It’s been stressful, and this weekend was in many ways a birthday gift from myself (financed by grandma’s annual birthday cash, “buy something nice for yourself, so thank you grandma).   But I felt that everyone there was already very engaged, if not somewhat engaged in activities and organizations who are doing important things.  The shame I’ve felt for a long time, not actively helping, bubbled to the surface.  As I think I’ve said on the blog, I never expected I’d become one of the majority, a member of the complacent couch potato society of the world.  I was so incredibly active in my youth: AIDS outreach, peer counseling, working with at-risk youth, running after-school drama clubs for under-served communities.  But perhaps this is the perfect example of traditional activism and volunteerism: burnout.

Helping the world is noble.  But it is painful.  It hurts.  The more you help, the more you realize how much more help is needed.  You may get to a place where the whole shebang feels hopeless.  Your anger, drive, hard work leaves you empty.  What good is what you’re doing?  Nothing seems to be changing.  Trees keep being chopped down.  People keep getting sick.  Children are still starving.

Sangha at Zen Peacemakers Conference

A Dharma community may be the answer in dealing with this problem.  Coming from a “happier” place, a peaceful place, a real supportive community where pain and suffering has a method to be dealt with, is a great refuge.  In fact, it may be the most important element within the Buddhist path.  There are three refuges:

Buddha (the enlightened one, the teacher, our spiritual potential), the Dhamma (the teaching, the path), and the Sangha (the community).  Buddha himself said that of the three, the Sangha is the most important.  In fact, “By taking refuge in the Sangha, we become the refuge. This is the path of the Buddhas.”

My Path: part of my trouble is making decisions.  There are so many options, in every aspect of life, I often freeze up.  Towards the end of the retreat, as interesting and inspiring as it was, I still wasn’t sure what my actions would be.  Would I join a group that deals with a sort of micro-banking for women?  Would I help poor families get on the economic ladder?  What was my passion?  Because here’s the thing: if you spread yourself too this, nothing much will be accomplished.  The story of my life.  You have to choose one thing, and give it your all.  My “eureka” moment came during a guided “stream of consciousness” exercise, talking about what we cared about, what our skill set was, what projects I could take on.  And it spilled out.

FOOD

I am interested, in fact passionate about food.  My problem having gone to culinary school, working at a winery, writing this vaguely food-esque blog, is that it’s about the food in front of us.  But as you’ve seen, in my posts about the “Anatomy of a muffin,” “How important is it, really, to buy local?,” “Edible Urban Greenery,” and “The Idea Human Diet,” I really go into the origins of the food we eat, the social implications, the historic precedent, the current conditions of the food around us, etc, etc, etc.  There are many more posts, in fact, dealing with organic food, world hunger, and socially-conscious restaurants.  How did I not realize that this is something very important to me??  Even my next novel is all about food and ecology.  The drastic future of food.

So, stay tuned.  There will be a project, big or small as it may be, that I will be spearheading.  Maybe it’s been done before.  Maybe I’ll find that out and start participating (no need to reinvent the wheel).  I want to find out where all of our food comes from, I want to know all about the new science of food, I want to know about who works to make our food, I want to advocate for better food standards, and I want to become involved in organic agriculture.  AND most importantly, I want to share this knowledge with the world. I want to teach.  This will involve a website and a lot more.  I’ve already met people who live on kibbutzes who’ve invited me down to see their massive chicken coops and dairies.  I have vegan friends who are already far more involved in some of these movements.  But I know I don’t want to alienate.  I will not be advocating vegetarianism.  I simply think it’s important to know.  And once we know, we can decide to either make better choices about what we put into our bodies, or help effect change in the bigger picture, or both.  This is my passion:

Agriculture – Ecology – Hunger – Human Rights

If you’d like to join me, learn more, provide insight, advice, intro to organizations, farms in Israel, etc, please contact me.

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I haven’t blogged in an eternity.  It has been difficult to share with people what I experienced a few weeks ago, and I’m still not sure I want to – or if this story will interest anyone.  I feel I’ve become some sort of missionary – but please know that that is the last of my intentions. Without further ado – here’s the blog post.

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Does sitting silently with 100+ strangers in the middle of nowhere for 7 days sound like a vacation to you?  I don’t know if I was nuts out of my mind when I signed up, but it did indeed sound like the perfect getaway for this stressed out Telavivian.

From March 31 to April 6 I attended a Vipassana Retreat – a living meditation immersion, where from 5:30 am to 9:30 pm all time was devoted to sitting, standing, and walking meditation in the Theravada Buddhist tradition – conducted completely in noble silence.

I can say with certainty that attending this retreat (hosted by the incredible Tovana organization and led by Dharma teacher Christopher Titmuss) was one of the most moving experiences of my life.

For those who don’t know anything about Buddhism, I don’t want to go into detail here and risk boring or alienating you.  What I would like to do is share with you even a small bit of what the experience was like.

Buddhism in 10 words:

There is suffering, and there is an end to suffering.

The Buddhist teachings, known as the Dharma (Dhamma in Pali), spoke so clearly to me.  To even touch upon them in such brevity would be fruitless here.   They tell of a “middle path,” not one of religion and not one of secular life – away from both the comforts of blind faith and competitive addictive materialism.  The smallest summary – Buddhism is the most peace-loving and logical philosophy and practice I have ever encountered.  And I stress philosophy and practice.  Buddhism did not begin as a religion – it became one – probably contrary to what the historical Buddha would have wanted.  This is not to say that all the religious Buddhists today are in the wrong.  But I do want to communicate here is that you can be a good Jew, Christian, Muslim, or anything else, and still practice meditation, live by Buddhist ways.  Never did we speak of God.

The meditations, difficult as it is to sit on your ass for 8+ hours every day, frustrating as it is to hear yourself silently repeating over and over, “why the fuck am I here,” eventually become incredibly beautiful experiences.  I don’t think I have ever experienced such complete calm as I did then.  After a few days, your senses become heightened.  Smells, sounds, tastes – both within your body and without – become acutely fine-tuned.  Silence, a scary concept for busy city dwellers, becomes a beautiful, no, a precious commodity.

Calmness – however – is not the goal of meditation. Vipassana means insight.  If we can quiet all our voices, focus our minds, practice mindfulness, we then are in a position to really examine ourselves.  Before I started meditating, I thought that it would be easy or boring or simply a tactic at reducing stress.  Now I know it’s a difficult lifelong process.  It is a process of learning how to end suffering. Because we all suffer in varying degrees – from the drudgery of work, to the annoyances of family, to the very fiber of our social structure of making it, making it big, buying it all, impressing the neighbors, becoming famous, seeking out the finest pleasures, and reviling all that is ugly and painful.

Coming back to Tel Aviv was not as difficult as I had expected.  I believe this is because I learned to process fear differently.  I wasn’t dreading the drudgery.  I wasn’t scared of life after the calm.  But I also didn’t know how to share what I experienced.  I still don’t.  I live with my sister, a beautiful human being, who I believe is governed by a lot of anger and self doubt.  It would be highly unlikely that she would even want to begin to understand.  Some friends gave me wide eyed, “oh my god she’s gone off the deep end and joined a cult,” expressions while politely nodding.  Luckily, I found several groups to study and meditate with.  I have meditated twice every day (or more, on days I have meetings and classes) for a month.  For related reasons, but not ones altogether decided upon, I have not been eating any meat.  I have been sleeping more, and I have found that the life I had found to be exceptionally dull, painful, and hopeless at times (time spent with yoga, wine, food, friends, good books being the exception), was all of a sudden not only tolerable, but beautiful.  I wash dishes.  I clean the cat box.  I work at the computer.  And I am fine.  I do not suffer. As much. It is a process, after all.  And boy oh boy, does it take time and learning.

I am stopping now.  If you’d like to know more, please email me.  If you’re in Tel Aviv and want to come with me to Dharma talks and/or learn how to meditate, email me.  In all, dear readers of mine, please know that I am actually happier than I was.  There are those few moments in our busy lives when we can stop and put a finger down and say, “here, now, I am happy.”  I’m having more of those now than I’ve had in a long time.

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