When the World Trade Centers were attacked on September 11, 2001, I was standing in line at the Tucson, AZ airport, waiting to check in so that I could return home. Standing in line, oblivious to the fact that the line was unusually long, my cell phone rang. It was my usually cool spouse calling me to warn me against boarding the plane. She was frantic as she tried to explain to me something I could not comprehend. “What? People did what? What are you talking about?!” She told me to look around and as I did, I saw a group of people formed around a large-screen television that had been made accessible to people who were sitting in and standing outside the bar. “I see smoke!” coming to my senses. My spouse told me in a way that I could understand, aided with pictures and the crowd that planes had flown into buildings in New York City and that flying home would be a dangerous decision I should not make. As I became more aware of what was taking place, I also became aware of the fact that I could not escape the anxiety of my beloved, those in the airport, and my own anxious body. It felt horrible to be engulfed in anxiety while also knowing people were living in fear of an unknown enemy that in a dramatic display of violence, showed us our vulnerability. Nine/Eleven, as this tragedy is now known as, is the reason why I turned to a meditative lifestyle, but it has been nearly 15 years since Nine/Eleven. Why do I still meditate?
On a most basic level, I meditate because it feels good. Meditation helps me deal with the fact that life is always full of danger, and the practice helps me accept my mortality with less fear. A good friend who I call my Buddhist godmother, though she is Jewish and not Buddhist, and is my contemporary, gave me Thich Nhat Hanh’s Touching Peace: Practicing the Art of Mindful Living in October 2001. Why? A month after the attack, I was still struggling with the reality of the attack, our vulnerability, and the threat of retaliation on the part of our government. The retaliation in Afghanistan happened on the same day my friend gifted me Touching Peace, and I began to read it immediately thereafter. Flipping through the book for this blog post, I came across the first sentences I highlighted:
The Earth is so beautiful. We are beautiful also. We can allow ourselves to walk mindfully, touching the Earth, our wonderful mother, with each step. We don’t need to wish our friends, “Peace be with you.” Peace is already with them. We only need to help them cultivate the habit of touching peace in each moment.
I needed to be reminded that the Earth is beautiful despite our ongoing attempts to destroy it as we destroyed each other. When I received this book, I was attending an Episcopal church. When we engaged in the practice of hospitality by “passing the peace” we would say, “Peace be with you.” This is a beautiful way to bless and be a blessing to others, so that thought of peace already being present within me and within them, and us not knowing and noticing it, was intriguing to me. If peace was already there and I had not noticed it, I certainly wanted to find it, so I continued reading.
As I continued onto Chapter Two – We Are All Flowers, Hanh offers this brief mindfulness exercise:
Breathing in, I know I am breathing in.
Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.
Breathing in, I see myself as a flower.
Breathing out, I feel fresh.
Breathing in, I see myself as a mountain.
Breathing out, I feel solid.
Breathing in, I see myself as still water
Breathing out, I reflect things as they are.
Breathing in, I see myself as space.
Breathing out, I feel free.
I engaged in this guided mindfulness of the breath exercise daily, for a long time, over time, because it felt good. I felt no anxiety in those moments. Why? I did not understand it at the time, but now I understand that this brief guided mindfulness of the breath exercise also serves to focus attention away from anxious mind energies, relaxes the emotions and muscles attached to anxiety, and creates psychic space between the image I can hold of myself as an anxious person while re-identifying myself with the elements that connect me to the world’s elements – soil, water, vegetation — and the expansive universe. In short, I could interrupt the train of fearful thoughts. I felt free. I did not have to depend on others wishing peace (though it is a ritual I love) for me in order to experience peace. I was no longer reduced to a fretful and recoiled person only afraid of war. I embraced meditation from the start and incorporated it into my daily life immediately. Nearly 15 years later, meditation has become a daily practice and meditation retreats have become a yearly practice in stepping away from unmindful professional and relational routines.
It has been nearly 15 years since the U.S. retaliated in Afghanistan against the World Trade Center attacks. My mind-body are calmer now than on September 11, 2001, but I am less naive about the use of Afghanistan as the ground for the violent “resolution” of multiple conflicts by multiple actors. Can the benefits of meditation for breaking attachment to unmindful routines also be employed for ending the unmindful routines that lead to war? Touch the peace within, and you will know.