Winter Retreat, Wahat al-Salam, Neve Shalom 2019
By Efrat Ben-Yehuda Levin in October 2021
I was like a busy ant that had been carrying her grains of wheat. During the retreat in Israel two years ago, I saw the heap of grains I had accumulated. The diligent practice of years seeped through and penetrated my existence. In that retreat, I found the capacity to receive the abundance provided by the teachers and the Sangha. To be receptive, I had to be present with open arms and a willing heart.
It hadn’t always been like this. In the past, my mind would be caught up in background noises, people, sensations, emotions, and thoughts. Again and again, I would bring back my awareness to the here and now—to the Dharma talk, the mindful walking, the mindful eating, and the silent meditation—but frightened consciousness would keep searching, finding, and interpreting
anything that came its way.
My habit of interpreting everything that caught my eye made me restless, leading me to judge myself and waste the energy of others around me. It was a recurring habit: the consciousness would run away, and I would take myself by the hand and seat myself down quietly. “Now concentrate,” I would request. The
consciousness, like a good child, would obey and sit still for a few minutes. But then it would jump up at the sight of some new object. This process left me dizzy; quiet came and went and never settled. I would accept all that dizziness with the understanding that it was part of the process.
However, at that retreat, I found myself arm in arm with my consciousness, strolling together, filled with ease. The consciousness was calm, more attentive, and less meddling with its surroundings. Consciousness sat in my lap; I sat in the lap of the here and the now, willingly receiving the abundance of mindful-
ness generated by the Sangha.
I liked that retreat from the first moment. The retreat seemed like a precious gift because it depended completely on our Sangha—on the best of the fruits available among us in Israel. There was humility and acceptance and joy. We had among us such an abundance of resources, people, and experiences. Our three teachers—Shelagh, Rachel, and Baruch—connected with each other, and their connection made me very happy. I felt that their presence as the retreat’s teachers helped our Sangha grow. Thanks to our teachers stepping forward, we all grew together. I felt glad to see our Sangha’s interconnectedness.
The teachers’ connection, cooperation, and mutual appreciation impressed me deeply; I was moved by their heart-revealing openness in the Dharma talks. Their honesty captured my heart. I felt as if the moment they delivered the Dharma talk was a foundational moment for them—the culmination of the long path they had walked, each separately and all together. They shared the experience of their past relationship and the journey they had travelled. This could never have happened before the retreat. It could happen only after their own growth as teachers and the Sangha’s growth as a whole. I think it was a bit like seeing a mother and father—two mothers and father, in this case—doing something they had never done before that made the children happy. The
children were happy for themselves and for the parents, partaking in the joy of home and the family.
Bringing Worlds Together
I came to the retreat with Amir, my partner. We invited our children—Noa and Talia, who are in the army, and our fifteen-year-old Yoav—to join us. Taking the children to the retreat brought my worlds together: the world of the family, which is the heart and center of my life, and the world of the practice and the path, which have become a part of my DNA. Before the retreat, these two worlds were separate from one another. They had converged here and there, but at home when I spoke about the practice, I avoided preaching and sharing. I waited for the children to ask, for it to come from them. The desire to transmit the love of the practice to everyone can be risky, like tightrope walking. I am careful not to burden anyone and not to impose detailed accounts on uninterested ears. When we invited the children to join us, Yoav said, “Enjoy your sangha-bangha,” and Noa and Talia accepted.
From that moment on, I felt happiness, excitement, and apprehension. I felt like a teenage girl about to introduce her boyfriend to her parents. I wondered what the girls would say about the Sangha. Would they connect? Would they like it? Or perhaps they would feel alienated and remain critical adolescents. The girls arrived a day late, while the Sangha was keeping noble silence. I came into our room to meet them and found them laughing, chatting away, and busy with their own affairs. I told them we were keeping noble (neezelet) silence. Talia made a pun and said enforced (neelezet) silence, and we all laughed. I left them for the next activity, and saw anger, hope, excitement, and expectation within me. How I wished for them to be inspired by the Dharma and to fly with the
practice; how I wished for them to benefit!
At that moment I said to myself, “That’s enough; now let go. They came here because they wanted to come. Each will take her own way and make her own choice, whether to participate or be a cynical spectator. I’m not responsible for this, and I have no control; just be happy that they’ve come.” I decided to give
up noble silence. Throughout their stay, a spirit of laughter and conversation prevailed. I went along with the girls’ need to experience the retreat and familial togetherness in the way that suited them. I remembered my first retreat, how strange it had been, how different, intriguing, stimulating. The children had a good time. They enjoyed themselves and took many memories for the road
ahead. As a family we had a unique and new experience. As I had expected, the Sangha’s encouragement and love for the girls were moving. The generosity filled me with gratitude.
Touching a Key to Freedom
The Dharma talks addressed the three keys to freedom: emptiness, signlessness, and aimlessness. The learning process was tricky, but I didn’t judge myself. Thay said that the Dharma is like rain; we can let it penetrate deeply into our consciousness, watering the seeds of wisdom and compassion that are already
there. We can be like the earth receiving a refreshing spring rain. It is a process. The process is not one of learning by heart; it is learning with the heart. Emptiness is the interdependence among us, all the created beings that exist in this world.
Everything is empty of itself, and is made of an infinite number of elements and parts of the whole universe. Signlessness leads to the absence of signs. The nature of the cloud is the nature of no-birth and no-death. We imagine there is birth and death. When were we born? When the egg and the sperm came together? When our parents met each other? When our grandfathers and grandmothers married? And when will we die? We continue in our children, in our grandchildren, in all of creation.
Aimlessness does not mean apathy or indifference, or the absence of desire and aspirations. To be aimless means to be ourselves, who we really are and not what we should be, what is expected of us, or what is “right.” It means to find our true nature and be in it, and to be ourselves in the moment instead of imposing
the “should” and the “right.”
At the end of Shelagh’s last Dharma talk, I felt how the three keys to freedom were interrelated: connected, complementary, and becoming one key. And to reach out for that key is the way to go: one step, then another step, then another. Sometimes along the way, we touch the key; sometimes we go back and then touch it again, like allowing rain to penetrate our consciousness, allowing the seeds of wisdom to flower from within. Some seeds will stay, some will go away, and some will manifest later. Not to wish it all now at this moment to be mine: this is the way.