“The metaphor behind ‘between four eyes’ is that somewhere between your eyes and mine, there is a field of our common humanity, with respect for our differences, tolerance, understanding of multiple perspectives, that there’s a way for peace building between two people.” — Theo Koffler
This article was adapted from an interview by Barbara Gates and Wes Nisker in Theo Koffler’s home in Tiburon, California, on December 1, 2008. In the print journal, Koffer’s story is bookended by email memos by Soren Gordhamer and Patrick Iregura, who reported on their in-the-field experiences with Between Four Eyes. Click on their names above or at the end of this article to read their reports.
In 1991 during the Persian Gulf War, I was living with my family in Israel. Thirty-nine Iraqi Scud missiles landed in Tel Aviv and Haifa, completely upsetting our world. For forty-three nights, I lived in a sealed bedroom with my children while my husband, an F-15 pilot, protected Israeli skies. The sound of air-raid sirens through the night and missiles exploding near my home, along with a persistent anxiety about chemical or biological warheads, became a reality that I pray never to revisit.
The war in Israel ate at my heart. I was in a difficult place as the image I had inside me of how I really wanted to live diverged fundamentally from my reality. I felt the happiness that was nurtured in my childhood in Canada, one of the most peaceful countries in the world, slipping away. I needed to live in a place where freedom and peace were part of my day-to-day life.
Mindful awareness had come to me through my own healing journey when I was diagnosed with lupus in the fall of 1985 after the birth of my second son. On the day before giving birth, I had felt vital and healthy, able to take on life in full force; afterward, doing even the simplest of activities was emotionally and physically depleting. My life was clouded by my illness.
In my mind, my personal struggle in Israel was at the root of my condition. My busy lifestyle, pressures of work and challenges in my marriage had strained my health. I recognized that if I wanted to heal, I would need to identify ways to navigate my life from the inside rather than be at the mercy of external factors.
Since lupus was little known to the medical establishment in Israel, my journey of self-exploration and personal growth began by my reading books on alternative medicine and Buddhism. Ever so slowly I discovered that an integrative approach to wellness could give rise to new solutions; Reiki, acupuncture, homeopathy and macrobiotics became part of my blueprint for health.
In the spring of 1993, my family and I moved to Tiburon, California, where a new chapter unfolded. A quality of life that I had for many years claimed as my own resurfaced. As David Whyte reminds me,
“Sometimes we have to unmake a living in order to get back to living the life we wanted for ourselves.”
I started attending meditation classes at Spirit Rock Meditation Center. I learned the practice of mindful awareness and the means to notice what is happening inside. In fact, my indebtedness goes to a founding teacher at Spirit Rock, Sylvia Boorstein, who taught me vipassana and metta meditation and showed me how to hold pain with kind attention. As my contemplative practice began to flourish, the darkness lightened. An inner peace and stillness manifested, and gradually I found my way to remission.
Years later, my youngest son asked me to come to his school to teach meditation. His class was studying social issues affecting youth, and knowing the power of Buddhist practice in transforming my suffering, he thought meditation might help others. After teaching students mindfulness at Redwood High School, I realized that this was the direction I wanted to explore—following a path that was consonant with my refreshed way of being.
My thoughts turned toward our fractured world and my experiences that came from the turmoil of living in Israel. I realized that I had to become the peace that I wanted for the world; I had to take great risks for the sake of something greater—to be a change agent for personal and community transformation. I began to tap into a deeper sense of purpose, to find my place in what Buddhist teacher Joanna Macy calls the Great Turning, a movement that invites citizens with a longing in their hearts to take action in the world to do so despite worsening conditions.
After Diana and Jonathan Rose, the founders of the Garrison Institute, offered me the position as project advisor for their Contemplative and Education Initiative, my path became clear. Through the Garrison Institute, I encountered the scientists, educators and professionals that have shaped the field of mindful awareness, attention training and social and emotional learning. These distinguished colleagues became guides and collaborators, and slowly my calling began to reveal itself: to establish a foundation that integrates their best practices into educational workshops for conflict and postconflict communities that would otherwise remain under the radar.
Between Four Eyes was finally born in 2006 as a nonprofit organization to bring mindfulness and emotional intelligence as means for addressing issues of injustice and the promotion of peace. The foundation took its shape through an investigative journey to explore and assess field needs in Rwanda, Uganda, Israel and the Palestinian Territories. My research and development team included three university students who were passionate about arts and education in the recovery process. We met with a number of nongovernmental and student organizations and held interviews with key personnel to help shape our understanding of their core values, achievements and obstacles. As part of our field research we discussed key questions: How can moment-to-moment awareness help people develop a greater capacity for compassion and empathy? How can mindfulness counter destructive emotions such as hate, anger and fear? How can present-moment living help citizens move past powerful narratives that hinder personal and community growth?
It was the topic of managing emotions that really touched our audiences. In the case of conflict and genocide, both sides tend to be locked into narratives where they blame “the other,” and this paradigm obstructs the personal accountability needed to move beyond the past and to create change. Over the course of the year, we developed a body of work geared toward supporting community leaders, healthcare providers, educators and high school students in “educating the mind and heart,” self-awareness and self-care.
In October 2008 Between Four Eyes set sail to Africa and the Middle East for two months. We were a team of three teachers, a photojournalist, three translators and a ground coordinator in Nigeria and Rwanda. Our purpose was clear: to facilitate conversations that explored mindful awareness as a way to foster peaceful and conflict-resolving lifestyles, with authentic communication at the cornerstone of our dialogue. We launched our workshops in Jos, Nigeria, to high school students, community leaders, educators and healthcare providers, and we presented at an international conference on global ethics. We continued to Kigali, Rwanda, and from there we moved on to Israel and the Palestinian Territories.
At the close of our first two weeks of teaching in Jos at Creative Minds International Academy, I proposed to the senior students that they become the first-ever mindfulness ambassadors in Africa: “You are the first students to bring mindfulness into educational settings, and I think we should shout about that! Let’s create a Council of Mindfulness Ambassadors, and you can be role models of mindfulness and messengers of peace in your school, in your homes and even in the larger community.” The fifteen- to seventeen-year-old students in our classes absolutely loved the idea.
We held a meeting about the practice of mindfulness with the teachers and members of the parents’ association, and we made it clear that one motivation for the council was to encourage the teachers to practice dialogue and compassionate understanding as a more effective strategy to discipline students. (In Nigeria, flogging is still the primary disciplinary method, and we wanted to address the inadequacies of this outdated practice.)
Since our departure, the mindfulness ambassadors have met once a week. The template is quite simple. Between Four Eyes sends electronic lesson plans to the lead teacher that include a specific theme; corresponding mindfulness skill-sets; a relevant story, poetry or wisdom quote; and a journal-writing assignment with questions for personal reflection. The council opens with a period of “quiet stillness” and a review of the guidelines—to listen from the heart, speak without judgment and act with kindness and compassion. This is followed by a discussion of the theme of the week and student concerns of the boundaries and limitations that they encounter while adapting mindfulness to their real-life situations. To this end, we hope that the council will act as a container for their feelings and reflections and as a safe place where their voices can be heard. Amidst very little, these students long for security, community and possibility. Our message is that, regardless of conditions, there is a fertile field of awareness and kindness “between four eyes.”
Whether we are working with high school students or healthcare providers, we present ourselves as non-faith-based and without government affiliation. Our work springs out of Buddhism, but we remain secular and inclusive since our workshop participants include Muslims, Jews, Christians, Catholics and atheists. We are careful not to use language that might turn anyone against the simplicity of our message. For instance, we don’t refer to the work as “meditation,” as we are wary of the implications of this term in diverse religious settings. Instead, we talk about how inner stillness and clarity can be developed through “quiet time” and “personal reflection.” We refine meditation practices to take into consideration the flooding of memories. Some of the seemingly easy steps, like closing one’s eyes, can be very difficult for genocide survivors. As a result, we have developed an open-eyed lovingkindness meditation, adapted from Sharon Salzberg’s teachings, which has proven to be nonthreatening and very healing.
We discuss the principle of agreeing to disagree as a way to resolve conflict while allowing differences to remain intact. Conversations on this theme have been central to increasing awareness of how to manage destructive emotions. We also introduce the practice of cultivating gratitude as a powerful doorway for healing. In situations where trauma and psychological stress are ongoing, survivors struggle with the notion of forgiveness, especially in genocide communities, when one’s neighbor or taxi driver may be the perpetrator who killed your family fourteen years ago.
As part of our method, we also integrate music, song and dance. Says Gary Diggins, musician and Between Four Eyes senior teacher, “I believe the acts of deep listening and intentional sounding invite us to be present to the moment in the same way a monk enters a deeply contemplative state of awareness. By employing user-friendly instruments such as the drum, the player is freed from the concerns of making a wrong note and simply invites exploration and spontaneity. This, to me, is the heart and soul of both music and meditation.”
Regardless of where we have taught, we have been astounded by the positive feedback we have received as participants encounter the various practices. None of the communities we visited in Africa had heard of mindfulness until we introduced it to them, but they took to it right away, pronouncing it “mindfullness.” This came to us in the form of a blessing, as mind-full seemed to celebrate the very foundation of our teaching. As a result, we have made it a practice to use the word in that way, as mindfullness.
So what comes next? In Africa, we have been invited to provide teacher training programs for Teachers Without Borders and graduating students from the Kigali Institute for Education. We have created educational workshops for high school students that are participating in the Peace and Unity program developed by the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre, and we intend to establish Mindfulness Ambassador Councils in each of the thirty participating schools. We envision that the healthcare providers and educators who participated in our pilot workshops will continue to breathe this work, live this practice and develop deeper meaning for themselves in the context of African thought. We will return for follow-up workshops in the fall of 2009.
In Israel, we have proposed the first-ever mindfulness center at the Interdisciplinary Center, a private college that combines academic study with practical training. In contrast to what we found in Africa, in Israel there are local, experienced mindfulness teachers who can create university-level courses. Our strategy includes teaching to NGOs and Arab and Israeli high school students in Jerusalem and Jaffa. We plan to launch more Mindfulness Ambassador Councils within the school system and disseminate our programs into as many schools as possible.
Between Four Eyes is based on the understanding that people’s identities are deeply affected by cultural, political and historical circumstances. In our programs, we are committed to honoring the individual and building on each person’s unique gifts and challenges. We try to convey that suffering is not the totality of one’s being; that identity as a genocide survivor, a rape victim or someone living with HIV is only one aspect of who someone is; and that we can tap into our inner wisdom and explore other parts of our identity in the present moment. Through mindfullness, each one of us has the possibility of shifting habitual perceptions and even shifting the sense of who “I” am willing to be, distinct from who “I” was in the past.
One of the most meaningful moments for the Between Four Eyes team came at the end of a workshop for grief counselors in Rwanda. A woman named Françoise shared a vision she had while practicing “quiet time” before going to bed. She envisioned wearing a necklace with two woven baskets (handmade baskets are resonant symbols of healing for Rwandan widows). One of the baskets was red and represented the horror of the genocide; the other was green and represented the opportunity to bring forth goodness and gratitude into the world. The necklace symbolized her ability to hold both of these aspects of life. After learning about mindfullness, Françoise became aware that she could continue to hold and remember the genocide, and, in the present moment, she could place her intentions in the green basket—representing the peaceful world she wanted to support.
Between Four Eyes is now called Mindfulness Without Borders. Click here to access its RETHiNK Digital Kit, a curriculum and set of activities for teaching mindfulness skills to youth.