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Bearing Witness at the 9/11 Rallies

This past Saturday, on the ninth anniversary of the September 11th attacks, two opposing rallies were held near the site of where the Ground Zero Mosque / Islamic community center is proposed to be built.

The debate around allowing the center to be built has been particularly caustic, with such intense claims from the opposing group that “all Muslims are terrorists” and statements coming from the group who supports building of the center that all who oppose them must be “racist” or “biggots”. The more subtle issues of freedom to practice religion and community relations seemed to be secondary to personal attacks.

Sensing the rising passions tied up in the rallies, I decided I would attend to Bear Witness to the social movements that were arising. Myself and eight brave meditators met up inside the Unity and Solidarity rally around 2pm and proceeded into walking meditation down the streets of lower manhattan, weaving our way through a small, explosive anti-abortion rally, past the “9/11 truth” group rally, around the edge of the world trade center site itself and finally into the "Tea Party" rally that was staged at the site of the proposed community center -- two blocks from Ground Zero.

We walked silently, taking in the atmosphere, which was a mixture of discord and solemnity. Some people were yelling in anger, some people were crying in grief, and some people, like the police officers and sanitation workers, were just there doing their jobs – peacefully arranging barrier fences or emptying the trash.

We walked until we found a spot near the back of the “Tea Party” rally (who were anti community center). Members of the Unity and Solidarity rally (pro community center) trickled in through the fences, arguments erupted and emotions puddled out across the crowd. This was the perfect place for our group to come to sit and ”Bear Witness.”

The mirror that I normally hold up to my mind in meditation became amplified in this environment. People were speaking out in anger, making all kinds of assumptions about the motivation of those whom they targeted with their words “You think this because....” “What you don't understand is....” Fear, disgust, sadness and rage swelled up all around and inside me.

After the first two minutes of sitting and following my breathing I broke into tears --all I could feel and hear was pain, and it was so deep, and so pervasive. My own fear and sadness became indistinguishable from the pain and suffering of those around me. Like a nursery of babies crying for our lost mothers, it seemed like we were all there looking for a way to express our sadness and fear to each other, but instead it came out in anger:

“Faggot” “Racist” “Idiot” “Hippie” “Biggot” “Terrorist” "U-S-A!!" 

Like bullets the protesters shot words at each other, considering it a victory if they got shot back at, finding solidarity not in peace, but in perpetuating the energy of argument. No real conversation about sadness, grief, fear or anger could take place in this environment, there was no space for healing.

 

The longer we sat, the more people became curious abut what we were doing – cameras were clicking, people were asking us what we were trying to accomplish. One passerby yelled:

“This is New York, don't just sit there...stand up and say what you believe in”

The torrent of emotions I was feeling at the beginning of the meditation soon washed into a steady and clear experience of the surrounding environment, I felt emboldened. A small semi-circle of space emerged in front of our group, and as I stood up after ninety minutes or so of sitting, a middle aged man with a camera asked me “What are you trying to do here”?

I struggled to respond in a way that would do justice to the complexity I was experiencing:

“We are here bearing witness”

“And what does the witness say? You use the term witness, but that implies that 'The Witness Speaks'” 

I explained to him the other two Tenets of the Zen Peacemakers that go along with “Bearing Witness”

“Not Knowing” - Being the first step we took that day. Trying to approach the situation with an open mind, free from judgement.

“Not Knowing” is followed by “Bearing Witness”, which was our act of abiding in, or applying unyielding attention to the roller coaster of dynamics that was unfolding in front of us.

“Loving Action” - Is the answer to the man's question. It is the fruition of the first two tenets, which can't be contrived or planned before the first two aspects are explored. Only out of placing ourselves in the mindset of “Not Knowing” and “Bearing Witness” with the situation could we become familiar with it in an uncontrived manner, out of which loving action arise.

For the remainder of the afternoon I thought about what Loving Action might be to arise out of this experience...for which a few very clear answers eventually emerged:

- I will dedicate myself to healing myself and others by removing violent speech from my communication with others.

- Secondly, I will dedicate to offering my time and energy to making the experience of seeing the violence in speech available to others. Through linking people to whatever it is inside themselves that desires peace and healing, and more specifically by supporting movements that offer training in non-violent communication.

The wounds of 9/11 go back deep into history, far before airplanes were invented, before Columbus discovered America, and even before Islam became a religion. The root of the suffering that I experienced on Saturday is built in to our bodies, it is passed around in our culture, and there doesn't seem to be one person we can blame for it all.

Political debates that don't address the deep emotional and psychological wounds caused by violence will only ever be dealing with the tip of the iceberg. If we truly wish to see our communities live in harmony, we must be willing to face our own shame, guilt and anger,  an extremely painful and difficult process.

Healing the wounds of 9/11 is truly an “inside” job.

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Comments

Thank you

Thank you for showing me a new way to approach violence, in all the many forms that it comes.

amazing

deep and true. thanks for this.

Thank you

Thank you for being there, and for the beautiful words.
Once I did something like this: went to sit in public outside the DNC and RNC conventions in 2004. The context was less angry than what you experienced, but passers-by responded in the same way. I thought they projected their internal peace on to us. I could say their longing for peace, but it is peace that longs for peace.
When asked why I was there, I said I was attempting to come to terms with my own response to politics, conflict, ideas about how best to save all beings. That settling down didn't happen; the mind remained noisy and interactive; but the sense of doing exactly the appropriate thing in that moment was life-changing.
Maybe I'll see you on the street one day.

thank you

Patrick, thank you for writing this. I've posted it over on my blog, The Jizo Chronicles.

metta,
Maia

When Allen Ginsberg began

When Allen Ginsberg began chanting "OM" at the Chicago Convention it stopped the aggression. Sometimes just watching or bearing witness can emerge as a form of aggression all it's own. It's very tricky. It's not really possible to meditate in such a roiling atmosphere so listening or practicing tonglen while hearing the swirl of vocalized emotional states is the only possibility. Reflecting upon that the result becomes to try and do the healing. Bearing witness exercise in such a heated atmosphere becomes a theatrical destination only because of the nature of the total. Though not a great believer in such, a bit of OM'ing might not hurt, and some flowers.

Theatrics?

 

"Bearing witness exercise in such a heated atmosphere becomes a theatrical destination only because of the nature of the total."

I'm not sure I agree completely with this statement.  There is a very intensive personal practice that takes place in Bearing Witness that has little to do with theatrics.  Could you elaborate a little more on what you mean?

theatrics

All the people who demonstrated, for or nil, are involved in some sort of theatrics or theatrical demonstration. That is the basic presentation. Therefore whatever enters that arena is also involved in a theatrical demonstration, whither Bearing Witness or Blasting Muslims, or Basic Indignation, or Proposing Peace. It follows the dictum that the Medium is the Message, or Massage.... You can not escape the power of the presentation nor the accumulation of the total presentations. Bearing Witness can be a deep personal, as in private and hidden or available on to the doer, experience. But there is also the perceiver. The perception and the perceiver. From the point of view of the perceiver looking at a group of people meditating, or looking blankly, and holding up a sign, it is possible to view that as a theatric. That is not to say that you should not do it, or that you should. My awkwardly worded expression only alerts you to the overall view thus: bearing witness exercise (!) in such a heated atmosphere becomes a theatrical destination - only because of the nature of the total. You can not escape the energy of the atmosphere of Bearing Witness. It is one thing to 'sit' in a place where something horrific once occurred and you are not surrounded with shouting, etc. That is different than being in the heart of a disturbance. It is the private and inward experience that would make Bearing Witness powerful to the individual. Once it enters the theater of revolt it is no longer the same, the nature of it changes. It becomes a theatric. This is not good or bad but needs to be looked at. Hope this helps.

Courage

Through bearing witness, you demonstrated such courage. I am truly moved by your courage...thank you for taking part, and for sharing your experiences.

Thank you for your report.

I had mixed feelings about this event, especially due the involvement of a local politician from my country. Your report showed a better approach how to deal with all the observed hatred and fear than I did at that particular day, and it is inspiring.

loving action

thanks for this. it's beautiful and terrifying, and I appreciate your presence and courage. I like the loving action you arrived at.

I was at zen peacemakers that morning, and the anniversary and the threatened koran burning were on everyone's mind, particularly what loving action is when confronted by hate. bernie said that it's whatever arises for you in the situation. a good zen answer, I guess.

thank you

Thank you for bearing witness, and thank you for posting this.

Beautiful.

This is probably what "sublime" means.

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