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ShinKai Kurt Hoelting reflection on 2023 Kyiv Sesshin

ShinKai Kurt Hoelting reflection on 2023 Kyiv Sesshin

Sobota, Lipiec 15, 2023

Kurt Hoelting is the founder of Inside Passages. From 1994-2021 he was Head Guide and Teacher with Inside Passages, guiding over 75 week-long mindfulness-based kayaking retreats along the Inside Passage of Southeast Alaska. Kurt is certified as a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) teacher through the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine. Since concluding his Alaska program, he has continued to teach Online mindfulness classes and In-person Retreats near his home on Whidbey Island.

Kurt has lifelong roots in the Pacific NW, growing up by the shores of Puget Sound, and is a graduate of the University of Washington and Harvard Divinity School.

He worked summers as a commercial fisherman and wilderness guide in Alaska for fifty years, including twenty five years with Inside Passages, blending wilderness exploration with his deep love of mindfulness practice.

He is the author of The Circumference of Home: One Man’s Yearlong Quest for a Radically Local Life, which was a finalist for the 2011 Washington State Book Award.  

He is a long-time student of Shodo Harada Roshi, Priscilla Daichi Storandt Roshi. He was among the people who established and built Tahoma Zen Monastery on Whidbey Island, where he lives.


Dear friends,

Our Zen peace vigil in Kyiv, Ukraine, is completed. I have returned with my friend Szymon Seigen Obrychowski to Szczecin, Poland, to rest and regroup before heading back home to Seattle.

For seven days, from July 2-9, we were six people who committed to spending 24 hours a day together - two Ukrainians, two Poles, and two Americans - holding a vigil in the midst of Russia’s continuing, brutal invasion of Ukraine. It was a retreat which unfolded one day at a time within a web of perplexing uncertainties. Even in this time of war, Kyiv itself remains a vibrant European city that is learning to carry on its daily life - eerily undaunted - while still under daily missile attacks. It was a bizarre experience to sit in the midst of a globally live-streamed war, unfolding in real time, while still feeling safe enough to join with the crowds wandering freely through the city. Such is the nature of modern, high-tech warfare. Our two Ukrainian retreat participants, Vasyl Grynevych and Valta Pashkovsky, were equipped with cell phone apps that alerted us to missile attacks the moment any missiles passed into Ukrainian air space, well before the missiles arrived. These attacks usually took place in the middle of the night. But since the missiles and drones were almost always shot down before they reached the city by Ukrainian Air Defense systems, and we were in an area not likely to be targeted, the choice most often was simply to ignore the air raid sirens, and to sleep in interior rooms away from exterior windows and glass.

  The cumulative fear and psychological stress of living in these circumstances was never far below the surface. We visited Maidan Square, where an ongoing vigil is taking place, filling the central square with thousands of Ukrainian flags, each bearing the name of a soldier or civilian killed in this war. Vasyl himself had been present during the 2014 Revolution of Dignity here, when 150 demonstrators lost their lives. His stories from that event, and the memorial offerings accumulating from the current war, brought it all closer to home for us.   

It seemed that everyone we talked to knew someone who had died, or was locked in the quagmire of trench warfare on the front lines. Valta and Vasyl are anticipating their own call to service, a call that could come at any time. Everyone was touched by the trauma of this war. Valta and Vasyl’s presence in our peace vigil added essential local knowledge and experience, giving our retreat a more heightened sense of purpose and immediacy.

Throughout the week, we observed a Zen retreat schedule, rising at 4:00 AM each morning, and sitting mostly in silence for periods throughout the day until late evening. We also took several long walking meditations to places of significance in the city. In addition to Maidan Square, we meditated by the shores of the Dnipro River, so crucial to the history of both Kyiv and Ukraine, and where the war effort is now concentrated further downstream. 

Each day we also made time for a group council, keeping tabs on our own personal responses, and sharing stories about the complex history behind this tragic upwelling of ancient hatreds. There are so many vectors of human conflict and suffering going back centuries, including between Ukraine and Poland. And of course that is true in our history as Americans as well. Our retreat was built on our awareness that the process of healing and forgiveness always starts in the individual human heart. This is the spirit we tried to bring into our retreat, and toward each other.  

And since we were collaborating with the Dakh Theatre of Contemporary Art in Kyiv, we were literally holding our retreat “on stage”, dramatizing our commitment to peace in a space that played a vital role in Ukraine’s artistic and spiritual emergence from the Soviet era. We did our best to link our own spiritual practice with that of so many other pilgrims of non-violent witness who have come before us.   

As always in a meditation retreat of any kind, it took some days for us to fully arrive and settle. It took time for us to create trust and safety in a group that started out largely as strangers. It took time to experiment with our ritual structure so that it could hold us on task in highly unpredictable circumstances. It took time to fine tune the technologies that allowed us to share this with others through live-streaming.

It is hard to know or measure the worth of such a venture by external criterion. If our “success” could be measured at all, it would be by the extent to which we were able to hold our own hearts open, to cultivate compassion for the victims of this war on all fronts, and to connect deeply with each other in the midst of events that none of us could grasp or control. The strength of our bonds by the end of the retreat, and the renewed vitality of our spirits, told us we had accomplished what we came to do.

In our closing circle, Valta summed up his experience this way. After thanking us for coming from so far away to be present with him in this time of war, he said, “We do not have the power to stop this war. But some part of the war has ended this week - inside of me.”

Kurt ShinKai Hoelting