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Lions Roar : March 2008
SHAMBHALA SUN MARCH 2008 85 upright, with crowns of green leaves, and the forest is full of such trees, trees as far as the eye can see and full of leaves and bushes and the song of birds. Before annihilation comes an exile from nature, and then it is only through wonder and transcendence, the ghetto rab- bi taught, that one could com- bat the psychic disintegration of everyday life. Somewhere along the line, Shapira acquired medical training, and people from all over Poland made pilgrimages to him for physical and spiri- tual healing. During the war, he suffered the same torment, fear, pain, and loss as other residents of the ghetto, and came to know the agony of howitzers bombarding friends and loved ones with shrapnel—in one week, he lost his mother, only son, daughter-in- law, and sister-in-law. His beloved wife of many years, whom he regarded as a soulmate (he delighted in telling people how, on at least one occasion, she finished writing his sermon), fell ill and died. Finding scope for the mind while the body remained enslaved, that was the chal- lenge. Nowhere in his writings does one read the factual reality of life for Jews in occupied Poland, nor even the words “Nazi” or “German.” Instead, his mission was compassion—”to project the supernatural powers of kindness into the realm of speech, so that they might take on concrete, specific form.” Today most of us, though not all, have the luxury of experiencing merely mild chronic stress, an ensemble of real and imaginary worries that spike the road of everyday life with tiny aggravating tacks. But for four years, people in the Warsaw ghetto endured both acute and chronic stress, with its suite of body-killers from diabetes and heart disease to the erosion of neurons from sheer overfiring. Typically, high stress saps energy, slows think- ing, depresses the psyche, and rachets up one’s base level of fear and anxiety. Common antidotes are numbing one’s ability to feel, selective forgetting, or imaginative escapes (sometimes to the striped mesas of psychosis). Another antidote is stilling the mind. Even when saturated by more suffering than we bipeds were ever meant to feel, by paying deep attention the brain enters a state of vigorous calm, especially if one can meditate on joy, compassion, or gratitude. In the ghetto, meditation helped by tugging the mind from its sorrow and limiting rumination, and by giving practitioners a sense of agency that was scarce, allowing them to take charge of their own well-being and to create moments of tranquility, wonder, and occasionally something even rarer: plea- sure. This cloud ride through suffering resonates strikingly with the Buddhist dictum of accepting life just as it is, without grasping at elsewheres or else-whens, without judg- ment, viewing moment to moment as a changing flux of sensations. Another man who, like Rabbi Shapira, chose to stay when offered escape, was pediatri- cian Henryk Goldzmit (pen name: Janusz Korczak), who wrote autobiographical novels, and books for parents and teachers with such titles as How to Love a Child and The Child’s Right to Respect. To the amazement of his fans and disciples, Korczak abandoned both his literary and medical careers in 1912 to found a progressive orphanage for one hundred boys and girls, ages seven to fourteen, at 92 Krochmalna Street in Warsaw. There, with PHOTOOFJANUSZKORCZAKCOURTESYOFROMANWASSERMANWRÓBLEWSKI,HTTP://FCIT.COEDU.USF.EDU/HOLOCAUST/KORCZAK. Above: Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman Shapira. Left: Last known photograph of Henryk Goldzmit (pen name Janusz Korczak) taken in September, 1940. 335 Meads Mt. Rd., Woodstock, NY 12498 845.679.5906 x 10