In Portland last week a young man went on a shooting rampage at a local mall near my home. I’ve shopped in that mall on occasion. My reaction: numbness. I was still numb when the news broke about the Connecticut school shootings. It took several days for me to be willing to look at the news. When I did, I was overwhelmed with grief. The news told of little babies scurrying for safety as their kind, lovely teachers and friends were shot multiple times in front of them. There was the story of the frantic mother pounding at the door of a neighbor who’d taken some bewildered children in off the lawn, only to find out that her child was not among the safe but among the dead. The tears came out of me as I read. I have been a child. I have been a father. I have been filled with rage and fear and pain. What can be done? Can anything be done?
In times like these, people say something should be done. Treat the mentally ill. Protect the children. Take away the guns. But the gun sales go through the roof after something like this because people are afraid they won’t get any more guns. I don’t have a gun. I have a stick and some pepper spray and a cell phone. I don’t want any guns. People in Oregon are allowed to carry concealed weapons. There are enough guns. The police here shoot mentally ill people and taser them to death regularly. There are mentally ill people walking the streets, aimless, unloved. These men who did these murders weren’t homeless, or on the streets. One seemed normal to his friends, the other was a bit off. No one knew the Colorado shooter was going to go off before he went in to the theater. From my point of view, we can’t zero in on who might be a mass murderer and somehow prevent them from snapping.
One of my yoga teachers says we should all practice love and ahimsa, non-violence. I asked him if he was willing to take in a mentally ill homeless man or give him a hug the next time he had such an encounter. It’s natural to have these sentiments in times like these about things like this. But death, torture and suffering are happening every moment of every day. All of us conscious beings feel pain and we all want to not suffer. While this kind of suffering is brought to the surface when there’s a big story or when it’s close to home, this kind of suffering is happening in every moment all over the planet. Every single being feels just as much suffering as those sweet little children and lovely school teachers and people shopping with their parents at the mall. Meditate on that. Enlightened beings have the capacity to hold the entire realm of suffering in their hearts. We can practice just a little by feeling our feelings and holding compassionate space for the suffering of all beings all of the time. It’s impossible, of course. But like President Obama said,
What choice to we have?” Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to save them all.
I led a one day retreat in San Diego a couple of weeks ago. My friend, who has been a serious practitioner for over 20 years, drove me around downtown San Diego. A crazed, homeless man approached the car, jabbering nonsensically. I said, “Joel, I dare you to engage with that man.” My friend said, “I don’t want that karma,” and said a short but powerful blessing prayer that our teacher has given us. But the karma for that crazy man to come to my friend is already there. The karma for that crazy man to receive that blessing is also already there. The karma for my friend to drive me around so that I can teach people about the path out of insanity and suffering and the karma for that street man to suffer his insanity are already there. We all carry our karma. Even the sweet little schoolchildren. Even the man who killed them. The teachings tell us that the effects are the results and the results are the effects of new results. These seeds are deep. These seeds are what we’re built of. We’re in samsara. This is the suffering of the desire realm. And this human dimension isn’t even the worst of it. There are infinite sufferings.
But like me and my inability to even read the news, we tune out the suffering. We tune out our awareness of the infinite sufferings of infinite beings. But all of us are connected to all of the sufferings of all of the beings who have ever lived, who have ever suffered, who have ever died and who are alive and suffering and those who will live and suffer and die. This is our interdependence. This is all happening within us. We’re currently in one of the safer periods in the history of our planet. We have more medicine, more tools, more travel, better communication, more education than ever. There have been plagues and slavery and abuse and insanity and it’s all been going on since the beginning of time. The horror show continues. It’s not just the latest shooting that we should be concerned about. I think about this stuff often. I think sometimes people look at me and see the look on my face and in my eyes and wonder, “What the fuck is going on in this guy’s head?” I’ll tel you what’s going on.
I meditate on the sufferings of samsara every day. The sufferings are infinite. Band-aids are impermanent. There’s no way to avoid the suffering. We must bear it and we must allow it to crack open our hearts and penetrate our warrior ego fortresses and help us to see what is really going on, day after day. That’s the action we should take. And yes, put the guns away. Of course, treat the mentally ill. Maybe train some teams of compassionate but bad-ass protectors to be present at schools or wherever the defenseless are. There are other actions we can take, to be sure. But the first action is to meditate on the suffering of samsara. It takes guts. I wish I had more guts. I wish I were one of those people who go fill up trucks of food and clothing for hurricane victims or send cards to the families of murdered children or…or…or. But I’m a yogi. I pray. I meditate. I read and study and practice yoga and try to stay alive. I follow teachings. I think about death and magic and our interdependent, deep psychic energy and our cluelessness and I look for wisdom in the eyes of anyone.
Mostly I just see confusion. And hurt. And loss. But there is wisdom too. It takes long years of deep practice and serious commitment to see the wisdom and the suffering all in the same moment. But this is the paradoxical nature of our situation. The ancient teachings before Buddha called it samsara. They knew about karma. Buddha explained the problem and the solution in depth. There is suffering and there is a path out of suffering. May we all find it now.