Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Point of Spiritual Practice

I recently unfriended a Facebook friend who persisted in posting hateful articles and comments about the latest war in Gaza between Hamas and Israel. I don't unfriend people lightly. After six years on Facebook, I have unfriended three people out of more than 350 friends. This particular person is someone I've known as another serious yoga student for close to a decade and who lives in the same community as I do. I have known her to be a kind, caring, compassionate person. I once witnessed her speak soothingly to an emotionally disturbed woman who attended our meditation group, and her words made a big difference to the woman. But what I saw her post on Facebook over a four-day period confused and ultimately alienated me.

Here's where I draw the line--if a friend posts something hateful, I call them on it. If they respond with more hate and vitriol, I unfriend them. There is enough hate in the world. I don't want it on my Facebook page.

I was attracted to tai chi, yoga and meditation because I was seeking balance in my life. I believe the same is true for my yoga buddy. I know she cares about politics, having grown up in a country rife with racial and political problems. Over the years, I've noticed her take a few extreme positions. But because I've been known to do the same, until someone or something reels me back in, I didn't think much of it.

Our trouble began when she posted without comment an article from the Hollywood Reporter that featured Jon Voight calling Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz anti-Semites for denouncing what they called Israel's genocide against the Palestinian people in the lastest war in the Gaza Strip. I wrote back, "Does it make me anti-Semitic to question Israel's tactics?"

"No," she wrote back, "but it does make you uninformed."

Uninformed? I make an effort to read news from a variety of sources, so that wasn't computing. So I asked her what news sources she read. She volleyed back with excoriation of how the news organizations unfairly cover the Israeli government. The Israelis wouldn't be the first to complain about unfair news coverage. So I tried again, asking her to forward me some news sources she trusted and telling her some of mine. She offered no sources, but more of what felt to me like condescension, as well as a critique of how The Guardian has never run a pro-Israel article. After my next request, she sent me a link to a blog post. In the first paragraph, the author referred to Hamas fighters as "Hamassholes." I didn't see much point in continuing to read it.

She also sent along a Tablet article by Matti Friedman, a former AP reporter, criticizing the AP and other news organizations for getting it wrong on Israel. He makes a legitimate point when he writes that the press overemphasizes the Israel-Hamas conflict, while Syria and Iraq burn. It is also a diversion. And condescending. Is everything we read about the Israeli military's tactics, which the U.N. is calling war crimes, all wrong? The U.N. is also looking into hauling Hamas before the War Tribunal in the Hague. The U.S. gives Israel $3 million a day in defense aid. As far as this American taxpayer is concerned, the recent bombings that killed more than 2,000 Palestinians, a quarter of them children, are not what the aid is intended for. Dropping mortars on twelve-year-olds playing soccer on the beach and on schools is not self-defense.

Later my yoga buddy posted that Palestinians are ultimately responsible for the deaths of their children as they place them in harm's way. This echoes a statement attributed in 1957 to Golda Meir. "We can forgive Arabs for killing our children. We cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill their children. We will only have peace with them when they love their children more than they hate us."

It is an understatement to say these remarks are problematic. The assumptions Prime Minister Meir made are insulting and condescending. Responding to an ad that appeared in the Hollywood Reporter featuring PM Meir's image and the words above, Wallace Shawn responds more effectively than I can.

I am no political expert. But here's where I come down on this issue. I use the words of my friend Carol Mickelson: "I'm not pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian. I'm anti-killing."

Kris Kristofferson's song "In the News" articulates my view on what he calls "billion-dollar bombings of a nation on its knees."

In the context of this argument with my yoga buddy, I've been wondering if there's a point to having a spiritual practice, or even worshipping regularly in a spiritual community, other than it being an end unto itself.

I am convinced there is. I do not accept that meditation practice and regular worship are a means to justify me in my prejudices. It is not about me having power over others, having more privileges and more gifts, or worse, believing I'm better than others by virtue of my meditation practice. Someone like my husband doesn't have a formal spiritual practice, unless hiking, beekeeping and gardening count. He is already one of the kindest, most emotionally balanced people I know. Someone like me, whose emotional underpinnings are less stable, NEEDS a daily practice. It's no accident I was drawn to it as a 20-year-old!

If done sincerely and consistently, my practice destroys my preferences and replaces them with what the world and I need most. I have practiced meditation for more than 30 years. It is doing what it promised, transforming my life, slowly but surely. And its work isn't done. As my teacher Sri Shambhavananda said in a recent interview, "I feel like I've come a million miles, and I still have a million to go." A spiritual practice is only as effective as the fruit it bears in your life. For a chronic overreactor, consistent practice has slowed my reaction time. I am more deliberate about what I say and do and allow myself to think. I am less concerned about being right and more with doing right. I'm more apt to put my ego in timeout like the demanding child it is.

A spiritual practice with meditation at the center is about practicing daily, whether you're sitting on a cushion, interacting with your family, friends and co-workers, and standing in line at the supermarket. It's about putting the virtues meditation reveals into practice. In the yoga classes I teach I speak about the value of using pranayama to circulate all the good stuff you glean during the course of an asana practice. The same is true of a meditation practice. It's of no use to anyone to keep all the good stuff to myself. I share, probably less than I might, with an eye toward giving more.

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