A Day in the Life of Athens Sangha Service

A Day in the Life of Athens Sangha Service

by Mercia Moseley

January, 2018

Waking with the morning bell, I realize I’ve grown content in our sweet Athens WakeUp sangha. Meditation to begin each day, then there are morning hugs, oatmeal made in varying ways (Maarten adds coconut milk, Francie fruit). Vanessa is doing yoga on the balcony that looks across the white, stacked buildings of Athens, and David is still meditating as the light rises. Dermot, Philippe, and I are being cheeky as usual, laughing over our oatmeal and teasing one another over who drank more coffee (and therefore whose turn is it to make the next pot). Soon we will all go our separate ways, scattering across Athens to different refugee organizations, to different experiences that we will share over dinner later.

“Get a wiggle on there,” jokes Dermot (always making me laugh) as he and I head out the door and into the familiar cracked-sidewalk, graffitied streets of Patissia. It’s a short walk that I’ve come to enjoy, passing the Pakistani deli, the Greek bakery, the crowded trash bins, and dodging traffic like real Greeks on our way to Hope Café. I feel safe with my tall Irish dharma brother leading the way.

There is always music playing at Hope. Everyone greets everyone, and we dive in wherever needed, sorting mounds of clothes in the dim basement, or washing dishes as people arrive and the coffee cups and cooking utensils pile up in the small sink. The chatter rises and friends greet one another in Arabic and Farsi, waiting for the free meal to be served – lentils and rice cooking in vast pots on gas burners on the kitchen floor, the smell of onion and cumin filling the space. Sometimes 80 people come, sometime 170. Women in bright head scarves carrying babies, men of all ages, kids (many, many kids).

As the weeks go by, Dermot and I get to know familiar faces. Like the Syrian family in which both parents are deaf, with 5 young children, who speak together in a lively made-up sign language. The oldest girl translates and the father jokes and laughs with everyone. He makes up humorous sign-names for each of us (mine is a twist of the pointer-finger upwards meaning, “skinny girl”). They are so remarkably joyful, so bonded, so kind. I wonder if I would have their grace, were I in their shoes? We hear other stories from various people who come through the doors of Hope, shared in pieces of broken English, little shards of tales, painful residue of experiences no one should live. We gather what we can of what life in Syria was like before the war, what it took to get to Athens, what it is to be without a country, without a job, without the “right” passport, to be alone. It’s sobering. Real. Problems without answers, or a foreseeable end.

Our Sangha brother Phillipe joins the games of our dear young friends outside Hope Cafe

After everyone has been served, we eat the free meal too. The building is full so Dermot and I sit by the road on the old sidewalk. I taste the food, cumin, tomato, thyme. I have never been without food in my life. We hold our plastic plates, eating slowly, mindfully, and are silent for a while. I feel a weight and blessing, learning something about gratitude, about the vast complexity of this world, as the traffic passes and the dishes pile up in the little sink waiting to be washed.

Later we will head home to our sangha and eat together silently, feeling the spaces and people we have each met and shared with that day. Feeling the warmth and support of each other’s presence, the sound of the clear, small bell in the wide city. Thay’s quote on our makeshift altar reminding us, “This is it.”

Mercia and Dermot at Hope Cafe

“I feel safe with my tall Irish dharma brother leading the way”

Mercia Moseley (Deep Training of the Heart) grew up going to family retreats with Thich That Hath, and feels fortunate to be part of this beautiful community as a WakeUp-er now. The last six months, she has been collaborating with a Sangha friend to develop a social entrepreneurship that aims to employ refugees called Not a Factory. To see their work, visit NotaFactory.com. When not traveling, she lives in the Pacific Northwest, WA.

Photos taken by Mercia Moseley and David Viafora

"You're Not Teachers... You're Listeners!" (Advice before Greece)

Part of the Greece Sangha Service Series

March, 2018

Plum Village, August 2017, under the Linden tree on the closing day of the Wake Up retreat in Upper Hamlet…

“What you need to do is to go there and just listen. Don’t go trying to teach anything, mindfulness, or whatever. You want to offer something, you want to help, but what you need to do is listen because you don’t know anything. You’re going to a whole new country, and you’re meeting a whole new culture. You don’t know them, you don’t know anything about them. You can’t teach mindfulness because you don’t know what they need. So, you just listen, that’s your practice. You’re not teachers David, you’re listeners.”

Phap Dung had just finished properly turning my head around 360 degrees, emptying out what was inside, and then setting it back on straight. I hadn’t expected him to knock my noggin out of the ball park, along with all my thoughts and expectations of ‘mindfully’ serving in Greece. As a friend acknowledged a few hours later, I had been ‘Phap Dung-ed’, a not-so-rare Plum Village phenomenon. I had sought his advice and encouragements for our Greece Sangha Service project, knowing that this would be a challenging expedition of both living and serving together in the ongoing refugee crisis. This included our aspirations to share our practice with other volunteers and NGOs serving in Greece, as I was familiar with sharing mindfulness practice with social workers back home. Fortunately, we have elder brothers and sisters who are not afraid to offer us a Dharma punch when we truly need it, so that our deepest aspirations can meet our habit energies on the ground, and not in the clouds.

“Phap Dung-ed”… with a smile.

During the past several years, Greece has been a doorway for millions of migrants seeking refuge from war, persecution, and economic distress. They risked everything: their homeland, savings, family members, and even their own lives, while hoping for a new way of life. For years, I felt called to go and serve in Greece, but I also knew that I could not go alone. Alone, I would shrivel up and my efforts would not reach as far as I truly hoped. I knew that I needed a Sangha.

So where can one share such aspirations with hundreds of young people who are opening their hearts to compassionate action and peace in themselves? Yep, a Wake Up Retreat in Plum Village! Last August, we shared our aspirations to model the School of Youth for Social Service in Vietnam and head down to Greece as a Sangha, asking for people to join us. ‘Let’s fuse together our practice of mindful living and sanghabuilding with our deep calling to serve those who in need.’ We understood that volunteers were strongly needed in Greece during the fall and winter months especially, so we invited people, “Come talk with us at lunch if you’re interested.” Each lunch gathering, over 20 people joined!  And in the end, 15 young adults, from eight different countries were committed to embarking on this adventure together! Wow! I love our Sangha!

Our Sangha crew of volunteers for the first month in Athens

So what did we do? We came together and first off, we listened to each other, and this only grew stronger every day. Who were these people we were living with? What were their deepest dreams and fears? What nourishment did we truly need as a Sangha to offer our presence wholeheartedly every day to others? Through our deep listening and sharing, we co-created our lives together, balancing work with morning meditations, silent meals, dharma sharings, and at least one super fun outing in nature or the city each week.

We lived in a migrant-rich neighborhood, allowing us to live in the same neighborhood with those we aspired to learn from, serve, and build relationships. We worked in refugee camps, community centers, and NGO’s in Athens, and in diverse capacities such as art therapists, physiotherapists, assistant cooks and staff in soup kitchens, mental health practitioners, legal support, construction, English and French language instruction, animal care, community gardening, and facilitated a weekly Sangha in town as well. And after a few months (of listening and learning), we did end up offering mindfulness workshops for NGO staff and volunteers who asked for our support. Some of us stayed for one month, others two to four months, and still others remain committed to living, Sanghabuilding, and creatively serving in Athens.

Looking and listening to the city with all her beauty, cries, and wonder….

Then we listened to the streets: to the singing-shouting tone of the woman selling bags of onions, tomatoes, and potatoes on our corner for one euro each; to the young Syrian man’s effervescent smile as we get off the same bus stop together and become instant friends; to the smell of tomatoes and garlic stewing under Syrian hands at Hope Café; to the compassionate trust in our brother’s voice as he recounted holding his brother in his hands for the last time after being shot by a sniper while waiting in line for food; and to crazy laughter as Phillipe tossed children in the air on his feet for the first acro-yoga session of their lives. We listened, learned, marveled at their spirits of resilience, and most of all, we developed friendships. True listening cannot help but create true friendships. And when true friendship manifests, there is no one serving and no one being served. There is only love that serves us both and reminds us of the gifts that we are to each other.

Dermot (left) and Barry (right) hang out with a dear Syrian friend and regular at Hope Cafe. Hope Cafe was the most vibrant, friendly, and supportive public space for the Syrian community that we experienced. To our blessing, it was a 5 minute walk from our house.

As our power of listening grew, so did our other Sangha powers, namely harmony, and joy. Before heading Athens together, we also asked for guidance from other monastics, like Br. Phap Linh. “Don’t forget to nourish your joy together”, he implored. “ That’s essential. Because when you nourish your joy, that’s what you’ll be sharing with others. You don’t keep it for yourselves, you offer that beautiful energy to those that you’ll be with. Especially when you’re doing this kind of work, if you’re feeling down and drained of energy, then you haven’t got anything to offer to others. They need for you to be nourished deeply. So you need to replenish your reserves; it’s a constant cycle of nourishment and offering.”

And from the abbot, Br Phap Huu: “The most important thing is your harmony together. That is what will carry you through. That is the energy that will allow you to help others. People will see your harmony, your brotherhood and sisterhood and feel drawn to it.”

We took these gems of wisdom that were handed freely to us, and then we polished them with our own experiences. Most importantly, we learned to build a Sangha family, and that was our deepest teaching of all. What is the kind of family that we wish for the most in our lives? A family that supports us, that helps us cultivate joyful togetherness, compassionate listening, and harmony among each other that we then channel into the lives of those we wish to serve with all our hearts. Through our deep aspiration to serve the world, we touched the seed of true  community, of family, of Sangha, because we need that true Sangha family in order to truly serve others.

Sangha family, in joy and harmony

We learned that when we didn’t cultivate joy, listen deeply, or disregarded harmony, then it left us near empty in our service towards others. So we began again and again and again with each other, and we never gave on each other. We sat in the mornings, came home to the safe warm refuge of dharma sharings in the evening, and practiced harmony of views during meetings to forge creative insights in our major decisions together. When someone left our Sangha, we watered their flowers so deeply that it brought deep joy and even bliss to all of us. We became one Buddha body, and when one cell touched happiness, then the rest of the body had more strength and love to share with others. And when the body was in harmony, each cell reflected delight and could shower this energy to those elsewhere.

I could share for hours and hours about our stories of our Sangha family and service, but I will now pass the baton over to my Sangha brothers and sisters, who may share their stories and reflections more deeply with you. The articles following in the next few weeks are windows into our experiences as cells working in various arenas of Athens, while also being nourished and held as one Sangha body.

Mercia practically holds our hand as we wake up with the Sangha one morning and intimately walk into the streets and friends at Hope Café. Zarah invites us into Eleonas Refugee Camp and to the safe warm haven back home, where both places carry one message: be there for each other! Dermot takes us through the streets and squats of Athens while arriving at one of the deepest experiences of family in his life. And Barry unravels the ancient koan of engaged Buddhism in his own heart: What does it truly mean to serve?

Welcome to our lives of service, family, and heartbreaking joy with Wake Up Athens!

–    David Viafora, True Zen Mountain

Our first week in Athens, we walked to the top of the hill together…. listening, meditating, and discovering moment by moment the beauty of our beloved city

New Years Retreat 2018: Brothers before Refugees

Brothers and Humans before Refugees

Part 4 of the Greece Sangha Service Series

January, 2018

It was the first gathering and first night together of our New Years retreat on Aegina Island. Although we were not far from home, the raucous life and cries from Athens seemed like a distant world behind us. Our Aegina oasis on the other hand, with its jungle-like garden, serene ocean two hundred meters away, groves of pistachio trees surrounding us on all sides, aged beauty of its historic residence with wooden floors, old garden statues, and multiple balconies overlooking the dark aqua sea with island and peninsula mountains in the horizon – it was an utterly majestic setting, and she enveloped our souls into its wild and heavenly embrace. Because of the generosity and vision of her stewards, we were able to afford this beautiful center and express our deep aspirations. This was a unique New Years retreat combining international volunteers, refugees from the Middle East and Africa, and Greek residents. While paradise surrounded us, even more magic was unfolding within its walls.

Groves of bare pistachio trees and a forested garden surround the castle-like retreat center on Aegina, our island oasis for five days together.

Instead of heading up top to the presentation room with its impressive views of islands and stars, we gathered in the communal room downstairs for our first gathering together. Its lofty ceiling and windows expansively overlooked the garden’s jungle, offering us a relaxed and casual, yet inspiring atmosphere for us to connect, release, and be embraced. While the group contained several strong friendships, many of us were totally new to each other. Furthermore, it was the first time that several of us, including volunteers and refugees, had ever experienced meditation, let alone a full retreat.

Sensing some shyness and hesitation, we decided to shatter any nervousness right from the start with introductions that combined laughter with light-hearted embarrassment. “Please share your name, where you’re from, and imitate the calling or movements of your favorite animal…” Everyone was shocked and laughed at my absurd suggestion, but then became quietly focused on themselves and their upcoming animal presentation after seeing that I was serious about it. Giggles, outright laughter, some admirations, tons of embarrassing moments, and success! We were bonding and overcoming our social fears, not merely as volunteers and refugees, but more like kids playing and sharing freely in a tree house together. As we went around, it was clear that Mohsen, a new friend from Afghanistan, had by far the best callings out of anyone, and was able to beautifully imitate several animals named in the circle. Now we were ready to dive in further.

A beautiful brother.

“This retreat is a gift to ourselves. It’s a gift to our bodies and minds to deeply rest, to release what we’ve been holding in the city, in our homes, our jobs, our relationships, and in our hearts. The wild beauty of this island, the lulling sounds of the ocean embracing us, and especially the kind and supportive friends around us, all these elements are allowing us to release tension, to let go, and to touch something deeper in ourselves. We may invite ourselves to touch the deep wells of peace, compassion, and spaciousness within us…”

On the one hand, I was used to providing very clear guidance on meditation practice, including upright posture. On the other hand, I felt cautious about overly encouraging anyone to sit or be in a way that felt strange or uncomfortable for them, especially those with different religious and cultural backgrounds. After stopping to breathe for several moments, I settled on a middle way and shared, “Here is the way that some of us here have learned to cultivate peace and joy in our bodies and minds. You are welcome to join us and experiment it yourself. But don’t merely take our word for it. See for yourself what feels comfortable, beneficial, and right for you.”

Mohsen, our friend from Afghanistan, lay back against the couch with his eyes closed, as I slowly coursed into our first guided meditation. The couches were not very supportive for a typical upright position, and already Mohen’s posture looked more conducive to falling asleep than meditating. But we didn’t have proper meditation cushions and our most essential task was to allow him and everyone else to begin feeling deeply comfortable with such raw silent awareness. Cultivating this collective quiet presence was new to him and others, and we wished to enter it slowly, for this doorway would allow us to enter further realms of deep authenticity, contemplation, brotherhood and sisterhood, and genuine transformation together. At least, we hoped.

We sat (or laid against the couch) in quiet stillness together for fifteen minutes, as we guided a basic mindfulness practice focusing on one’s body and breath, touching the simple yet profound joy of being fully present and alive. Whether people were meditating, or passing out on the couch, who could tell?  

Under the surface, our silent candlelit awareness slowly started seeping in, infusing drops of peace and compassion into the skin, muscles, bones, and heart of our newly born Aegina family.

In addition to relaxing and rejuvenating our bodies and spirits, our retreat’s purpose was to learn deeply from one another, especially by encouraging everyone to share about their authentic experiences and needs. Having arrived on a deeper level together, we were ready to begin listening. We invited everyone to give their personal ‘weather report’ in the moment, as well as tell about their intentions for coming to this 4-day retreat. One by one, people spontaneously voiced what was alive for them,  while the rest of us listened deeply. After about an hour, only Mohsen was left. We sat in silence for a few minutes, giving him the space to offer his unique voice. Not wanting to pressure him, I prepared to close the circle, but cautiously asked him a last time. He raised hand slightly and glanced my way in affirmation.

“My whole life I have struggled. I have struggled for so long. Peace, calm, what you speak of – I don’t know what that is. I never knew what that is. Walking in the garden, relaxing, swimming in the ocean, I don’t know what that is. People in my country, they struggle. This is the first time in my life I have tried something like this – meditation. And I really appreciate you for sharing with me.” Mohsen turned to look at me as he spoke. The light was dim in the room, and I could only see the dark shadow over his eyes. Yet his deep dark eyes still conveyed something perfectly to me – the soft intimacy and peace of sharing something precious together. He turned back to the circle, and continued. “I try it now, and I think it helps me.” My heart sank into deep appreciation, knowing that our community was able to offer this young man who has struggled so much of his life, some moments of real peace. Even if it was just a few moments, it was what we had come here for. I felt my chest sigh quietly in relief, as I sensed that our aspirations had already come to fruition, had already realized themselves. Even if this is all we had succeeded in, it was enough and worthy all our efforts to manifest this retreat.

Mohsen dove in further, fearlessly sharing his thoughts with us. “I am living in Athens now with the label of fucking ‘refugee’. I hate that word, that label. First, I am a human being. People don’t know me, don’t know where I’m from and my experiences. I am not just ‘refugee’. They don’t understand me, but they think they do.”

“I have a few friends who are really good – a few. They spend time with me, we go places together, and we have a nice time. Really, they are so great. But they are few compared to the others. The others who aren’t open to me, or don’t say anything to me, even as I say hi and say something to them. But they don’t say anything back, they only talk and spend time with each other.

“What really upsets me, what I hate, is that people think that they’re better than me, better than refugees. The way they talk with me, or don’t talk with me, and how they only spend time with each other, and not with refugees, that upsets me so much. They think they are better than me, and so I work hard, I work so hard all the time to prove that they are not. They are international volunteers but why are there? They do not come to help. I asked them one day, ‘Why are you here?’ And then they say, ‘Oh, for fun.’ For fun? For fun? How can they say that? They think this is fun for them? This is our lives here.”

Mohsen bent his head forward and put his hand near his eyes, covering most of his cheek and eyes. It was difficult to see his face, but we still felt it. As he paused and took in some moments of silence, with our ears and hearts we could still see his eyes and expression in the shadow of his hands.

Light and darkness dance with each other, both in sunsets and in our lives.

After a few minutes, a new tone conveyed clarity and strength, but with the continued pain of exasperation. “Normally, I am not able to say these things, and they build up inside me until I explode. I get upset and then I go drink and then I go talk to them about it when I am drunk. And then people get upset that I talk to them like this. I say that I am talking like this when I am drunk because I am not able to say this to them before. I need to talk about it but I don’t know how… This is very good, talking here with all of you. It’s good for me.” Mohsen’s voice started becoming more relaxed, with hints of gratitude peeking through with a sense of relief. We could feel the storm of his feelings returning to the ocean of calm and clear skies that we typically see in him.

“I am happy that I have this time to spend here with all of you, with open-minded people. For this I am thankful.” Mohsen paused pensively for another moment, before decidedly putting his palms together in front of his chest and deeply bowing to the group to close his sharing.

Mohsen’s words blew us all away. Most of us had just met this young man. And yet, here we were, on this island together, listening to him share some of the deepest sentiments and struggles of his life as a ‘refugee’ in a foreign world. We were volunteers, yet he shared the pain of volunteers in his life; we knew him as a ‘refugee’, yet he shared the pain of living with label; we were mostly white Europeans and Americans, yet he fearlessly opened up our understanding such cultural divisions. Mohsen clearly felt the atmosphere of safety and care in the room grow stronger around him, and he trusted it to embrace him, so that his truths could spread its wings and fly out towards all of us.

The majestic golden eagle, Afghanistan’s national bird; an icon of freedom and strength.

When someone entrusts the sacred gems of their interior world to me, it is one of the most precious gifts in life that I can receive. I later asked Ioan, one of his closest friends and who invited him to attend the retreat, whether he had shared these deep reflections before. Ioan said he was amazed how much Mohsen had shared, how powerful his words were, and that he had never heard him share such sentiments before.

Throughout the next few days, Mohsen fully immersed himself in our retreat. We enjoyed walking meditation in the garden and down to the ocean, sunset meditation at the beach, mindful eating during silent meals, mindful hiking to an ancient olive grove together, writing reflections on the new year, and another sharing circle. The longer we spent together, the less we remembered who was ‘volunteer’ or who was ‘refugee’. We were all just kids playing on this island together, just boys and girls touching moments of joy, peace, and freedom together. Perhaps we were all refugees fleeing from the chaos of city-life, and we were all volunteers, continuously gifting and serving each other in various ways to make the retreat possible.

One of the many moments that stood out the most during our retreat was watching Mohsen’s determination one morning to cook us a traditional Afghani meal. The night before Mohsen left the retreat a day earlier than us, he expressed an unshakeable wish to offer us a gift from his homeland. Mohsen awoke earlier than everyone else and started the long process of sautéing eggplants, cooking rice, preparing eggs, and crafting the secret sauces of his land ancestors.

With our backpacks filled with both Greek and Afghanistan delights, we set off together for our hike on New Years Eve.

We hiked that day to an ancient olive grove, where trees had nourished former monastic communities in a sacred valley up to two thousand years ago. The great grandmother olive trees were not only the perfect inspiration for our reflections together, but also for our special New Years eve Afghani meal. We sat between these beautiful ancient beings, and relished Mohsen’s offerings. Not only was the meal uniquely delicious, but we savored Mohsen’s happiness as he offered us all a true taste of his homeland. With each bite of mouth-watering eggplant in sweet yogurt sauce, we were instantly transported from this Greek island to the roaming hills of Afghanistan. If listening deeply to Mohsen share his struggles was like the rain soaking into the earth and seeds, then offering his homeland meal was like the sunshine pouring down upon his blooming flowers.

Behind the camera, Mohsen captures us rejoicing over the feast.

Mohsen made it clear to us that our retreat together on the island meant the world to him. The night he left, we had a big hugging circle around him, and he kept sharing with everyone how much, ‘I fucking appreciate you all and this time!’. Had he bloomed among us?  Or was it us who had bloomed because of him? Perhaps it was true friendship who bloomed instead, revealing her brilliant petals and sweet fragrance to all of us. Yes, true friendship, with her timeless blossoms of inclusivity, compassion, and joy.

Because of the magical diversity of our group, this was one of most amazing retreats that we had ever organized, and Mohsen’s presence in our circle was perhaps the biggest treasure. It allowed those of us who had never been refugees, to see the world through his eyes, and receive the lessons he had to offer. The extent to which his genuine story will help and guide us in our continued work as volunteers cannot be overestimated.

Bringing people together from different worldviews is a catalyst for even greater transformation in our lives and maturity in our worldview. Our deep wish is to have another retreat in the future, with more migrants from abroad, Greeks, and international volunteers coming together to practice peace, and share our unique gifts with each other.

With blue sky, rocks to climb on, great friends, and a fresh smile on our hearts, what more could we ask for?

Special thanks to our kind and generous hearted Sangha friends who had offered scholarship funds for this special New Years retreat in Greece. (Especially Elli & Rob, Anne Woods, David Percival, and Sue Rempel. Your support was the last condition for us to bloom). Thank you!

Enjoy a few more photos to taste the many flavors of our Sangha retreat...

With 2,000 year old Great-Grandmother Oak behind us, what more inspiration could we ask for to reflect deeply this New Years?

Sangha sunset meditation on Aegina…

Sangha Family!

A mindful lunch together…

 And the 5 year old children within us were set free!!!…

Jasmine Rising from a Sea of Fire

Jasmine Flower Rising from a Sea of Fire 

 Part 3 of the Greece Sangha Service Series

December, 2017

We were in the middle of mindfully savouring our silent dinner, when I caught Mohammad’s text that he was nearby outside. I quietly stepped outside to greet him downstairs. Watching him walk down the street towards us with his approaching smile, I felt both relief and elation that he was able to finally join us despite the short notice of our holiday plans. “Hello David!”  I gave him a big hug, returned his smile, and said, “Hi Mohammad, I’m so glad that you could make it! We’re happy to have you join us.”  Riding up in the elevator, I asked him, “Do you know about Thanksgiving?” “Oh yes, it’s in the movies”, he said with both sincerity and a touch of humor. “Haha, yes, that’s true, it’s in the movies. Well, it’s a very important holiday for us in the States.”

But this wasn’t just any Thanksgiving – it was also an occasion for the few us Americans to royally treat our fellow European, African, and Syrian friends to a special evening together. Most of us had come to Athens a few months prior to live together as a mindfulness intentional community of volunteers serving in refugee camps and community centers. Our American trio wished share the best of our homeland culture with our Athens family, infusing the holiday with not only delicious food, but also deep friendship, moments of silence, and gratitude sharings.

Vanessa and I were preparing almost the entire day. After a busy morning of shopping apart, we looked at each other, a bit weary and disheveled, and Vanessa pleaded, “I want to meditate for a bit before cooking.” “Ahhh, you speak my mind as well, let’s sit for at least 15.” Even though we had loads to prepare before everyone arrived, we took our time and started off our big kitchen day with peace and joy. Lighting some incense and a candle, we settled into a relaxed seated position, quietly tuning into each other and each breath. After 15 minutes of heavenly relief, Vanessa invited the bell, and we slowly, and mindfully moved from the hall to the kitchen.

Candlelight and calligraphy adorn our altar and illuminate our minds.

Vanessa lit some incense again, reminding us that the kitchen was also meditation hall, and the chopping boards our sutras, where we could place our loving attention into each dish as a gift to our family. Meanwhile, Mercia shook her magic wand around the house, transforming our dining room with white candlelight, an array of white flowers, fresh rosemary branches fanning around the table, and several persimmons infusing warmth and bright joy between them all.

One of the sweetest moments earlier in the evening was our silent meal. Typical thanksgiving feasts can be fun but also loud and socially exhausting. We infused the holiday with our ways of peace, gratitude, and attentiveness to the subtle miracles of our lives. After a meal blessing and some guidance about mindful eating, we invited a bell and began eating in silence together. After cooking for several hours, and with so many us together in a festive spirit, the quiet power of us all together was the tastiest dish I could have asked for. Although it was a different experience for our new friends, there is something universally precious and satisfying about silence. Together, we relished every morsel and moment together.

Throughout the evening, the mood was light and celebratory, especially because of our two guests of honor: Bara, Leonie’s friend from Senegal, and Mohammad. Besides myself, only Dermot, a fully gregarious and generous Irishman in our mindfulness community had met Mohammad. We both had wonderful encounters with Muhammad at the community center for refugees, and were excited for him to join us. This was the first time at our apartment and we had no idea how rare this experience was for him.

“One love”, from Dermot and Bara

As he sat down with us, I brought Mohammad a non-alcoholic specialty that Vanessa and I made for our holiday occasion. Sparkling bubbles rose up through pomegranate juice and seeds, and a slice of citrus, as I amiably offered him a goblet. A few friends started asking questions with smiles and open-eyed curiosity. As appreciative as was for their sweet and open-minded intentions to greet Mohammad and know him better, inevitable discomforts arose as I watched our different universes slowly colliding. Normal social intros take on different meaning in such circumstances.

“How long have you been in Athens, Mohammad?” “Just two months already.” “Oh, two months, and where did you come from?”  “I’m from Syria.” A short silent pause. Yes, they expected the answer, but the response still carries its share of untold stories of war and limitless hardship underneath, and in this case, as recent as September. “And where in Syria do you come from?”  Another politely habitual question… “Aleppo.”  Another short silent pause. Again, it’s a typical response as there are thousands of Syrians from Aleppo, like Mohammad, living in Athens. Nonetheless, images of white concrete rubble extending for miles and miles flutter in and out of our consciousness as we continue to converse.

Aleppo, the largest city in Syria, after several years of war.

Here we were, enjoying a typical holiday meal, ready to share our deepest gratitudes, in an air of lightness, ease, and joy, as our guests of honor join us from different worlds. How do we hold our two worlds together? How to bridge the oceanic gaps between us? Perhaps we already were.

I serve Mohammad some of my and Vanessa’s favorite vegan Thanksgiving dishes: a plate of homemade mashed potatoes and mushroom gravy, coconut curry squash stew with roasted chickpeas, and beets in balsamic and orange zest sauce. Vanessa humorously explains our search for cranberry sauce, which was nonexistent in Athens. Mohammad smiles at me warmly as I serve him, and I see that there is peace and gratitude in his eyes. The conversation continued.

Mohammad carried an air of respect, ease, and a subtle confidence built of trust while sitting and conversing with us throughout the evening. He was displaced from his homeland, but I could sense his deep rootedness and strength as he conversed. His english was imperfect, but his voice and intentions were heard clearly; he showed little or no embarrassment or shyness when asking for clarity or explaining that he could not understand our thick accented Irish brothers. In one sense, he was a stranger among us; but in another, we were the strangers in this new land, and learning deeply about his world.

Syrians regard jasmine as their national flower. Here, a branch of jasmine blooms with Damascus in the background.

The conversation naturally grew lighter, as he and Dermot joked about what American shows he watched to learn English while growing up in Syria. Our friends gradually learned that Muhammad was a young doctor, having just finished med school training, merely months before fleeing Aleppo and arriving in Athens. He was from a well to do family in Syria who provided him with excellent values and education throughout his life. But virtually no one, especially from Aleppo was able to escape the devastation. His family had lost nearly everything except their lives as they fled to Turkey. His 18 year old brother escaped to Germany two years ago and Mohammad had been trying to arrive there with him as well, but that road had been blocked multiple times and he was struggling to find another way through. Even a young and talented doctor, fully educated, versed in multiple languages, bright, handsome, of wealthy background, and of upright bearing – even one this blessed was searching to find a path forward in the aftermath.

We were thrilled that Mohammad could celebrate Thanksgiving with us, and revelled in all its novelties, including his first taste of apple pie, which he had also only previously known from the movies. While Mohammad was clearly enjoying his pie quietly, I watched him pause for a few moments in reflection. Then with an almost giddy smile, he shared something with us. “This is the first time I have been with non-Arabic people.” We all looked at him, as our eyes lit up, our mouths opened wide in awe. “Wows” and “Ahas” erupted among us, as our hands went in the air in celebratory exclamation. I had expected for this to be Mohammad’s first Thanksgiving ever, but I had never considered that it might be his first gathering with non-arabic people. That is, his first meal with white people. “What an honor for us to have you here, Mohammad! We get to share this special moment with you, and what a privilege!”  Hearing this news greatly increased how special the evening felt for all of us.

Francie expresses a beaming smile and happiness across the dinner table as we share Thanksgiving.

A lively and joyful conversation ensued for some time, and would have easily lasted the entire evening as well if we had wanted. But we really wished to bring out the very best of our tradition, so I invited a bell and transitioned us ahead. “It’s a custom for many of us and our families back home in the States, that on this special holiday, we take time to share our gratitudes for this life: our precious friendships, nourishing and delicious food, our health and family, the gorgeous blue sky, our beloved community, and so on. We have so much to be thankful for. Sharing such blessings with each other makes them feel more real in our lives, and even increases their abundance. Tonight, this evening is made even more special as we have the presence of two special guests of honor: Bara and Mohammad. Thank you for being here dear brothers, for receiving the specialness of our holiday, and blessing our evening with your presence.”

We went around the table, each of us reflecting on our deepest gratitudes at this period of our lives. It was so moving to hear everyone share, but it was our guests of honor who really captured our deepest attention and awe.

After a few moments of silence between us and the glowing candles glowing between us, Bara jumped in, speaking bravely before the rest of us. Offering his respect and enthusiasm, Bara stood up while beginning to share. “Thank you for welcoming me so beautifully with you tonight. The food is really so good, wow, yes so delicious. And now I asked Leonie about maybe becoming a vegetarian.” Everyone laughed out loud with him while also hearing his sincerity, knowing his strong preferences for non-vegetarian dishes. Bara continued English, while filling in gaps in French, his more fluent tongue next to native Senegalese dialect. “But seriously, I really appreciate this beautiful time with all of you. I have not felt such lightness and ease and peace in my heart as I feel tonight in some many years.” We all dropped into a deep listening silence as he spoke. “The silence and energy here and your presence is very healing for me. And I feel you are all my brothers and sisters. Yes, truly. Because in our world, it really means something when we see past colors, and it’s not just about being black and white…”  Bara’s words quickly became emotional and he stopped speaking in mid sentence. “I’m sorry, I need to go outside now. Please excuse me”. We encouraged Bara to take his time and enjoy the fresh air as he stepped outside.

Although we didn’t understand completely what arose for Bara, we felt the pain in his heart that was able to spontaneously emerge from the depths of his gratitude. This pain was able to surface safely amidst the presence of our deep listening, and his uplifting words of gratitude. Being in the presence of a group of white friends, we represented all the wealthy European and North American countries which over decades, forbade him and his native brothers from entering our lands and working alongside us. While sensitive to his pain, we were comforted by his words that healing and peace was taking place within him, in the midst of our fellowship. One by one, throughout the rest of the evening, Bara conveyed his heartfelt gratitude and joy to each of us, illustrating with his big smile and intimate eyes how dearly he enjoyed the evening. With childish enthusiasm, he promised that soon enough, he would be treating us all to a proper Senegalese feast as well.

The following week, Bara offered us a Senegalese dish, West African nut stew. (Delicious!)

Again, silence returned amidst flickering candlelight around white blossoms and bold persimmons, as we waited for the next person to share. “Okay, I’ll go.”  Following the form that he had seen, Mohammed put his hands together in front of his chest and bent his chest in a slight bow forward. As if to remove anything blocking his throat, he projected his voice firmly and clearly.

“The war destroyed everything for us.” He paused, half nodding to affirm his reality, as our ears lit up to receive his powerful sharing. “Yes, we lost everything.  During that whole time and since I have come here to Greece, I have never felt such peace as I feel here with you.” I felt both startled by the power of his statement, as well as moved for his depth of his gratitude in this moment. The directness of his eyes and openness of his words towards each us held nothing back. “It’s so nice to be here with you. The food has been delicious, and your hospitality is remarkable. I want to thank all of you for inviting me and being so warm and open. It is very special for me to know all of you.” Then he stopped and paused for a moment before continuing. “If it weren’t for the war, then I would never have been able to be here tonight and know all of you.” Mohammad looked like he was full of emotion, as if he hadn’t even conceived that that would come out. We all just sat there in pure silence, half-amazed, and half-processing the power and meaning of his words. Hearing him speak about both the war in his country and his gratitude for our friendship was like watching a jasmine flower rise from a sea of fire.

Who knew? Who of us knew that sharing sharing a simple yet heartfelt holiday dinner from our homeland in a spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood, filled with moments of silence, and in an atmosphere of acceptance and gratitude… who knew that such simple gifts could offer such radical happiness and healing for each other? It’s so simple. And yet, so powerful. If we have a community that can do this together, then we are beyond lucky. A community that is able to offer warmth, friendliness, the peace of shared silence, simple nourishing foods, deep listening, and an openness to gratitude – these are the precious gifts that so many of us have been waiting for in our lives. If we have such gifts, then we can embrace many people, including others, and heal wounds that may be buried in our hearts for many years.

Now, we are already planning out our Christmas and New Year’s gatherings – new occasions to embrace and celebrate each other with more friends.

Thanksgiving dinner together, shortly before Mohammad arrived.

Wake Up Athens Video

Greece Sangha Service in Action...

We are excited to share our first video of our Greece Sangha Service Project!

We are a group of 15 international friends practicing mindfulness, who met in Plum Village mindfulness center in the summer, and share the common aspiration to cultivate peace in the world by bringing our presence, thoughtfulness and care to every interaction. We felt a strong calling to come to Athens together in order to listen and learn, and to offer our support and compassion to a country that currently faces both a refugee and an economic crisis.

Here is our unfolding story... 

Thanks to your generous donations so far, we reached our initial goal and are now crowdfunding for phase two of the project!

Help us reach our new goal of 200%!

The funds raised will be overseen by a committee consisting of members of our community of mindful volunteers. Together, we have been envisioning long-term projects which will have positive and sustainable impacts upon the well-being of the most vulnerable populations in Greece. 

We wholeheartedly invite you to support our project!

Please support Our Mindfulness Service Project in Greece!

Thank you!!!

Responding Communally and Compassionately in Greece

Sanghabuild Arrives in Athens

November, 2017

Dear Beloved Community,

Greetings from Athens! It is with tremendous joy and dedicated hearts that we write to you from our blooming residential practice community in Greece: Wαkε Up Athεnα!

Over the past month, over a dozen of Wake Uppers have descended from diverse European countries and North America with the aspirations to live and practice together, listen deeply and learn, and serve the beautiful people, animals, and land here.

As many of you know, during the past several years, Greece has been a doorway for millions of migrants seeking refuge from war, persecution, and economic distress. They have risked everything: their homeland, savings, family members, and even their own lives, while hoping for a new way of life. The stories they are sharing with us reveal both the ever-resilient and tender loving heart of humanity, as well as the depths of human sorrow and tragedy.

We have come with a deep faith in the power and resiliency of our own beloved community and practice to support us in responding both communally and compassionately to this ongoing situation. First and foremost, we come here to learn, listen, and appreciate the strength, wisdom, and joy that has kept them alive and persevering through untold hardships. They are our teachers here, no doubt.

Beholding Athens, in all its glory and challenges

We also believe that as a community of practice, we have something to offer to the people, animals, and land here – that by our practice of deep listening and mindfulness in daily life, we may respond in ways that offer true friendship and support.

So far, we’ve been 15 practitioners strong, representing Germany, Ireland, France, Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands, the United States, and England. We are serving in refugee camps, community centers, and NGO’s in Athens, and in diverse capacities such as art therapy, physiotherapy, assistant cooks and staff in soup kitchens, mental health practitioners, legal support, construction, English and French language instruction, animal care, community gardening, and more! In coming weeks and months, we will also be offering mindfulness practice sessions for staff and volunteers in NGO’s around Athens who have requested our support. Some of us will be staying for one month, others two to four months, and still others indefinitely.

We begin every day by holding each other in meditation, words from our root Teacher, and a quiet communal breakfast. Most mornings we have a check-in sharing together, and every evening, we share a communal dinner in mindfulness to support our collective harmony and joy. We maintain a vegetarian diet and freedom from alcohol or other substances in our houses, and continuously support conscious communication with each other. Every week, we do something super fun in Athens to refresh our spirits and grow our wonder at the beauty of this land. We’re continually reassessing our weekly and daily practice together to better support each other and the Athens community.

Every morning, we gather in silence and joy, preparing our minds and hearts for whatever the day asks of us.

We have been blessed by the gracious support and abilities of our Sangha sister Leonie Meester, who has been living in Greece for two years already, and opened up the door for all of us to live together in two Sangha houses in Athens, located next to each other. We live in a migrant-rich neighborhood, allowing us to live in the same neighborhood with those we aspire to learn from, serve, and build relationships.

Perhaps our greatest lesson thus far is that we are most effective, receive and offer the most, through the simple yet priceless beauty of friendships we have been making, both with each other and with the diverse people living here. This is where our deepest joys and gratitudes have been manifesting so far.

We welcome people’s questions, encouragements, and support for our Sangha living and service experiment.

Bowing before the three jewels,

David Viafora, representing Wake Up Athena

To learn more, visit us on Facebook: Greece Sangha Service Project

The Abbot of Upper Hamlet in Plum Village, Thay Phap Huu offered us this calligraphy to support and encourage our efforts as a community of practice in Greece. It has been our prevailing mantra throughout.