I was privileged in the 1970s to spend some years with Tibetan Lamas – His Holiness the Sixteenth Karmapa and the lamas who worked with him, such as Kalu Rinpoche and Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche. They taught me things that have taken many years to fully understand and integrate into my life.
I took a Bodhisattva Vow, to dedicate my life to the benefit of all sentient beings. I’m not at all perfect in this, and it’s a gradual evolutionary process involving many learning experiences, ins and outs, ups and downs. I’ve been thinking about the Lamas’ influence in my being here in the Middle East – particularly their teaching on loving kindness. It changed me.
Why do I have a pathological need to be involved with conflict zones and victims of circumstance? Sure, I am blessed with a relatively open and compassionate heart, as it goes, and an ability to help people, but this isn’t the sole reason I seek this kind of experience.
There’s something that drives me to do it: it brings me alive. It’s a kind of voluntary self-testing, putting myself on the line, creating problems and issues in my life that are greater than what I’d normally experience, and it hones my soul. But there’s more.
It’s the togetherness. There’s something vulnerable about people in conflict zones which makes them more open to life than people living in comfortable, safe circumstances. This connects with something in me and the hard times I’ve been through.
I used to preoccupy myself with my own problems, earlier in life. When I started getting involved with exile Tibetans, terrorists, Palestinians, the downtrodden and people in crisis with deep psychological issues, it made me aware how insignificant my own problems and questions were.
Scorhill stone circle, Dartmoor, Devon
There was a meditation practice I learned from the Tibetans which, over the years, changed me greatly. This is called Tong-len in Tibetan. It’s very simple. You take a problem of your own and reflect on it for a while, then you open it up to become aware of other people around the world who are experiencing a similar kind of problem themselves. At any moment this can involve hundreds of millions of people – but tuning in to a few representatives of those millions helps greatly too. We humans, when preoccupied with our problems, tend to believe we are alone, that only we are experiencing that issue and that it proves that we are the most useless, low-down, rotten shits in the universe. We get stuck inside our own bubble. No matter how many affirmations we make or how much therapy or meditation we do, nothing entirely removes this lurking feeling, which strikes us when we’re down, lost or in doubt.
But we share this issue with millions of people – it’s ours, together. It’s humanity’s, universal. It’s just that, when we indulge in our problems, it’s we who carry the load of it and do the learning on it. Other people are dealing with other things on our behalf. But the issue here is that, wallowing in our own problems, we feel isolated and it’s difficult to see beyond our own little spheres, to connect up with the collective. No matter how unique our own problem seems to be, there are millions who share it.
Not just that, but many other people have it worse than we – therefore we are in a position to assist not only because we are better off, but we also have specialist knowledge and personal experience in such issues. That can matter. In some cases, some of these people handle it better than we – they have it harder, but they handle it better, and there’s something to learn from that. Or it might be the opposite. Here we come to the nub of my initial question. What Tibetans, Palestinians, Chechens and others have given me is great encouragement and example: I’ve seen them give themselves to the betterment of humanity when they are in really difficult circumstances.
There was a Druze man from the Golan Heights whom I met some years ago. (The Druze are a rather unique Arab ethnic minority with their own faith and philosophy, living in southern Syria, Lebanon and northern Israel.) His family were farmers and his little brother worked as a shepherd minding his family’s flocks. But there was a problem: the sheep kept getting blown up by Israeli landmines – and little brother wanted to save them. So he taught himself to read Hebrew and English and then he studied landmines and how to defuse them. He defused most of the landmines on his family’s land when he was just 12-13-14 years of age. Brilliant, and very brave.
But the Israelis caught him and he was sentenced to 17 years in jail for terrorism – as far as I know he’s still there. His big brother, who attended the trial and organised his legal defence, was enraged at the dubious justice meted out in this case. He was mortally upset at his brother’s sentence. Here was a boy who had shown promise and ingenuity, now paying an enormous price for it.
The big brother told me that he was walking on their family’s land, fuming over what had happened. Then he had a revelation. He realised he could get angry and go and kill an Israeli or two in revenge, landing up dead or jailed, or he could use this experience to motivate himself to work for peace. He chose the latter. When I met him he had been travelling the world working for peace for some years.
This guy left a mark on me. I’ve met a good number of people like this. I find that I play such a role in other people’s lives too, leaving a marker in their psyches, serving as an example. It’s a responsibility and a challenge and it’s not always pleasant or easy, but it has to be done, and if I don’t do it there are few people willing to take over.
Palestinians have taught me so much through their openness, frankness, generosity and integrity. Being amongst them helps me raise my standards, to match them. Yet during this present trip, they’ve also been showing me their weaknesses and failings – or perhaps I’ve become ready to see them. Or perhaps it is because it is now wintertime. In one sense Palestinians are open, solid and cooperative with one another, but in another sense they do a lot of back-biting, complaining, divisive thinking and doubting in each other, and they can be self- and mutually-betraying too.
I understand this: they are genuinely affected by their circumstances. Most cannot come with me to Sinai to sit by the sea and reflect on things as I am doing now. At times they fall down and feel oppressed by their situations. One of my roles in their lives is to be there for them, to serve as a frame of reference, a human battery to give a jump-start and an occasional bringer of solutions, or a listening ear. I came here with other plans as my priority but I find that, during this trip, this human input has been the main gift I can bring.
Yet it’s an exchange, an interchange. I am learning and gaining so much as well as giving and sharing, and something new is emerging in me. I’m not sure exactly what that is yet, but I can feel it. Something is becoming healed and resolved. Life is reflecting this back to me in the people and situations I meet. The best barometer I have is at border controls, where I am summarily judged on my worth and motivation – and thus far it has worked every time.
Strangely, in conflict zones I generally feel I’m in the right place at the right time, doing the right thing – even during difficult times. I’m where I’m supposed to be. This is a privileged feeling: it is my choice, yet I feel honoured, as if being given a great gift. It’s the gift of being able to participate in the lives of people living life at the deep end. These aren’t just people who think they have a problem – they do have a genuine problem, and they know they must solve it, or at least survive, no matter how long it takes.
In their occasional moments of insight and grace, Palestinians know that somehow, sometime, they will solve the problem they have as a nation, as a people. They know they are strangely blessed by their situation. Even the darkness of night has its blessings. Part of them struggles to have a monopoly franchise on human hardship, but another part knows that other people suffer too – even the rich and comfortable – and that they are in a position to help.
I would love to bring my father here. He’s 94 [at the time of writing, and he died in 2015], and he was born in World War One. He wouldn’t be able to get here – it’s too rigorous, too far – but he would love the atmosphere, delighting in the honour people here bestow upon old people, and enjoying the depth of interaction that Palestinians have with each other. I wish I could share this with my son and daughters too, and with many friends. The only danger they would encounter is that of having their lives changed – which, to some, can be daunting, frightening. It’s changing my life, for sure, and I am grateful.
But then, I am experiencing this on others’ behalf, just as you are experiencing your life on my and others’ behalf. For we are not as separate as we are conditioned to feel. We aren’t locked into individuality as much as we believe. We are the eyes, ears and hands of a Greater Existence that is playing a much larger chess game than we are aware of.
Conflict and disaster zones are frontlines of human experience where humans get presented with challenges far greater than most of us do – sometimes far greater than they deserve. To me, it is a comfortable arrogance to look on this as other people’s karma or even something of their creating. On some level, we all live our lives on behalf of each other, but those at the frontline are doing an extra favour to their fellow humans. We should thank them. This is true international aid. They carry the world’s shadows on their shoulders.
There will always be a variety and inequality in human experience, but in modern times we have become dissociated from one another emotionally and psychically. Rich and poor, blessed and oppressed have lost contact with one another, and the psyche of humanity has thus become sundered. We have lost touch with each other and with nature and the cosmos, isolated in ourselves and our sub-groups.
Through travel, media and the Internet we’re going through a reconnection process – our inherent psychic unity is gradually being reconstructed. This is a collective emotional process, yet to emerge fully. It’s an opening of hearts to our fellow humans, to justice and fairness for all. It was this impulse that fired up the Arab revolutions in 2011 – justice and fairness for all.
The more I grow my emotional connections with other people, the more my own individuality clarifies and finds its real purpose. It isn’t a loss of individuality, it’s a flowering of it. I will never become a Palestinian, yet, as I identify and work with them, I rediscover my Britishness and the meaning behind the specific experiences I’ve gathered throughout life. This way, I redeem and transform my pain and correct my errors.
It is ego that creates pride, and it is pride that makes ego. In the universe there is no difference, but upon planet Earth they create a difference. We will attempt to explain: if you do not ask for help, it is your pride and your independence that keep you from asking, is this not so? It is also your ego, saying ‘I am independent and I need no one’, is that not so? It is one and the same.
It is necessary to have ego for existence, but remember that there is the negative ego, as there is the positive ego. Ego must be in balance: it is pride that takes the ego out of balance.
It is necessary to have ego: it is of spirit. It is when the ego becomes a pride-filled thing that it becomes a problem. And if the ego becomes limp and like a dish rag, permitting itself to be stamped into the ground, then that is not good either.