September 11, 2010

What we failed to learn from 9/11

Nine years later the pain and trauma of September 11, 2001 remains deeply etched on the American psyche. As a society we seem to be going through either a catharsis or some kind of psychological meltdown.  This year began with news stories about gun manufacturers etching codes for bible tracts on guns being sent to America’s wars in the Middle East. Then members of a right-wing Christian Militia were arrested in Michigan for plotting to kill police. In another story an angry man committed suicide by crashing a plane into the IRS building in Austin, TX. On the heels of that came the story that 20% of Americans believe Obama is a Muslim, concurrently with stories about the “Terror Mosque” in Lower Manhattan and Obama’s defense of any religious group’s constitutional right to build a place of worship.

I have tried many times to write this particular blog about what I perceive to be the rise of hatred and intolerance in this country.  Each time I have given up in exasperation, until today when, finally, I have the appropriate state of being to express this in a meaningful way. That state of being is sadness.

The events of 9/11 have become like the assassination of John F. Kennedy, people who were alive then remember exactly where they were and what they were doing. On September 11th,2001 my wife and I had just moved to Shambhala Mountain, a contemplative retreat center in Red Feather Lakes, CO.  Early that morning I went to practice meditation at the Great Stupa of Dharmakaya. Just before I left my cabin our friend Deborah called and said that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I walked out picturing a little twin engine plane crashing into a building and pondering how odd that was.

Later, when I went down to the large dining tent where our community gathered for breakfast I could instantly see from the looks on people’s faces that a lot more was going on. Over the course of the day we tried to piece together a story that grew increasingly horrible.

Living as we did at a Buddhist retreat center the contrast between our environment and what we were hearing cut through the heart as we heard stories about people jumping from burning buildings, husbands and wives having furtive last cell phone conversations from crashing airplanes, and about those attempting to rescue others being injured or killed.       

What I remember most of all is that the sky was crystal blue and absolutely silent that day. Later in the afternoon Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, the head of the Shambhala Community, sent out a communication asking people to recite the Heart Sutra one-hundred and eight times. It was good to have something to do that felt like a contribution to sanity and compassion in midst of so much suffering and confusion.

The world mourned for America’s loss, including public displays of support and condolence from Islamic countries. For one moment in time the United States was draped in a shroud of penetrating sadness, and love.  

Then something else happened. I didn’t see it at first because I lived at a mountain retreat center but when I came to town a few weeks later I saw flags and yellow ribbons everywhere. When those of us who lived at Shambhala Mountain (where there was no TV reception) saw TV’s in public places news stories had ticker tapes going across the bottom of the screen so that people could follow 2 or more stories at once. We had missed the transmission on how to follow multiple stories at once and this all seemed like complete chaos to us. 

Back up on the mountain we got different messages. One night we saw the northern lights (unusual in Colorado) and they were bright red, which is even more unusual. I called my friend Sam, a Lakota Medicine Man, to ask him what he thought this portended. “War is coming” is all he said. 

  America quickly dissipated international support in favor of militaristic saber-rattling. We chose “shock and awe” over compassion and intelligence. In so doing our society has seemed to be perfectly willing to let our enemies define us as we have curbed the very liberties established by our founding fathers (including religious freedom) which we claimed to be fighting for. We began to demonstrate the very same zealousness that causes desperate and misguided people to strap bombs to themselves and get on airplanes. 

The recent story about the Gainesville, Florida Pastor, Rev Terry Jones, intention to publicly burn the Quran because Islam is “an evil religion that promotes violence and hatred” exemplifies the distance we have travelled from America’s fundamental values of religious plurality.    

Personally, I believe that we lost our way when we strayed away from sadness. The sadness was pure and it had the seeds of real intelligence and compassion in it. Sadness is spacious and vast like the silent blue sky that we saw that day.  But as a nation we were not able to hold that vastness.   

Chogyam Trunpa Rinpoche said “When you are trying to help others, you will probably feel lonely, feeling that you don’t have a partner to work with. You may also begin to feel that the world is so disordered. I personally feel sadness, always. You feel sad, but you don’t really want to burst into tears. You feel embryonic sadness. There are hundreds of thousands of people who need your help, which makes you feel sad, so sad.”

As human beings we instinctively gravitate toward pleasurable feelings and try to escape pain. In our religious traditions we are taught that compassion is the way but in practice that seems to fall apart and we act in ways that  are the complete opposite of what we profess to believe. That may be because we don’t have ways to actually train in compassion, so, we end up like someone who has never worked out before trying to bench press 350 lbs.

In the Buddhist tradition there is the practice of Tonglen. The practice begins by visualizing blue sky. This is very important because we can’t do this practice in our habitual ego-state but only as the embodiment of vast space. Then we breathe in dark, heavy, hot energy and breathe out bright, cool energy.. in claustrophobia and discomfort…out relaxation. We might visualize a particular person or situation and do the practice for them. I believe it helps but what is just as valuable is that it’s good training in not recoiling from the pain of others but actually inviting it in. Along the way we may also lessen the tendency to project our own darkness onto others if we can own it and accept it in ourselves.


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