Be mindful of the passing of time, and engage yourself in zazen as though saving your head from fire.
—Dogen, 13th-century Japanese Zen master
Eyes closed, the body comes into focus. I feel the touch of the ground beneath my sitting bones, the touch of my hands resting on crossed legs. The breath takes over; layers of the mind unfold. But today, on the threshold of the cave of consciousness, the walls of the cave—my body—grab hold. It is as if the vrittis (the whirling of thought and emotion) are embedded in the flesh itself. The skin, the muscle, the organs, the bones pulsate, calling me back. Look at me, my body says. Stay with me. Yes, watch me. Keep me safe.
I hear the rumbling of God-knows-what-is-happening-where in this tiny land. Missiles streak across the skies above Beersheva, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Sderot, and every few hours, above Tel Aviv, my home. In Tel Aviv no bomb shelters are reachable within the 90 seconds we have from the beginning of the siren to the falling or felling of a missile. Stairwells have become our de facto shelters. Israel’s Home Front Command recommends congregating on the second-floor landing.
On the stairwell we meet neighbors—the gay couple from across the hall, the lovely older lady who is always cooking eggplant, the new American neighbors who think they are still in a college dormitory and leave their garbage outside their door, the good-natured student who gets locked out of his apartment with the first siren and walks barefoot to the locksmith around the block without so much as a grumble, the guy who lives in the tiny ground floor studio and who, like his predecessors in that flat, always wears gothic black. And the strangers who come running in from the street to take shelter. I have taken to leaving the lobby door open so that people can come in. My daughters, 7 and 9, leave their flip-flops ready outside our door. There are all kinds of small changes one automatically makes when living in wartime.
My youngest daughter’s heart flutters like a caged bird wanting to free itself from her tiny frame, as we huddle on the steps waiting for the boom. The words that pour out from my lips surprise me, yet they are the words I grew up hearing in a mystical Jewish home: “God is watching over you. God is keeping you safe. God is watching over you. God is keeping you safe.” Israel’s Home Front Command has taken to yoga. Pranayama—the yoga of breath. Their safety instructions, published in the newspapers, close with, “Take long exhalations, because exhaling releases fear and tension.” I hold my daughters. Together we breathe.
Early morning in Tel Aviv, the yoga studio vibrates with the wish for quiet. Although we sit in meditation for longer than usual, I find it difficult to enter the state of mind I rely upon to draw others into their own experience—their personal state of consciousness that will guide them through their practice. As the class comes to a close, I silently rehearse my words before telling the students, “If there is a siren when we are in savasana (final relaxation), please try to remember to roll through your side, so you do not wrench your back when you get up to run to the stairwell.” In Tel Aviv, our bubble of perceived safety has exploded in the bright blue skies—exploded by long-range Iranian missiles smuggled through Sudan, through Egypt, through heartbreakingly beautiful Sinai—yet its aura remains. We can still practice meditation and yoga asana; we can still grant ourselves an extra couple of seconds before sprinting toward the stairs.
On Shabbat, in the heart of the biblical Ella Valley—a land of olive and almond trees, and ancient caves—I am sitting with 30 others in a beautiful meditation and yoga space, built of mud and straw and hard work for the purpose of practice. Our teacher reads from Japanese Zen master Dogen’s Rules for Zazen, describing the quiet place suitable for practicing zazen. We hear Dogen’s reminder from the 13th century across the ages, “Protect and maintain the place where you settle your body.” Our teacher also brings the words of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. The 15th-century yogic text details the place of practice—how it should be built, the importance of cleanliness, of creating a proper space. It speaks about where the practice hut should be situated—in the countryside, in a land where there is sufficient food, good people, and where justice reigns. We laugh. We sit cross-legged and we laugh.
We hear booming sounds in the distance. We are within the 40-kilometer circumference around Gaza, so there are instructions to stay close to shelters. But here, in the sparsely peopled countryside where David and Goliath fought, we are not in a populated target area. We do not feel unsafe in this place of peace. Yet the booming enters the room in other ways as well. We are mostly women, some of us mothers of sons in combat units. Some of us are not here because husbands received emergency call-up notices to report for reserve duty. And some men, expecting to be called for duty, also stay home. We struggle with feelings of guilt, of fear. Images of southern Israel—of families, frightened, crammed into airless shelters—arise in the mind’s eye. And what of Gaza?—the children, the women, the elderly, the infirm. Can I search for equanimity, alongside the brutal routing of missiles that have terrorized southern Israel for years, and now penetrate the skies above my vibrant, kind-hearted city on the Mediterranean Sea? Can I search for inner peace, and at the same time accept the destruction and violence of war?
We inhabit a land of deep samskaras, karmic imprints that demand even deeper purification to dissipate. It is also a land where some of us are lucky to possess conditions for practice: sufficient food, good people, serious teachers and students, and, above all, a reason. We do not abide, by any means, in a Buddhist god realm. We know suffering, we witness pain.
Let our bodies be the clean shelter, the safe haven, the just land where the practice of meditation and yoga is carried out.
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