For some, it is the sky and the stars, the mountains and the sea, the land and flowing rivers that are the ground of faith. For others it is different.
Below is an account of a man who demonstrated his deep faith under severe circumstances. Of course, the question comes to mind, ‘would I be able to do as he did’? Chances are, and I sincerely hope this is the case, none of us will face such a test. All the same, it seems good to reflect on what ‘faith’ means personally. One need not be under extreme duress to exercise faith though. And since ‘renewal’ is the theme of the moment, I would say faith/trust is at the heart of meditation, on and off the cushion, yet there is not an ‘object’ of faith to grasp. It does however have to be exercised, moment to moment. Oh, and we have a religious tradition rich with symbolism to draw on if that is helpful in keeping ones ‘ground of faith’, ever-present.
A Buddha image
a candle flickering
the night sky?
The story of Judah Wallis
While he was in Dachau, a Jew who was being taken to his death suddenly flung a small bag at my father, Judah Wallis. He caught it, thinking it might contain a piece of bread. Upon opening it, however, he was disturbed to discover a pair of tefillin. Judah was very frightened because he knew that were he to be caught carrying tefillin, he would be put to death instantly. So he hid the tefillin under his shirt and headed for his bunkhouse.
In the morning, just before the appel [roll call], while still in his bunkhouse, he put on the tefillin. Unexpectedly, a German officer appeared. He ordered him to remove the tefillin, noted the number on Judah’s arm. At the appel, in front of thousands of silent Jews, the officer called out Judah’s number and he had no choice but to step forward. The German officer waved the tefillin in the air and said, “Dog! I sentence you to death by public hanging for wearing these.”
Judah was placed on a stool and a noose was placed around his neck. Before he was hanged, the officer said in a mocking tone, “Dog, what is your last wish?”
“To wear my tefillin one last time,” Judah replied.
“The officer was dumbfounded. He handed Judah the tefillin. As Judah put them on, he recited the verse that is said while the tefillin are being wound around the fingers: “Ve’eirastich li le’olam, ve’eirastich li b’tzedek uvemishpat, ub’chessed, uv’rachamim, ve’eirastich li b’emunah, v’yodaat es Hashem – I will betroth you to me forever and I will betroth you to me with righteousness and with justice and with kindness and with mercy and I will betroth you to me with fidelity, and you shall know G-d.”
It is hard for us to picture this Jew with a noose around his neck, wearing tefillin on his head and arm – but that was the scene that the entire camp was forced to watch, as they awaited the impending hanging of the Jew who had dared to break the rule against wearing tefillin.
Even women from the adjoining camp were lined up at the barbed wire fence that separated them from the men’s camp, forced to watch this horrible sight.
As Judah turned to watch the silent crowd, he saw tears in many people’s eyes. Even at that moment, as he was about to be hanged, he was shocked. Jews were crying! How was it possible that they still had tears left to shed? And for a stranger? Where were those tears coming from? Impulsively, in Yiddish, he called out, “Yidden, I am the victor. Don’t you understand, I am the winner!”
The German officer understood Yiddish and was infuriated. He said to Judah, “You dog, you think you are the winner? Hanging is too good for you. You are going to get another kind of death.”
“Judah, my father, was taken from the stool and the noose was removed from his neck. He was forced into a squatting position and two huge rocks were placed under his arms. Then he was told that he would be receiving 25 lashes to his head – the head on which he had dared to position his tefillin. The officer told him that if he dropped even one of the rocks, he would be shot immediately. In fact, because this was such an extremely painful form of death, the officer advised him, “Drop the rocks now. You will never survive the 25 lashes to the head. Nobody ever does.”
Judah’s response was, “No, I won’t give you the pleasure.”
At the 25th lash, Judah lost consciousness and was left for dead. He was about to be dragged to a pile of corpses, after which he would have been burned in a ditch, when another Jew saw him, shoved him to the side, and covered his head with a rag so people didn’t realize he was alive. Eventually, after he recovered consciousness fully, he crawled to the nearest bunkhouse that was on raised piles and hid under it until he was strong enough to come out under his own power. Two months later he was liberated.
During the hanging and beating episode, a 17-year-old girl had been watching the events from the women’s side of the fence. After liberation, she made her way to Judah. She walked over to him and said, “I’ve lost everyone. I don’t want to be alone any more. I saw what you did that day when the officer wanted to hang you. Will you marry me?”
My parents walked over to the Klausenberger Rebbe and requested that he perform the marriage ceremony. The Klausenberger Rebbe, whose Kiddush Hashem is legendary, wrote out a kesubah [marriage contract] by hand from memory and married the couple. I have that handwritten kesubahin in my possession to this day.
~~ Rabbi Yosef Wallis
Copied from Max Edelkopf (via Mordechai Makor).
Hat tip to Sophia, dear woman, who first published this and who kindly sent the text to me this evening to republish.
I feel it in my bones
could be wrong
might be right
hope I am not.
are with us
and are gone
So fast, too soon.
The extract below is from a blog post in The Dish published back in 2013. You will see an outpour of emotion in response to the post from those who loved and lost, their beloved, their animal companion.
I held my hand on his heart, felt the last beats. Later, I called my elderly parents. My dad, no dog lover, said Mom was fairly lucid, which hadn’t been true for months. She knew who I was and asked how things were going. I told her about Wally and she said, “These animals with their short lives teach us so much about death.” The Last Lesson We Learn From Our Pets, The Dish
This is for all those who have loved and lost an animal companion or struggling now with a failing four footed friend. Lest we forget reptiles and birds are wonderful companions too.
Here is a bit of a ‘change of pace’ in terms of posts on Jade and I hope you will find it of interest. Diane Sellers, the author did a presentation online recently talking about her work with children who have speech difficulties. Below are her notes for that talk kindly edited for publication. I find it absolutely facinating in itself in terms of helping children to make their speech clear and fluent. Then there are the paralels she draws between her professonal work and her long time meditation practice with the order I’m associated with.
I want to focus on an area of my work as a speech and language therapist and draw some parallels with my experience of the unfolding process of learning meditation.
I work with children who are not able to use the full range of body movements that most of us take for granted. Some of these children have profound disabilities, affecting all aspects of function, including walking, talking, sitting, eating, drinking and swallowing. Others have more subtle limitations to movement, affecting speech and facial expressions. In this article, I want to focus on speech, in particular, where movements do not develop as expected. As part of the process of learning new movements for speech, there is sometimes a need to unlearn habits developed in infancy and early childhood. These habits are often “hidden” from the child, outside of their awareness or conscious knowledge. I wanted to use this process of unlearning hidden movement habits used to develop speech, in order to reflect on some of my experiences of unlearning hidden habits of meditation and Buddhist practice.
Speech is developed in early infancy and childhood when we have limited awareness of what we are doing. We combine information from our senses to learn new movements of our lips, tongue, soft palate, cheeks, jaw, throat, breathing linked to individual sounds, and combinations of sounds to create words that have meaning. We create these habits effortlessly for the most part through play, a variety of sensory feedback mechanisms which integrate a whole mix of factors into skilled meaningful movement. Speech is the outward manifestation of our thoughts, ideas and feelings that we use to communicate with others. Many of us have virtually no awareness of the habitual movements that we make when speaking; we may be more aware of them when speaking front of others where muscle / mental tension interferes with usually effortless habits. Dental anaesthetic can also remove a vital part of the sensory feedback process for skilled movements of the mouth.
Some children lay down some habitual movement patterns in early childhood which limit the development of clear speech later in life. In spite of the children’s best efforts and the best efforts of their parents, therapists, teachers and friends, it is impossible for them to learn the required movement patterns for intelligible or typically used speech. They are faced with the need to embrace these slightly limited movement patterns and adapt as they move into adulthood. Slightly lispy or unusual speech patterns do not need to impact on someone’s life. However, unintelligible speech will. The impossibility of saying sounds like /k/ or /g/ when your name is Katie Galvin is problematic; if you cannot make the movements to say /ch, j, sh, s/ many people will struggle to get your message. Children become increasingly self-conscious, withdrawn or frustrated or completely give up on the possibility of positive change. It can generate complicated layers of muscle tension and new habits which get pulled through with effort required to speak and “do” speech therapy.
I am fortunate to work with a team who can support the unlearning of these hidden habits in order to free the child to develop new speech movement patterns and new habits. It is called the Dental Palatal Training therapy clinic. We use specially designed acrylic braces for each individual to support this learning, a bit like the ones some of us wore when we were children to straighten misaligned teeth. On the plate are specific ridges, bumps and channels to prompt new speech movements through exploration. We do not use them to move teeth. The plates are only used to introduce novel sensory stimuli in the roof of the mouth which the tongue will explore using movement, without much conscious thought by the child.
Here is an example of one of these palatal training therapy devices:
Dental Palatal Training Therapy
There is a particular sequence of events that we use to bring about change to speech movements for the most part by unlearning hidden habits. Step 1: The child and family consult with someone who knows what tongue, lip and soft palate movements you need to make in order to produce the desired speech sounds. The speech and language therapist works with an orthodontist, special care dentistry nurse and dental technician to produce a bespoke brace for each child.
Step 2: The new palatal training appliance is designed to introduce a new kinaesthetic feedback mechanism that disrupts business as usual; it alters the sensations in the mouth to produce new tongue movements; these movements are the ones required to produce the speech sounds that the child finds impossible to make with deliberate conscious effort.
Step3: We recommend routine use of the training appliance to disrupt “business as usual”; each child has a slightly different programme but they build up wear time to at least 1 hour a day, and sometimes more.
Step 4: The instruction is not to “do” anything in particular other than wear it and play with the new sensations in the mouth using the tongue. Often if the child is asked to target the desired speech sound, deliberate habitual action leads to production of exactly the same habits as before with no progress. We are aiming for effortless effort, unlearning of old movement habits, without conscious intellectual control.
Step 5: Slowly new speech patterns emerge with daily wear of the training appliance; it can be challenging for some children to remember how they used to make the old sound; some children do not even notice that new movements for speech sounds have become established.
Step 6: Sometimes children object to the process of focussing on speech, taking impressions, and engaging with a team of new people. The body / mind process of fight, flight or freeze may be triggered for some children. We work slowly with children and their different mental / physical states in order to take dental impressions, introduce daily wearing of the training appliance and comply with new routines.
Step 7: It is helpful if children want to change their speech habits themselves, although young children are often willing to go in the direction their parents point them. Young people are in charge of the decisions made about treatment. We emphasise that we do not need to understand why particular habits have evolved. Instead, we focus on figuring out a way to move forward. Meditation and Buddhist Practice
In reflecting upon the process of learning to meditate, I am aware that there are parallels with the process of learning new movements for speech. In order to move with effortless effort, we sometimes have to unlearn hidden body/mind habits that limit us.
Step 1: For many of us, the first step is to talk with someone you trust who is experienced and can offer meditation instruction and guidance of Buddhist teachings.
Step 2: Meditation is both a new feedback mechanism for body/mind and a disruption to business as usual. Meditation invites us to notice body/mind and cultivate stillness to support ever-deepening awareness. There is a movement of attention within.
Step 3: Routine daily use of meditation is recommended, alongside development of understanding and practice of Preceptual truth, with other teachings.
Step 4: There is an invitation to move away from “doing”. We are invited to use our body/mind in new ways: new body postures, hand shapes (mudras), bowing, words, chanting, ceremony and offerings. We are introduced to new sensations / kinaesthetic feedback throughout the body/mind – with the direction: “neither trying to think nor trying not to think; just sitting, with no deliberate thought, is the important aspect of serene reflection meditation”. We begin a process of unlearning old habits of body/mind.
Step 5: My experience is that new ways of being emerge with the practice and it is challenging to remember how we used to be. In some ways this is an irrelevant question although it may be commented on by those who know us well. I have experienced relief and a lightness of being at times when old habits fall away.
Step 6: One of the obvious differences between the clinic setting and Buddhist meditation practice is that as adults we are self-propelling. We make decisions based on personal preferences, conventions, social habits and the feeling of being compelled towards what seems to be a better way. As adults, we can set our life paths and we can become impervious to feedback especially if it challenges our Buddhist Practice. Fight or flight responses are part of human nature. I am learning to notice these habitual reflex patterns when stressed. Frustrated and angry responses might arise when I feel challenged although the challenge can be met with strongly worded arguments to support my viewpoint if I choose to do so. I recognise the feeling of the need to take flight, retreat or withdraw when the going gets tough.
Step 7: In our self-propelling state, we can sometimes continue with hidden habits in our Buddhist training that can limit our experiences. Life has a habit of crashing into these limitations, challenging us to find sufficiency.
Part of Buddhist Practice is taking refuge with others, whether you feel like it or not. Over the years, I have come to profoundly value this aspect of training. Reading the words written by others can also be helpful to shed light on some of the hidden body/mind habits that we carry with us. I came across a book called “Unlearning Meditation” by Jason Siff that supported me to free myself from some of my expectations about meditation. In some ways, these expectations are the expression given to mental habits that can get in the way. His writing is gentle and playful and he names some of the frequent mental habits of meditators that really sounded a loud gong for me. I am going to place some brief signposts of particular mental habits that I needed to let go of in order to find greater ease.
Unsurprisingly, but unrecognised by me, I brought Judeo-Christian habits from school/family/cultural background to Buddhist practice. Some of these habits for me have included:
• Doing the “right” thing and following the rules
• Dutiful daily practice
• Making offerings to an externalised divinity
• Delaying gratification for some imagined reward for when I am worthy enough
• Guilt that I was not doing enough or that I was experiencing anger, resentments, stuckness in practice, including falling asleep every time I sat down to meditate.
Other mental habits include societal and psychological dimensions such as:
• Group mind – unwillingness to challenge what everyone else was doing, being compliant, obedient and invisible
• Pursuing a quest of self-improvement in order to realise enlightenment
Many things have supported me to unlearn and let go of some of these habits: Buddhist meditation, taking refuge with my contact monk no matter what I have to bring, making Preceptual Truth central in my life, making use of body/mind feedback mechanisms and training with rather than in spite of those connections. There is a body/mind wisdom that I am discovering which is described in some of the profoundly simple truths of Buddhism.
It is interesting to notice the differences in my mind when I read particular words or teachings. When I first read the words on the back of my lay minister’s small kesa, I was aware of a striving mind, a need to do so much more before I could realise this.
Now, I am moved by the profound simplicity of what they point to:
Trust the Eternal, give up everything
For the jewel is in your open palm