We love hanging out in Heathrow Airport. Especially Terminal 5, for a lot of reasons. It’s the snazziest, most interesting terminal, for one. But walking around or hanging out with a coffee and some wifi, you feel like the whole world has come to this one place, to swirl around you for a few minutes before moving on. People in Heathrow are mundane, familiar, strange and surprising. You get it all. Travelers from everywhere, all headed somewhere.
It’s easy to forget that you aren’t just an observer. You’re a card-carrying member of the swirl, coming from somewhere, pausing briefly on your way to elsewhere. We were of course headed to Ukraine. You already know that from our last post. But our Ukrainian story really began with an event at Heathrow, so we’ll rewind just a bit.
Waiting for the baggage check to open for our flight.
Traffic in London is terrible. We left Cambridge at 3:30 in the morning to arrive in time for an 8:30 am departure. We didn’t want to risk missing our flight because of some kerfuffle on the motorway. So we were there hours before we were supposed to board. But as I said, we love Terminal 5. As we waited for our departure gate to be displayed, we walked around the terminal with coffees in hand. We were a little nervous with anticipation. Ukraine is in the news a lot these days. What would it be like? A few years ago, Russians shot down a commercial airplane flying over eastern Ukraine. Officially, the country remains in a state of war. We didn’t know what to expect because it is difficult to obtain truthful information or news from the Internet nowadays.
While grabbing some breakfast, we chatted about what we thought we might see in Ukraine. A group of Hasidic (orthodox) Jews passed by. Some had thick Brooklyn accents, others spoke Hebrew and some in Yiddish. They wore prayer shawls (tallit) with the tassels known as tzitzit. Some wore Kittel (a knee-length cotton robe), and they all wore head coverings that ranged from simple kippah or yarmulke to very large hats of varying sorts. The site of Orthodox Jews wasn’t remarkable, except that there were just so many of them. Several large groups were wandering the terminal. Some gathered in conversation, some began morning prayers, others appeared to congregate in one corner of a particular gate that had no flight originating from it. Their numbers grew as the hours slid by. The oddest thing was there were no women or girls with them. We watched in quiet curiosity.
When our departure gate was finally posted, we made our way over. We could hear the sound of loud prayer coming from around a corner near the Pret-a-Manger. As we got to our gate, there were dozens of Haredi men and boys milling around, holding aloft prayer books while they bobbed back and forth in prayer. At first we thought they were just looking for a place to pray. But here at our departure gate we realized they were all going to Ukraine. From the expressions on the faces of airport personnel, this was not a usual spectacle for Heathrow. It was a large, loud and interesting display of religious devotion.
By their accents, it was easy to hear they were from all over the world. As we boarded our plane, nearly every passenger on this flight was male and Haredi. Maybe a quarter of the plane was not part of this group. It took an extra 45 minutes to get all the hats, and prayer books, shawls and other religious paraphernalia organized and packed away in the overhead compartments. Finally sitting in our seats preparing for late take off, one older man took out a small animal horn and blared out a long blast. Then several stood up and turned to lead others in song-like prayer, bobbing back and forth. They were asked politely to take their seats. Seated, they now continued with their prayers.
After take-off, passengers usually can’t wait for the pilot to turn off the seatbelt sign so they can visit the bathroom. On this plane, the flight of the holy, our faithful companions were waiting to blow the horn, stand up and pray some more. Most were content to pray while seated, though. The horn blowing and seeming constant need to pray fired up our curiosity. One particularly keen man was standing in the aisle, inspiring others in prayer by his religious gusto. He was unmoved by the fact he was on a plane at thirty thousand feet and was kind of in the way of the flight crew, who had to squeeze past him every time. Finally, one of the other passengers drummed up the courage to ask him what was going on. He said this was a special, auspicious flight. It was Yom Kippur. It turns out there is a gathering each year of orthodox Jewish faithful in a small city a few hours outside of Kiev for the High Holiday of Yom Kippur. Because this was the last flight into Ukraine of devotees before the holiday began, these men attached special significance to the flight. Karen and I couldn’t help but wonder if things might have gone a bit differently if these men and boys hadn’t been Jewish but something else. What if they had been orthodox Muslims? We wondered if the polite curiosity we witnessed among airport staff and passengers would instead have been fear and concern?
A few hours later, this fascinating event then struck me as significant for another reason. The passenger seated next to me was a young man traveling for the first time from America. He was very young, maybe 20. He was with a few other youthy companions, one of whom was actually Canadian. They were Mormons headed to Ukraine for six months of mission work. Karen and I of course were headed to Kiev on our own spiritual kind of business, to volunteer on two ten-day silent meditation retreats. It seemed this was indeed a special flight. Nearly everyone on the plane was going to Ukraine, not as tourists or business travelers, but as pilgrims, or missionaries or meditators. We hadn’t expected that.
Every time we serve on a Vipassana meditation retreat, we are struck by just how much we all share in common as human beings. We’ve volunteered on these courses in several countries, in Asia, Europe and Canada. We always feel so fortunate to be able to do this. Despite the challenges of language and culture, the best part of service is the opportunity to encounter real, average, ordinary everyday people. The thing that unites all of us is the suffering we each feel and our desire to find peace and happiness. Meditation being the tool that can help us find happiness inside, by helping us to find the cause of this universal dissatisfaction.
Photo taken with several of the participants at the end of one of the courses we volunteered on in Indian in 2007
Suffering is the same everywhere, but the object driving it is often different. I don’t mean that we’re all literally depressed and in pain, though some of us certainly are at various points in life. But the truth of it is this: to be alive is to experience some level of dissatisfaction with the way things are. Always, no matter what is happening in the present moment, somewhere in our mind is a wish for things to be different. To be human is to know unhappiness when things don’t go our way or when we experience the true pain of tragedy or illness or loss of a loved one. We seek only pleasant things in our life, when intellectually we know that’s impossible to achieve. Each of us knows the unpleasantness of longing for something that is not within our power to make happen or otherwise obtain.
We made the decision several months ago to come to Ukraine to serve these two meditation retreats. We did it for a couple of reasons, among them the fact there is no official Vipassana centre here, so the courses are organized by dedicated volunteers and conducted at rented camp facilities. The challenges are greater and there is often a shortage of resources in places that don’t yet have a permanent centre. We felt we would be most helpful by volunteering here instead of somewhere else. That is what drove our decision, but what has been more unexpected for us was how grateful we are that we had the opportunity to do this. We both definitely feel we learned something and developed in our own practice by being here. We end our service here feeling inspired by the people we met and worked with.
Meditators walking to the dinning hall to help clean up on the last day of the last course of the season
It’s easy to forget what we take for granted in Canada. People who sit a course in Canada find a 10-day Vipassana retreat an intense and difficult and personally uncomfortable experience. We sit in a carefully controlled environment, dim and quiet. Sophisticated HVAC systems keep the ambient temperature at our Ontario centre at an even 22°C. There are cushions and mats and blankets, back supports, benches and chairs. Here in Ukraine, just like in other places where courses are run out of temporary sites, the facilities are basic. The retreats here in Ukraine are held at a Soviet-era children’s camp, complete with aging swingsets and playground monkey bars, overgrown parade ground and football field. The resident capacity is several hundred, something that was made obvious by visiting the vintage-looking industrial-size kitchen. The retreat capacity is kept to about 170 people, so to heat the entire camp is prohibitively expensive for our purposes. If students didn’t heed advice to bring cushions and blankets, they faced the hard floor beneath a thin yoga mat. There is no heat in the residence or the meditation hall. The only environmental controls involve opening one window. The place is quite old, so doors and floors and windows all creak and squeak and slam. This is not a quiet place.
None of the material discomfort of this temporary camp was particularly surprising. Everywhere Vipassana retreats are held in similar circumstances before a proper centre can be developed. But the noise of squeaky floors and creaky doors is nothing compared to the near-constant sound of automatic gunfire and helicopter traffic from the military base a couple of kilometers away. We spent one night trying to sleep while the ground shook beneath our cabin as loud explosions went on for several hours; we assume it was some sort of bomb testing or live-fire exercise. It was a chilling reminder of the realities facing a country at war.
There was one resident here at the camp who was not registered as a student. She never applied though the regular process and was never given permission to attend. But she came anyway. She arrived a while ago and no one has been able to convince her to leave. She was the most troublesome participant we had. She’s quiet and tiny and hard to see, so she was able to slip into the residence at night and find a bed. A few times she even made it into the hall and would have been missed if we hadn’t counted all the students. There a few students who shared their meals with her. In fact, Karen kept finding little piles of lunch left for her in various places in the camp. Her presence made some students upset. They were worried she was an orphan, some of the volunteers in the kitchen began conspiring to feed her and planned to give her a home. There were tears some days.
For a while, it seemed we discussed this one student and her problems more than any of the 130 other students put together. But Karen and I knew she was a bit of an actress. She was well-fed and obviously had a lot of people caring for her. But she could turn on the charm and win whatever she wanted from people who fell for her tricks. We couldn’t throw her out, after all she was technically here before we all arrived. But she couldn’t be allowed to enter the kitchen, she was useless as a cook and wouldn’t go near the dishwashing area. She tried to help with the garbage, but ended up just spreading it around the floor. She had no place in the meditation hall, either. She wouldn’t meditate anyway. She just closed her eyes and pretended. In reality she was just sleeping, we think. So we did what we could. Whenever we found her, we politely led her out the door with a robust, “будь щасливий!” It means “Be happy!” and sounds like “bool schastleyvuh!” It was the only thing we could do.
Our most troublesome student. She wasn’t even registered.
A few times she came over to our residence to see if we could help her out. We stood firm though. If we allowed one unregistered student to get in, there could be a flood of them. As it was, word got around and we came back to our cabin one night to find another uninvited student sleeping on our porch. He looked terrible, especially in the rain. But as we approached, he moved off to find somewhere else to sleep. If we could, we would have helped all of them. But Vipassana meditation isn’t for everybody, especially if they won’t follow the rules!
What was even more remarkable about Ukraine was the determination of the people sitting the course to face the usual difficulties of a retreat so bravely. We have rarely seen such strong determination from people on retreats. Despite sometimes damp cold, an impossibly hard floor to sit on, and the distractions of cats and dogs, the people sitting these courses continued to show up everyday and dilligently turn their attention inside. Each hour they pressed on, facing the minds they carry around with them and that come so clearly into view on a course like this. We found our time here very inspiring.
There are many stories we could tell about all of the things that happened, but most of it would really only resonate with those who know what it’s like to participate in one of these ten-day meditation retreats. Instead we’ll show you some photos of the place and save the stories for some of you another time. Having now spent the last 24 days at the camp, we are back in Kiev for a few days of sightseeing. We’ll write another post before we leave here tell you about what’s next…
Old theatre from the children’s camp not used on the meditation course.
Swingsets that have seen better days.
A soviet-era statue of a young woman.
The determination she displayed was echoed by the students on the course.
Nine people in most of the rooms, which also helps to keep the rooms warmer at night given there was no heat.
Scott doing paperwork for the course.
The path we walked every day to the mediation hall.
At the start of our first course, it was so warm we were wearing flip flops,
by the end of the second course it was clearly the start of Autumn.
Volunteers working in the kitchen on the last day of the second course.
She was useless in the kitchen.
Vegetable station where volunteers washed and chopped vegetables for the meals on the course.
Soviet-era industrial kitchen where volunteers cook food for meditators sitting the course.
We could have fed thousands out of this kitchen.
Oven for baking bread.
Cauldron for making soups and stews on the course.
Some food for the volunteers on the last day. They finished the leftovers so nothing would be wasted.
Volunteers preparing food at the end of the course.
Volunteer cutting bread for students’ last breakfast before they left for home.
In the background is the dining area for male volunteers during the course.
Female volunteers eating area during the course.
Side view of the building converted into a mediation hall for the course.
Entrance to the mediation hall on the women’s side.
We spent a lot of time in this room, so we’ve provided you with several photos of the meditation hall.
View from the back corner of the women’s side of the meditation hall.
View from the back corner of the men’s side of the meditation hall.
Beautiful plans for the proposed permanent Ukraine meditation centre.
Hopefully they will soon be able to begin construction.
so that people do not have to sit on the bare wooden floor.