I got the news about the Sandy Hook tragedy a few hours before teaching a class. Not just any class, either, but an end of the week “happy hour” class, which is intended to be light-hearted and fun, with music and laughter to help people decompress from their stressful work weeks. But after hearing the unthinkably tragic news, I could not imagine putting on a smiling face and cheering up a room full of people when I felt like crying myself. I had even planned an “apocalypse” theme to poke fun at the upcoming (supposed) end of the world. In the wake of tragedy, that seemed terribly dark, and wrong.
I wished, as I do now, that I could say something sweepingly beautiful and spiritual to make everybody feel better. It can be hard to know how to handle situations like this as a yoga teacher. Sometimes students expect us to have a spiritual outlook on a situation that is simply overwhelming. They look to us for emotional and spiritual support when we ourselves feel like basket cases. Some days we might even feel like hypocrites, giving advice on how to be peaceful when we feel anything but. What to do?
I decided just to show up, be honest, and do my best. But first, I did my own practice.
I got on the mat and though there were a few tears and some sadness, I kept breathing and moving. I tried to cultivate mindfulness, and compassion. A few hours later, my students and I gathered for class and dedicated our practice to the victims of the massacre. Getting together, acknowledging our sadness, and sharing a positive intention seemed to benefit us all.
When terrible things happen, it’s natural to wonder why. Our minds immediately want to size things up and figure them out, because that makes us feel like we have some handle on the situation. Uncertainty can be uncomfortable – even scary, when a situation involves our safety, or that of our young children. You may have noticed how quickly people have jumped on bandwagons of blame: it’s a gun control issue! It’s because we don’t allow prayer in schools! It’s a mental health issue! These are ways of saying “I know why this happened, and I have an answer.” But rarely are situations that easily sized up.
There are a lot of pieces to this puzzle, and certainly many social issues that desperately need our attention. But we need to remember that atrocities such as these arise out of the greater environment of which we are all a part. Every one of us is like a thread in a bigger piece of fabric that makes up our milieu. And though we may not realize it, we all contribute to this greater environment. That’s why, if we want to prevent future tragedies, we all need to be, and do our best. Let’s all make an effort to be like the society we’d like to live in: more clearheaded, more kind, and more courageous.
In Buddhism, there is a practice of giving thanks for crises because they are such valuable opportunities for practice. It is said that great progress can be made on the road away from suffering by practicing during difficult times, even though we may not always see the fruits of practice right away.
So, when confronted with the fragility and impermanence of life as we are after a tragedy like this, we can cultivate gratitude for what we have today – right now. How much of your every day existence do you usually just take for granted? With no guarantees for what might happen tomorrow, tell people you love them, settle petty grievances, and pay attention to what’s right in your life.
When reminded of the terrible, unthinkable suffering of others, cultivate compassion – for everyone. Even yourself. Remember that no one wants to suffer, but everyone does. Even that person that disagrees with you about gun control.
When grappling with existential questions (why would God let this happen?), practice resting in uncertainty – not having to have all the answers. Because you never will.
When experiencing unpleasant emotions, practice breathing and mindfulness. Practice observing the ebb and flow of emotions without always knowing what they’re about, then practice letting them go. And when aggravated at everything that’s wrong with the world, practice patience.
When feeling downright angry, take the path of skillful action. Clarify your principles, and act on them. If you think something needs to be done, do it. Don’t sit back in complacence anymore. If you believe there is a problem with the status quo, speak up.
Above all, remember the underpinning of our whole practice: nonviolence (ahimsa). And remember that violence can be expressed even in subtle ways, such as forcing your will on someone.
In short, keep practicing yoga.
If you feel guilty about going on with your life or experiencing joy, don’t. Although it’s normal to feel guilty after a tragedy, for the most part, it doesn’t help anything. It doesn’t honor the fallen, though I believe on some level we feel we are doing penance for having survived when others did not. If your guilt points to something you need to change, then make a change. If not, acknowledge the feelings and try to let them go.
Perhaps the best thing we can do to honor the memories of the victims is to give their sacrifice some meaning. Consider that in 100 years, people might look back at this incident as the moment things changed – the moment that, as a country we charted a new course. But that change isn’t going to happen by itself.
We can let terrible events harden our hearts and make us bitter and angry, or we can let them transform us into better people, part of a better society. Which do you choose?
Stephanie Carter, PhD, E-RYT, is a yoga teacher and clinical psychologist in San Antonio, TX. In addition to teaching a variety of group classes, she teaches psychology at a local university and enjoys working with private clients. When she’s not studying, practicing or teaching yoga, Stephanie enjoys writing, taking pictures and making music. Connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, or her website.