By Faye Strauss
In October 2003, on a Compassionate Listening Project trip to Germany, I lost my mind. In my case, this was a good thing.
I had been called by my intellect to attend a program on German-Jewish listening and reconciliation. After five years working in Jewish-Palestinian dialogue and peace advocacy, I had become convinced that the true barriers to peace in Israel/Palestine are not the ÒhardÓ issues of borders, settlements and refugees. My experience and my study told me that what is preventing the Israelis and Palestinians from reaching the peace they so desperately desire is the woundedness of both peoples. They are both acting from a place of pain and grief about the past and lash out at each other from that unhealed core.
The Compassionate Listening Project drew me to the source of a large part of the collective trauma felt by Israelis, the Holocaust. I saw the Nazi genocide casting its shadow over every action taken by the Israelis in their conflict with the Palestinians, the shock waves of that explosion of evil still being felt over five decades. My analysis pulled me back to the origin of the trauma.
I did not join the project to work out personal issues about Germans and Germany. I wasnÕt looking for personal transformation. But personal transformation was looking for me. Many of the people who participated in the project found themselves changed. Some came looking for healing. Others came to enhance their peace, mediation or dialogue work and found healing that they had not expected. Participants found clues to addressing the wounds of childhood, the wounds inflicted by the past, the wounds from deeds to which they were not a party, but for which they bore a feeling of responsibility. I would never have anticipated the way that I would be changed by the project. The woman who arrived in Lebensgarten, where we would do our work, lived very much in the mind. She was confident of her intellectual and analytical capacities. The magic of the place and the project immediately went to work on her.
Lebensgarten, the physical space in which Germans and Jews would come together, holds the energy of evil which we as human beings are capable of inflicting on each other and the energy of goodness to which we aspire. Near the small town of Steyerberg, in northern Germany, it was the site of an expansive munitions manufacturing operation during World War II. Voluntary paid labor and forced labor, Germans drafted into the Arbeitdienst or Work Service and prisoners of war worked to build the armaments used by the Nazi war machine. Forced laborers, kidnapped from occupied countries, and Soviet prisoners of war were worked to death. The beautiful countryside belies the terrible pain, suffering and cruelty that it witnessed in the past.
In the present, an eco-village or, in German, Lebensgarten (literally Garden of Life), has been created in this space. The community lives with the intention to serve the needs of the Earth, the needs of connectedness, and the needs of peace. The members of the community gather in the chapel in the morning to share prayers and songs of a variety of religious traditions. Later they do circle dances in the village square. It is a place of experimentation with ecological construction and a host to a Zen Buddhist group. The community offers space to seminars on non-violent communication, peace work, and in our case, German-Jewish reconciliation.
A delightful Irish man, who was one of the founders of the community, shared with me the three principles on which the community was founded: tolerance, peace, and creativity/imagination. I had long tried to incorporate work for tolerance and peace into my life. But I was missing the piece of imagination and that force was determined to remedy the situation. Habits of the mind are tenacious. It takes a lot to break their grip, but I would experience a lot in the next ten days. Lack of sleep, a new practice of listening, experiencing the deep pain of others, outward and inward miracles would open me up to the magical, the non-rational and the unconscious.
I did not sleep much in Lebensgarten. At first, I attributed the fact that I would become wide-awake after only three, four or five hours sleep to jet lag and the time change from California. However, after several days, this did not change. One of the German participants told me that she had the same experience in other workshops at the same site. She attributed it to the energy emanating from the place. Two weeks before I would have dismissed her comment as fanciful, but my skepticism was being challenged. I decided to give myself up to the lack of sleep and consider it part of a vision quest.
Compassionate Listening is about listening with the heart. In so much of our conversation we do not really listen. We take in superficially what the other person is saying while we wait for our chance to express ourselves. When we disagree with someone, we donÕt explore how the other person came to his or her opinions. We mount our arguments to prove the other person wrong. Compassionate Listening attempts to change that, to instill a practice of trying to reach the feelings and experiences behind what we are hearing. The goal is to foster understanding and a feeling of connection with another person.
We were taken through a series of exercises to help us develop our capacity for deep listening. One of these exercises was the milling exercise, in which we all walked around the room with the intention of being attentive to the other people we were seeing. As it began I was thinking, ÒOh, for GodÕs sake. Why canÕt we just talk to each other?Ó As the exercise continued, we were instructed to stop and look into the eyes of another person for a minute or so. Then we were instructed to see the pain in the eyes of another. As I looked into the face of a German woman, her eyes welled up with tears. My eyes responded in kind. Before we moved on, we hugged each other and she thanked me for seeing her as a human being. By the time we were instructed to see in the eyes of the other the courage and capacity to change the world, tears were streaming down my face and my heart was open to the miracles that were to come.
I heard Rabbi Harold Kushner speak once on television about miracles. He said that the parting of the Red Sea by God so that the Israelites could escape from slavery was not a miracle. He called it special effects and said that Steven Spielberg did it better. Rabbi Kushner said that the real miracles happened within and between human beings, that people were GodÕs language. Before the program was over, I would witness both the Òspecial effectsÓ and human varieties of miracles.
One morning as we sat in the seminar room, a rainbow appeared on the wall. The lead German facilitator was overcome with emotion. The previous year the group was meeting outside on a clear day with no sign of rain and a rainbow appeared in the sky. Another morning the group went at dawn to a cemetery for the prisoners-of-war and forced laborers who had died of disease and deprivation in the labor camp. We walked through the woods along a path to the cemetery. Just before we reached the entrance, a beautiful stag deer with a wonderful rack of antlers emerged from the woods. He stood in the path, considered us calmly for a few moments and then moved on. Later that day we heard that a German participant from the previous year who was visiting the village had been walking in another part of the woods and had the same experience with a stag. A German member of the group told us that in German mythology, the stag is the lord of the forest.
The magic of the rainbow and the stag pale before the miracles I witnessed among the people who participated in the project. Germans and Jews went together to memorials in Berlin for the Jewish residents of the city who were deported to their death. There and at Bergen-Belsen, we cried together and prayed together and honored the suffering of the victims together. I saw Jews freed from their fear of coming to Germany and meeting Germans. I watched Jewish relatives of victims and German relatives of those who may have participated actively or passively in the victimization face the past together and reach a level of deep connection and relationship. I witnessed a Jewish man reclaim the German past of his family. I listened to Germans as they confronted with honesty, courage and integrity the actions of their parents or grandparents and begin to find peace in the process. I experienced the infinite nature of compassion and its availability to all of us.
Throughout the project I felt the demands of the unconscious and non-rational attempting to break through my perception of reality. This culminated in a nightmare that I had just before I woke up to go to the cemetery for the prisoners of war who died in the labor camp. It was a frightening dream in which murderers pursued both me and others. It was such a relief to wake up. I thought the purpose of the dream was to help me connect to the people we were going to honor that morning, who never had a chance to wake up from their nightmare, to those who were still living with the nightmare of the Nazi period, and to those living in nightmares of conflict all over the world.
In and of itself, that would have been enough, but the unconscious was not finished with me. In the group that morning one of the leaders took us into a meditation of listening to the voice of evil and bringing that part of our humanity into our circle. The previous night I had heard a story that came from the heart of evil. Because of the pain it had caused the person telling the story, I rejected that evil and could not accept the humanity of its perpetrator. Now I was being called upon to let it in. The voice that I heard was saying, ÒI am so lonely. I am stuck in this terrible place and I donÕt know how to get out.Ó The experience bowled me over and I sobbed in the arms of one of my fellow participants. My unconscious had taught me a lesson in the nature of humanity. If we reject the capacity for evil inside ourselves, we are at risk of projecting it on others, thereby planting the seeds for racism, intolerance, and hatred.
I woke up one morning near the end of the project with a tremendous sense of peace and joy. I thought I had gone crazy. After listening to accounts of such sadness and horror, how could I feel so at peace? I decided I had lost my mind. It came to me in a flash, “That’s it! I have lost my mind.” There is a Buddhist saying our task as human beings is to participate joyfully in the sorrows of this world. I had never been able to grasp that idea fully with my intellect. But now that I had lost my mind, I understood.