The Second Noble Truth of the Waffle House Shooting

This isn’t about guns. This is about the tragedy that goes way beyond the AR-15 used to kill four innocent people.  This is about the first and foremost thing this shooting should do – which is break our hearts wide open. This is about me. This is about you.

There is an ocean of lists in Buddhism, but they all flow back to this first, foundational insight- the Four Noble Truths.

The Four Noble Truths are:

  1. All beings experience suffering.
  2. We suffer because we cling to what will not last or is not real.
  3. There is a way to stop suffering.
  4. The Eightfold Noble Path is the way.

Yes, it’s true. The end of the first leads to….another list!  But for now, let’s focus on this one.

The Suffering of Illusion

While the murder of four people at the Waffle House in Nashville certainly reflects a great deal of suffering, it’s the second truth that is the most revealed.  We suffer because we cling to what will not last or is not real. Or, as a teacher I dearly love said a dharma lesson recently, “The second truth is when you insist on seeing something as you want it to be, instead of how it is.”  In a word – illusion.

Travis Reinking, the young man who entered a Waffle House in the wee hours of the morning and took four lives, by any account suffers from severe and persistent mental illness. There’s a well-documented list of delusional and dangerous behavior. His guns had been confiscated more than once. How, then, did he get the weapon he used to gun down strangers?  His father gave them back to him.

Wait. What?

Why would a parent with a clearly troubled son repeatedly return deadly weapons to him? At first look it makes absolutely no sense. Life doesn’t happen at first look.  It happens in the hearts and minds of human beings. Human beings who cling to what is not real.  Why? Because love. Because denial. Because heartbreak. Because exhaustion. Because fear.   “He’s okay, now. He was just having a hard time. Everything’s going to be alright.”

There’s a lot of judgement and anger focused on Travis Reinking’s mom and dad right now but who hasn’t retreated to the story in their head when a fearful, powerless reality is knocking on the door?  What parent doesn’t stare at the door when hours go by without a text and tell themselves over and over, “Everything’s okay. He probably lost his phone.  She’s just focused on her friends. It’s nothing.” Most of the time they are right. Sometimes they are not.  Is that the same as giving a mentally ill person an AR-15?  No. Not in any way. What is the same is the place it comes from – the need for any story that’s better than sitting with the dread or fear. We don’t have to approve or understand the Reinking’s thinking or actions. They were clearly and terribly in error. We do have to admit we’ve been there at some level, too.

Suffering of False Hope

The first time a parent’s illusion broke my heart was when I read an article about Adam Lanza’s mother.  Another young man with mental illness who should not have been anywhere near a weapon, Adam Lanza lived in a house with access to many guns.  I read a number of articles about Mrs. Lanza’s isolating, frustrating journey through her son’s illness and a mental health care system that couldn’t seem to help.  The thing that stood out was an interview from a friend of the family who said Nancy Lanza loved taking her son to the shooting range because that was the only time he seemed happy; the only real connection they shared.

It’s easy – now – to say “Why would you put a gun in that kid’s hands?”  Put your heart in the body of a parent whose only ability to connect with her own child is to take him to a firing range. It’s the only smile he has. It’s the only light in his wide, troubled eyes. It’s the only hope. It’s false hope, but it’s hope. Nancy Lanza died without knowing that false hope she clung to would create unimaginable suffering for so many. The Reinkings now walk in their reality every moment of the day.

According to a “5 Things to Know” article, Travis Reinking’s mom believed in guns, God, and home school. One of her last facebook posts was a meme about how saying the pledge of allegiance and reading the bible in school kept school shootings from happening.  It’s not hard to imagine with how much of her heart she wanted to believe that having a “good Christian home” would protect them from the heartbreak of a son suffering from delusions and behavior problems. It was false hope, but it was hope. His illness could not be “prayed away.”

The Way to Stop Suffering

We need to stop screaming and meme-ing at each other, and start with a commitment to compassion. We don’t have to agree with anyone to feel their human value in our heart. When we see each other with equal value we can let go of the need to be right (or someone else to be wrong) and we can communicate.  We can come together.

Together we can forge a compass based on what’s real, not what’s comfortable or easy. Together we work on ways to dismantle both the mystique and illusion surrounding guns, mental health intervention, and people in crisis. Together we can stop laying piles of blame and accusation at each news update. We can keep each tragedy from instantly becoming a way to ‘prove a point about…’ and learn to mourn together.

Mourning is real. Mourning is the end where we begin. There are lives lost. There are people hurting.  There is much mourning to do.

We should not cling to the past or the illusion this kind of shooting is never going to happen again. We can only reduce our suffering by acknowledging it will happen again and it could happen to anyone. Only then, will we find the heart to make a change in our world.

—– THE BOTTOM LINE —–

  1. It’s easy to judge. It’s better to care.
  2. No religion, no “label” keeps bad things from happening. Our practices simply inform and empower how we get through them.
  3. A real heartbreak is still better than a false hope.

Got the News Blues? Transcend the Plot

Want a sure way to rejected by every publisher ever?  Start your query letter with, “This is a character driven novel.” I guarantee you’ll be getting the “Thanks, but this is not for us” email before your tea gets cold.  Characters create feelings, give insight, and spur our desires, but in Western culture they don’t drive the story. Readers flock to plot driven stories because, let’s face it, we live in a plot driven world. Nowhere is this more evident than the daily news.

Every news story, 24/7, is some combination of “action,” “reaction,” or “the next act/reaction/implosion/explosion/backtrack/side-track/thing to get us all killed.” Day after day we endure countless assaults on our psyche with our fear center targeted as ground zero. When your day starts with, “What will happen if I lose my health insurance?” and you take a lunch break to ponder, “Is someone going to walk into my child’s school with a gun today?”  before watching where the bombs (literal and figurative) are falling while you cook dinner, it’s a sure bet peace of mind isn’t what you’ll be having for dessert. Petty lies, personality politics, devastating injustice, and this horrendous weather (Spring shouldn’t feel like December) – it’s all too much. I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted.

There seems to be two choices – shut yourself in a cave and learn nothing of the world, or continue to endure the daily carpet bombing of breaking news until the foundation shatters and you plummet into despair. Fortunately, there’s another choice – a chance to be aware, but not overwhelmed, involved but not consumed. Sit down, breathe deeply, and see the story through a different motivating lens. Transcend the plot.

We are taught in meditation that every single breath matters. Every inhale, every exhale, is another chance to take in courage and send out compassion, take in trouble and send out comfort, take in lies and send out truth. Like a tree that absorbs toxic gasses and releases oxygen, we can mindfully bring life, hope, and happiness back into our narrative – one breath at a time.

How it looks in my practice:

News:  The family of a burglar, who died after being stabbed while robbing a home, put up a memorial in front of the house where he was killed – only to have it torn down by angry neighbors supporting the elderly man who killed the burglar to protect his wife and home.

Transcend the plot:  Take out the judgement, the action, the labels.

Breath in:  A human being is dead; another human being was frightened and took a life. A family is in mourning. A neighborhood is angry.

Breath out:Peaceful passing to the next life for the man who is dead; healing and comfort to the homeowner who is damaged. Compassion for the ones who mourn.  Wisdom and patience for the ones who act in anger.

~

News:  President Trump announced the US, France and UK did a joint operation to bomb Syrian weapons factories after Syria was discovered to have used chemical weapons in an attack earlier this week. The possibility of Russian reprisal is feared.

Transcend the plot:  Take out the action, the personalities (yes, it’s hard to do), the fear of the unknown future.

Breath in:  A war torn area has seen death and destruction. There is so much suffering. Leaders are manifesting what they think is best for them or their country. Conflict is high. Fear is present.

Breath out: Compassion and kindness for the weary people of this land. Communication and collaboration to all leaders. Empowerment and support to those who can ease the suffering of the people and the land. An awareness that we are not separate from one another, no matter what the boundary lines say. Courage, fearlessness, life in this moment.

Once you step out of the plot, the world isn’t any less wounded, but you are more able to see past the illusions of partisan ideologies, privileged judgement, and mind-numbing frustrations to the single most important hopeful truth we hold: none of this rests on us alone; we are all in this together.

A good character may never sell your novel, but being a person who sees beyond plot – to truth – can make your story a better one every day.

THE BOTTOM LINE:

  1. The news is often a toxic ocean of fear. You can swim in it, but don’t drink the water.
  2. You cannot change what happens outside of you. You control what happens inside of you and what you bring out to the world around you.
  3. It’s not what they show you, but what you see, that matters.

If I Were a Rich Buddhist

High on the list of my favorite literary characters is Tevye, the world-weary spiritual optimist from a series of short stories by Sholem Aleichem called “Tevye and His Daughters” who became more popularly known as the central figure in Fiddler on the Roof.  Carefully balancing surly come-backs and a soft heart, Tevye shows us such a human portrayal of a people beset by every unfairness who continue to keep going with confidence in who they are, and who, generations later, they will still be.  In a village caught between brutal changes and rich tradition, Tevye discovers the unstoppable evolution of love.

True confession: I would pay my entire fortune to see a version of Fiddler on the Roofwritten through the eyes of Tevye’s wife, Golde, and then have Idina Menzel star in the role. Since my entire fortune consists of $15.37 and free pastry on my Panera Club card, I’ll just have to stick with what I have, and like Tevye, make the most of it.

Dreaming about better prospects, Tevye sings about how different his life would be if he had more of a fortune than some milk cows and five daughters can create. He dreams of the things we all wish for – nicer clothes, comfortable house, lots of food, happy wife. Then he pauses to reflect on the change in his social status money would bring because people would start listening to him. He chuckles,

“And it won’t make one bit of difference

If I answer right or wrong

When you’re rich they think you really know.”

He gets serious about what his heart most desires, time to pray and be engaged with the wisdom and community of his faith.  “That,” he sings, “would be the sweetest thing of all.”  I’ve seen the show and film countless times and each time that line comes up I find myself nodding. Yes. Yes it would. Then a timer rings, the dog barks, an email reminding me about the electric bill appears and I must rise from imagination and go on about the business of life.

Tevye’s right. There is a tendency to see people who have financial wealth as somehow intellectually or spiritually endowed. Money equates to something valuable in our way of thinking. It plays a role in everything from the brand of coffee we buy to who we vote for or against in an election. We think people who are wealthy must be successful, even if they were born into, married into, or lucked into that money. We think people who are struggling must not be disciplined, blessed, or have good karma. Something is wrong with them, or they would have more assets.

The truth is, money is a tool. No more. No less. Most people work hard, long hours away from family and memory making to build financial security for their household. Others are immensely talented and working in a profession or situation that doesn’t reward with money. Money doesn’t exalt or demonize you and it certainly says nothing about your IQ or the state of your compassionate heart. It’s neutral. How we see money, or any other “richness,” is what makes the difference. It inspires us, challenges us, or destroys us. You can use a hammer to build a bridge or tear holes in the wall. The hammer doesn’t care. It’s the intention that matters.

While money may or may not play a role in how we view richness in mindfulness, there’s always some ruler we are holding up to others and then ourselves. There are many ways to be “rich” in mindfulness:

Rich in time:There are people who don’t have a punch-the-clock job or kids at home or demands that keep them busy all day. These chronological tycoons can listen to four dharma talks a day, meditate for hours, journal about their spiritual insights, and brew a cup of tea by painstakingly choosing each leaf in the infuser and reciting the heart sutra while slowly pouring the water. They will then curl up in their bay window reading nook with their third book this week and sip their tea while absorbing the meaning of every word. Surely they are wiser than the rest of us.

Rich in travel: Folks who get around the world so much you can’t tell if you’re looking at their Facebook page or the website of National Geographic always pique my interest. They unpack from a trip to Italy while preparing to go to a week-long meditation retreat in France. When that’s over, there’s a mandala demonstration in Spain they simply must see. Just when they think they would never see something more beautiful a friend invites them on a trip of a lifetime to Dharamsala. When I was a young woman I used to wonder if they ever burn out. Does having one amazing journey after another eventually fade the experiences into sepia photographs neatly labeled in the envelopes of your mind? Now, I’m more curious about how they manage to have jobs, hobbies, and relationships because it can take me three hours just go to the grocery store. Add extra time and a nap if I need to check the mail or gas up the car. With all they’ve seen – the rich in travel must have insight we don’t.

Rich in personality:  Everyone knows that person who just pops when he or she enters a room. You don’t even have to watch the door (which is sad, because door watching is one of my favorite things to do at a party, along with snack bowl hovering and playing with the host’s cat).  Their energy arrives about two minutes before they do. The lights get brighter, the conversation bubbles, and all eyes point in their direction. People like that never seem at a loss for words or challenged by the simple task of greeting. They smile. You weren’t planning on smiling, but there you are grinning wildly and hanging on every word they say, even though they are just asking where to put their coats. People who radiate energy are in tune with all the secrets of the universe.

Where am I in the sea of amazing people?  Singing to the milk cows. I meditate daily with time borrowed from the snooze button and listen to dharma talks in my car (“Today we are talking about the 4 Immeasurables….” “Get out of the way, you jerk! I’m changing lanes here!”). Almost every vacation I’ve taken is within eight hours of my home, except for a friend’s wedding in Hawaii (I had jet lag for a week and can’t get the taste of those Hawaiian kettle chips out of my mind). I’m an introvert who isn’t the life of the party because I am lucky enough to have friends who invite me places and then cancel the plans. How am I going to obtain enlightenment?  The same way as those other folks – one moment of awareness at a time.

Like money – the blessings of others – time, travel, and all the rest – are simply a tools. Nothing more. Nothing less. Awakening isn’t a test of how far you’ve gone or how much you know. Heck, you don’t even have to be able to spell “Bodhisattva” correctly. Awakening is about being who you are, where you are, and seeing both the reality and illusion of it all.

Those people who travel are the best. I’ve been to Walt Disney World a few times in my life but the only trip I’ve ever enjoyed was via the Facebook feed of a friend who spent a week there. I didn’t have to stand in lines, pay a fortune, or get puked on by a kid in mouse ears full of cotton candy and adrenaline. I saw all the sights, and when I wanted that dizzy, wind-blown feeling of a ride, I turned on the overhead fan and watched a POV clip on YouTube. When she posted the pics of her last day there, I cried. This was the best vacation I ever had.

“But that’s illusion!” You say, and you’d be right.  It’s all illusion. The rides, the food, the mousy merchandise, even the waiting in line and getting snubbed by a Cinderella who didn’t wave in the right direction. None of it is real, not even for the woman who actually did it. What’s real is the joy, amazement, and love she experienced. What’s real is how she showed patience in line and compassion to a stranger who needed someone trustworthy to stay with the rest of the kids while mom took a barfy boy to the bathroom. What’s real is the experiencing of being. It’s real for her. It’s real for me.

Buddhists call the celebration of the richness of others “sympathetic joy.” You are connected to them, elated and excited by what is happening in their world and in yours. It is the act of opening your heart to experience all the wonders of the moment without a barrier telling you it is “their moment.” One of the Four Sublime States, sympathetic joy is surely a way to combat jealousy, multiply experiences, and end suffering.  It’s like a generator that uses natural energy to create more energy. Joy begets joy.

Start training your eyes to see the doors of good tidings in the lives of those you meet. Let yourself go through those doors with them. Encourage, cheer, laugh, and love life there. Filled with undeniable power of connection you will discover you, too, are rich in joy. That will be the sweetest thing of all.

—–  The Bottom Line  —-

  1. We are all connected to one another. Don’t let what someone else has or does separate you from them. The only gap is in your mind.
  2. When you notice yourself looking around, first look within.
  3. While you celebrate the joy of others, don’t forget to invite them to share in yours.