There is this moment, often just a split second, between the time something happens and our reaction to it.
Anything can happen in this moment. Whatever does happen turns the wheel of karma.
In the moments and days after September 11, 2001, there was an open window for those of us here in the U.S., a time when we were stunned by what happened and we hadn’t yet reacted, as a nation. And then the window closed, in the form of a formal declaration of war on Afghanistan (and subsequently Iraq).
But before that, can you remember?
There were some weeks in September and October when life felt suspended, or at least for me it did. When our grief, anger, and confusion was raw and fresh. When it hadn’t yet coalesced into aggression.
On September 11, 2001, I was living at San Francisco Zen Center. I cannot imagine a better place to have been during those difficult days. I remember how many people wandered into Zen Center those days, seeking some kind of emotional refuge, some kind of sanity. And we did what we always did — sat zazen every day, offered services, and did work practice.
At the time, I was also the associate editor of Turning Wheel magazine, at the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. We were about to publish an issue on medical ethics, but the events of the day turned our attention. Instead, we put out an issue that compiled responses to 9/11 from Jack Kornfield, Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara, Norman Fischer, Robert Thurman, Caitriona Reed, and others. And Susan Moon, the editor, invited me to co-write the editorial to introduce the whole issue.
Here is an excerpt from what I wrote, somewhere toward the end of September 2001, I believe. I offer it here because it captures that liminal space we were in, that open window… and I am struck by how different the world feels now, ten years later.
Here in California, thousands of miles away, we can’t begin to know the nightmare that people on the East Coast went through and are still going through; yet we are intimately affected. In the first days after September 11, scores of people called the BPF office in shock, seeking some kind of guidance. We had no answers ourselves, although all of us noted how strongly we felt the need to sit in silence, both alone and with each other. A week after the attacks, hundreds of people came to a community gathering that BPF organized, to sing and cry together.
Like many of you, we have gone through a range of feelings since that day–shock, anger, grief, numbness. At our staff check-ins, we’ve listened to each other and helped each other when we’ve gotten stuck in despair.
For a while, an extraordinary window seemed open, and perhaps it still is. We have had a rare chance to see the anatomy of a war, to question why people on all sides might be driven to desperate acts–flying planes into buildings full of working people, or bombing an already devastated country full of starving people.
It’s been said many times since September 11: the world will never be the same. Perhaps it’s more honest to say that Americans will never experience the world the same way again. For a long time, people in other countries have lived with terrorism and violent conflict–a good deal of it connected in some way to U.S. foreign policy, much of which is motivated by something as basic as getting the gas we need to drive our cars.
So it all comes full circle. We Americans are now painfully experiencing what the Buddha taught about no separate self and impermanence. The U.S. is not separate from the rest of the world and cannot perfectly secure itself again change. The web of connections and conditions that ties our world together has never been so apparent.