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.