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A 9/11 Lesson: Transforming Terror into Lovingkindness

The Twin Towers once exemplified freedom and American capitalism. On September 11, 2001, they were abruptly transformed into symbols of terror and tragedy. Our hearts collapsed along with those buildings that morning, as did all of our misguided notions about security, prosperity, and permanence.


On that day the things that terrify us were realized in the most dramatic and poignant way imaginable.

We fear that we may lose the things and people we care most about. We worry that life won’t go the way we want it to. We are afraid of poverty, of not having enough. We are fearful that we might be harmed, and we are very, very afraid to die.

On this otherwise beautiful late summer morning, a once optimistic society devolved into a culture of fear and suspicion. Politicians capitalized on this in many ways and attempted to counter hatred with more hatred, fear, and violence. Air travel went from being an affordable adventure to a pricy and inconvenient undertaking. People eventually grew more wary of Muslims to such a ridiculous degree that it’s actually considered debatable as to whether or not a mosque should be allowed to be built near the World Trade Center site.

In some ways our hearts opened from this experience but in way too many other ways they contracted. Shortly after the towers fell I went to St. Vincent’s Hospital to see what help was needed but they were so flooded with volunteers they were turning people away. 

People who never before owned an American flag were suddenly placing them on their windows and walls and storefronts. In some ways it looked like an expression of solidarity, yet it often felt like an excuse to indulge in tribalism and duality

We suddenly had a new enemy to fear--and unbeknownst to many, that enemy was fear itself.

It’s not as if fear wasn’t already a deeply ingrained aspect of our day to day lives, it’s just that after this national tragedy we were forced to confront the power of terror and decide what we ought to do about it. 

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So we’re left with this uneasiness, this fear of what may or may not transpire one day. We’re terrified at the prospect of not getting what we want or losing what we have, or of getting what we want and realizing it isn’t as great as we had hoped so we better find something else to try to allay that persistent, nagging, underlying unease.


Legend has it that a group of monks were practicing in the forest one day and witnessed all kinds of frightening sights and sounds coming from the tree spirits hovering around them. In reaction to this they developed an aversion to the forest and began watering the seeds of hatred within themselves.

The monks left the forest and returned to the Buddha, asking if he would send them somewhere less daunting but instead he told them to go back to very same the forest where they had just gotten so shaken up.

He said that he would equip them with all of the protection they would need, and then proceeded to teach them about metta or lovingkindness.They learned about the importance of forgiveness, kindness, and how to cultivate an intention not to harm anyone. They learned phrases like:

May you be safe.

May you be happy.

May you healthy.

May you live with ease.

They went back to the forest and did the metta practice prescribed by the Buddha as a remedy for their fear. As the monks cultivated lovingkindness through both their words and actions, the monks gradually developed a different perception of the forest and the spirits and therefore they felt safe instead of fearful and angry. Nothing seemed quite so scary any more. The tree spirits were so moved by the loving energy being put forth that they vowed to care for and protect the monks from that day forward. And they did.


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September 11 demonstrated that our attempts at keeping things together ultimately fail. Everything is in a constant state of change and evolution, and sometimes our experience is really terrifying because we don't know for sure what comes next. While we try our best to control our world and create some semblance of solid ground under our feet, life has a way of doing what it wants to do without any regard for our preferences, opinions, and yes, our fears. 

The one and only thing we can count on is that life will always unfold as it does.

During this time leading up to the ten year anniversary of 9/11, many of us are recalling what we were doing and how we felt upon hearing the news that airplanes had slammed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and another missed it’s target when passengers decided to rush into the cockpit and disrupt what would presumably have resulted in the destruction a third iconic building. The fear and sorrow was palpable for people all around the world on that beautiful sunny day, and we realized that we could no longer entertain the illusion that no harm could ever set its foot on our doorstep.

What are we to do with those aspects of ourselves or our lives that terrify us? 

Instead of being depleted or paralyzed by fear, and instead of allowing it to take us over and dictate our actions, we can use it as a path to awakening.

We can use the sense of urgency that goes along with fear to remind us never to take anything for granted because our time here is precious and short. 

The potency of fear can serve as a means to alert us to the reality that our lives really matter and we are called upon to spend our time wisely.

Rather than looking at “the enemy” that did something “to us” we can remember that all things are interdependent. No action occurs in a vacuum--and whether it takes seconds or weeks or decades, all of our actions have an eventual result.

Instead of viewing others with suspicion and bigotry, we can consider the fact that basic goodness is unequivocal. 

When we counter fear with lovingkindness both through our intentions and our actions, we end up on a very different playing field in which we recognize that all people have the same inherent value and dignity. Operating from this presumption can lead to happiness for ourselves and other people.

We start by learning to have compassion and love for ourselves so that extending this to others becomes spontaneous and natural. When we develop a sincere desire that all beings everywhere be happy, our perception shifts and what once terrified us no longer has to be so troubling. In fact we realize that we were suffering from a mistaken view of things. Viewing others through the prism of moral outrage does nothing but cultivate more terror in a world that needs more love.

May all beings everywhere overcome terror with lovingkindness. 


Also cross-posted at Open Sky Zen blog

Lawrence Grecco

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All are welcome

Thanks for the moving piece Lawrence.   All are welcome to join the IDP and several other local NYC sanghas in a day of practicing Lovingkindness on Governor's Island this sunday:


"..Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that."

-- Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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