“While we are sitting in meditation, we are simply exploring humanity and all of creation in the form of ourselves.” ~ Pema Chodron
I was meditating in solitary retreat when 9/11 went down. I didn’t even hear about it until October 1, 2001, after bidding farewell to the Sonoma Mountain Zen Center in California where I had been for one month. Driving down a windy Sonoma County road, the first person I called was my younger sister.
“Hey Carrie, it’s me. Retreat was AMAZING! I’m totally blissed out. How are you?”
There was no excitement in her voice as I’d expected. After a dead silence, in a solemn tone, she said, “They didn’t tell you did they.”
“Tell me what?”
“We weren’t sure whether they were going to tell you. You don’t know do you?”
My heart started beating so fast that I had to pull over to the side of the road to catch my breath. Through muffled tears, she told me what had happened on September 11, twenty days ago. I grew up in New Jersey and had lived in Manhattan for seven years prior to moving to Boulder, CO, for graduate school. After hanging up with my sister, I left dozens of frantic messages, trying to reach my loved ones. It was surreal and unbelievable. I drove through sleepy Sonoma as if in a dream. I don’t know how I made it back to San Francisco where I had left all of my belongings in a friend’s apartment.
My teacher had suggested doing a month long retreat upon my graduation from Naropa University’s Transpersonal Counseling program. I had already decided to move from Boulder to the Bay Area to start my new life as a Contemplative Psychotherapist. A friend recommended the Sonoma Mountain Zen Center as an ideal retreat site where you could affordably rent out solo cabins and live amongst the sweet Zen community in silence.
I meditated all day long, inside my cabin, and outside on wooden meditation platforms. I had meals in silence, went for walks in the redwoods, and contemplated EVERYTHING that had ever happened to me. Occasionally, I meandered down the Zen Center’s walking paths, collecting wild blackberries, and sitting by Suzuki Roshi’s and Trungpa Rinpoche’s shrines which were placed next to each other on the land. Trungpa Rinpoche was the founder and visionary of Naropa Institute. He was the only one I talked to that month besides the flock of wild turkeys that gobbled back and forth across my tiny cabin’s single window. I talked with Trungpa about all my hopes and fears. I was inspired to start my new career having just completed my graduate training and now with one whole month to get my mind and heart in tip top shape. Occasionally, I saw members of the Zen community walking on the path. We acknowledged each other with a slight bow of the head and lowered eye gaze. I wonder what they were thinking when they saw me, knowing about 9/11, and knowing that I did not yet know.
Through completing thousands of repetitions of sequential contemplations, prayers and visualizations, I felt like I was on a shamanic journey going back through the past, holding some of the horrific acts of violence that I had personally endured in the space of meditation. I contemplated my understanding of the Buddhist view of compassion for all sentient beings, especially those whom caused harm to me. Because Buddhism is a non-dual wisdom tradition, you don’t divide things up into victim and victimizer, good and bad. There are experiences that occur and the karma of those experience is what you purify through the clarity of wisdom mind and compassion of awakened heart. I began to see the events of my childhood from a different perspective and felt a softening around my heart. As I contemplated the karmic consequences of people who commit acts of violence, I felt genuine compassion for those beings who would suffer from causing harm in this way.
My first thought upon hearing the news from my sister was that while the personal darkness from my childhood no longer had power over me, the darkness of ignorance, aggression, and greed was in the world in a global way. I spent the next week watching news clippings and reading the New York Times backwards from October 1, to September 10, 2011, and then forwards to the present. I still couldn’t believe it. It wasn’t until I flew back to New York City myself and walked around ground zero that I got it. The unmistakable stench of burned bodies cut through my denial and disbelief. Never in my life, had I witnessed such massive destruction.
Ten years later, I think back to that time and take to heart the Buddhist view that encourages us to begin by working with our own mind. I take this view seriously in my life, my personal relationships, and into my therapy practice where I support people in overcoming the habitual patterns of strong emotions, self cherishing, and/or self hatred. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if the Zen community did break the silence and told me what happened. What would I have done? Would it have been more effective in the end? I can only hope that the transformation of anger in my own heart had an impact in some way.
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