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Metro North Train Derailment and How to Work with Tragedy

On Sunday morning, a Metro North commuter train derailed in the Bronx. NPR reports that:

At least four people are dead, and more than 60 injured after a commuter train derailed in the Bronx borough of New York City Sunday morning. Fourteen of the injuries are critical.

For the family and friends of the victims, as well as the victims, this is likely a difficult time. For the millions of us living in the NYC area who take commuter trains, this can remind us that we are not totally safe while taking public transportation. None of us wants to experience this kind of a tragedy personally, and we wouldn’t wish it on anyone else; our hearts go out to those who are suffering right now.

But what can we do about it?

In “Chapter 52: The Power of Flickering Thoughts” in The Path of Individual Liberation (volume 1): The Profound Treasury of the Ocean of Dharma, Chogham Trungpa states:

Being able to relate with the subtleties of mental shifts is connected with…the principle of paying attention to every activity that we do in smaller doses. There is no such thing as a sudden psychodrama without any cause and effect. Every psychodrama that takes place in our mind or in our actions has its origin in little flickering thoughts and little flickerings of attention.

When tragedy strikes, it is often hard to feel the emotions that arise, so sometimes we try to turn those emotions into something. For example, I feel fear, so I want to make this writing a unifying perfect message that fixes the situation. I want to say the exactly right thing so that I benefit everyone and everyone will like me. Someone who feels fear might want to turn this into a campaign for commuter safety regulations. Another person might want to turn this into a television series. Perhaps someone else posts a “please show your support for the victims of this tragedy” message on social media.

But before I started turning my difficult emotions into this piece of writing, what did I experience? I had a conversation with my aunt about the news yesterday and I felt a bit numb and unresponsive. I read an article this morning about it, and I started to feel like that could have been me. Some thoughts occurred to me like, “Someone should write about this,” and, “I don’t know if writing about this helps anybody,” and, “can it be integrated with that quote that I was going to use that seems totally insensitive in light of this tragedy?”

This is how psychodramas begin. These ten or so thoughts that I noticed might have, a few years ago, gone unnoticed. Before I even began to be aware of what I was feeling or thinking, I might have started shouting about something. I might have yelled at my students or said something that unnecessarily frightened them. I might have carried on conversations that solidified fear in the minds of my friends. I might have started listing all the reasons why I can’t live in New York, how I didn’t have this or that in my childhood, how I am not this or that right now. Instead of processing my thoughts and emotions on a small scale and writing about it, I might have been singing at the top of my lungs in the shower thinking about how my life was not worth living.

Because we have awareness, we have a lot we can do. We can benefit ourselves and our society by “paying attention to every activity that we do in smaller doses.” By paying attention to the small thoughts and emotions that come up in response to tragedy, we can short circuit our own psychodramas. We don’t have to freak out. We can notice our fear, our sadness, our anger, or our numbness, and be with it. We can notice the small thoughts that arise and watch them as they come and go on their own. We can place extra attention on the small things we do like how we answer the phone or how we say goodbye to our friends or how we walk up a set of stairs.

We find inspiration for this because we want to be helpful to ourselves and others. When someone does need our help during a tragedy, we will be much more helpful if we aren’t freaking out ourselves.

Basic shamatha practice is what trains us to notice small shifts in attention and flickering thoughts and emotions, so practicing meditation is a great way to be helpful.

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Image from Wikimedia Commons

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