Author’s Note: Upon posting, it seems strange to me that the opening blog on my new “yogic” web site highlights violence by the hand of people with firearms. The words “gun” and “yoga” do not seem compatible at all, and yet, with the subject of violence, my heart and mind yearn for meaning beyond these events, some light tucked away under a rock somewhere. With tragedy and loss, inevitably, we are led to the desire to make things better. Light and darkness will always find each other. Also, please know that this web site is not intended as a bunch of let’s-explore-our-groovy-yoga-ness resources, but critically, an examination of all kinds of subjects that challenge our comfort, enhance suffering, and make us really, really angry. Within this angst, we can potentially find our hope and power— our light — through practices in mindfulness.
My personal experiences with gun violence point to two major events. When I was 16, the shooting was a few houses away. The assailant fired 65 rounds from a semi-automatic weapon, and in return the SWAT team fired 8 rounds. There were no deaths, with one police officer sustaining a non-life-threatening injury, and the perpetrator had a history of depression and restraining orders. The second time, 23 years later, I was more removed physically, but emotionally and intimately connected with the assault victim, who spent many months in recovery for injuries from exactly six bullets (one cylinder). Here, the perpetrator had a history of mental illness and restraining orders, and later it was discovered that semi-automatic weapons were being collected.
In the grand scheme, my experiences seem like barely a shadow of the terror experienced by high school students in Florida just three weeks ago…but trauma tightly hangs on to our subconscious long after the original event. Further, there is no spectrum for terror when it comes to recovery. With every massacre here in the U.S., our society is producing more and more people – including children – who are connected to this kind of trauma with a similar, everlasting aftermath. The trauma is carried by the societal whole, as is the heavy responsibility of not changing laws that allow semi-automatic weapons to be available outside of the military scheme.
Columbine…Virginia Tech…Newtown…San Bernardino…Orlando…and now Parkland. Depressingly, there are omissions in this list. Each of us should be able to count these horrific acts on one hand, if at all. Each one brings my own personal trauma to the forefront. When there are too many to keep count, I begin to think of my own experiences as normal (they’re not). When the news begins to report statistics of however many number per week/month/year, on average, plus all the shootings that don’t make national news, these events almost seem ordinary (they’re not).
Life goes on…but should it continue as usual? Johnny Cash, the “Man in Black”, wrote much of crime and tragedy. Even the dark song lyric from Folsom Prison Blues, “I shot a man in Reno…just to watch him die”, is honest and raw, shared by a character who’s paying for his crime of passion, lamented later with an unapologetic responsibility. Cash’s song Man In Black reminds people of those who fall between the cracks, get taken advantage of, and are otherwise worn or beaten by life. “I’d like to wear a rainbow every day”, he sings, but until the world is a bed of rose petals for all, he continued wearing black to promote global awareness of the forgotten in a plight of poverty, despair, or recent trauma.
Life never continues as usual. Gun violence statistics in the U.S. are unique and disturbing, but by no means uniquely solved. A best practices approach, borrowing regulatory wisdom from other countries that have succeeded in reducing massacres, seems logical, and yet, our government is stagnant. The Man in Black would not be impressed. The relative inaction (at best, baby steps) over the decades since Columbine is truly mesmerizing, signifying corruption at its core. When elected officials ignore the will of their constituent majority, as if it’s impossible to have secure schools and hunters with rifles, we have to ask: what do they stand for, if not our children and the general public?
Maybe some of our elected officials really do stand for the free reign Second Amendment, allowing guns for each and every person regardless of training, mental history and crime record, such that they would legislate along those lines regardless of the gun lobby. In that case, let “more guns” be the answer and spare no expense: use that vast defense budget to convert every “gun-free” area into a military zone. Let’s protect our children just like we do the Pentagon. Let’s “Secret Service” every school and public arena. Too costly? Rubbish: if government decides to overspend money on something necessary, there’s always deficit. Too much like a military state? That’s the point. Too scary? The U.S. is already scary.
Hypothetical scenarios aside, it may seem that we don’t have much power as a society besides continuing to vote with conscience and communicating with our elected officials. An additional, critical, point of power is in intentionally not losing our empathy. In yoga and many other spiritual traditions, we are called to get in touch with ourselves – our body, mind and spirit. This practice, in itself, encourages reflection and acceptance, empathy for the self. Further, if our intention is to serve others, this self-practice is destined to cultivate a deeper compassion for others. The word Namaste acknowledges the light inside others, connecting us through our similarities: the fact that we all have this light, life force, soul, spirit…and here, we are all the same.
As it is for darkness: alluded to by the Man in Black, our dark cloaks can connect us constructively. Until gun violence is taken more seriously, such that our elected officials begin looking out for the defenseless innocent over the surround-sound gun lobby, let’s not disembrace the darkness that comes from the pain of others – not only people we are close to, but strangers halfway across the country or elsewhere in the world. Let’s challenge ourselves to experience sadness as if the catastrophe is local or first hand. Losing that raw sadness, or pushing it away because it’s difficult to handle, succumbs to non-feeling in order to survive more comfortably, and if we’re not paying attention, we become numb and disassociated. There is no escape or vaccine from these horrors, so let’s not be afraid to allow the feeling of illness after every single massacre. By not disassociating, we wear our black shirt and jeans like the Man in Black. Maintaining our humanity with understandable grief is critical to fueling action and inspiring hope.
Maria Gelabert, Ph.D.
Science and Mindfulness