Thursday, March 10, 2011

Coping with suffering: Lessons from the the Warsaw ghetto

Today I want to tell you a story that I “heard” from Diane Ackerman. 

I read a version of this story in The Zookeeper’s Wife: A war story, It was also included in The Best Spiritual Writing of 2010

We know that at least 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust.  What is less well known is that almost the entire community of Hasidim,  religious Jews who, among other things, carried within them the oral history of centuries of Jewish mystical teachings, including meditation practices, were wiped out.   Sadly the finer points of this deep tradition may be lost to us forever, for little was written down.

The diaries and writings of one Hasidic Rabbi, Reb Kalonymous Kalman Shapira,  were found in the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto after the war.  He died in the gas chambers. 

His writings describe how he led and ministered to the trapped and the doomed.

Reb Shapira  could have left the ghetto, as others with powerful Aryan friend’s did,   but he chose to stay, to teach, and to lead.

Beyond the heroism,  the almost unfathomable altruism of Reb Shapiro, what caught my attention was his method.  He taught his followers what in Buddhist and secular circles today would be known as mindfulness meditation.  His flock were starving, they were beset by illness, constant fear of being shot and deported.  They were unable to properly care for, educate, and comfort their children.  Many knew that their future would hold even more dreadful suffering.  What could he do for them?

He taught them to focus on the moment… to watch the stream of consciousness from a distance.  He taught that noticing negative thoughts and negative character traits  decrease their power and the suffering they could create.  Dispassion and equanimity were the tools he used to neutralize the conditions that could not be otherwise addressed by his powerless flock.  Be mindful when you eat and drink. Be mindful of all sounds, those of nature and those of humanity.    Meditate on nature, a nature that could only be accessed through imagination and memory.  No trees or birds or flowers or streams existed in the ghetto.

For Shapira this was a path to God, to the oneness of Heaven. Knowing who they really are, not their thoughts, not their suffering, their anxiety  but something calmer and divine within. 

Although the teaching of mindfulness in our world today, does not focus on the Divine,
Buddhism is a non-theistic religion and there are many forms of secular mindfulness training that populate our modern world,  I believe the goal is the same.

From Ackerman:
Even when saturated by more suffering that we bipeds were ever meant to feel, by paying deep attention the brain enters a state of vigorous calm, especially if one can meditate on joy, compassion, or gratitude.  In the ghetto meditation helped by tugging the mind from its sorrow and limiting rumination and by giving practitioners a sense of agency that was scarce, allowing them to take charge of their own well-being and to create moments of tranquility and wonder, and occasionally something even rarer: pleasure…. (Best Spiritual Writings, 2010)