December 21, 2012
The shootings that took place in Newtown—taking the lives of 20 children, all first graders, and 7 adults including the shooter—is a tragedy of such immense proportions, it has rightfully thrown many of us into confusion and deep questioning. As Buddhists, yoga, and mindfulness practitioners, how do we hold this? Make sense of it? Respond? ...What to do?
As with any experience that stretches us beyond the field of our knowing, of familiarity, our first and most powerful response is not really a Buddhist response at all, but a human one. It is to just sit. To allow ourselves to feel with the body that which is incomprehensible to the mind. Such a sitting would be a non-questioning one. It isn't so much about trying to figure out why or how or who to blame, or even what there is to be done about it. Rather, there is only "just sitting"—allowing what there is to be felt to be felt. To let what is, be.
Much of our culture has become about not having space to feel what there is to feel. Distraction from discomfort reigns supreme. Our technology largely serves to accentuate that: with a few extra moments of unfilled time, our fundamental discomfort with ourselves surfaces, sending us to computer and cellphones to check email. So much of what has gone astray in our culture has to do with our inability to allow ourselves to "be with." This is, I believe, a place in which the practice of meditation can meaningfully contribute to society...that in our "do" culture, we are empowered to cultivate a space in which to simply "be." This pause, this settling into ourselves, this calm abiding, is a valuable firewall for preventing our pain from becoming confused with our action. It is essential that we become present to our desire to "do something" so that we don't allow pain and confusion to drive us. In this way, the practice of being present to what is is radical.
Given where American society sits today—in this constant tug of war between aggression and distraction—neither can dharma practitioners languish solely in the action of nonaction. Our becoming aware and present is essential, but insufficient. For some of us, there may be nothing further to do outwardly; our bearing witness is enough. But as a broad and diverse body of people bound together by not only the values, but the practices of wisdom and compassion, the larger Buddhist and yoga communities sit at a crossroads in which it is becoming increasingly apparent that a collective response to such tragedies, to such crises, to such epidemic confusion and its underlying causes, is a responsibility we must step into. We must put ourselves on the line and our values to the test of making active, meaningful, strategic contributions in the places that our social attention goes to at such times: traditional and social media, political advocacy mechanisms, and platforms that amplify our voices beyond speaking to just ourselves.
Because while we won't all agree on what there is to do, we possess a strong and binding core of shared sensibility as to how. Our commitment to and alignment with the path of the Buddha instructs and teaches us to bring both compassion and wise action to bear upon our response. As a community—however loose, decentralized, non-hierarchical—we must have one.
We must grapple with the immense responsibility and gift of being aware of our interconnectedness, recognizing that we cannot separate ourselves from being accountable for the social conditions that give rise to such tragedies.
And we must do something about it.
Angel Kyodo Williams is a maverick teacher, Zen priest, yogi, and founder of Center for Transformative Change. She is the author of Being Black: Zen and the Art of Living with Fearlessness and Grace, is a thought leader for transformative social change, leads the newDharma Community, and constantly muses about Mindfulness That Matters.