I was born in Kuwait to Palestinian parents and raised in the United States. From a very young age, I remember feeling an internal struggle that came from not fitting in both of my two very different worlds.
This conflict eventually led me down a dark path of using alcohol and drugs as a way to alleviate my debilitating anxiety and inner shame. But this pain and angst also led me to seek out and embrace Buddhism, and gifted me with additional unexpected benefits, such as opening my heart and embracing humans from all walks of life with more love, care, and dignity.
From an early age, I was aware of the ancestral scars I inherited at birth, and growing up, I often heard stories about how my relatives lost their homes and happy lives.
My illiterate grandparents, Ahmad and Amni Fakhoury, had worked hard to establish a thriving farm in the village of Irtah, Palestine. But their good life ended in the aftermath of World War II, when the British military stripped away my family’s land and belongings—even killing some of my relatives—to make way for Jewish settlers from Europe. They became unable to support themselves in their own homeland.
Because the Palestinian schools were shut down, my father and his eight siblings were spread across the globe so that they could continue their education, all the while enduring poverty and discrimination in foreign countries.
Remaining Palestinians were not so fortunate. Those who resisted losing their homes were killed or imprisoned, and others were sent to live in inhumane encampments.
Related: Dialogue Across Difference
I carried this painful heritage with me to the United States, where my family moved from Kuwait in 1966, when I was about 5 years old. In our predominantly white Christian neighborhood, my siblings and I were given dirty looks, threatened, and even had rocks hurled at us from local kids. Back then, I didn’t understand why our neighbors were less than welcoming.
Although I loved my family, I became ashamed of our heritage, and in hopes of being accepted, I started hiding my Palestinian background. I stopped speaking Arabic, and kept our customs—such as fasting during Ramadan—a secret. I even begged my mother to pack Wonder Bread sandwiches in my school lunch instead of those embarrassing and strange-looking pitas.
But my habits of hiding and pretending finally caught up to me. By the time I was 24, I was a single mother with a 2 year-old-son, self-medicating daily with alcohol and drugs to relieve my chronic and debilitating anxiety.
When I finally quit using, I hit the proverbial wall. Daily life was a challenge. In hopes of relieving my anxiety, I began reading as many books as I could in the psychology and self-help sections. Nearly every book I read pointed me to meditation.
I started meditating for at least an hour a day, and noticed that as long as I practiced, I felt almost no anxiety, was less reactive, and was much kinder to myself and others. I also began practicing body scanning, which brought a nearly instant calm to my nervous system.
About five years after I first started meditating, I became friends with Nancy, another treadmill enthusiast at the gym I went to. We sweat and spoke together for many months before I finally got up the courage to ask her why she was bald. Turns out she was a Buddhist nun.
Nancy explained to me that body scanning was in fact a Buddhist meditation practice, and that the Buddha’s teachings prescribed a path for ending internal stress. I immediately wanted to dive in and learn more.
As my practice deepened, I started attending multiple Vipassana meditation retreats a year. During the initial retreats, the inner shame, confusion, and self-loathing that I had suppressed years ago began to emerge, threatening to tear me apart from the inside out. With the guidance and support of my teachers, I began to heal this pain by turning toward it with kind attention. I started to experience relief with each subsequent retreat, and I gradually began to experience daily life as not something to endure, but a wondrous journey. I also began re-opening my heart to my family.
Buddhism has taught me that in order to wake up to suffering, we need to clearly see and embrace all the ways that we avoid dealing with our internal pain. We can heal, but only after we have the courage to stay with this pain and have compassion for ourselves.
And with regular mindfulness practice, we can also see how we are afraid of change, of those we don’t understand, and how we might project our pain outward to others in the form of competition, anger, or judgment. In essence, we witness how we close our hearts to other human beings. Once we see this clearly, we can practice opening our hearts to everyone, including ourselves.
Here are the steps I have taken (and that you can take, too) to support personal healing and integration:
- Engage in daily mindfulness meditation practice to train yourself to be aware of your mind, heart, and body’s present state
- Practice being aware of whatever is arising in your sphere of experience during waking life
- Open your heart with compassion to your personal fears, difficulties, and needs
- Open your heart to other people’s fears, difficult situations, and needs
- Focus on what connects us rather than what separates us
- Take engaged and compassionate action to relieve your own and other people’s suffering
What’s left as the result of these practices is a simple yet powerful compassion that includes all of our sufferings. As each sura [chapter] of the Quran begins, “Biss-millah ar-Rahman ar-Raheem”, which translates to “In the God, the universally merciful and singularly compassionate!”
May we stop living in fear and begin living in peace and love, and see how we are all one in heart.
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