Friendship or Fear?
Being Peace retreat, Palestine and Israel, October 2015
by Zohar Lavie
Four days ago the 9th SanghaSeva Being Peace retreat in Israel and Palestine ended. The experience continues to resonate within me, it feels important to share it with you, so I wish to give voice to some of what unfolded.
The retreat began during a time of violence and fear both in Israel and the occupied Palestinian Territories. There was a potent sense of uncertainty, and of risk. Although we knew the area in the West Bank we were planning to be in was calm, there were no guarantees that it would remain so.
Both our hosts and our potential participants were feeling this heightened risk. But we were all open to question what is really happening inwardly when we meet this outer “reality”. And from there trying to see; What is the wisest response to fear, violence and danger?
Is fear always an accurate indicator of risk?
Is our physical safety the only thing at risk in such a situation?
How much weight do we give fear?
What other factors are there worth attending to?
Going forth from the safety of our homes and into the unknown of the West Bank, fear had many faces: The fear Israelis were feeling within Israel was mirrored in the fear Palestinians were feeling in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Ultimately it is the same sense of unpredictability, of danger, of vulnerability. In 9 years of joining the olive harvest in Palestine, I had never seen the farmers so afraid to go to their lands.
Feeling into the atmosphere, the fear was palpable: Palestinians afraid of soldiers and settlers, Israelis afraid of Palestinians, activists afraid of settlers, settlers afraid of everyone. Fear, fear, fear, fear, and violence…
In our region fear has become the seed of hatred, of violence, of despair and of inaction. It is worth paying attention to.
Fear is a human condition. It is what we feel when we are confronted by the fragility and uncertainty of life. Yet so much of the time it throws us into a state of panic and emergency. As Dharma practitioners, fear offers us the opportunity to practice. It is not the end of the road, but the entry point to a deepening practice. One person in our group began working with her fear weeks before she boarded the plane to Tel Aviv. She would practice breathing in with the fear, then out. Feeling the body sensations and watching them arise and pass. Again and again.
Coming back to the knowing that this is simply fear. It is not who we are. It does not need to define our choices and actions. By meeting her fear she was able to make her flight and by continuing to open to the fear response was able to deeply meet the reality of the situation and not just react to her fear.
The Buddha offered Dharma practitioners an antidote to fear; Metta, translated as loving kindness or unconditional friendliness. We can simply refer to it as an attitude of friendship.
What happens when we prioritise friendship? What changes when we bring this attitude to the centre of our being? What becomes when we let friendship inform our choices and actions?
Metta begins with an attitude of kindness towards the experience and the experiencer of fear. Yet it can widen into an attitude of friendship towards all beings. Furthermore it can open into acting from friendship and for friendship.
In the 6 years of our relationship with the village friendship has been a pillar. And in these challenging times it has grown even stronger.
The more fear there is the more friendship is needed and appreciated.
Many people have asked me before, during, and since the retreat if I was not afraid as an Israeli to sleep in a Palestinian village.
Of course I was. But three things supported me; knowing that fear isn’t necessarily true, knowing that fear limits me from living fully, and knowing that an act of friendship and solidarity matters more than giving in to the fear.
Facing the fear rather than being led by it allowed me to experience reality instead of the ideas the fear was creating.
So what was the reality I experienced? One of generosity, openness and kindness.
On the first day we arrived, I went to buy some household items that were missing from the house we were offered to use as a base by one of the families in the village. The owner of the shop would not let me pay but insisted that this was his gift to us.
A few days later, Nathan and I were walking down the street when a car pulled over next to us. A man we didn’t know leaned over and said to us: “I know your faces, you were here last year and the year before and the year before that. Thank you for coming to our village, this is your home, you are very welcome.”
Another time I was walking in a different part of the town when a tractor and cart drove by. A young man called out from the cart: “Zohar, you helped my family harvest olives two years ago, thank you so much!” His face was beaming.
Every evening people from the village came to visit the group in our house. Again and again people told us: if you need anything or have any problem let me know. The sense of friendship and care touched us deeply.
This is what happens when metta meets fear; love blooms. As an Israeli in a Palestinian village my direct experience was of care and safety.
Other Israelis also felt the need to be in the village during this time. There was an unprecedented number joining us for short periods during the retreat, as well as joining Engaged Dharma’s harvesting day events. Many reported this felt as the most sane and authentic response to the atmosphere of hatred and chaos around them.
One night just before bed we heard loud sounds that I recognised as light flares the Israeli army uses. Looking out from our verandah I could see the night illuminated. The next day we heard the army had come to the village entrance. On two other occasions settlers came to the village in the night, but they were chased away by villagers.
These experiences were unsettling. Yet we had chosen to come to Palestine to experience first hand the reality of people’s lives. This was it. As I lay in my bed listening to the flares shooting up into the sky, I connected to the practice of friendship; of staying steady with what was unfolding as an expression of connection.
The Pali word Samadhi is usually used in reference to meditative experience, describing the unification of mind that occurs. Some years ago Christopher told me that Samadhi literally means: “Coming together on the particular.” And that “this capacity is not limited to meditation, but is available to us in any situation.” When we are able to stay steady with what matters, and gather ourselves on the particular aspect of life that we are prioritising, we can cultivate friendship even when we’re feeling fear.
In our experience when we prioritised this as individuals or as a group a soft strength was uncovered: The strength to be present, to witness and contain injustice, pain and difficulty. The capacity to hold confusion and anger without reacting or repressing. And the great privilege to offer friendship and support to those whose lives are affected by violence and injustice.
This is an insight which holds true whether we are meeting real danger or just a difficulty. At any given moment and situation in our lives this is available to us. When we choose clarity over ignorance and friendship over fear, we taste freedom. In the midst of life’s challenges, unfairnesses and difficulties we can find ourselves alive and present. What is asked from us is to continually turn our attention towards what is.
Just as we practice coming back, again and again, to breath awareness or Metta practice on the cushion, we can bring our awareness back to our intention or the big picture of being present for ourselves and others. When we do this we bring ourselves back to what really matters: the deep wish within us that all beings live without fear, in friendship, peace and freedom.
We don’t need to be anyone else then who we are right now in order to make that step. We only need to meet this one moment, take this one step. All we need is right here; can we just breathe, feel into our body, connect to what matters and act from there.
The world needs us to cultivate this presence and centredness.The world needs us to prioritise friendship.
Lets start now!