The inexplicable horror of what happened Monday, April 15 in Boston is still reeling in all of our souls. There are so many questions. Undoubtedly some will be answered in the coming days or weeks. We might even know who and they might tell us why. But that will be only a beginning. Each of us will have to find a way to absorb this trauma and face once again the fragility of life.
For the people directly affected life will never be the same. They have seen and heard things no one wants to see: limbs detached from bodies, blood everywhere, the carnage of hard objects going through the soft body of a human being. I find myself focusing on the family of the 8 year old boy killed outright. His mother has a very serious head wound and right now is in critical care. His sister has lost one leg and may lose her other leg. How can the father bear such loss, such grief? How will he go on? I have learned they have a church community and that the daughter is an Irish dancer, so they have that dance community. Both of those communities are offering support on all levels. I am glad. To have community is always a blessing, and to have community when in need makes some things possible. But still, the question remains, how will they go on, what meaning will they make of such a senseless event?
For the rest of us, we too are directly affected but in a different way. We are a species who knows we will die and intellectually we know that death can happen suddenly. But almost all of us, almost all of the time ignore, avoid and deny this fact. When people are blown up at a spring event in one of our major cities we are confronted in the most brutal way with this fact. Right now, this week, we know we are affected. We talk about it with each other and with our loved ones. On Monday we called anyone we knew who might be affected, even remotely, to make sure they and their loved ones were OK. Many of us follow the news, hoping for capture, for ‘closure’. Like after 9-11 we become a bit obsessed with all the details and will watch things on TV even if we have already seen them several times. Right now we are focused on this tragedy.
But in a few weeks, for most of us it will fade. Never completely. Like Newtown, like 9-11, like many other violent events in our lives, it will not go away completely. But it will fade and we will go on, perhaps consciously wanting our behavior to be unchanged. We will participate again in happy throngs of people, we will use public transportation, runners will determinedly run marathons. That will be our defiance, our assertion that we are alive and resilient and won’t be cowed.
But internally, each of these events leaves a mark both consciously and unconsciously. Right now we acknowledge that we are more vulnerable, have less control, our future is a little less certain. Perhaps we will make a plan on how we will handle ourselves should such an event come our way – even the illusion of control is better than admitting I have no control. Our minds become hypervigilant – as they are designed to do. After all our survival depends on our minds and our brains love to think, to plan, to integrate what comes in from our senses with what is already stored inside. And research tells us we are designed to think more about the bad stuff that the good stuff. We need to learn very quickly when bad things happen or we might not be given another chance.
Jeff Greenberg of the University of AZ did a series of studies after 9-11 that sheds some very interesting light on what might be going on inside of us right now. He offered his subjects the beginning of a word for example COFF. For months after 9-11 when given this prompt, people would choose coffin over coffee with a very high probability. His work reveals that most of us see the world very differently when our unconscious is preoccupied with threat. One of his findings is that during the months after a traumatic event, we tend to embrace our own belief system more strongly, feeling more positive towards those who agree with us and more negative with those who disagree with us. This too is congruent with other research on survival: turn to the tribe, the community for this is where safety lies. And there is no disputing the truth in this maxim, but the corollary – feel more negative about those who disagree with us – is very problematic in our modern world.
When we get polarized, as we are on many issues today, we can’t dialogue, we can’t talk about issues respectfully. And this is why we need to turn to meditation, mindfulness and compassion . Mindfulness asks us to focus on our sensory experiences, not our angry or frightened thoughts. Furthermore, over time we learn that these thoughts are not really us, or at least not all of us. When we practice we bring an open curious attitude first to ourselves and then in many practices we bring that out to others. We can actually practice developing compassion allowing us to embrace polarizing aspects of first ourselves and perhaps, with practice, embrace others.
So over the next few weeks and months see if you can be mindful about what Greenberg is suggesting: are you more preoccupied with death? Can you use that to focus yourself on what you really want out of the rest of your life? Can you follow the famous words of Rabbi Hillel: if I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now when?
And to Greenberg’s other point: Do you feel less inclined to stay open and curious about others and other points of view? Can you bring your mindfulness practice to a radical shift that includes others and other points of view.
Now we at CIL know this is not easy. We agree fully with the Dalai Lama that mindfulness is not just a technique but is complicated and difficult. Meditation requires time and commitment and eventually skill. There are no simple or simplistic solutions to our personal well being or our collective well being. But will we use this tragedy in Boston to further our spiritual development or will we freeze in fear and retreat from life?