This article was originally published in the September/October 2011 issue of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.
We knew it would come. We knew that one day the hurt, the anger, and the confusion would recede like tide sliding back into the sea. We knew that pain so explosive and so blinding couldn’t last. One day, we would have to start breathing again.
Ten years ago, in the moment before the attack, America was a profoundly different place. But everything shifted at 8:46 a.m. on September 11, 2001, when the first plane hit the north tower of the World Trade Center. When the second plane hit the south tower at 9:03, our hearts turned to ice and our heads struggled in vain to comprehend the inconceivable reality of large-scale warfare in lower Manhattan. When the Twin Towers collapsed to the ground our innocence collapsed with them.
Nothing we had ever experienced could have prepared us for the horror of that morning. News from the Pentagon and from the Pennsylvania crash made it clear that this was a concerted attack and that America was in fact at war. And it was not just an attack on America. Among the 3,000 dead that day were citizens of fifty six countries and members of all faiths, including many Muslims. On the seventeenth floor of the south tower there was an Islamic prayer room where devout Muslims from all walks of life met for daily worship. The murderous brutality of the attack staggers the imagination and defies logic. Across the country and around the world a crushing grief descended on us like a plague.
The stages of grief and healing unfold on their own schedule. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance each take their turn at the wheel. In our spiritual practice we focus on the last stage, acceptance, and for good reason. The consciousness of acceptance is both the end and the means of our deliverance unto wisdom. When we let go and surrender to what is, we move out of confusion and into clarity. But it takes time. It takes time for silt to settle back to the bottom leaving the water clear. It takes time for waves to soften into stillness. It takes time before the moon can once again be seen reflected on the surface of the water.
But it doesn’t just take time. It takes effort. After we let the body’s knowledge lead us through the necessary seasons of our grief, feeling fully every wrenching seismic shift, we gradually find the courage to take our lives back. Our prayer and meditation practice opens windows to the light. No longer satisfied to be a leaf in the wind we find our inner compass, that part of us that longs to thrive and be well, that yearns to heal and be a part of the healing of others, and we step boldly forward not knowing where the road will take us, but knowing that up ahead lies something beautiful and true.
We know that all forms arise and all forms fade. We know that to everything there is a season. We know that death and birth are two names for one circle. And we know that Life, in all its myriad forms, will go on forever and ever. We even know that this body we call our own is made of dust and will return to dust. But knowing all these things doesn’t stop the heart from longing. We long for that crisp taste of apple, that first kiss, the feel of sun on our skin. Life is just too beautiful to let go easily. But the beauty itself holds the key. Behind the veil of the world’s fleeting forms lies a Divine Ground, a changeless source known as God, Brahman, Tao or the Nameless. It is out of this formless Source that the world of forms arises. The beauty of the world is the beauty of the Eternal shining through the surface of things. It’s the apple we love, but it is the orchard, rooted deep in the ground, that expresses itself as the apple. When with sickening finality the Twin Towers collapsed we saw with our own eyes the undeniable truth of the impermanence of all things. And yet in precisely that moment, we knew in our hearts that the love and truth that gives rise to all things can never be broken, no matter how many apples fall to the ground in the storms of autumn.
When we come together to pray and sing and breathe in the silence, we stand on the shore of a sea of knowing that goes down and down and down to the place where we are all one. It is from this knowing that forgiveness and acceptance arise. Together, in our families, in our spiritual communities, in the boundlessness of nature, we feel beyond thoughts and know beyond words that despite the horror of the foreground, in the depths of the Source there is a peace that surpasses all understanding and we have only to allow it to carry us. When we stop struggling we feel ourselves begin to lift like a wing on a wind not of our own making. Let these hands hold us. Let this love lift us. Let this wisdom lead us. We cannot stop the arising and fading of forms any more than we can seize the setting sun. But we can feel in our bones the peace of acceptance.
Tragedy and loss are universal. When a terrible fire swept through 17th century poet Mizuta Masahide’s property, with characteristic Japanese minimalism he wrote his most famous two-line poem: “Barn’s burned down, now I can see the moon.”
With every loss we have an opportunity to see things anew – wonders that were right in front of us but for one reason or another we overlooked.
This is how we heal. By opening our eyes and our hearts to what is, knowing that none of this is ours, that everything we own and everything we love is only on loan to us, and that we must give it all back, every bit of it – often without warning. Wisdom means living in the consciousness of gratitude that we ever even got to touch any of it. Be patient and forgiving. Let your life be a proud testament, not a sad apology. You belong here, but only for a while. Stand up and be amazing. Release your mistakes. Rise out of the ruins.
We remember the dead and we will always love them. But memorials aren’t for the dead. The real purpose of memorializing is to affirm and celebrate the infinite value of this baffling mystery called life.
We have lost so much. But now we can see the moon.