My daughter spent the fall of 2014 attending college in Paris, which gave me the opportunity to reignite my love affair with the City of Lights. Shortly after she returned home, the attacks on Charlie Hebdo occurred. My thoughts and emotions were a welter of relief that my daughter was here and not there, and heartbreak for the people of Paris. Learning the news last night of the most recent terrorist attacks in Paris brought all of those feelings back in a rush and by a factor of at least 10.
Is there a mindful way to respond to acts of terrorism? I can hardly believe I need to ask that question. It is so much simpler to contemplate mindful responses to hunger, fatigue, stress, rude people, etc. Everyday things we all have to deal with. It is sad beyond description that terrorism is common enough that it requires specific consideration with regard to mindfulness. But it is a fact, and needs to be dealt with.
The aim of terrorism is not the act itself – as terror-filled as the act may be – but rather to inspire lingering terror. Nations spend untold billions of dollars protecting “high-profile targets” such as government buildings and cultural sites. The most successful terrorist acts, though, are perpetrated in much more mundane and commonplace locations – on buses, in a concert hall, at a corner cafe. It is these acts of terror that resonate and that are the most effective from the terrorist’s perspective, because each of us can imagine ourselves on that bus, or attending the concert, or eating dinner with friends.
Terror and fear are not consonant with mindfulness because they innately focus on the future, on what may happen, rather than on the present moment. More human suffering is caused by the fear what might happen to us than is caused by the things that actually are happening to us. Mindfulness teaches us to open our eyes to our present circumstances, to tear away the veil of unreality that comes in the form of fear of what might happen, so that we can focus on what truly is.
Our minds and lives are most balanced and healthy when we mindfully live in the present moment. The insidiousness of terrorism extends far beyond the immediate physical destruction it causes – it shatters our mindfulness and continues to prevent us from regaining balance. We cannot live fully in the moment when our minds are focused on what terrors might lurk around the corner. When we turn that corner and see that our fears were unfounded, we are not relieved – instead, we shift our fears to the next corner, and the corner after that.
It takes considerable effort to focus on what is happening around us right now when our fears bombard us with nightmare visions of what could happen next. I won’t suggest otherwise. But it is a necessary effort if we are going to recover our balance and re-center our lives.
Should we ignore the possibility of more terrorism to come? Of course not. Precautions should be taken. Protections should be put in place. That is undeniably prudent. Nations should work together to fight groups that wield terror as a weapon. But it will not be enough to completely defeat terrorism. As is so often pointed out, when one terrorist is eliminated, another jumps up to wield the weapon in his place.
The only lasting approach to defeating terrorism, in my opinion, is to rob it of its power by living in the present moment. Terrorism persists because it continues to be an effective weapon. The effectiveness of terrorism derives not from the guns or bombs the terrorists use to attach, but in the lingering fear the attacks inspire. If we do not let the fear of terrorism master us, if we live in the here and now with compassion for all beings, then terrorism will lose its power. This I firmly believe to be true.
Language is so powerful as it influences the way we see the world. Words like “terrorism,” and its associated destructive action, as well as words like “mindfulness,” and its more positive associated “presence in the moment without judgment,” connote certain ways of viewing the world or attempting to categorize it. I sat with a young woman on Saturday morning who told me she was “praying” for those involved in the chaos of the Paris aftermath. I asked her for whom she was praying, and she said, “…for those who are scared in Paris and for those who are scared as ‘terrorists.'” I felt into the power of her revelation as it always boils down to the Witness…resting as the great Witness or Emptiness that each of us is…that freedom from constructs, that freedom which is impersonal and infinite. Tragedy, yes…violence is always tragic, but a considered response, as this forum offers, is what mindfulness invites. We can never repay violence for violence as Gandhi so completely and perfectly (among others) lived and demonstrated for us; the highest act of love and service is to be able to live without the need to protect one’s Being (because of fear) with violence. Maybe different times, but Gandhi took down an Empire and he did so without shedding blood. We have a lot to learn from someone who dedicated his life to collaboration and the highest good through service and love.