The news is filled with tragedy every day. Yet there was something different about what happened in Paris a few weeks ago. It wasn't that it was any worse than other atrocities or acts of terrorism; it was that it was so close to home. And, although it may feel like an uncomfortable truth, gunmen storming an office on an ordinary Wednesday morning is more personally frightening to us than the same happening to a school thousands of miles away. It doesn't mean we don't care about other parts of the world, it just means that our brains are wired to seek out threats, and danger so nearby will naturally affect us more deeply. The question is, how do we remain mindful in the face of such tragedy, and how do we keep our hearts open amid such strong emotions?
Fear, Anger and Hate
It may seem flippant to quote Yoda from Star Wars when writing about such a serious matter, however there is undeniable truth in what the scriptwriter wrote for the character: "Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering."
Although we live in an unpredictable world, we're pretty good at forgetting that we're not in control. Most of our days pass by without incident, and so when we hear on the news that something terrible has happened we are shocked back into the reality that life can be precarious and unsafe.
Many of us have probably wondered, "Are we next?" This is a scary prospect. For Londoners it's also bound to bring up painful memories of the 07/07 bombings. These fears are then fuelled by sensationalist media coverage. If we're not mindful, we can end up feeling paralysed by fear and despair.
Our initial reaction to the attack on Charlie Hebdo may have been shock or sadness, yet if we're honest with ourselves how many of us then became angry? With that anger comes all kinds of aggressive and defensive thoughts and feelings. This is normal fight-or-flight stuff. However, if left unchecked, these thoughts and feelings could rapidly turn into hatred.
This is how racism and prejudice are born; when we allow normal emotional reactions about individuals to turn into beliefs about entire groups of people. This is why mindfulness is so crucial. If we mindlessly descend into hatred, this doesn't just cause suffering within us; it also fuels division outside of us too. Approaching our feelings with acceptance, compassion and honesty helps us avoid getting lost in this destructive spiral.
Acceptance Doesn't Have To Be Passive
While acceptance of feelings and circumstances is important, this acceptance doesn't mean, as Tara Brach says, "to be a doormat". It doesn't mean that we have to simply accept that bad things happen in the world and that we have no influence; that we need to accept the anger, fear or sadness that this brings up, add a little (self-)compassion into the mix, and that's it.
If we feel passionate about injustice, acceptance is only the first step. The next step is to take action. Why? Because we can be accepting and still go to a demonstration such as the one in Paris and thus let the world know that we furiously condemn the killings of those journalists and want to stand united with others for peace. Mindfulness is not about simply sitting on a cushion, it can also give us the courage to get up from that cushion and engage with this world.
Having Open Hearts, Even When it Hurts
Even though it's hard, we need to give ourselves permission to have an aching heart. The pain triggered by such tragedy can be overwhelming. We may lose faith in the goodness of humanity, or despair at the fact that we don't live in a kinder world. It's easy at times like this to become suspicious of each other, to want to disconnect. But we don't like feeling these things, and so our instinct is to fight it. This just creates more suffering.
The practice of mindfulness helps us to hold this range of emotions with gentleness. We realise we don't have to push these thoughts away, because our compassionate heart is able to hold them lightly without turning them into truths about the world.
Our fear and anger can be so strong as to make us forget the good things about people. Yet mindfulness helps us stay committed to the truth. The truth is that terrible things do happen, but so do good things. The existence of terrorism does not negate the fact that people also do wonderful things for each other every day.
Ultimately, accepting the painful feelings which arise, and acknowledging that this pain is an experience we share with the whole of humanity can help stop divisive beliefs from taking hold. And making a conscious effort to remember the goodness in people will help us keep our hearts open.
This post was co-authored with Jenni Chante