After the Dharma Inquiry with the sniper transcribed below, I recalled an incident in the years after the second Intifada – the Palestinian uprising against the occupation that started in 2000 and sustained itself for about five years.
I managed to get to Nablus in Palestine with the help of Israeli and Palestinian friends to give workshops for people dealing with severe trauma in the Women’s Centre in Nablus. I stayed in the home of a Palestinian family, who have been friends since the early 1990s.
The Israeli government and IDF (Israeli army) had issued a daily curfew from 18.00 to 8 am on Nablus, the main town on the West Bank. Their only child, a son, aged about 10, was still playing football with some friends in the street a few minutes after 6 pm. His parents were sick with worry about the snipers but dared not leave the house because of the daily threat from snipers looking down on the town.
A few minutes after 6 pm, an Israeli sniper fired at their son from a nearby hill, perhaps as much as a kilometre away. Snipers use a telescopic lens to aim at their target. The bullet missed the boy’s eye by a centimetre or two. The heat from the bullet blinded his eye. He ran home, he was white as a sheet. His mother could see something was desperately wrong but there were no marks on the boy. She then realised that one of his eyes was not moving.
The IDF had long since closed the main hospital in the town and converted it into a political prison leaving only a small, very overcrowded hospital full of the wounded and the sick in Nablus. Two doctors said the boy had probably lost his eye. He needed a specialist operation but that would have to be in Jerusalem or overseas. The army had roadblocks everywhere.
The desperate mother visited a homeopathic doctor in Nablus. He told her that there was only a small chance to save the boy’s eye. The doctor said her son would have to wear a patch over the good eye to force the other eye to start working. He said her son would have to go six weeks without seeing. Initially, the boy resisted the suggested remedy but agreed. After several weeks, her son regained his full eyesight.
A Dharma Inquiry on a Retreat
Every weeklong mindfulness/meditation retreat, I offer a Dharma Inquiry for an hour in the evening. The evening inquiry session may take place between one and four times on a retreat. I make an invitation to any participant in the retreat to sit beside myself for the inquiry. The inquiry has important guidelines. These guidelines are stated at the start of every inquiry:
- To speak about what is happening for the participant on the retreat.
- The person can ask myself questions and I can ask the person questions or both.
- An inquiry may last a few minutes or 40 minutes or longer.
- The person or myself can say ‘thank you’ at any time to signal the end of the inquiry.
- I invite all the participants in the hall to engage in the fullness of listening. This means outer listening to the dialogue and inner listening to any inner responses or reactions as they listen.
- The inquiry does not have the purpose to reach a satisfactory conclusion. Insights may arise later that day or in the days, weeks or even months and years ahead.
- An inquiry offers an exploration to free up the unspoken to the spoken to enter the light of consciousness. There is the potential for clarity, realisations and, in some cases, moving on from the past.
- I ask permission from each participant to record the inquiry to make it available to others. Most participants agree while a few prefer not to record. The recording becomes available on social media. The person can listen to the inquiry at a later date.
- At the end of the Inquiry, I give a reflection.
These inquiry sessions address a wide range of issues including trauma, deep meditation, issues of the heart, spiritual experience and profound realisations. The Sangha, namely women and men of spiritual practice, listen to the experience of the individual sitting besides me on bench at the front of the Dharma hall.
I have paid around 40 visits to Israel, and numerous visits to Palestine. I have listened to the experiences of thousands on retreats in Israel, plus being invited to offer workshops, meetings and dialogues in both countries.
In the Dharma Hall
Trained as a sniper, a former Israeli soldier sat besides me in the Dharma hall and spoke about his experience in meditation and the memory it triggered as a soldier.
There were around 70 people in the hall including participants, the staff and four other teachers. Nearly all were Israeli citizens. Most participants engaged in three years of army service from the age of 18 -21. The majority of people in the hall were new or relatively new to meditation. I met with the staff of around 12 people after the inquiry. The following morning, I encouraged participants to come up to speak with me if they had any concerns about the inquiry or leave me a note. Five people left me a note.
I spoke with several people that day. One told me he was angry with me for ‘bringing politics into a retreat.’ One felt uncomfortable with my questions. One told me I was told I was an ‘outsider’ who ‘did not understand Israel.’ The inquiry brought back painful memories of their time in the army. One said he was now considering his response to being a reservist. One said he trained soldiers to be snipers. Two expressed appreciation for exploring such an issue. Overall, I receive much kindness from the teachers, service retreatants and meditators
Most got on with their meditation practice. I met with the former sniper the day after the inquiry. He told me he felt clear and comfortable with his responses. He does not hold now to his views as an army conscript. I gave him my card so that he can contact me if he wishes to meet with Palestinians. I use the initials ‘ID’ for the transcription. These are not his initials.
I remind everybody on retreats that the Dharma has a primary purpose – namely to explore suffering, the conditions for suffering and to find a way to its resolution. Dharma practice includes bringing the unspoken into the spoken – also a common approach in Western psychology. I told the former soldier that he ‘received bucket loads of empathy’ from the participants in the way he handled my straightforward questions. I expressed appreciation for what he shared with all of us.
I regularly invite the Sangha to listen as mindfully and clearly as possible to the field of human experience. Dharma teachings do not encourage us to go quietly and submissively into the night.
We face life – with all its beauty and its anguish. We find ways to move on from the problematic past to live with wisdom and compassion.
Inquiry with a Trained Sniper
ID. I was deliberating to come and speak or not. There was so much fear. My heart was beating very strong. I figured it was an opportunity. Today, I had a very powerful meditation. I took a couple of hours to sit by myself. After preparing myself for the meditations, my body was in good form. I felt very comfortable to sit. I felt very alert and very aware. I was conscious of my breathing and my sensations. I felt my lower back. I had a chronic pain in my upper left shoulder. I felt pain in my lower back. I felt it was releasing. I had chronic pain in my upper, left shoulder. During the meditation, I felt they were connected. The bottom pain goes and the top one comes back, and the top pain goes and the bottom one comes back. Suddenly, an image of the belt we used for the rifle came in this area. It manifested. It made sense. I kept trying to be aware of my breathing and be aware of the sensations, which came and went. During my army service, I was trained as a sniper. Suddenly a fly came and sat on my right eye. It was very persistent about going through my eyelashes. I tried to have a friendly attitude towards it. Maybe it was hungry. It was very persistent. I felt again maybe it was connected to the fact that I was a sniper. That’s the eye that is used for the telescope. The fly then then moved over to my left eye. He showed me that my right eye was a lot more annoying than my left eye. It moved around my face. He had my attention. I tried looking for other sensations. At a certain point, he then went violently for the corner of my eye.
CT. I wonder….
ID. Where it is going?
CT. What is it leading towards? The most important thing has already been said.
ID. No. I will make it short then. I squinted very strongly then it flew away. Then I noticed I had agonising pain in my knees. Almost unbearable. I tried breathing through it. I used your words that everything has a beginning, middle and end. It was getting more and more painful. It was unbearable…
CT. Can we go back to the beginning. We seem to be moving away from the initial…
ID. We can. I will just point out….
CT. Make it short.
ID. The pain was agonising. I felt I was on the verge of fainting. I got a very dry throat. Nausea. Then there was a sense of the physical experience. It was the experience of terror, cold sweats.
CT. With the early part, you said you had a quiet morning Then pain in the lower part of the back and pain in the shoulder that gave the sensations of the memory of holding the rifle. Is that right?
CT. Because of the strap. You felt pain. Then you said you were trained as a sniper. You trained as a sniper. Did you kill people?
ID. Fortunately for me, I didn’t. Not directly.
CT. You didn’t?
ID. Not directly
CT. I am not quite sure what that means. What is indirectly?
ID. Indirectly is if you pass information onto other people and they are able to kill somebody.
CT. Directly is if you did it.
ID. I didn’t.
CT. In your time in army service, you passed over information over to other people. They then could kill people.
ID. That was not related to the sniper.
CT. It was not related to the sniper. It was related to? I want to be clear. This is important. People were killed because of information that was passed over and that cost people their life. Following on from that, how is your relationship to being a person, who gave such information?
ID. Pause…In the circumstances, I was in I have no problem with that. I mean that is not my wish but at the time I felt that other people’s lives were saved through that. I do not have an issue with that.
CT. The people whose lives you identified with, that is Israelis, and as you said possibly saved lives, but you don’t have an issue with it because the lives of the others do not matter the same?
ID. It is not because they did not matter the same. I am sure they mattered to other people. In the circumstances, it was their intention was to kill other people.
CT. So their intention to kill other people generated the intention to kill other people, which generated the intention to kill other people.
CT. Is that intelligent?
CT. Is there no other answer except the intention to kill and the intention to kill and the intention to kill? Is there another way for a human being to relate other than through this means?
ID. I know there is
Have you found your voice with that which you know?
CT. I asked: Is there another way than the intention to kill?
ID. I know there is.
CT. In response to that question, I asked if you have expressed this voice to others ‘I know there is.’
CT. To whom?
ID. To myself. Do you mean: Do I go around publicly?
CT. Publicly or privately? I was a sniper passing information over to other people. Families have suffered immensely as a consequence. I know there is another way. This I would like to speak about. Privately, with your family is it possible? Or do you feel that you could not do that? It is a question. An open question.
ID. The description that I gave is a very partial description of my army service. The sniper part was a very small portion of my time as soldier. I was mostly trained as a sniper and wasn’t used as a sniper. So that is irrelevant to the story. I cannot talk as a sniper. I can talk as soldier.
ID. I have not gone around emphasising that. In the circumstances that I was in at the time were the circumstances that politically are wrong but as a soldier I still don’t feel (pause)…
ID. No. I do feel responsible. In those circumstances, I don’t think there was another way. The other way is not to reach those circumstances.
CT. You can say ‘thank you’ and return (to your meditation cushion). You have the freedom to speak. You have the freedom to go. You said you felt the politics were wrong. It is the politicians who order the IDF (Israeli defence force) to do this, that and the other. ‘I felt the politics were wrong.’ Why would you want to submit or follow politics, which you say are wrong and yet do what those politicians tell you to do? I am not quite clear.
ID. I think the question is not exactly related to the circumstances I was in. It happened a very long time ago when my attitude towards things were very different.
CT. I appreciate your openness and your continuity with the conversation. Can I ask how long ago (you were a soldier). What was your attitude then that you had as a young man as far as you can recall? What is the attitude that you have now?
ID. It was 25 years ago.
CT. How old were you at that time?
ID. 19. 20.
CT. You were in army service. You got trained as a sniper. Can you remember what your attitude was from this period?
ID. I was quite scared of being in a situation where I would have to kill somebody. Yet, I felt the responsibility to take part in the general work or responsibility for the country. I did not want people to get killed and not to do it and let other people. If I say, I do not want to and then go and as you say to raise my voice, but that is not how I felt. I was in a place where that could happen.
CT. It is a long time ago. Please don’t hesitate to say that it is a long time ago and it is hard to remember. Could the feeling ‘I don’t want to kill another human being’ – be just fear and I should let go of this fear and do what I am told by the authorities, by your senior officers? Or could it be that experience about killing another could be showing some moral concern? How would you know the difference between fear and moral concern in your feelings?
ID. I would like to shift it a little away because most of the time I was not a sniper. The reason that the sniper came up (in my meditation) is due to a crack that I had in my life. It wasn’t during that time. It was during my reserve duty. During my reserve duty, I was in a different situation, where I was holding the rifle as a sniper in a situation where, again, I did not shoot anybody. Nobody died as a result of my bullets. People were killed in that situation. In that situation, it was clear to me already that I was more of an adult, and more aware of other possibilities. That shattered my views of life.
CT. That is quite a revelation really, isn’t it?
ID. It was very difficult for quite a few years.
CT. I can imagine. A really big thank you for the sharing from you. What is it in the passage of time? Then some years later, something else is happening inside and the outcome of that? It is one of those stand-out moments. You said, ‘It shattered my view of life.’ In what way did it shatter your view of life? What happened?
ID. In that moment. It was not years later.
CT. In that moment, what was the shattering aspect of this? Some people can cold bloodedly go and kill other people and have a good night’s sleep afterwards and others (kill somebody) and something touches them.
ID. During my studies, I was living a normal student life. Then I went on reserve duty. Then it was a bit like a play…
CT. A play?
ID. A play. Yes, where all the people know what their job is. The only thing is that people get killed there. Everybody is in agreement how it is going to work out…
CT. How they are going to be killed?
ID. Not how they are going to be killed. There is going to be a (Palestinian) demonstration and they are going to be blocked off. Then the outcome is that people die in this situation. Watching this in closeup through the telescope of a gun and being aware on the one hand that there are friends of mine down there that I am supposed to protect. On the other hand, knowing that the tools that I have are not of that capacity. I can’t protect them. By the time I fired the gun whatever protection is needed is too late, From the distance that I was from, the chances are that innocent people are going to get killed. So, I am in a catch-21. I can’t do my job. I am protecting my friends. I am failing to protect my friends.
CT. I am failing to protect those at the end of the rifle?
ID. Erm. Well, I did. I did not shoot. There was no solution to the situation in all my years of experience.
CT. You were 19 years of age…
ID. No I was already 25. I don’t’ think it would have made much of a difference. I wasn’t paralysed in the moment. I was very functional in the moment, but it was after that incident I had a breakdown.
CT. There are many soldiers who do (have a breakdown). There is a terrible cost to be paid for being in the intensity of violence and killing. For everybody. A very high cost. Have you had any meetings with the Palestinians? I presume they were Palestinians. Or Lebanese?
ID. No. In this case it was Palestinians.
CT. Have you had any meetings with them?
ID. Not really.
CT. Would you be interested to (meet with Palestinians)?
CT. We can talk later. I have 20 years of contact with the Palestinians. I have given workshops in Nablus. Many workshops involved women, who suffered greatly at the death and killings of family members. I have listened to many heart-breaking stories. As you mentioned, somewhere in our being there is a knowing that we must find some other way of relating. It is so easy and understandable that you mentioned – two or three times – that you are on active duty in a dangerous situation. I accept all of that. Having seen some of these demonstrations, they are not always very dangerous…
ID. Not always. This one was…
CT. I would not argue for a moment with that. There is friendship and loyalty (among the soldiers). Is there a way of looking at these situations which, without wishing to sound too spiritual, transcends loyalty to the nation state and friendship with one’s fellow soldiers? Is there anything more significant in life than that and the death and destruction which can accompany it? What might one might stay true to – rather than true to that?
ID (Pause). I will tell you where it is difficult. It is easy to answer and say ‘yes.’ I have met in myself the morality that goes against it and yet there are habits and environmental influences. I don’t what the word is but from childhood which brings one up with that very basic responsibility, as part of a community
CT. I appreciate your words. I know of course as well that army officers who come into the schools and speak about Israel and speak of the others who ‘want to push us into the sea.’ There are endless accounts about this, as well as from the oligarchy that runs the media, and the politics of the tragic constitutional decision (on the Jewish state of Israel) that was made in July. It requires a kind of digging deep into our being and with each other to see if we can really explore and find some other way to resolve conflict, rather than the use of weapons of destruction. This is a genuinely major issue for every nation, here and elsewhere. The levels of suffering are incomprehensible.
Thank you very much for your good voice. Thank you. Let us all have a quiet minute or two together.
Reflection on Inquiry
‘I was experiencing fear, but I still wished to come up to speak.’ From a Dharma perspective, there may initially have been fear, which shows itself in the strength of the feelings and sensations. There may also be some contractions, which add pressure. The determination to move (to sit) here was a fear-less movement. If it was fear, then the person could not have reached this seat. The fear would have held this person back. Fear stop us from doing something practical, supportive or beneficial in some way or other.
We reflect on what we listen to. We heard of the pain in the shoulder and the lower part of the back, which triggered powerful memories; an image of the rifle and the strap across the body. Embedded in those sensations, there is the memory going back to his mid-20s and being a soldier at the time of conscription into the army. Initially in our communication, I heard a movement away from that experience to the meditation practice. He spoke about the experience of the fly in the eyes and trying to get the fly away. None of the experience of the fly was a standout moment. I’m not concerned with the relationship to the fly.
I am concerned with the events of the human being and what is around him. It takes some the courage to stay with difficult and straightforward questions from myself. In response to these questions, the person has to go back into memory, not only remember the actual events which can be painful. There are also specific incidents to remember, plus the actions and will of the government. It is not easy to live with all of that. The person did not shoot anybody. There is the action is to take away from another person the most valuable thing: their life. They can be no more valuable thing. There cannot be anything more serious than to take away somebody’s life.
It sometimes happens that there is a consequence for all of this. There is a consequence for the person who pulls the trigger and a consequence for the person, who passes over the information. To give a clear and vivid example of this. The British who have been at war more than any other country on this Earth, engaged in the invasion of the Malvinas Island (the Falkland Islands) in 1983. Around 265 soldiers were killed fighting the Argentinians. Within three to four years after the war’s end, more British soldiers had committed suicide than died in the battle. Never underestimate the cost to the person who pulls the trigger. It is the same for those who use the drones which hover overhead and waits to drop the bombs.
Society cannot get away with war. That is part of the problem. There is a delusion in thinking that we can reduce the suffering by killing people. It is a great task of our species to say that killing is not working. Men, women and children die because of this belief system set up (to support war). This requires other ways to look at situations, which will require courage and communication. Just today (28 August 2018), the U.S. government has ordered the stopping of $200,000,000 a year in aid to UNRWA, the Palestinian based UN organisation, which gives support to schools, hospitals and clinics. There is propaganda which goes against the UN. I have friends who worked for such organisations.
Due to such cuts, there is much suffering for innocent people. We have some real responsibility to show compassion. It is a responsibility to find ways (to develop compassion). The Israelis are not happy. The Palestinians are not happy. The Arabs in Israel are not happy. How can communities of people be happy when living in fear, blame and conflict? We need recognition of that.
I have real appreciation for the person speaking up. Sometimes, it happens that one single voice speaks about the challenges he is facing and the impact it has on him. His world falls apart – with him questioning his values. Sometimes his voice is our voice. His concerns are our concerns. It takes dialogue and communication. If we don’t get a sense of how important it is to share our concerns, then we tend to blame the other. There is always the ‘other.’ There is always ‘them.’ What about ‘them?’ What about them? That is the denial of responsibility from ourselves.
Some of these Dharma Enquiry are not easy for Christopher. I’m not sure how it is for you who has to listen as well. The teachings are not intended to be easy. It would be much easier to ask the person who was sitting next to me to ask about his relationship to flies. The fly came across the eyelid. He watched it. He let it go.
If we can find our voice and have an exchange, it might bring to us a fresh perspective, a standout moment. This is the creative work. There are lovely, creative initiatives taking place here. We came here to know what people are doing in their wish to connect. This wish to connect gives the Palestinian community support as well because they desperately need it.
MAY ALL BEINGS LISTEN TO EACH OTHER
MAY ALL BEINGS SUPPORT EACH OTHER
MAY ALL BEINGS LIVE WITH WISDOM AND COMPASSION
To listen to the Inquiry