December 3, 2010

Auschwitz Day 3: Settling in.

Confronting Israeli Soldiers at Auschwitz.

For 15 years, Zen Master Bernie Glassman and the Zen Peacemakers have lead multi-faith, multi-national retreats at Auschwitz in order to bear witness to the darkest parts of humanity.  I attended my first retreat in June 2010.

What follows are a series of posts chiseled from my daily journals of the experience.

You may wish to read the prologue first or my post about the first two days.  Photos by Clemens M. Breitschaft, taken with his iPhone.


Day 3

We start the days with council.  I shared how I e-mailed a childhood friend earlier in the retreat to learn about how his grandfather survived Auschwitz.  The facilitator of my council circle, Rabbi Ohad, signaled me to move on when I started to ramble.

Every day, we sit at the railroad tracks where incoming victims were selected for either slave labor or immediate extermination.

First, we sit in silence and then, we chant names of the deceased.  The sun was hot.  I imagined what it would be like to be in the camp on a hot day.

I wasn’t particularly moved by the meditation.  I encountered a rub that also comes up during meditation at home- I wanted to have this deep powerful experience and was frustrated I wasn’t having it- crying more, feeling more sad.  That is a trap.   I can’t predetermine what I am going to feel- can only be open to what’s there.  So for the most part, I just kept breathing and letting it flow by.

It was heavy.

And it was hot.

But I wasn’t distracted.

When we had choice of Buddhist, Christian and Jewish service, I chose Buddhist.  Part of me wanted to remember my Jewish roots, but more than that, I missed my teacher Eve and our liturgy, the Gate of Sweet Nectar. I wanted to feel close to those things.  As we did the service, I understood it in new significance.  The concept of calling all the hungry spirits resonated with me when Eve taught us its significance in Seminary, but doing it at Auschwitz adds a whole other level of meaning.  Imagining those millions of souls.  Trying to comfort them.  Offering ourselves as witnesses.

Back inside the camp, Ohad told us a lovely Chasidic story involving a man who acted stingy while money mysteriously appeared in the cracks in people’s doors.  When he reached heaven, he said that the only problem is that there are no cracks in the doors.  I see this as a great analogy for all activism based in Oneness.  Ohad led us in song- “how could anyone fail to notice, you are anything less than beautiful? how could anyone fail to notice, you are less than whole? how could anyone fail to notice, your loving is a miracle? how deeply your connected to my soul” He led us leaving the camp as we walked past uniformed Israelis with tons of flags.  Feeling like I was on the side of peace felt very healing to me.

After dinner, a few people spoke in a gathering of the whole group.  After a preponderance of Americans shared, Bernie encouraged some non-Americans to share as well.  It was moving to hear stories from different perspectives.

Bernie said that the practice he does here at Auschwitz is how he charges his fuel to “do something!”- the charge he is always exclaiming lately.  That has been the most powerful thing I’ve observed and longed to incorporate from him- his steady, unwavering commitment to and practice of taking action to get things done from a place of deep heart.

So, yesterday, I felt some horror and sadness.  Today?  Still baffled by the sheer scale of the atrocity.  Fearful of what it would be like to withstand such conditions beyond my control.  So sad that so much killing is still happening in the world.  Deeply comforted that there are people who want to work for empathy and understanding and who don’t base their actions on fear and Othering.

I think I will avoid chit-chat tomorrow.  In addition to chit-chat, hitting on girls would be another way to avoid being here and to try to make myself feel better about myself through their attention.  Maybe I could put a little effort into connecting with people who may prove opportunities for future interactions – either people I could visit while traveling or potential people for future collaborations, but I do want to take this opportunity over the remaining two days and slip into sesshin (intensive Zen retreat) mode a bit more to the best of my ability.

So, now…I feel tapped into this deep pain body that is still reverberating today in the middle east and throughout the world, manifesting in so many myriad forms, including in my very person.

Learn more about participating in next November’s Auschwitz retreat here or watch the following video.

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