Originally published in Comfort Zone Newsletter: August 2010
This summer I went to Israel. The whole idea sounded overwhelming, but my dear non-HSP husband talked me into it. He had been to Israel ten years ago for an academic meeting and was very moved by his experience, mostly of the Old City of Jerusalem. When we heard that the International Society of Relationship Researchers was having their conference there this year, Art urged me to attend with him. An HSP there, Beata Shabun, had been in contact with me already, so I asked her if she would like me to speak while there. It involved a great deal of organizing, but she was game, and we made a plan for me to give a talk July 24, a free evening for me during the relationship conference.
Because of the heat, coming to Israel in July is a bit crazy, but academics prefer their conferences to be in summer, of course, so July it was. And very hot. Israelis appear to be used to it, and to cold as well. Often when I stepped indoors I was freezing from the air conditioning while they were in shirt sleeves. I had to carry a jacket everywhere, which must have looked ridiculous to Israelis, especially when I was walking outside in 100 degree weather.
Here is what happened the first time I met Beata. She came to my hotel two days before the talk. My room had a shaded balcony facing the beach, really a shady little oven, but I thought she might like to sit out on it because it had a nice ocean view, and after all, she was Israeli. Used to it. When I saw her, first I felt how soft and sensitive she was–no “sabra” or prickly pear, a term for “typical” Israeli women. So much for stereotypes. About the balcony, she immediately said, “I prefer indoors–because of the heat.” Exactly what I would have said–if I had not wanted to accommodate what I thought was a heat-adapted Israeli. I asked her if she had trouble with being too cold with air conditioning and she said yes, she always has to carry a jacket! I knew I had found a fellow HSP. (We generally find we have a narrower range of temperature comfort than many non-sensitive people do.)
During my time with Beata, besides becoming enormously fond of each other, we kept finding our similarities. I had prepared my talk for the conference long before we left home; Art had finished his the night before, around 1 am. Beata said she is like me–she prepares far ahead. Similarly, the night of my talk she gave a brief talk as well, and the next day she said she had “stared at the sink all day.” Being at a conference, I couldn’t quite do that, but I understood well. I would have welcomed a 12-hour look at a sink.
“Most men [and women] remain [nervous when speaking publicly] throughout their lives; but this appears to depend on the consciousness of a great coming exertion, with its associated effects on the system, rather than on shyness…” Darwin was describing HSPs.
50 to 500 to…?
A year ago, about 50 people were signed up on Beata’s website for Israeli HSPs. Today there are over 500, some of them meeting together regularly and communicating on the internet. On this hot July evening, about 80 came to the talk in Tel Aviv, and they were definitely HSPs. For example, Beata said Israelis generally do not think it is rude to use a cell phone during a lecture, but even to her surprise, no one did this night. The room was silent and attentive. As I should have known. HSPs are the same all over the world. Looking out at their faces and seeing their warm, supportive expressions made me feel at home.
Among those attending was Beata’s close friend and fellow HSP, Shir Arbel; Amir Glick, in whose yoga studio we met; another HSP I had communicated with before, Elan Bank-Israel; and Dr Shail Tal, whose Focus Press is publishing The Highly Sensitive Person in Hebrew. I knew he was a bit anxious about taking on this strange book, but I think he was very reassured that night.
At the Center of It All, Jerusalem
I had come mostly to see Jerusalem. Having decided to go to there, I read Karen Armstrong’s Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths. Perhaps it was that which oriented my heart so much to what she calls the Haram, the Arabic term for a holy site (their third most holy), and what Israelis call the Temple Mount. Therein lies the tension–Muslims view this small plateau as holy because there is a rock thought to be where Abraham almost sacrificed Isaac, and where Mohammed ascended through seven layers of heaven and came face-to-face with God. For the Jews it is simply the most sacred place on earth, the place where God dwells. The Mount is where Solomon built the temple for the Ark, which Moses received from God and David brought to Jerusalem (with God’s permission). Although the Ark was lost after the Temple was destroyed, the Temple was rebuilt with the same design, and the room where the Ark would have been became the Devir, the holiest of holiest, entered only one day of the year, Yom Kippur, and by only one person, the high priest. Right now, the Jews worship at the Western Wall, which is the remaining wall of a foundation for the second Temple, built when Herod was remodeling and expanding it in 19 B.C.
Perhaps it was not reading Armstrong’s book that gave me this special feeling for the Haram/Temple Mount. I think it came before that, hearing the Psalm that fascinated me in childhood: “I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go unto the house of the Lord.” I always wondered about that house.
As soon as we arrived in Jerusalem I was looking for it, but the Old City is hard to see through the maze of modern buildings in West Jerusalem. After dinner I dragged the others towards the Old City until I could see its lit-up walls and towers. Seeing it brought tears to my eyes. More tears came the next day when we climbed up on the city ramparts and I could see for the first time the Haram, and standing at its center the huge, golden Dome of the Rock, built in 691 to cover that precious spot, that rock. This place has been sacred since the Bronze Age as having a special purity, a nearness to the divine, which makes people want to be there. A little girl inside was singing, “I was glad when they said unto me,” let’s go to Jerusalem and see this thing.
At the Center of the Center of It All
The next day, I made it as far as the Western Wall, where I was surprised to see a structure much like the shelters built over ancient siege machines drawn up to the wall. It was in fact the only way for non-Muslims to reach the Haram. According to some rabbis, Jews are not supposed to go there because they do not know where the Devir is and so might step into it. Other rabbis teach that Jews should not go there until the Messiah comes. But that aside, anyone with a bit of determination can go if it is at the proper time (a narrow time slot and only on some days). You go through the security check point and walk up the wooden-slat-covered ramp, which we did the next day.
I cannot describe the peace I sensed up there. Muslims alone, in groups or in families, were silently walking around. Or lounging under the olive trees–Muhammad taught that mosques and their environments (actually, the Dome of the Rock is not a mosque, but a mosque is also up there) are a part of normal life, not set aside. Tour groups from various countries were also walking around, but respectfully. It seemed serene and far removed from the chaos below.
I sat down on a marble edge running around the Dome, facing where the Temple is thought to have been situated. I closed my eyes to meditate there a moment, and I had an extraordinary inner experience, perhaps the most important I will ever have. However, should you ever go there yourself, I will let you have your own, without interference from remembering mine.
The Pure and Impure, So Close Together
The times when I have been around holy people and places, I have found that around them, at a slight distance, there is often more tension and negativity than elsewhere. People push, wrangle, and plot, and of course it is true in Jerusalem, with around it the tension in Israel, and around that, the entire Middle East problem. Many Israelis and Palestinians truly hate each other, each for excellent reasons, as reasons for hate go.
Even within the groups there are battles. At the Western Wall, I’ve heard that ultra orthodox Jewish men have thrown things at reformed Jewish women holding Bat Mitzvahs for girls. And continuing the battle of the sexes, one night a group of women moved over the barrier at the wall (which leaves about 1/3 for women and 2/3 for men) in order to make the two spaces more equal. Meanwhile at Christian sites, various sects have resorted to blows over who is officially in charge of various parts of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and at sites along the “Via Dolorosa,” the street where the Stations of the Cross were identified during the Byzantine Era (330-1453). Their locations were not finally agreed upon until the nineteenth century, and now most are thought to be wrongly placed–but in the general area. And earlier when we visited a mosque in another holy site, the tour guide who offered himself to us mostly wanted to be sure we knew that Sunnis like himself, only about a third of Muslims, are peaceful, unlike the “crazy radical Shiites.”
On top of that, the four of us who had travelled smoothly and joyfully (often laughing hysterically at our misadventures) had our one tense moment while touring the Old City. It was as if what each of us wanted to see and do had become terribly important, so that it was hard to be easy going any more.
I felt peace again on the Mt. of Olives, where I was standing on land where certain things occurred without a doubt. There is a place on that quiet hillside facing the city, where Jesus is said to have wept as he looked across the Valley of Kidron to the Temple Mount and saw the coming destruction of Jerusalem, which did happen not long after his death. I must say that while looking across there myself, I thought, “It doesn’t take much divine intuition to imagine it happening again.” But my goal in coming in Jerusalem was more than “to walk where He had walked.”
If asked before going about my purpose, I would have said that I wanted to observe how this place touches people. To be a witness to humanity here, as opposed to, say, a shopping mall or the Fourth of July. There is actually a disorder called “Jerusalem Syndrome,” the result of being overwhelmed– literally intoxicated until delirious–by being in that city. I hoped to keep myself at least a little bit removed from the collective complexes surrounding the place, although fully aware that no one is able to witness the human condition as if outside of it.
The Tension of the Opposites
What I found was actually very familiar to me. It was what Jungians call “the tension of the opposites,” familiar to me because sooner or later most of us find it to be the root dynamic of our human psyche. We see the world in opposites: right and left, up and down, dog and cat, salt and pepper, and so on. Inside, if we admit it, we are also a bundle of opposites: Hardworking and lazy, careful and sloppy, liar and truth-teller, Puritan and sexually obsessed, good child and nasty child, mother and witch, or good father and abandoning father.
The tension in Jerusalem begins with pure versus impure. Who is pure, who is impure; who belongs near the pure, who does not; and finally who is right, who is wrong, who is good, who is bad. Many think that peace in the Middle East depends on what happens in Israel-Palestine, and that peace there would be possible if it were not for the question of who “gets” Jerusalem, and ultimately, who controls the Temple Mount, the Haram, and that rock. (Some ultra-orthodox Jews actually attempted to tunnel under it in secret, to the horror and outrage of the Muslims.) How funny that world peace depends on a rock.
It can be easy to look down on these concretized religious symbols–you can even place a note to God in the Western Wall, with the assumption that God will read it, will receive your prayer better there. As a fourteen year old among us commented, “That’s stupid. It’s just a wall.” She did not know yet how much she, too, had that in her. Humans began very early to identify sacred objects and sacred space. Trying to explain it to some Ph.D. scoffers one morning at the conference, I picked up a tea cup, turned it slowly, and said, “This cup is not like the others at this table–this cup holds God. God has been in it for as long as anyone can remember. How do you feel about the cup now? Any change?”
Think of your own possessions–your tooth brush, your shoes, your purse or wallet, your home, your family, your body. They are special, they are yours. Maybe not sacred in a religious sense, but special to you. No one should cross their boundaries without your permission. In some cases, if they did we might even say you could kill the trespasser and be considered innocent. We know what is sacred. Of course, what is sacred in a spiritual sense is very different, or is it? You can feel the roots of it in everyday experience. Naturally it extends to any person, place, or thing that links you to the Largest in life.
No one can escape that weird but powerful sense that this is mine, this is theirs; this is so good it must be protected; this is so bad it must be eliminated. From there it can easily become, “We are the good, and they are the bad who would destroy the good.” This splitting resides inside of us all. It fills the news. As the Middle East mess continues, we HSPs can help if we acknowledge that this tension, this call to arms as it were, is inherent in all of us. By being conscious of both sides of it in ourselves, we cannot blindly identify with only one side: peacemaker or war maker; the compassionate or someone filled with irrational hate; the reasonable or someone driven by instincts that reason cannot shake. Again, haven’t you seen both in yourself at times?
None of this means that there is no good or evil. Living in bodies, there has to be. Some things are good for us; some can hurt us and are bad. We need to protect ourselves and all that we need and love, and distinguish them from the others, those who seem to want to destroy us. We need to nurture the good and strong and moral in us, too. But we do tend to see things in terms of good and evil too quickly, and based on ourselves alone, rather than to consider both sides.
Knowing the opposites in ourselves allows us to try to choose consciously which of the opposites we are going to act from today. This means rising above that instinct we have to see and be only one side of our self and to remain in the moment totally unconscious of the other. We can do this, however–we resist giving into all kinds of instincts; once we see we can choose. Then we can try to extend our awareness of both sides in ourselves to seeing both sides in others and to avoid taking one side, ours, without seeing both sides. Having done that, if we can speak and live the most complete truth that we can see at the time, others may also. I think HSPs are especially capable of this.