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The point is to listen

Judith Fein

November 10, 2001

For many people, tonight was the best Wisdom Circle of all. As a reminder that everything is always in flux, we did something different—nudging ourselves out of the comfort of the format we had established.

Before we ate, Fehti led a Sufi zikr—a ceremony that is designed, as he explained, to get you out of your head and into your heart.

It was nearly impossible to stay in our heads. We held hands and were led through rapid breaths, slow breaths, “Allah” said in a burst, “Allah” said in a groan, a moan, a whisper. Al-lah. Al-lah. Breath, breath, breath, exhale, Al-lah, and on and on and on.

If I moved back and forth, the people to both sides of me moved back and forth. We were all, as someone expressed it, one body. Or, perhaps, one heart. The differences fell away, the shyness melted, Al-lah.

After the movement, Fehti opened a book and read us Sufi wisdom. I looked around the room; each participant was taking it very personally. Great wisdom has the ability to do that; to make everyone feel personally addressed.

Great wisdom has the ability to do that; to make everyone feel personally addressed.

After the zikr, we moved to the table, and the food tasted better than ever. Paul made two huge dishes with an autumnal array of fruits and vegetables. Bill brought a huge smoked salmon. Janet made a large squash with wild rice inside. There was humus, linguini, pasta salads, pumpkin pies, breads, salads, fish, Indian pakora, chicken, vegetables, drinks.

And at each Wisdom Circle, the food is an excuse to sit next to someone new, to huddle with a person from another country.

After we ate, we asked people from different countries to bless us all in their native tongue, without translating. Two Germans sang a charming, child-like song in the round. A woman spoke in Japanese. There was a group from Chile. A French woman. Hebrew. A Celtic greeting. Arabic. Italian. Hindi. Hebrew.

Next, we went around the room, and each person spoke their name and said a few words or sentences. There was talk of isolation, of confusion, of feeling safe in this room. People said they were in a room full of strangers and yet it felt familiar. Some acknowledged everyone who had the courage to show up. There was humor and pain and anger, as there always is. There was a collective sigh of relief that people have a place to come, on an ongoing basis to say how they feel.

Then we began our most recent incarnation of the Wisdom Circle—the QUESTION. Anyone could ask a question. It could be answered by one person or several people, sequentially. Again, no cross talk, no debate, no dialogue.

A South American woman asked if Muslim women who are covered head-to-toe are happy. A Muslim woman answered that she was shocked when she saw naked people in Africa. That it’s a cultural thing. That it permits anonymity, safety, modesty.

A Muslim man said that he wrapped himself in a Muslim headdress when he was in another Muslim country, and it allowed him to blend in, to be like everyone else, to be safe, comfortable. They both used that word—“comfortable.”

No one questioned what they said. No feminist jumped to her feet. The point is, and always is, to listen. To just listen to what someone else has to say who may not share your view at all. The idea is not to be politically correct, but to be humanly correct.

Someone asked a Japanese woman about the economy of Japan, and how she felt about the bombing of Afghanistan. She gave a riveting answer about the militarism that led to WWII, and the Japanese peoples’ horror of combat now. She spoke of fear that if the American economy goes down, it will be bad for Japan, which is so linked to the US economy. She spoke about how excessive land prices had been in Japan before they crashed, and how things were more reasonable now. Why things had to be scaled back.

A man asked what the difference was between Jews and Muslim. A Muslim man said that according to his religion, only Islam was the right way. But what does Islam mean? It means surrender to God. Therefore all the prophets are acknowledged—Jesus, Moses, Mohammed—and all ways that accept God are Islam.

A question was asked about whether Muslims all speak a common language or does each country have its own language? Someone answered that Arabic differed from country to country, explained in what ways. He said he felt that TV had been the great leveler—making “Mickey Mouse Arabic” the norm.

A woman asked what we are supposed to do since Sept 11th. Should we just sit back and allow ourselves to be bombed, killed, blasted?

One woman said we all have to get involved by writing to our senators, congressmen. Another woman said we have to examine our lifestyles and see why we are hated so much. A man said we need to go by law, international law. The USA can’t just take the law into its own hands and invade another country.

A young man said the 9/11 attack is what happens when people feel they are not being heard.

There were many opinions that could have led to fisticuffs but this is not about arguing; it is just about listening. We listened with open hearts, so anything could be asked and any answer was okay.

This time, we didn’t just drift away when the Wisdom Circle was over. We held hands and made a circle. A man spoke a final blessing and then a woman. Everyone felt they had been heard.

As we cleaned up the room, several Muslim people confessed that they felt nervous. There are people being rounded up for questioning without formal charges. They are being held and have no rights. Could the US round them up, as they had rounded up the Japanese during WWII? Could they be put in internment camps? Should they leave the country? Do we think they are in real danger?

Ah, what to answer? If they feel danger, they call us, and we gather in a Wisdom Circle. We prevent them from being isolated. We assure them of our solidarity.

Such questions are difficult to ask and difficult to answer. But they must be asked and they must be answered. These are times for truth-telling. For staying centered. For staying connected. It is a commitment that is as important as any other commitment we have in life. We all have a feeling that somehow our survival depends upon it.

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