You know when you wake up in the middle of the night to visit the toilet? Well, obviously we do that too. But sometimes I’ll wake up and for several seconds have no idea where I actually am. I have to lay there and allow my mind to adjust to my location. Uh… Hereford? Mexico City? Degania Bet? Hong Kong? It’s really a very strange experience. The other night I opened my eyes and didn’t recognize where I was. Like, at all. It was dark, so that’s not a great clue. Double bed, so I’m not sitting a meditation retreat. It’s quiet, so not likely to be anywhere in Asia…
Then I heard a jangling sound on the floor next to me. I also felt the warm pressure of a furry body leaning next to me on the bed. Karen isn’t very furry and this being isn’t human sized. It was Charlie. He’s a daschund mix, the daschund part recognizable by the way he scrapes very low to the ground. The rest of him is like 80 per cent Muppet. The one on the floor is Allie. She’s a black lab. Mostly I think. I smiled to myself and remembered we are house-sitting for Jamie and Jonathan, our friends in Vancouver.
You might look at our life and see a very long vacation. But little of our time is spent in actual leisure. For us, a vacation is having a place to ourselves for a couple of weeks, with access to fresh produce and the chance to exercise in a clean, temperate environment. So we won a sweepstake when Karen agreed to house- and dog-sit for Jamie and Jonathan in August. After all, we’ve missed having fuzzy buddies in our life. And kale. And in-suite laundry.
We spent May, June and July in three completely different contexts. When we left Hong Kong, we returned to Israel, this time to conduct two Vipassana retreats at the beautiful meditation centre – Dhamma Pamoda – near the Sea of Galilee.
The centre was built on a piece of agricultural land attached to one of Israel’s oldest Kibbutzim, Degania Bet. It took many, many years of dedicated effort by hundreds of volunteers and donors to establish this place. It is a very modern and comfortable Vipassana centre and the Israelis are justifiably proud of it. As you know from our time in the holy land last year, we were really struck by Israel and Palestine. We did not serve any courses in Israel our first time here. We traveled directly to the West Bank last year to conduct a 10-day retreat organized by Palestinians and then spent another week in Palestine before visiting Jersusalem, Tel Aviv and the Golan Heights. This time, we were lucky to reconnect with our friend Tony. We had a couple of days to rest between our first and second courses, so Tony took us to the ancient city of Akko (Acre) on the Mediterranen Sea and to visit Nazareth.
Akko is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on earth. It was established sometime between 2000 BC – 1550 BC. It has been home to Phoenicians and Canaanites, Assyrians and Egyptians, Greeks, Persians, and Romans. What remains now in this picturesque walled city dates from the Middle Ages when Akko, known to Europeans as Acre, was the Crusader capital and the headquarters of the Knights Hospitaller. We spent a day there wandering the narrow alleys, walking the ancient sea walls watching Arab teenagers diving into the sea, and touring the underground ruins now accessible as an amazing archeological museum. Despite the blazing heat, it was a fascinating day.
As always, the retreats were each very different, with a large and diverse gathering of ordinary people from various walks of life. The thing we appreciate most about serving in other countries is the opportunity to encounter very ordinary people all trying to develop themselves in wholesome ways. Meditation is very difficult. It is not a relaxation experience, and it is not very blissful. Most people encounter the parts of themselves they thought were either buried or edited out, the parts of themselves that are not very pleasant to sit with. So you are accompanying people as they go through vulnerability and learn for the first time to develop some equanimity, some objectivity with the everyday experience of the mind and body. This is a critical skill for everyone to learn, but especially useful in places where the surrounding political or cultural context is unpleasant or otherwise difficult and challenging.
We consider ourselves especially lucky that our return to the holy land allowed us to re-explore the Old City of Jerusalem, this time with our good friend Shadan, who journeyed from Ramallah to show us around the Muslim Quarter.
And we also spent time with one of our favourite beings in the world, our friend Ruth. She again put us up in her beautiful home in Tel Aviv and spent countless hours chatting with us about the world and her own fascinating life.
When we returned to Canada in June, we were a little rough around the edges. Our time in the Philippines, Hong Kong and Israel was marked by a persistent illness – some sort of sinus infection and chronic cough – that made exercise impossible and tired us out a bit. But we survived our respective plagues in time to board a plane from Vancouver to Toronto. Karen had work meetings and I met with former colleagues and friends. We also visited the most peaceful place in Canada, our friends’ Eric and Katayoun’s farm near Perth, Ontario. We wrote about this refuge back in 2017 when we recovered from city life there for a week. The goats have grown in number, to a dozen or something, and they now have very young ones. Nothing is better than baby goats to bring a broad smile to your face.
We had just one night there, enough to remind us how much we love this little farm, but we had plans to spend some time with Karen’s Armenian family in Ontario, her uncle Sarkis and aunt Ruth and her cousin Jenny. It was my first time meeting the Armenians I had heard so much about. Karen’s family are wonderful people, very warm and generous and interesting. We learned so much more about Karen’s family history and were able to share our experiences with them about visiting Armenia.
I left Karen in Toronto to return to Vancouver on my own. She had work to do. I spent time with my niece and nephew. We have plans for an exciting outdoor adventure in British Columbia’s coastal mountains. More on that in our next blog post…
We hadn’t mentioned it before, but we had planned to sit a long course in July. We decided on a 30-day retreat in the UK instead of a 45-day in Thailand. It was the right choice. Very mild and beautiful summer weather at the quietest and most peaceful rural retreat centre in the world (in our opinion) was just the thing to reset our minds for the steps we have ahead.
Karen and I are now relishing our time in a beautiful house with two very sweet and furry friends. They are helping us get in shape. In a few days time we will set off for the mountains for a 4-day outdoor wilderness adventure. I hope to do some interesting landscape and astrophotography, but we’ll see.
We live a life of constant novelty. Every month we have to learn to navigate a new culture and language, with a new currency in a new climate. It’s taught us to let go, to learn to worry less about what others do and more about our own actions, the only things we have actual control over. Our daily life is pretty rootless. We have to find stability and routine independent of our changing context. And that is very difficult. But in swinging our arms tightly around uncertainty and change we have developed strong inner muscles of stability.
Like all things, this period of constant change will settle down. Until then, we take time each day to appreciate our great fortune and to make the most of whatever time we have left.
The next couple of weeks will involve hiking, camping, and time with family and in September, we will return to volunteer service, going back to Mexico to conduct a 10-day retreat at Dhamma Makaranda. We hope you are all enjoying your summer where ever you are in the world.