A Journey to Another Place, to Here, by Efrat Ben-Yehuda Levin
A Meeting with Myself – Intersein, a little house in the prairie. Meticulous aesthetics, in every corner delicate flower arrangements, inspirational teachers, fascinating Dharma conversations, broad trees and greenery all around
, meditations, yoga, quiet walks, delicious meals, pleasant people – and my head doesn’t rest. Thoughts attack from all sides. I receive the most enveloping, contained and spiritual environment I have ever encountered, and yet there are moments when distress and I go hand in hand. No one sees. But I know. I am aware of it.
Together – Years ago, I went alone to a yoga retreat. It was interesting for me, nurturing and difficult. I had no one with whom I could process the content, the concerns, the difficulties and the happy occasions. This time, my partner joined. He makes his own way with Buddhism. I am happy about the new and delicate partnership that is developing between us and within each of us. During breaks between the various activities, we return to our room. Each of us behaves differently. I speak but little. Sometimes I share thoughts, interesting or disturbing moments that arise within me. now and then I read a fine book about Buddhism. My partner prefers to connect to his work in Israel during every break, via the computer and mobile phone. I am glad to see that I’m not angry, not critical, not even in my heart nor in my thoughts. Each one makes his way in his own way.
Germany – It is never easy for me to visit Germany. This time I went to get some tranquility in Germany. This has got to be a paradox: tranquility in Germany. How am I going to get through this? At first, it caused me disquiet. These thoughts flooded through me – “From this land, Jews were sent in transports.” “In this and even greater cold, the partisans survived.” “To these forests Jews escaped, hid and prayed that they would not be caught, yet I am walking here, amazed by the beauty of nature.” As the days passed, these thoughts disappeared. It was not Germany. It was a beacon of light.
Morning – Every morning after meditation, yoga and breakfast there is a morning meeting, a circle. Helga facilitates. I heard a lot about Helga. I meet her for the first time. She has straight hair cut in a straight line to her chin, a small pin catches the hair so it does not fall in her eyes. Her face is furrowed. She speaks with a smile, listening intently to people, her eyes looking at them sympathetically and deeply. When Helga speaks, she gets excited and stands on tiptoe. Like a child. With excitement, she tells us what the daily program is. She works in the garden. The Intersein Garden is large and blooming. Every morning, Helga comes to the dining room, stepping lightly through a green hillside with fresh flowers in her hands. How many people of Helga’s age do I know whose smile is real and full of light? How many people do I know, of any age, whose smile is real and full of light?
Guilt – Six-thirty in the morning, I walk down the stairs to the meditation room, the room dimly lit by a late sunrise. Quiet. How did I earn the right to be here? Why me and not others? What shall I do with this abundance of grace and goodness? I look at my thoughts. Ask myself to accept this goodness with joy and gratitude.
Doors Without Locks – A small thing – there are no locks to the rooms, meaning no keys. The message you get is of a place with other rules. Another planet. Here there is trust, love, security, respect among people. It works.
Dharma Talk – How right was Buddha! In the Sutra on Happiness the Buddha said – the person who wants to be happy should live near wise and noble people. In conversations with Karl, I feel elevated. As though a screen covering the world has been removed, I am happy.
Eyes – I paid attention to my eyes. As a theater director, I am very aware of the ways that actors gaze in portraying different characters: Where do they look? Do they make eye contact? When do they take their eyes off the character that speaks to them? In conversations with people, I am very sensitive to eye contact: do they take their eyes off me, do they have trouble making eye contact for a long time? Are they trying to avoid? It became, for me, a measure of honesty. Until Intersein. At the retreat I discovered that I preferred to do things with my eyes closed or lowered. Eating with eyes directed downwards, or at the window in front of me, walking in the meditation room – eyes directed at the ground or at the shoulders of the person walking before me – walking in the forest, I focus my look diagonally down to the earth and shrubs. I found that when my glance met that of another person, this gave rise to uneasiness. Am I seen? What do you see? What do I look like? And of course what do I see in others. Judgmental, critical and restless. When I fix my eyes downwards, I silence a lot of the noise that I create. Before we left Intersein, I discovered that the noise I had created, during eye contact with people walking in meditation or at dinner, had calmed down. Instead, I smile lightly or do not respond. The worry of what they see in me, and my judgment of others has melted. A thick silence has developed within me and it has filled my consciousness with confidence and concentration. I am present quietly. All the questions that had bothered me are no longer of interest. Do not exist. Suddenly it seems to me that everyone is less preoccupied with others and more immersed in themselves. Quietly.
Hunger – Before I went to Intersein, a hunger rose up in me, a voice calling for inspiration. This place is amazing. Every detail here was given attention. Everything is made with mindfulness and love. With much modesty and simplicity, yet interwoven with profundity. I had never seen such a place before. So good that I came.
Sitting – In one of the meditations, I entered the silence and immersed myself in contemplation of my breathing. A thought went through me – this feels like standing on a surfboard among the waves. Inhalation, I’m on top of the wave. Stopping, I’m an ocean. Exhalation, the wave subsides and I am with it. Stopping, I’m an ocean. I have never ridden a surfboard at sea.
Way – After sharing, people embrace me. A new friend flattered me for what I had said. I look at what compliments do to me. A moment later, I am worried – what am I worth? What do I have to give to the world … noise coming from my head, garbage that pops up and I listen to it, I see that I am judging myself. Later on, in meditation, there are noises, a creaky chair, someone sniffling, someone blowing her nose, someone constantly moving on his chair, someone coughing and unquiet. A sigh comes from the end of the hall. I’m disappointed. I thought that whoever came here would be noble, almost superhuman, close to enlightenment … I look at my thoughts, I am critical and judgmental. A moment later I reply to myself – everyone here wants to grow, everyone is practicing in his own way, from the world he comes from, with his history, at his pace. There are moments when I criticize my surroundings and become rigid and exacting. I have a way to go.
Walking in the Woods – We walk in a long column. Helga leads. I am quite close to her. I look at her. Something about her walking raises my curiosity. I gather details – she walks at the same pace all the time, her hands almost still but free, her look seems to be focused in the same direction. She walks like a princess stepping on golden soil. And then I understand something so simple and obvious – Helga walks with mindfulness. With full mindfulness. That’s how it looks when you walk in this way. It is so simple but it is the result of long years of practice, of great perseverance. The princess walking in her forest. The whole world is her forest.
A Sudden Journey – Cary, A friend from the Jerusalem Sangha had to leave in the middle of the retreat. Her sister in the United States is very ill. Cary goes to support her sister and stay with her sister’s children during these difficult times. All the Sangha, about forty Israelis and Germans, stood in a circle and Cary took her leave of us. We sang her a farewell song. “no coming, no going … I hold you close to me, I release you to be so free, because I am in you and you are in me …”. Tears filled my eyes.
Joy – In the daily Dharma Talk, Karl said we should take care of ourselves with compassion and love, like a loving mother caring for her children. Can I do that? This is a weak muscle of mine, I need to strengthen it. As a child, I received messages that the one who cares for himself is an egoist. Now I have to transform this perception and instead of feeling guilty, feel happy that I have given myself a wonderful gift – Intersein. Yes … Something is expanding in me. I accept the goodness and abundance this place has to give me.
An Hour – It was suggested to us that we choose between guided meditation, relaxation, and quiet activity. A quiet hour was chosen. Each of us will do an activity quietly. Everyone is leaving the meditation room. I stay. Sitting in front of a huge window overlooking the landscape. On the horizon are hills with a few white houses. Close to a window are tall trees with foliage and supple branches, dancing in the wind. Raindrops fall into a small pool, leaving tiny circles that quickly disappear, other circles appear and they, too, disappear. The Buddha statue sits above the small pool. He is sitting right in front of me. Not surprisingly, his expression smiling and peaceful. The stormy winds subside. The trees stand still and noble. Clouds settle down on the white houses on the horizon. Soft yellow lights shine from within the clouds – lights coming from the windows of the houses. It’s getting dark, people gather in their homes, getting ready for dinner. Car lights flicker between the clouds and slide down the road. The Buddha is still sitting quietly. Me too. The bell rings. An hour has passed.
Food – In his Dharma Talk, Karl suggested that we observe ourselves, our thoughts around food. Wow. Food is a scene of stormy thoughts. Many emotions, excitement, expectations, hopes, disappointments. Strong urges – hunger and desire crowd around it. Am I eating quietly or eagerly? Am I chewing quickly or mindfully? Am I swallowing in haste or calmly? What do I think about when I eat? Do I feel the taste of the food in my mouth or am I preoccupied with worries, future plans, or self-pity? Working In the kitchen at Intersein, I saw the respect for the raw materials of cooking. To the very last grain of rice. Including a little vegetable peel. They ask us to take only as much food as we can eat. No more. So we don’t leave it on the plate and throw it away. You can always get more. I remember my dear grandmother who cooked and cleaned the pots down to the last crumb. She, too, respected the flora and fauna that the universe had given her. I hear voices from my past that would call it miserliness. Today I wonder at that and call it love. Love and respect for each and every element. Also, words – the material that I love – are measured and respected here. We do not talk much. When words are spoken, they assume an atomic weight.
Dedication – Is Karl and Helga. A man and a woman. A couple. For decades, they have been walking mindfully on a spiritual journey. Together they have built up their home – Intersein Center. In this home, people from all over the world are hosted every year. Gently, they cultivate shrubs, flowers and people.
Walking – I walk in the woods again. All around are huge trees wearing dresses of green moss at their base. The ground is soft, absorbing my steps. Pine cones, a scattering of tree bark, autumn leaves. On the roadside, mushrooms. Raindrops begin to fall and hang on leaves, lightly tapping the treetops. Bare branches, bushes, young trees still in their early days, plants climbing trees, covering stones. The forest does not think of tomorrow, nor of dinner, nor of feet feeling cold. The forest lives its life from moment to moment.
Three Thoughts before Parting
That Everyone Will Know – Soon we leave. Sadness. I want everyone to know about this place. Let everyone come and give themselves a present. I know it’s not worthwhile being a missionary. That drives people away. I will tell about the place and the experience to anyone who asks me. To others, I suggest that I tell them but stop immediately if they show disinterest.
Calculations – One meditation before the last. Again I sit on a cushion, again watch my breathing. The air is going in and out of the nostrils. What shall I be taking with me from here? What will remain with me? Let me not forget anything, I ask myself to read the Dharma talks every day. May I keep this tranquility. May I succeed to eat mindfully. And also walk mindfully. I realize that now I have run away from the sitting itself and gone to thinking. Now I am here, on the cushion, my palms warm and full of energy. I am in this moment. Tomorrow is tomorrow.
Farewell – One day, sitting in the beautiful garden after lunch, I thought, “Soon it will be over. I will have to leave. This place will be part of my past.” Tears of sorrow came to my eyes. “I can always come back here.” I replied to myself and added, “I can always be here, it is inside me and with me. Wherever I go, I will take the learning I have received here. This good spirit, It is part of me.”
(Translated from the Hebrew by members of the Jerusalem Sangha, Yacov Granot with Shelagh Shalev)