How To Keep Your Heart Open In The Face Of The Unimaginable
There was no one else in the building who could see or hear when I was tackled to the floor and strangled almost to death by a man twice my size. As I lay pinned down and unable to breathe, let alone cry for help, I was blessed with profound insight that has forever changed the trajectory of my life and my understanding of the power of inner peace. Though few know I had this experience, it feels relevant to share today as part of our ongoing “Finding Your Inner Peace Sanctuary” workshop. Last week, we began to investigate anger as one of the shadows we must work through. Many may ask how to manage anger at being violently attacked. This week’s post is a deeper exploration of this sensitive question.
Faced with what I thought was the end of my life, I saw in the man on top of me a soul so ravaged in pain that all it knew was to seek more pain. I instinctively understood that even the slightest bit of antagonism from me would trigger the fire of his pain and rage into an unstoppable deadly inferno.
I was fortunate enough to already have a steady meditation practice. I had learned how to go to a neutral place of internal spaciousness, my inner peace sanctuary, regardless of what was happening externally. Now, physically overpowered, and unable to move or to plead for my life, I went there fully.
As I witnessed my last moments flash before me, my deepest desire was for eternal peace for myself and all life everywhere. So, I focused on the divine light and gave it my everything – each molecule, my every thought, and the breaths it seemed I would never have.
With that presence of mind, openness of heart and receptivity of soul, a miracle unfolded. As I emptied myself of all I knew and became only expansive love, the attacker suddenly shook his head, stunned at what he was doing. It was as though he had spontaneously woken from a nightmare. His eyes, that had been coldly demonic and void of life, flickered with possibility. The deadly grip on my neck loosened, and air poured into my lungs.
I remember immediately thinking that I still had to remain calm if I wanted to get out alive. I spoke with softness and gentle understanding, and moved slowly to make my way to safety, and then to the police station where I would report the incident. Charges were laid and justice was served.
I was extremely lucky in so many ways. I had received spiritual teachings in my life, and lived in circumstances that allowed me to integrate them, so that I could experience what I did. I had survived an assault that can kill within minutes. I also benefited from access to receptive and efficient guardians of the law. Millions around the world, as I write this, do not have those privileges.
I share this story because I saw first-hand how each one of us contains the sparks of anger that fuel our collective inferno; and we also contain the seeds of light to transform it. What I experienced – both the violence, and the moment of illumination – is part of our human nature. The question, more urgent every day, is which will we choose?
By no means am I suggesting being passive about wrongdoing. Confronted with my possible death, I was not passive. I chose to move wide awake in the direction of maximum clarity and compassion, and knew this would guide me. This is not to say that I claim to have a recipe to prevent death by violence, or that someone’s assault is any reflection of their inherent worth. I just know that if I had allowed my anger to take me over, terror to cloud my thinking, or hopelessness and despair to paralyze me, I likely would not be here today.
We need to cool the anger we experience in response to violence, rather than amplify, suppress or dismiss it. Anger is hot and constrictive. It is rooted in divisive thinking and the perception that life is happening “to me”. In the simmering-down process, we can begin to see, as we explored last week, that the transgressor’s action likely stems from a perception of fear, even helplessness or powerlessness—feelings we too can experience.
Anger contains a seed of light that we can find as we relax and open. There is wisdom in this light that we can only touch when our anger is quieted. It is the wisdom that says, “That’s not in balance.” It is the light that says, “It is a crime against Nature for this activity to take place.” Ultimately, the crime against Nature is the erroneous perception of being disconnected from one another and the whole. The seed of light within anger shows where painful actions have taken place, rooted in false perceptions. It sheds light on the darkness of ignorance that causes everyone—victim and perpetrator – to suffer.
All over the world, in this very moment, people are attacked, persecuted and oppressed in devastating ways. Today, we are in a collective sleepwalking nightmare of agitation. Having forgotten our interconnection, we misunderstand our human purpose, which leaves us feeling impotent and acting out of balance. We must choose to amplify unity rather than divisiveness, by understanding that there is no peace as long as we identify with either attacker or victim. We must be willing to move beyond that painful co-creation, into the powerful truth that we are more similar than different. Only the discerning light of wisdom keeps us sane in a life filled with challenges. Any one of us could experience violence at the hands of another. Each one of us has the capacity to perpetuate pain, even immeasurable violence. When we understand our inherent unity, we access that which rebalances us, returning us to equanimity from our ongoing nightmare. We learn to find peace and practice mindfulness, not because we want the moment to be how we want it to be, but because it literally saves lives—often including our own.
In my live workshops, I encourage a pause for three deep breaths, to help integration around this point. It can seem counterintuitive to consider that in the face of adversity we can act from a place of peace. As we explored last week, it is automatic for anger to rise when we feel threatened. To find the wisdom of peace, we need to go beyond that reactivity.
Whether or not we like what is before us, remaining within the whole allows us to act with humility, courage and compassion and in so doing, access our greatest power. By knowing how to rest in our inner peace sanctuary regardless of our situation, we see the widest range of possibilities, find the clearest path forward, and choose the highest good of all. We discover our true potential. The German-Canadian spiritual teacher and author Eckhart Tolle sums it up beautifully when he says, “Confusion, anger, depression, violence, and conflict arise when humans forget who they are.” The cycle of violence and suffering goes on until we let go of our erroneous perceptions of being in any way separate from one another, a lesson we someday may be able to thank COVID-19 for highlighting for us all.
As heated agitation, righteous indignation, and reactive disconnection increase worldwide, I pray we quickly see that aggression and againstness are never a solution. Acting from pain – no matter what name we give it – only causes more pain. Everyone has the right to breathe and to be treated with dignity, irrespective of race, sex or creed. And everyone has the opportunity to find their inner peace sanctuary, no matter the circumstance. We each can choose to make our world into the heaven we all know it can be. And we don’t need to wait till death comes knocking at our door to make that choice.
From my heart to yours,