The Pacific Heart

Psychiatry, Spirituality and Culture

Loss, Grief and the Way Out

Reflections of a Buddhist Psychiatrist in the wake of the Connecticut Massacre

Sunday, December 16, 2012

I, like many of you, was deeply affected by the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut last Friday:  sickened, revulsed and wounded by the carnage at Sandy Hook.  The victims were mostly six and seven years old.  I imagine the joy and love they’d brought into their parents lives, and thought of all the young children I know and have met.  As we grow older, we can fall prey to cynicism, and our hides can grow thick with disenchantments.  But we imagine childhood as pure and innocent, vulnerable to be sure, but surrounded by protecting, caring, nurturing grown ups.  And most parents know that their child brings something new, spirited and transformative into the world.  This is the miracle of childhood.  In the deep bond of parent and child is a love that transforms both, as surely as a flower blooms with water, sunshine and nutrients.

So the grief and anger we feel at such an act is because our illusion has been shattered.  We tread the world mindlessly, locked into our own lives, busy with the things we think will keep us happy, keep us ahead in “the game”, keep us and the ones “in our circle” on top.  We fall into the delusion that we are safe, that nothing “bad” could happen.  We push our essential human vulnerability, the vulnerability of the child, out of our consciousness.  We rationalize away the bad things or leave them to someone else to take care of.  Some of us can’t ignore what stares us in the face – but then we grow jaded because other people turn away from our pain and the wounds we see in the world and ourselves.

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But we are vulnerable.  We all entered the world gasping for air, clutching onto our first breath for dear life.  Take a few moments to connect to your breath.  You might be able to feel, deep down, that essential perilousness of life.  I also feel the deep relatedness to all that exists.  With my breath, I’m connected to every living thing on the planet.  The atoms of our bodies come from far off stars.  We are all related.  That deep connection soothes me.  The web of life and consciousness is vast and powerful. 

But between my vulnerability and the web there is a gap.  I fill this gap with compassion for all the other beings sharing the world with me.  May all beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.

We are vulnerable, but we are not alone.  We cannot win by hurting one another; the harm we do will ultimately find its way back to us, and the world we share.  Whether it’s inner city children plagued by gun violence, or children dying from drone attacks a world away – our choices make a difference.  We cannot turn away.  How can we convince North Korea to disarm when we can’t even control our own violence?

I recently returned from a Buddhist pilgrimage (details to follow; I went with Shantum Seth of www.BuddhaPath.com).  We remembered the stories of violence being transformed.  Angulimala was a brigand who believed he could gain mystical power through murder; he collected the fingers of his victims in a necklace.  (Angulimala means “finger necklace”.)  But when he met the Buddha, he changed. The legend says he chased Buddha, intending to murder him, but couldn’t catch him, no matter how fast he ran.  The Buddha, meanwhile, just walked as usual.  “Why can’t I catch you?” Angulimala shrieked.  The Buddha replied, “I have stopped.  Why haven’t you?  Stopped fear, stopped hatred, stopped anger.”  Angulimala immediately sensed that the Buddha was spiritually powerful and at ease.  He realized the enormity of his misdeeds, and bowed down before the Buddha, who ordained him, and gave him a new name:  Ahimsaka, the non-violent one.  Ahimsaka became well known as a good fellow to have around in a childbirth, and lived up to his new name.  His mere presence was said to ensure a safe delivery.  Still, he often got beaten up by the townspeople who remembered him as a murderer.  The Buddha taught him to bear this abuse quietly, and not fight back; it was the fruit of his past action, and would save him from countless cycles of rebirth.

A few hundred years after the life of the Buddha, Emperor Ashoka also looked upon his carnage and had a change of heart.  He had killed hundreds of thousands in his campaigns; the rivers literally ran red with blood.  He vowed to give up killing after being inspired by a Buddhist monk (one of his wives was also a Buddhist, and undoubtedly influenced him).  His Empire became one of the most peaceful and peace-promoting Kingdoms ever seen.

I keep hoping that we’ll view our carnage and transform from Angulimala to Ahimsaka, or like Ashoka transform our scattered, defensive Empires into an Empire of Hearts.

But it really depends on each one of our vulnerable, seeking hearts.  We have to connect to our vulnerability, the vulnerability of all, and vow to avoid harming others and ourselves.  To vow wherever possible, to protect each other, for we are all vulnerable.

And we are all connected.

I hope we all reach out to each other more, not just during the holiday season, but year round.  The only app for that is openness.  The disaffected and disconnected need connection too.  That connection went perilously wrong last Friday.

 

© 2012 Ravi Chandra, M.D. All rights reserved.  Please sign up for my occasional e-newsletter at www.RaviChandraMD.com.  Also find out about a new group, Sangha Francisco, I’m starting up soon.  Please subscribe to this blog via RSS, or follow me on Twitter https://www.twitter.com/going2peace. And I really appreciate your shares on Facebook, etc.  

Ravi Chandra, M.D., F.A.P.A. is a Board Certified Psychiatrist and writer in San Francisco, California.

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