Spiritual practitioners have always grappled with the thorniest issues of human existence. In this regard, no issue has loomed larger than the inevitability of death. Spiritual teachers from Siddhartha Buddha to Gurdjieff have recommended the contemplation of death as an important technique of practice. Nevertheless, the sheer numbers of the unheralded deaths of September 11 have left people across the world stunned. The events of this date have reminded us powerfully that human plans and expectations are as fragile and unreliable as bubbles in a brook.
What we need to understand is why this realization about the ubiquity of change – which always intrudes upon our lives at unexpected moments – is so profoundly unsettling. Death is the ultimate reminder that all things must pass, yet in our everyday lives we manage to shield ourselves quite effectively from awareness of this inevitability.
I want to suggest that, in addition to the sheer scale of destruction and death, September 11 constitutes a profound shock because of a common habit of mind. The habit is one we take for granted: at a deep-rooted level, our minds presume continuity in human affairs. Based upon the conditions with which we are familiar, our minds logically and automatically extrapolate the trajectory of future events.
This feature of mind is crucial for day-to-day existence. For example, we presume that the sun will rise tomorrow, even though we can infer intellectually that this is but a presumption, and that someday this apparent reliability will cease. But with far less justification, our minds also presume that our son/ daughter/ father/ mother/ sister/ brother/ partner/ spouse/ friend/ colleague/ student/ teacher will re-enter our lives, in due time, after walking out the door in the morning. Of course, we all eventually fail to return to our loved ones. On a subtle level, even if our loved one does return home at the end of the day, she or he will inevitably be different than when they left. In other words, things change continually. Events follow paths that our minds could never have anticipated, and small changes accumulate at rates that our minds fail to recognize.
Even though American culture prides itself on its promotion of, and accommodation to change, the events of September 11th demonstrate that it is one thing to build a retirement portfolio around the presumption of change in the global marketplace. It is something very different to come face-to-face with profound evidence of impermanence. September 11th challenges the arrogance and vanity that have been the instruments by which we convince ourselves that we can control our lives. The universe has always been a bigger place than we have customarily admitted.
We cannot get our ordinary discursive minds around change because our discursive minds are limited. At any moment, our discursive minds can only be aware of a tiny fraction of the factors that will shape future events. Intellectually, we may acknowledge the principle that our minds cannot encompass the infinity of causal factors that exist, with the corollary that unforeseen events MUST comprise our experience. Nevertheless, a deeper and more profound acceptance of impermanence eludes most people to a greater or lesser degree.
Meditation – such as Self-Observation, the heart of Tayu practice – is the means by which we cultivate a more spacious mind that can extend beyond the ordinary limits of the discursive mind. Practitioners know that the mind cultivated through meditation expands to encompass the often distasteful truths about ourselves that we need to see in order to make changes in our lives. This same expanded, more spacious mind also provides perspective upon the truths that come from the events of the greater world. Spacious mind is the wellspring from which we nourish our sense of what to do from moment to moment, for ourselves and others.
Great spiritual practitioners tell us that the depth and clarity of spacious mind can encompass even terrible occurrences such as September 11th or the Nazi Holocaust. Even a great practitioner may initially be shocked by suffering on such scales, but the habit of cultivation of spacious mind steadies the practitioner. No matter the history or state of personal practice – if we’ve never meditated, or if we’ve practiced for decades – we can each find greater stability in the face of shocks such as September 11th through the cultivation of meditative spiritual practice.
Through meditation we learn to recognize and diminish our own suffering. With the greater stability that an ongoing practice affords, we can skillfully offer compassion to others who suffer. This can happen in two ways. By the example of equanimity in the face of our own suffering, we can demonstrate to others that suffering can be transcended. Through the insight into the suffering of others that arises from confrontation with our own suffering, we can touch the hearts of our companions.
It can be a great temptation to make the mistake of thinking that, to relieve the suffering of others, we must share their suffering. But this is precisely the wrong tack to take. We cannot help others by taking on their suffering. We must instead use the insights gained through the meditative examination of our own suffering to link ourselves to those who suffer without participating in their suffering. Just as we learn through meditation to face our own suffering calmly and fearlessly, so must we compassionately observe the suffering of others dispassionately, that is, without identifying with their suffering.
Through such efforts we can lessen our own suffering, and the suffering of the world in the wake of September 11th.