Happiness Through Abstinence: How Thor Gonen and Itamar Bashan Found Enlightenment in Tel Aviv

Though they founded a Buddhist center in Israel's metropolis, there is nothing remotely New Agey about Gonen and Bashan. They talk about the long and bumpy road they’ve traveled to bring them to their present state of contentment.

Bili Moscona-Lerman
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Bili Moscona-Lerman

A living silence. That’s the feeling that emerges from what looks like a normal apartment, located on a street like any other in one of Tel Aviv’s many neighborhoods.

The apartment is inhabited by a man and a woman who have been married for 30-something years. They don’t eat together, go out together or even sleep together. Yet Itamar Bashan and Thor Gonen live a full life together.

Matthieu Ricard, a French professor of biology who became a Tibetan monk, once defined happiness as a sense of fullness devoid of urgency. Signs of such happiness were palpable in the couple’s home, in little details − like in the seemingly unobtrusive scattering of books throughout the place, with sentences underlined in sharp pencil; in the two bedrooms, whose doors were slightly ajar and each revealed a bed on which lay a folded blanket, a dresser and a reading lamp; and, most surprising of all, in the vase of brilliant orange flowers that burst out of the refrigerator when Gonen opened it to take out milk for coffee.

On the kitchen table was a poem by Yeats. Gonen had cut it from the newspaper at 3:30 A.M., for Bashan, when – as is her custom – she sat in the living room and read the paper’s literary section. On the kitchen counter were the remains of the orange juice he squeezed for her at 3 P.M., when she began her day.

Gonen has a PhD in education, is an expert in children’s literature and teaches at the Levinsky College of Education in Tel Aviv. Bashan has a doctorate in clinical psychology. A few years ago, after long months spent in a Buddhist monastery in England, Gonen decided to return to Tel Aviv. Together, they founded an “urban monastery,” which is visited every week by people young and old, who make themselves a cup of tea, then sit on the wooden floor and share silence for a time before beginning a dharma lesson, discussion or dialogue. The name of the sanctuary, located in north Tel Aviv, is Bhavana House and, as its website explains, “Bhavana, in Pali – the ancient language of the Buddhist canon – means meditation. In a fuller sense it means the unfolding and development of human potential, supported by the cultivation of wisdom and compassion.”

At this point it should be said: There is nothing the least bit New Agey about Gonen and Bashan. They are professional people, have certain political views, are involved in life, and are rational, incisive thinkers who are relevant – not spaced out and not about to smooth over reality in favor of “positive” approaches of one kind or another. On the contrary: They opt for tough and demanding work on the consciousness − agonizing Sisyphean labor aimed at breaking down conditioning and patterns of pleasure-seeking.

I came to them at the end of an inner quest. At the age of 57 I looked around and thought: What next? What will my life look like from now on? Taking stock, I came up with the following list: My job ‏(at the daily, Maariv‏), which had defined my professional identity and dictated my schedule, is over; my children are leading full lives and bearing children of their own; my parents are coping with being 80; friends around me are getting phone calls announcing illnesses that throws them instantly out of their day-to-day lives; and colleagues have entered politics and are sharpening swords to fight new battles.

I embarked on a search and ended up with a group of people of all ages who suddenly ‏(it’s always suddenly‏) had contracted the disease whose current statistic is one chance in three to keep on living. They were gathering in order to ask themselves how to take their remaining steps, and what they should cling to as “meaningful” so as to live a full, tranquil life with less suffering and without a sense of emptiness.

I was allowed to join in. I sat and listened and learned from them that the only thing they had determined as meaningful was relationships. They practiced an awareness of quiet − complete giving unrelated to any goal, slogan or path, but marked by an outward-directed movement. I turned to books to try to understand that movement, as it runs contrary to culture and education as social markers of competitive, hierarchical goals that seem to offer rewards and security.

By this route I arrived at the book “Until the Wake of Compassion: Buddhism, Meditation, Love” ‏(Carmel, 2012; in Hebrew‏). I read it and called the author, Gonen, who invited me to meet with her and Bashan, the man who shares his life with her. Opposite me sat a man and a woman of my age, light of movement and sharp of thought, who live according to the Buddhist path: a life of harmlessness, moderation in food and contentment.

But if you have snapped to attention and think you have found salvation, calm down. The road to them, and to being at their side, is one of rough gravel. And the coals I was asked to walk on barefoot so as to draw close to that place were not just embers but burned with a bright flame.

‘Thought becomes hungry’

The first question I asked Bashan was how, in an age in which sex is sometimes the “holy grail” of relationships, I was meeting a man and a woman who practice abstention. “Thor and I have a Rashomon tale about when it happened,” he replied. “But let’s just say that the first period of our life was very sexual and stormy. Afterward, in the wake of reading P.D. Ouspensky’s ‘In Search of the Miraculous,’ Thor underwent a transformation of consciousness. The woman I knew before she read the book was not the same woman she was afterward.

“Her urge for sex and her interest in having sex declined sharply, though it still existed in me,” he continued. “It wasn’t easy for me. Of course, social norms are also at work here, the most powerful of which is, ‘If I don’t have intercourse I am not a man.’ Socially, for me to declare ‘My wife doesn’t want it’ amounts to emasculation. But just at this point another factor entered: namely, personal development, which is the only reason for maintaining a couple’s relationship. Personal development in that relationship is far more important than sexuality. In this sense, psychological therapy and Buddhism are very much alike.

“A great many couples find themselves in this situation, and come up with all kinds of solutions. They separate, or find parallel relationships, or create thrills for themselves in some sort of arrangement and thus revivify desire. Most people are afraid to lose that place in their life, because sexual power has enormous influence on people. The only problem is that the thrill passes and then so does the power.

“So the question arises: You are part of a couple, so what happens when one of the partners has gone through changes, but at the same time there is an absolute commitment to being a couple? What are my possibilities? To demand it from her, be angry at her or forgo it. This is the point at which the work begins: to retain sexual energy, which is a natural energy, but not to actualize it. Not to be driven by that place; to observe the desire, the passion, the covetousness and to abide with it and preserve a balance, without satisfying that hunger.

“Usually, automatically we take everything we want at a given moment: cookies, television programs, a Caribbean vacation. We take without being aware of how thought works. Thought works by encountering reality through our senses and constantly being in a state of ‘I want this and I do not want that, this is nice and that is not.’ We pull closer and we pull back.

“By practicing abstention you break this process by not acceding to the urge. Then thought becomes hungry. When you constantly take, you do not feel that hunger, and you do not see that the hunger resides in thought. If you do not yield to the hunger, you see up-close the covetous hungry movement, and through observing you also learn that by taking, you quiet that hunger down momentarily − until the next urge.

“In other words, you stop the movement of ‘having sex, experiencing satisfaction, getting rid of the hungry urge.’ But when you stop, you manage with it and start to ask: What is this hunger and how do I comport myself with it? In fact, the essence of couplehood, and of relationships in general, is to be with the hunger, to abide within the unsatisfied places. To stop and say, ‘I am not satisfied, I am hungry, what do I do now?’

“A large part of my relationship with Thor consists of being with the hunger, of living with the unsatisfied places. Of stopping to observe and to ask, ‘How do I live with this?’ That, as I see it, is the major work in a relationship.

“Here, I am at odds with Eva Illouz, who wrote [Haaretz Magazine, February 15] that couple relationships are worthwhile because they provide, first of all, sexuality and birth, mutual leisure time consumption and emotional intimacy. I say she misses the main point − namely, that couplehood enables one to develop. That is the core of it. Not the children, not the sexuality, not spending leisure time together. Rather, it is precisely the restrictions, the friction and dealing with all this that gives rise to the ability not to be occupied constantly with yourself and your needs, but to open yourself to the other and to his needs.

“Most people do not really see their partners, but live in a type of ‘arrangement’ that revolves around satisfaction of their needs. It is precisely through the practice of renunciation in couple relations that a perception develops which seeps into life itself. It is hard to even describe the scale of the growth that develops through this form of training: generosity, seeing the other, thoughtfulness.”

We are sitting in the living room, next to a kitchenette in which very little cooking is done, if any. The couple’s apartment contains almost no furniture and has no rugs; a light color dominates. Gonen listens to the conversation, all the while mending, with quiet, precise movements, a thin silk cloth like one of those she wears, in which she appears ethereal, transparent, as though disembodied. In stark contrast to the quiet patchwork, her roiling presence is felt even when she does not utter a sound. I ask her if she felt guilty or uncomfortable when she marked herself as “no longer sexual” within the relationship.

She wrinkles her brow in total surprise: “Why guilty? A person needs to respect himself in the way in which he chooses to act in the world,” she replies as she continues to puncture the gossamer textile with needle and thread.

But, I say, we are educated to satisfy needs − that is our cultural conditioning as women. In response, Bashan leans back in the armchair and laughs loudly. “Thor is one of the few women I know who is totally free of cultural conditioning, be it gender-based or any other,” he says.

Loving the way

“Until the Wake of Compassion,” Gonen’s first book, is riveting, above all, because of her ability to bend language into unfamiliar forms − and also because of the plot. It’s a story about a student who falls in love with her beautiful teacher. “You have not fallen in love with me,” she tells the student. “You have fallen in love with the way.”

The reader follows the relationship between the two, in which the student undergoes a transformation of consciousness: from a snobby north Tel Aviv blonde who drives an SUV and hangs out in bars, into a completely different woman. “I am the teacher in the book,” Gonen says, “and the student is like a mosaic of all my students, men and women, in university and at the teachers’ college.”

On the table in the living room is a stack of black-and-white photos of Gonen as a young woman, dressed completely in black, extravagant, pulsating with a dark sensuality, almost always with a cigarette, charmed and charming, hypnotized and hypnotic.

How did the persona reflected in that pose morph into the unflinching, alert, penetrating intelligence that is reflected in her gaze today? Her eyes reflect disenchantment, disillusionment; they are almost translucent and at moments penetrate one’s very core.

These two opposing river banks form one biography − of the woman sitting opposite me at this moment, next to the table, and mending with quiet, round movements, as though there is no tomorrow, creating a tiny hole in flimsy silk.

“Only when the stormy wind dies down does wisdom break through, and at such a marvelous price, the price of my life,” she writes in the book.

To understand the road Gonen traveled, we have to go back to the 1970s in Haifa. She was a young artist, striking in appearance, always dressed in black and always holding books by Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, Gogol or de Maupassant. She was sexually free and uninhibited in her behavior, in her approach to people, in the absence of boundaries, in not caring for body or psyche. From her perspective, she and the world were one, and thus she made her way through it, with full confidence and without a drop of caution, abandoning herself fearlessly to every experience that came her way.

“Paradoxically, from an early age I harbored a deep understanding that we are not born to partake of pleasure, to eat, to have only fun, to multiply. It was clear to me that we are here for something else. What is that something else? I searched for years. Not finding it drove me crazy. The whole world around said that there is nothing else. But I went on searching madly for someone to answer this question for me: What is life for? That was my research question.

“Because I was very much alone, books were my mental nourishment. I found in them pain, beauty, emotion and sensual enjoyment, but I did not find the answer to my question: What is life for? In my loneliness and disquiet, I slid into the romanticism of the tormented artist, who dresses in black, wears heavy makeup, has an ashen face, uses black nail polish and lipstick. With all the attendant drama, and including the art I presented to the world. I did installations in which I declared my death; I printed black death notices with a recording of a eulogy; I wrapped myself like a mummy in Scotch tape within a glass showcase that I built.”

Thor studied art in Haifa and recalls others in the arts who were her fellow students ‏and teachers (Moshe Givati, Michael Gross, Aryeh Navon, Aliza Shenhar and Sima Slonim). “Around that time I started to do nude modeling. I was always singled out as ‘the crazy woman,’ things I said caused a ruckus. My mother was in despair. She was a Holocaust survivor who, with my father, came to Israel broken, body and soul. We lived next to the Armon movie theater [in Haifa], and every evening at seven its roof opened and I stood on the balcony and watched all the movies, burning into my memory the dialogues, the hairdos, the mannerisms.

“When I arrived in London at 22 to study art, the first thing I bought was a fox fur. I was raised by a refugee couple. There was nothing to eat, but they sent me to the private Alliance School and paid five full Israel pounds out of a monthly salary of 12 pounds. I was their ‘life project.’ My mother didn’t recognize me, didn’t understand my aspirations. She would beat herself in despair at the daughter she gave birth to.

“She came from an Orthodox home in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a very kind but earthy woman who did not speak about what she underwent ‘there.’ As a girl, I understood very quickly that I would get no answers from her. My mother was a gray ‘bunker’ − a woman of daily bread who mended clothes silently, kept the house spotless and cooked chicken soup every afternoon. There was no talking, no hugging, no kissing. There were no sweets, she stifled everything. I would go crazy every which way and she remained rooted to the spot, like a pillar.”

Traveling with abandon

In 1972, as an art student in London, Gonen earned money as a housecleaner and from nude modeling. Young, thin, strong and muscular, she sat for hours in front of artists and changed her position every three minutes. Her disquiet was channeled into travels from one place to another. She had a regular ritual: Arriving alone in a foreign city, she checked her suitcase and went to look for a room. In Barcelona she rented one near an iron foundry, and every night her window burned with fire. Unable to abide Franco’s Spain, she went to Andorra, hitchhiked to southern France and afterward to Amsterdam. In 1974, she landed in Iceland and boarded a domestic flight on a 10-seat plane to subterranean caves with water from hot springs.

“I found myself in a bar with a strange man. ‘Where are the tours to the caves?’ I asked. ‘Come with me,’ he said. I found myself in a cave with a stranger in water, unclothed, of course. I parted from him and said, ‘Come to Israel.’ One day he showed up and I had no idea what to do with him. I hitchhiked across the whole of Europe, from country to country, without leaving a trace behind. I lived a suicidal life in which I could have disappeared. I hooked up with total strangers and kept on going.

“When I got back to Israel I met Itamar on a bus to the university. It was winter and he was wearing a scarf and looked to me like the Little Prince. I went over and gave him my address. We began an intense relationship, but everything I touched I destroyed instantly. It was no different with Itamar. And when I pulled myself together and wanted to go back to him, he said, ‘Not interested.’”

Bashan: “I felt that the relationship with her was more than I could handle. I was 24 and she was 27, and to enter into another round seemed like opting for suicide with eyes open.”

“I was in despair of myself at the time,” Gonen adds. “I was a wreck, I was no longer myself. I decided to leave art and enrolled in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem for an M.A. in librarianship. I found an apartment at 7 Ibn Ezra Street – a tiny laundry room and toilet belonging to a house in Rehavia.

“I met Dr. Avi Griffel. He told me to read Ouspensky’s ‘In Search of the Miraculous,’ and afterward I understood for the first time why not to commit suicide. I read nonstop. I didn’t sleep, I didn’t eat, I felt my brain switching tapes; I understood the automaton-like nature of human beings, human mechanical-ness − the fact that most of the world is asleep and there are people who choose not to sleep in favor of life. I grasped that the awakened state exacts an immense price; that one can follow that path, but a person must go against himself to attain salvation.

“Because I was in a state of ruin, I was able to absorb other materials, and then I made the decision to behave differently. To stop my capricious behavior. Until then, I had moved about without informing anyone, constantly changing addresses. I told myself: ‘Stop.’ It was like an emergency stop. I started to act against all my urges, against what I had been. I stopped wearing black, I put away the dramatic 1920s dresses, I abandoned the high heels. I stopped painting, stopped writing, stopped putting on makeup, removed the jewelry, broke the pattern of hooking up with men and then leaving them, and discarded the morbid look.

“I no longer hitchhiked but started to take buses, and that has continued to this day. I experienced a mind switch. Like someone who is electrocuted and rewired. The new way stunned me, my whole psyche changed. I lost my instinctual drives, the libido. I felt like someone who has blundered across the desert for years and reaches an oasis where he can drink and shower. I understood that life in the desert had burned me, and I had found sweet new waters. A sense of determination and gratitude awoke within me.

“I became happier, more collected, more focused. I felt as though I had been reborn. Now, when someone comes to study with me and I see he is wavering, I tell him: ‘Go and suffer a little more. You haven’t suffered enough.’”

To bathe in the laundry room in which she was living, Gonen recalls that she poured hot water into an iron tub. Snow fell on the streets of Jerusalem. She pinned a note on her door: “Please do not disturb until September 1979.” Bashan, who was a psychology student in Jerusalem at the time, disturbed her until she opened the door.

“My form remained the same as it was,” Gonen says, “but the person I had been was dead. My speech was different, the way I observed things was different, and I had new knowledge, along with seriousness.”

“The woman on whose door I knocked that winter was not the same woman I had known three months earlier,” Bashan says, adding that he rented a place above her in the same building. They were married a few months later, in the office of a Haifa rabbi. At the end of the academic year, they packed a knapsack and headed east.

“I need Thor’s dramatic side, it awakens me,” Bashan says. “She switches her angle of vision easily, she detaches and then plants herself in a different place; she shakes things up and is receptive to new things; she shakes things out, whereas I tend to root myself. One morning she said, ‘We are sinking into the armchair, we need to move.’ We packed knapsacks and landed in Thailand. We backpacked in India and Nepal, and that sharpened things for me about myself.”

When they got back, Gonen was invited to establish a research library at the Israel Museum. There she became acquainted with children’s book illustrating and met Prof. Joseph Schwarcz, who suggested she write the first doctoral dissertation by an Israeli on the subject of illustrations for children’s books. She and Bashan moved to Haifa, where he completed his degree work in Carmel Medical Center and wrote a dissertation in clinical psychology. They became parents to Gaya, now 30, who is a practitioner of Chinese medicine and is doing an internship in social work.

Understanding suffering

I now apply the brakes and come to a screeching halt in order to look more closely at something: a man and a woman who have been together for 35 years and yet show no signs of fatigue. How do they live? What is their daily schedule? Their weekly routine? What sustains this tranquillity? I use a magnifying glass, then grope. Is this tranquillity made of plastic? Cardboard? And the regular, patient breathing: Is that real oxygen?

“The first goal,” Gonen writes in the book, “is to become present in the automatic implicative and associative process. The process through which you constantly see the world − mistakenly, of course. You see, taste, smell, feel, touch and your consciousness immediately attaches imaginary, interpretive implications to this. If you practice observation of everything that arises in your consciousness, you will discover how burdened the consciousness is with memory, opinions, preferences, groundless stories.

“You will understand how few the moments of direct knowledge are, in which you realize that what you call ‘self’ is constantly changing. You label and classify what is pleasant and unpleasant to you. Very quickly these preferences become habit and the habit solidifies into character. This mental process is very rapid and repeats itself uninterrupted for many years, thus creating the ‘self.’ And because we all live in an environment saturated with stimuli and have not learned to be aware of the way they act on us, we are constantly activated. Buffeted about, we cling to the ‘pleasant’ and reject the ‘unpleasant.’

“Suffering is engendered between the clinging and the rejection. In my case,” Gonen writes in the book, “the practice was to do for many years only what I did not like doing − only what I did not want to do. It was a difficult path, which helped me break down my automatic assent to everything I found pleasant.

“For example, I had a powerful revulsion from hair − my own and others’. It revolted me in the most extraordinary way. To get rid of the revulsion I forced myself to come into contact with it. I became an apprentice in a beauty parlor on King George Street. This was when I was already a tutor and researcher myself, 15 years ago. I spent a few months there, working with hair every day. I shampooed, combed, swept the floor and cleaned up − wet and dry hair.

“I did the same thing in a monastery. I cleaned the showers, all the gunge people left behind. That was my way of forgoing ‘like,’ ‘don’t like.’ It is a hard way, but it taught me, after a few years of practice, to treat things in a balanced manner, with equanimity.”

Itamar, as a psychologist do you believe in this extremely difficult, elusive and deceptive training of the consciousness? It’s like walking a tightrope above an abyss. Who is capable of entering this desert in which there are no comforting materials of consumption, no stores, no restaurants, no spectacular trips to Tuscany? Why is it vital for us to enter this cruel hell you are offering as part of your teaching at the center?

Bashan: “It is not taming or suppressing, it is a call to be present; nor is it elusive and deceptive. It is the path that leads to a diminishment of suffering, to a sustainable absence of distress, with no conditions. The point is that everything changes, but we treat the reality of our life as though everything is permanent. An impressive man was in treatment with me − a former member of the Sayeret Matkal elite commando unit, who was now in high-tech and happily married, came to me for therapy. His life was perfect. And then cancer struck.

“He came to learn how to meditate, how to separate himself, in an attempt to gain some understanding in the time he had left. I visited him every day in the hospital. We sat with the black vomit around, and talked. But it is best to undertake this process while we are still healthy. People lead a life filled with desire and the pursuit of pleasure and honor, and then abruptly fall ill, get old, experience separation, an economic crisis, the sickness of a child or other things, and at that moment they face a wall − lost. Why? Because throughout our lives we look for security, satisfaction and happiness: in career, family, economic success, publicity, sex, achievements, pleasures, social status. All that is fine, but it is crucial to understand that it is not the essence, that it is all temporary and susceptible to change and is therefore not a stable haven.”

Still, is it right and proper to be rid of suffering? Is suffering not built into existence, an inherent element of life itself? Is it not a megalomaniacal act to learn how to peel away suffering from life?

“No one is above aging, sickness, death, disasters and situations of social and political suppression. Suffering and distress are inbuilt in vulnerable human existence; there is no need or possibility to ‘peel’ them off or get rid of them. Getting rid is a movement of conscious violent rejection, and that is not what the Buddhist way seeks.

“You have to understand that the word ‘suffering,’ which is the Western translation for the Buddhist termdukkha, is inaccurate and a source of misunderstanding. When the Buddha says that ‘All is dukkha,’ he is referring to an inner response of unease and psychological dissatisfaction toward states of distress. It is a second arrow atop a first arrow. The first arrow is reality itself, which is fraught with suffering and difficulty. The Buddhist way seeks to unsheathe the second arrow, whose manifestations are dissatisfaction, anger, envy, insatiable covetousness, disquiet, self-doubt, arrogance, morbidity and more.

“Paradoxically, though, only suffering can awaken us. It engenders within us a potential for transformation. Suffering is a type of shock, which demands our full attention. It deepens our compassion for others, makes us ask existential questions, and shows us where we went wrong in understanding reality. ‘Suffering must be penetrated and understood’ is what this way says. The approach to suffering lies not in being rid of it but in understanding it, in a gentle movement of awareness aimed at abandoning the second arrow. This does not mean emotional disengagement or rejection, but the ability to recognize the existence of the first arrow and the ability to accommodate it as far as possible in our life.”

Does the gaze that stops and observes, on which the practice of this way rests, not lose the force of life, the desire to change, to be active, to fight against injustice, to take to the street, to shout, to rage, to do battle for a more just world?

“A gaze that stops and observes wisely does not block us from taking social action − on the contrary,” Bashan says. “The inner movement toward being active, taking to the street, fighting injustice awakens more intensively, but the driving force behind engaging in social-political action need not be passion or anger. When identification with the interest of the self weakens and is replaced by a broader view of the reciprocal relations that exist between all people and phenomena − the heart opens.

“Clarity develops concerning the fact that suffering is not the lot of one side only. We are aware of the suffering not only of ‘the poor of our city,’ but also of the suffering of others in general. Not only the suffering of the weak and the deprived, but to the same degree, the suffering of political and economic plunderers, whose consciousness is poisoned and pervaded with violence, insensitivity and a patronizing attitude.

“The actions we take are not militant in character, or such as are liable to deteriorate into mistakes that inflict suffering. We take part as much as we are able to in protests against the occupation and against anomalies in Israeli society, and we participate in broad social circles and also in the narrow circles of our lives, even if we hold out no expectation that any of this will bear fruit in the coming years. We are less buffeted between sweeping enthusiasm or total despair. The character of the activity is different.”

Now we move on to the realms of doubt, suspicion, envy and grinding of teeth: Two days a week Gonen and Bashan hold a “home retreat,” in which they pass the day in silence and observation. This is effectively the essence of Buddhist practice. And because they did not invent Buddhism, and because some of us have already sat here or there with eyes shut and even taken various courses on Buddhism, I ask myself why, this time, these words fall into a container that drinks them in thirstily.

My first conclusion is that it’s because of age: the sense of time that is running out and the understanding that all those leaps into the air bring only momentary relief which is usually followed by emptiness and a new hurdle. From this perspective, one can only applaud all the 30-somethings who fill the small study space in Tel Aviv in order to examine possibilities other than to obey the cultural signpost that beckons them to competitiveness, achievement, materialism and pleasure.

“Half a life goes by,” Gonen writes in her book, in a sentence I second, “without your noticing it.” And she continues: “Without mindfulness, you are a mere automaton and the world is dead. You need constantly stronger stimuli in order to be awakened, and more potent stimuli in order to feel that you are alive. And then you cannot make do with simple enjoyment, with just walking, with what can be called everyday life. That requires patience: to stop searching for prey and to start to observe.”

Love, actually

Thor Gonen’s “Until the Wake of Compassion” is actually a philosophical work with a lively, funny-sad voice, aimed at everyone who understands and feels that to exist is to suffer, and wants to find refuge from it. And if one doesn’t want to be dramatic, or one is still young, the term “disenchantment” will do. Disenchantment with everything: one’s body, consciousness, thoughts, deeds, life experience. One moment someone exists, and the next moment he is gone. One moment we want something, the next we don’t. Who, then, is this flip-flop self that is us, Gonen asks in the book, and how do we live with that self?

The story is told through a journey of two women. One is older and has already embarked on the path; the other is young and has barely taken a first step. But the former has no pity for the latter.

Gonen: “Here is what is most important to understand: what I call direct realization. People can go through a whole lifetime, without trying to ask one meaningful question between birth and death, even if the question has no answer. People caught up in their mechanical movement relate only to what takes them from one place to the next, quickly and efficiently.

“What is it that prompts young people, or people at all, to try to observe that place? Only the sense of suffering. Suffering, the teacher tells the pupil, is what prepares us for this encounter. With anything less than that, nothing will happen. To identify the way, regular disenchantment − of the kind that can be assuaged by a movie, a cafe, a trip, a new outfit, random sex − will not be enough for us. What’s needed is knowledge that contains love. Love of a different order, which contains the clear knowledge that the life we have lived until now is no longer an option for us.”

On the way there, Gonen shows how she looked into her “self.” By peeling away pride, illusions, conditioning, patterns, culture − until she dared stand at the edge of the abyss. At that moment, at the place where fear falls away and one looks straight ahead, a miracle occurs. Something within opens. A transformation is wrought in which softening takes place − first of all toward oneself, and afterward toward all others. One becomes present, relaxed, open to feeling. Martin Buber called it I-You.

And this, I think to myself, is love, actually.

Thor Gonen and Itamar Bashan.Credit: Ilya Melnikov
Gonen in the 1980s. “The awakened state exacts an immense price,” she asserts today.Credit: Gaya Bashan
Thor Gonen’s “Until the Wake of Compassion.”
Thor Gonen and Itamar Bashan in Tel Aviv. Gonen: “When someone comes to study with me and I see he is wavering, I tell him: ‘Go and suffer a little more. You haven’t suffered enough.’”Credit: Ilya Melnikov

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