What mass shootings teach us (revised)

What mass shootings teach us (revised)

I’d like to believe that the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, the United States congress voting for a bill to ban Syrian and Iraqi refugees from the US, and another mass shooting in California earlier this week, happened for a reason. If nothing else, maybe because we all need to learn from it (although it may not be what you think).

The en masse killing of innocent people – especially when this happens in Europe or the US – seems to illicit the same public sentiment every time: war on terror and better gun control in America. Of course, I’d also prefer to live in a country where not every idiot (excuse my French) can buy a gun at the hardware store. Having said that, I strongly believe people owning a gun or not (or any other weapon of mass destruction for that matter) is really not the issue. And, besides, I am not writing this blog to advocate stricter laws on gun ownership. The problem lies not outside of us.

We like to think that terrorists, mass shooters and serial killers are the “bad guys”, whereas we are the “good ones”. Some folks even deem themselves so ‘enlightened’ they send healing to the perpetrators, besides the obvious choice of doing so for the victims. However, we cannot disguise our judgment, our desire to change people, as “healing”. Because that is what we do: we condemn people, we think we know better, we try to fix what we perceive is wrong with others. But we forget to look at ourselves. We conveniently turn a blind eye on our own shortcomings, our judgments, our unfriendly remarks, our intolerant words and behavior (since when are all Syrians terrorists?). The world around us is merely a reflection of our inner world. Don’t like what you see? Look inside first! Gandhi already pointed out years ago: be the change you want to see in the world.

This sounds good, but how do we actually do this? We are so self-absorbed, self-centered in our own drama, that everyone else becomes “the other” to us, different and unreal. Our personal desires and concerns seem all that matter. Our involvement with ourselves prevents us from paying attention to others, even if they are family and friends. And so, everyone else becomes fictional, not living human beings with wants and fears just like our own. We need a practice to distance ourselves from our habitual thoughts, and to reconnect with others.

Relaxed concentration allows us to relate to ourselves without judgment or evasion. It teaches us to remain with our direct experience and to stop our habit of turning every experience into a story. As we practice this mindfulness of the mind, overtime we will develop the capacity to watch our thoughts without being compelled to believe in or even finish the story line. Whether our thoughts are profound and positive, or shallow and negative, we can learn to let them float through us as clouds in the sky. Research has shown that 10 minutes of mindfulness meditation every day for the period of one month will create new neural pathways in the brain. Here is how:

Find a comfortable seated position, either in a chair or on the floor. Take a couple of deep breaths, inhaling through your nose, exhaling through your mouth. Return to your normal breathing and simply notice the flow of your in- and exhalations. For example, you may notice the rise and fall of your belly or chest as your breath. Every time you notice you are thinking, bring your attention back to your breath. Don’t judge yourself, it is normal to be distracted by the mind. That is what the mind does. Let thoughts come and go, without paying attention to any one in particular.

At first, practicing for 5 minutes may feel like a challenge. Eventually, a daily sit of (at least) 10 minutes will be your new normal.

“The more different someone seems from us, the more unreal they may feel to us. We can too easily ignore or dismiss people when they are of a different race or religion, when they come from a different socioeconomic ‘class’”, writes Tara Brach in Radical Acceptance, Embracing your Life with the Heart of a Buddha. It may seem true to us that the acts of a serial killer or a terrorist couldn’t be further from what we perceive as acceptable behavior. But we forget they are human beings too – that they are hurting just like we are – as typing others makes the real human invisible to our eyes and closes our heart.

Hafiz writes:

It happens all the time in heaven,
And some day
It will begin to happen
Again on earth-

 That men and women…
Who give each other Light,
Often will get down on their knees

 And… With tears in their eyes,
Will sincerely speak, saying,

 “My dear,
How can I be more loving to you;
How can I be more Kind?”

Fortunately, we can learn to see we all are vulnerable and realize our belonging with all beings. This is how:

The classic practices of loving kindness (metta) and compassion (karuna) train the heart through the mind. There are some succinct phrases used in metta and karuna practices. The exact wording may vary, but the message is always the same: sending wishes of loving kindness and compassion to others and ourselves. Traditionally, the training starts with directing these charitable words toward us. As we become more comfortable and confident with this practice, we can direct it to others.

First, choose a loved one (as this is usually easiest), then a neutral person in your life, and eventually your adversaries. You can do this in separate sessions, or repeat the phrases 3 times during the same session. As you come to sit in a comfortable position (for example before or after your meditation), repeat the following phrases out loud or inside your mind:

Classic metta phrases:

“May I (you) be free of fear and harm.
May I (you) be content as I am.
May I (you) be at peace with what comes.”


“May I (you) be happy.
May I (you) be healthy.
May I (you) be free of suffering.”

I use this variation every day. First, I wish loving kindness toward myself. Secondly to my husband, and lastly to whoever comes to mind: a family member, a friend, an ex-boyfriend or the world as a whole.

Classic karuna phrases:

“As I experience fear (or any difficult emotion), I know others feel this too. May I be willing to open to fear with support.”

As you experience fear (choose someone who you know is fearful too), I know I have experienced this too. May we both be willing to open to fear with support.

As I experience connectedness (or any emotion of well-being), I know others desire to feel this too. May we all be willing to feel connectedness fully.’

These deceptively simple messages are essential nutrition for the brain. Just like meditation they stabilize and entrain new neural pathways while counteracting habits of disdainful hopelessness and complacency.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said it so well: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only Light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” When we operate from love, when we have compassion for others and ourselves, our inner Light will shine brighter. Leading by example will invite everyone else to follow suit. When we heal ourselves, we allow others to do the same. By doing so, global consciousness will rise, resulting in the cultivation of our inner knowing that we are all one. The world needs union, not separation.