Responding to Violence and Insanity (one Buddhist’s perspective)January 7, 2015 | 85 Comments
Perhaps you have seen the news today that gunmen opened fire on the offices of the “satirical magazine” Charlie Hebdo, a publication in Paris, France that has in the past angered Islamist extremists. Up to 12 people, including famous French cartoonists, were killed. I thought it was a joke. It is not.
Nothing can make this okay. There is no explanation that helps. Hearing about such violence and insanity propels our minds into chaos and plunges us into turmoil. This is right. This is what heartbreak feels like and it is completely appropriate. We want to rage. We want to prevent this from ever happening again. We want to help. But what could we possibly do?
There is something you can do. It may not be what you think. In fact, it has nothing whatsoever to do with any thought, no matter how profoundly accurate or beautifully constructed.
To begin, please, please, I beg of you: Watch your mind right now. Is it thinking any of the following?
Islamic extremism is stealing our freedoms and we must destroy them or be destroyed.
Liberal views are stupid and will not protect us. We must veer to the right to save our lives.
Right wing views are stupid and actually lead to more of this. Holding to our liberal values has never been more important.
I refuse from this moment on to read the news because the world is insane and I can’t take it.
These are all conspiracies anyway. No one can prove that this (or Sandy Hook or 9-11 or the Holocaust) actually happened.
All right-thinking people must step out of their complacency and take a stand, fight, demand change. Those who do are heroes. Those who don’t are the problem.
At the root of this and other such tragedies is ___________. (Poverty, jobs, misogyny, education, Obama, Sarah Palin, the United Nations, unclean water, religions.)
Screw the Middle East. How did we even get here. Let them all kill each other.
Compassion for our enemies seems impossible yet we must attempt it.
Only utter morons think that acting kindly to people who want to behead you is a good idea.
I need to process my feelings before I react.
Feelings, shmeelings, arise yuppie scum and take action.
One could make a very powerful argument for each of these points. However, so what. At this exact moment, they are all equally unhelpful and have one thing in common that makes them so: Each is an effort to block pain. Each is meant to put something, anything, between you and the contents of your heart. Blaming fundamentalism, guns, or politicians may be entirely reasonable and valid, but right now, it doesn’t matter.
The brilliance or vehemence of your insight will not change your grief, rage, or numbness, it will only bury it. I posit that it is grief, rage, and numbness that are actually at the root of this and other tragedies. We can prevent ourselves from contributing to the vast pool of inchoate feelings that arise as pain inflicted rather than felt.
There is something you can do and it is not only powerful, it will invoke your basic human decency in the face of this inhuman act.
Allow yourself to be absolutely, irredeemably heartbroken. Weep, sob, rage. Weep, sob, rage. Every time your mind tries to tell you, “this is because of politics,” or “this world is rotten, terrible and I have to save it,” please ask it to wait. I’m not saying we shouldn’t act. WE SHOULD. But before we act, we should feel.
It turns out that this is helpful, and not only that, it is fucking fierce. Cowards seek to drown unbearable feelings in poorly thought-out action. Warriors open their hearts. They feel into the unthinkable and allow it to change them, strike them, tear at them, and, while it rages, the warrior waits. Watches. Feels. From within this state, not outside of it, the mind crafts its response, one that is rooted, not in theory, but in connection to the rage, misery, and terror that invoked it. This is what bravery looks like, my friends. Anyone who tries to tell you that this is some kind of Oprah Deepak girly new age bullshit has never done it.
There is strange redemption in heartbreak. Now your heart is prepared. Now you can help.
Drawing on the sorrow in your own heart, you could extend it to the suffering of all who have been directly involved. This is how to hold your mind, by turning your sorrow into fuel. This way prevents wallowing. It consumes rage. It actually subverts depression. Please try it.
Sit comfortably. Relax your mind and then think:
For all of you men and women who lost your lives in violence today and may now be wandering terrified and confused, I share your suffering with you. In return, I offer you my peace.
Breathe in their suffering. Breathe out your peace.
For all of you who witnessed this horror, I share your unspeakable shock. May I take even the tiniest bit of your sorrow and rage into my own heart to relieve you of it. In return, I send you my strength.
Breathe in their suffering. Breathe out your strength.
For all of our brothers and sisters in France who lived through this horrific day and now must make sense of it, I share your confusion with you. May I take in your fear, rage, and nightmares. In return, I send you my bravery.
Breathe in their suffering. Breathe out your bravery.
For the French politicians, doctors, nurses, police, and first responders who have born witness and now must act, I share your despair with you. May I take in your shock and confusion. In return, I send you my confidence and open heartedness.
Breathe in their suffering. Breathe out your confidence and open heartedness.
When you are ready to close, sit quietly for a few minutes (or a few lifetimes) before resuming your life.
We can’t leave out the perpetrators of this crime. We might hate the horrible monsters who did this. We might condemn and excoriate them. I’m not saying don’t do that. It’s not useful (especially to you), but it is human. The only thing we cannot do under any circumstance is imagine that we are any different from them. We are not.
It would take a very big person to offer compassion to the perpetrators and I for one am not capable of it today. But while I cannot feel kindhearted, nor will I permit myself to imagine that if I lived their lives, I would not be just like them. Today, this will have to be good enough.
In the meantime, wrap your arms around those you love, acknowledge the terrible beauty and trauma of being a human, and honor how fragile we all are. Vow to use your life for good as intelligently and powerfully as you can. Today, maybe that means crying. Tomorrow, it could mean saving all beings.
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