Stress and Anxiety in Israel. Part One of Two.
The God of Israel has inflicted stress
and anxiety upon His people
The God of Israel has inflicted widespread doses of stress and anxiety upon his people. Few seem to escape the wrath of their God. The state of Israel appears to be in constant tension with itself, as well as with its neighbours.
In a national survey of 1028 citizens in 2015, published in Haaretz, a free thinking Israeli daily newspaper, 34% of Jewish Israelis said they were not happy. The highest of any major community in Israel. One third of the Jewish population said they had been to see a psychologist. 66% of Jewish Israelis said they were happy. 68% of Muslims said they were happy while 72% of Christians and 86% of Druze said they were happy. 14% of Jewish Israelis are considering emigrating from Israel. The diaspora of the Jews is taking a new form – a wish to take flight from a Jewish state. The survey goes some way to reflect the stress in Israel.
I have plenty of experience of listening to thousands of first-hand accounts of the inner life of Israeli citizens. I have been 35 to 40 times to Israel and perhaps made some 20 visits to Palestine. Numbers on retreats range from 60 to 100 as well as numerous meetings outside of retreats. Stephen Fulder, the senior Dharma teacher in Israel, kindly invited me in 1991. Until five years ago, I made two visits per year with each visit lasting around a fortnight. I now make one visit a year for about three weeks. When in Tel Aviv, I stay in a top floor flat (apartment) used by the Sangha in a middle class suburb of north Tel Aviv. I regularly make the 200 metre walk around to Lulu’s coffee shop for their five star cappuccino (latte in UK) and engage in conversations with friends.
When people experience varying degrees of stress, fears and anxieties, it can have such an impact that it triggers a search for a resolution. Stress and anxiety arises due to excessive thinking, desire to get what one wants and fear of not getting what one wants. Stress occurs through dependency upon results and for the imagination to misinterpret or overshadow reality. People simply cannot function in a healthy and wholesome way while coping with stress. Anxiety arises about the future through speculative ideas or worries about the impact of future outcomes, real or imagined.
Political, social and religious institutions lack the necessary skilful means to resolve widespread personal and collective problems in society. Since its conception in the early 1990s, Tovana, the primary Dharma network in Israel, has offered a range of spiritual programs to give support to the needs of Israeli citizens. Sister networks of Tovana (www.tovana.org.il), such as Engaged Dharma and Sanghaseva, also connect with Palestinians to develop friendships in Palestine.
Tovana programs within Israel include residential retreats throughout the year in a quiet section of a kibbutz, named En dor, in northern Israel, about 90 minutes’ drive from Tel Aviv. Tovana also offers mindfulness programs, meditation classes, and study of important Buddhist texts from the Pali Canon. Tovana organises prison visits, support for people with cancer, meetings with facilitators and arranges public debates on a wide variety of spiritual, psychological, religious, social and political issues.
There is a growing body of Dharma teachers and facilitators within Israel leading retreats and facilitating various programmes. Some facilitators include engaged Dharma workshops to bridge the divide between Jewish Israelis and Arab Israelis, as well as support for the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. These programs take place owing to the sustained wish of Tovana to support voices of wisdom and compassion.
Tovana has no interest to convert Israelis to Buddhism or persuade participants to abandon their religious or secular affiliations. The network expresses a deep commitment to ethics, inner work, spirituality and the application of wisdom and compassion to daily life. When participants deeply apply such values to support their religious and secular institutions, they will also start to question any dogma, intolerance and narrow-minded standpoints of these institutions.
Some of the prominent teachers in the Buddhist tradition in the USA share a Jewish ancestry. Affectionately known as ‘Bewish,’ they include Ram Doss, Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Stephen Levine, Larry Rosenberg and Sharon Salzburg. I know most of these teachers since the 1970s. They rarely, if at all, make any reference to their family history. From a Dharma perspective, the non-holding onto any identity enables their clarity and wisdom to arise. The vast majority of teachers in the West come from a variety of backgrounds, Christian, Jewish and secular upbringing. Family history bears little or no relevance to wisdom.
I recall several years ago talking with Jack Kornfield, an eminent US Dharma teacher and co -founder of the Spirit Rock Meditation Centre, Marin County, near San Francisco. He told me he thought that Dharma teachers in Israel could go to his centre for further training. Having taught at Spirit Rock annually for more than two decades, I told Jack that I took the opposite view. I felt Spirit Rock teachers would benefit immensely from a visit to Israel. US teaches could work alongside Tovana teachers to learn from Tovana teachers how to offer a depth of Dharma in a tense region of the world.
Spiritual Practices to Support Citizens
The work of Tovana and other spiritual networks contribute directly to the welfare of citizens of Israel. Dharma teachings and practices offer practical ways to change the stressful lifestyles of Jewish Israelis and open their hearts and minds to a wider vision of what it means to be fully human and fully awaken. It is not only agitated and unsettled Israelis who turn up for retreats. Other citizens find themselves attracted to Tovana to explore depths of the inner life, to experience the art of meditation, to learn about mindfulness, to get to know themselves in fresh ways and touch upon spiritual realizations.
Numerous Israelis depart regularly from Israel for varying lengths of time to experience other ways of living. You can find Israelis in the Himalayas, in ashrams in India, in Buddhist monasteries in Thailand and Burma, in communities in Australia, in meditation centres in Europe, in Cuba, Guatemala and South America. Israelis travel in droves to distant parts of Asia, especially India and Thailand, to explore ways to work on themselves and contribute to the welfare of others.
Israelis, who have spent extended periods of time overseas inter-acting with different ways of life, have an important function in Israel. They offer a genuine alternative to the intensity that plagues far too much of daily life of its citizens. These Israelis, young and adventurous, bring home with them alternative ways for healing of mind and body, a range of meditation practices, changes in lifestyle, application of yoga, dance, music and culture. They also offer fresh social, political and environmental insights based on their overseas experiences.
Israelis return home after months or longer overseas seeing for themselves that millions of others worldwide can live reasonably contented lives. They witness overseas the wholesome, healthy and happy lives of individuals, families, communities and people, who are at home with ethnic and religious diversity. Many young Israelis return to Israel wanting their fellow citizens to experience a sense of harmony of the collective within and around Israel, instead of such painful polarisation and endless arguments, conflict, and violence. I remember an Israeli friend warning me on my very first day in Israel that a conversation between two Israelis means three arguments.
Some Israelis tell me they experience a cultural shock after months, or a year or two away. They fly back into the stress and demands of daily life with family, at work and the treatment meted out to non-Jews. Israelis tell me regularly they would prefer to live overseas if they knew they could secure a work visa for another country. In a public debate a couple of years ago in Tel Aviv with myself, an Israeli psychologist said that he and his family had decided to move back to Britain because he did not want to bring up his children in Israel. He said he made up his mind to leave when his young son picked up a bullet from an armchair in his friend’s home and put the bullet in his mouth. (Israeli soldiers often go home at night with the rifles).
Important work takes place in Israel to expand the religious, political and cultural horizons of its citizens and points the way to an integrated future embracing diversity and social cohesion. There is still a long way to go.
The Retreats in Israel
I flew into Ben Gurion airport, Tel Aviv in late August, 2015, for the annual visit. The immigration officer asked me who invited me to Israel. I said that Dr. Stephen Fulder from the Clil Community. He replied: “Clil? Ah, that’s in northern Israel. That’s where they meditate.” It was the first time in 24 years of visits that an immigration officer had heard of Clil. He promptly stamped my passport.
Tovana’s extremely popular retreats are well organised and run smoothly. The teachers, voluntary management and voluntary staff apply much time, love and energy for the well-being of participants. The retreats start at 5.45 am or so and finishes with a hot drink around 21.30. The retreats embrace a wide spectrum of Jewish Israeli society. (Average age of meditation centres in the Anglo-American world may be 50 years or older. Owing to the high cost of the daily rate, these retreats rely upon those with a disposable income, such as people on good salaries or significant pensions. A week long retreat at Spirit Rock costs between $700 and $1100 with a number of scholarships available, plus donations for the teachers). Tovana offers its retreats on a donation basis enabling many young people on low income from their late teens into their 20s and 30s and older to participate.
Israelis certainly come to retreats with a range of personal issues. Over the years, some have come straight out of uniform following an IDF invasion of the Lebanon, Gaza or confrontation with Palestinian youths in the Occupied Territories. Others join the retreat to escape the intensity of family life. They may find themselves unable to cope with the demands and pressures of certain close family members, husband, wife or partner.
I had to request some years ago that family issues for retreatants had to be limited to every other enquiry in the Dharma hall. In these enquiries, a participant sits next to me in the front of the hall. In a small and severely overcrowded country, Israelis tell me regularly that they feel they can never get away from family tensions. They look with envy at the European Union where people can move freely from one country to another or go to live at the other end of the country to their parents or demanding relatives.
At the beginning of every retreat, without exception, the Dharma teacher will give an outline of ethics. The common denominator of ethics expresses itself as the practice and training to treat others as one wishes to be treated. Most people in the Buddha Dharma tradition know full well that the first ethical responsibility is to undertake the practice and training not to engage in the killing or support for the killing of others. The second precept consists of the undertaking not to take that which has not been given.
Both these precepts have a specific significance in Israel. All young Israeli men and women enter the army for a three-year period from the age of 18 to 21. Most are taught how to kill. Those who refuse to join the army (‘refuseniks’) may well find themselves in prison. Their refusal becomes a black mark on the CV when pursuing a job. The second precept includes not taking that which has not been given. Both precepts respect the rights of others to life, to land and property. The expansion of a greater Israel and 600,000 settlers on Palestinian land reveals a disregard for the second precept. Religious and Zionists, plus those who simply want government housing subsidies, live on land taken from the Palestinians.
To their credit, some Israelis reflect during the retreat on the deep significance of these two ethics. They apply their understanding regardless of their country’s acts of war or land grabs. They leave the retreat knowing they can no longer support the military operations upon Palestine or taking of their land to expand the state of Israel. It has to be said though that many meditators might regard the first two precepts as belonging to the confinement of the retreat. They might feel reluctant on the retreat to kill insects or use somebody else’s toothpaste in the bathroom if it is not been offered.
It is easy to subscribe to such ethics in the supportive environment of a retreat with the agreement of the collective, namely the Sangha. One has to be fearless in Israel to speak up for such ethics in the face of hostility and negativity including the duress of rejection and ridicule for upholding non-violent principles.
I believe it is necessary to bring a spiritual and ethical perspective to the priorities and actions of our institutions and any corrupt influence of these institutions upon its citizens. Some Israelis show integrity through a quiet determination to speak up when confronted with individuals or groups who heap blame and responsibility upon the Palestinians and the Arab world in general for the circumstances and realities of Jewish Israelis.
Mindfulness of Inner and Outer Circumstances
In the two weeks of teaching the retreats in September, 2015, with around 160 in total or more including yogis and staff, I did not hear the word ‘Arab’ or ‘Palestinian’ mentioned on a single occasion by anybody, including group meetings, one-to-one meetings, enquiry or questions in the hall. A large number of Israelis on retreats, and probably outside as well, have expelled the language of Arab and Palestinian to the periphery of consciousness, thus inducing a kind of collective amnesia.
Jewish Israelis used to speak of their anguish and anger about the conflict or about the state of the country. The situation has gradually deteriorated; the tensions have not gone away, but many seem to have fallen silent, especially after the August, 2014 invasion of the city of Gaza. Many more minds seem to have become numb with such painful accounts of what happened to the people in Gaza. People try to protect themselves from their distress through a kind of self-anaesthetic. This numbness enables the government to lay constant siege upon Gaza, known worldwide as the world’s biggest prison. The government keeps on punishing the Palestinians year after year while young Palestinians keep throwing stones at armoured vehicles, launching home- made rockets and a handful attack individual Israelis.
Tovana offers teachings on mindfulness recognising its significance in the body of the teachings including an exploration of ethics, deep meditation, conditionality, expansive heart, identity and emptiness. The current psychological industry of mindfulness has defined mindfulness as being in the present moment in a non-judgemental way. The definition ties mindfulness down to what we can see, hear, smell, taste or touch in this moment.
This narrow definition has set a limit on the expansive application that the Buddha’s gave to mindfulness to address suffering whether close at hand or far afield. Once we become truly mindful of suffering, personal, social or institutional, we can start the process to take action to apply skilful ways to end suffering. We apply mindfulness in the first instance to problematic situations with a view to making a wise judgement as a step toward action.
I find on retreats and public meetings that one has a duty, a spiritual obligation, to include reference to conflict, violence and war to remind Dharma practitioners that ethics, deep human values and support for the welfare of life matter far more than the vested interests of the nation state. Israelis know my commitment to the deep welfare of Israel. I come every year regardless of wars, an intifada or suicidal terrorists. I refuse to let such events determined what I do and where I go.
I employ the two hands of Dharma. One hand offers love, friendship and as much support for Israelis as I can dig out of my being. While, on the other hand, I express concern and criticise those institutions for any violence in their attitudes. The violence of these institutions often results in the withdrawal in the public arena into a shell rather than action for spiritual change. The Buddha also applied love and criticism in equal measure to the issues of his time.
The Buddha made it clear on various occasions that mindfulness belongs to both the inner and the outer. The inner work must not become a withdrawal from the outer, from the external world. There is a tendency in the Buddhist world, and it shows itself in Israel too, for some exclusion of major issues from the spiritual life. A retreat serves as an appropriate environment for spiritual enquiry but certainly does not mean that the long shadow of party politics should cast itself over the retreat.
I find I walk a fine line between exclusion of any reference to what might be called political discourse or to an inclusion that spells a proliferation of views and opinions. Wise communication includes time, place and subject matter. Those Israeli dedicated to the resolution of conflict have an important role in the evolution of their country. Their voices can change the status quo of Israel, which has dominated Israel since the birth of the State.
Vegetarians and Vegans in the Middle East
The West has much to learn from the healthy diet of the Middle East. The vegetarian food in Western Buddhist centres is often quite heavy, such as nut roast, lasagne and vegetarian casseroles. Many Arabs and Israelis prefer ‘sattvic’ food, a Sanskrit word for fresh, seasonal and locally grown produce. Sattvic food is easy to digest, healthy, pure and full of goodness. Yogis of India eat such food rather than rajasic (hot and spicy) food or tamasic (animal products, junk food, processed food and any food that dulls consciousness and the senses)
On retreats in Israel, you will see a table of sattvic foods. Such food includes plates of tomatoes, cucumber, aubergine, beans, and peppers. You will often find such food at breakfast, as well as dinner, along with rice cakes, pitta bread, soya milk, almond milk and porridge. There is a minimal amount of dairy products. Meals on retreats include rice, hummus, tahini, olives, olive oil, falafels and a wide variety of salads and fruits. Such food is eminently suitable for meditators since it digests easily and quickly.
Not surprisingly, Arabs and Jewish Israelis are not suffering from an epidemic of obesity. Many Arab and Jewish women in society remain slim and very beautiful over decades. There are signs of a poor diet and lack of exercise among orthodox and Hassidic Jews with weight issues, dull skin and the need to wear glasses, due to years of long hours of daily study. Dressed in East European clothing from the early 20th century and before, some Hasidic Jews attend yoga classes.
A survey in Haaretz newspaper, said that 11% of Arab Israelis are vegetarian while 6% are vegan and Jewish Israelis are 7% vegetarian and 3% vegan. These are the highest percentages in the world outside India. Overweight Westerners, meat eaters, Western vegetarians and vegans can develop much inspiration and insight from the Arab and Jewish community about a nutritious and non-fattening diet which simultaneously gives protection and support to animals, birds and fish.
Although often bogged down in religious and political fundamentalism, stress and anxiety, Israel has numerous bright, caring and intelligent people who know their people seems lost yet again in the desert. Are the Jewish people still searching for the Promised Land, even though it is beneath their feet?
A deep sense of security will be found when Jews and non-Jews alike share all the land as equal partners. The people of Israel and Palestine will then experience peace of mind through living side by side with each other, either as one state or two states.
May all beings live in peace
May all beings live in harmony
May all beings live in peace and harmony
Part One of Two