In the light of beautiful young people gunned down in 2018 I offer this essay from my new book – “Our World Is Burning: My Views on Mindful Engagement.”
More Dead Children
The specter of children shooting children in high schools shocked North America, yet very little institutional change has been effected, once the platitudes of politicians receded. This essay examines the consumption of violence by our children through the media, video games, and internet. It can lead to the deadly carnage of high school shoot-outs and murder, particularly when mental illness is considered. Young people, their parents, and society at large are unaware of the necessity of guarding their sensory doorways and mental health. I illuminate the very dangerous environment we have created, and offer practical measures of mindful engagement as a way out. Young people need simple tools to deal with their hate, anger and distress so they do not resort to guns.
The shock waves and horror of the 1999 high school shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado and the 2012 massacre at an elementary school in Newton, Connecticut swept across North America and touched every community. Since then, massacres in schools and universities have become more common. As these shock waves receded, the greatest danger is that the public may distance itself from taking responsibility for the toxic environment it has created. High school students across North America, however, have not forgotten. On the anniversary of the shootings at Columbine High School, many students across America refuse to go to school for fear of a repeat shooting spree. Their fear is that “IT” could happen in their school.
Personally, the specter of children shooting children in high schools shocked me deeply. I was offended by the carnage and angry at society for creating the causes and conditions for children to end up murdering other children. I also had meditation students who had settled in Colorado, and they phoned me in a panic. I knew I could be of little help to them, for I was not in the appropriate space to give counsel to anyone. I, first of all, had to find the bedrock of understanding and compassion within myself before I could communicate anything worthwhile to others. To come from anger and shock was not something I was prepared, or trained, to do. I requested that my friends focus on Walking Meditation, to calm themselves and others around them. I would get back to them once I had taken care of my own anger and distress.
After three days of silence and meditation I wrote this essay. I looked into the causes of the shootings, and saw that with the passage of time people would become removed from any sense of personal responsibility. There is the ready availability of guns and drugs that naturally collude with the problem of untreated mental illness. When individuals are raised without influence from parents, teachers and community leaders, the consumption of violence can become a large influence in their lives. It is readily available through the media, video games and the internet, influencing those involved in shoot-outs. Many of our children have become exiles, their voices unheard, and we have largely forgotten how to listen to them. Some find a place in cyberspace where violence, hatred and killing are readily available without any sense of consequence or responsibility. In the absence of clear ethical guidelines from parents and society, young people are creating their own identity from the very worst that media has to offer. This identity can be built through a drive to achieve instant fame through acts of notoriety.
Children who have built positive core values through the influence of parents, teachers and community leaders have an internal strength to resist this seduction. But children who have fallen through the cracks are without support and guidance. They live out their sense of exile through the cruel fantasies available to them and become desensitized to the consequences of violent acts.
I write about dead children and not just the twenty killed in an elementary school in Connecticut and elsewhere in North America, but for children killed as collateral damage in world-wide violence. We are all grieving parents to the world. The question is: What Now? In the face of grief we must feel it deeply, be hurt by it, taking time to feel the pain of the tragedy. Then come through, determined to make a difference. This requires calling in the support of wise friends, counselors and community so we can begin to see clearly and find ourselves. Stillness is needed, not social media distraction and drama, for we need a new direction from leadership. To reassess the 21st century, we must look deeply at the factors involved in the shootings.
In the United States there is a complex, intertwined tapestry with the easy availability of guns and drugs. This is compounded by societal tolerance of violent media, plus the very serious common denominator shared by the killers stretching back to the Columbine massacre. The self-delusion and mental health issues in predominantly pre-adult white males. They are caught in an identity trap that they escape from through violence and murder. Through killing, they gain five minutes of fame that enables them to be remembered. They occupy a toxic landscape of “not love”, “not connected.” And this is what requires the attention of our health system and mindfulness. How do we begin?
It is time for the Bodhisattva to enter the 21st century as a paradigm and archetype for individual and collective action. This enables us to transform ourselves and our civilization. We nurture this paradigm by cultivating two aspects that lie dormant within us. The first aspect is interconnectedness, knowing that we connect with everything, the earth, oceans, forests and mountains, all species and most of all – with all people. Fostering interconnectedness creates harmony and unity and destroys the ego. The second aspect is non-discrimination, which carries the energy of compassion, and this combination threatens selfishness. Taken together, these buried aspects manifest from within us, opening pathways and bridges to build a better world.
How do we do this? We cultivate the energies of transformation: mindfulness, concentration and insight. At every opportunity we bring interconnectedness and non-discrimination to the forefront of our daily lives. In this way we shape the future of the 21st century as we begin to live differently. We should not be intimidated by present crises. We are certainly shocked and hurt by such circumstances but are much stronger than we think. Enter the Bodhisattva is the guiding paradigm for our lives. I allude to Bruce Lee’s classic, Enter the Dragon, which brings the fierceness of the warrior to the fore and the determination of a saint to overcome tragedy and set a new course. It takes practice, skillfulness and creative vision. Are we equal to the task?
Most young people, their parents and society as a whole, are unaware of the need to guard their sensory doorways, or eliminate their engagement with violence. One can easily see that violence in the external environment must be controlled. As an alternative, steps must be taken in schools and communities to deal with frustration, mental health issues and hatred without resort to guns. Our senses can be bombarded by so much damaging material. The violence that pours in feeds the consciousness that drives us. If we load our mind with toxins and violence we should not be surprised by what occupies the driving seat.
My body and mind are not individual entities that I can do anything I like with, such as filling them with drugs, alcohol, hateful attitudes, harmful identities, unhealthy foods, cravings or violence. My body and mind exist to provide for future generations therefore I must be aware of what I put into them. We also must exercise care and responsibility over what we allow into the minds and bodies of our children. This care and responsibility prevents young people turning their consumption of violence into violent acts on themselves in the form of suicide. We must say “no” to our children consuming violence through movies, video games and hate concerts. At the same time we refuse to engage in violent and toxic interactions with them. We must take steps to fill the ethical void and give our children the benefits of our full presence and learn to listen deeply to them.
But when was the last time anybody really listened to you? And when was the last time that you really listened to your children? Our listening is usually filled with judgements, and young people are deeply hurt by this. To listen requires that we find a way to leave our judgements behind, to be present. We may understand our children if we listen compassionately. When we are fully present, our energy can transform them and heal their deep hurts, erasing neglect. We learn about full presence through meditation. The teenagers who murdered their classmates at Columbine High School had no-one to listen to or be present with them. Nobody helped them or took care of the violence that flooded their consciousness.
The Rev. Dale Lang, who lost his son Jason in the high school shooting in Taber, Alberta, provided a wonderful example of leadership and forgiveness for his community, in the midst of his own personal grief. He asked that his son’s death not be in vain, and that the community forgive the boy who killed him, that they practice compassion. From the families of children killed at Columbine and in Newton, there is the same plea. Let their deaths not be in vain. We can respond by recognizing that we are either part of the problem or part of the solution and must examine how we support and condone the culture of systemic violence. If time passes and nothing changes, if we sit on the fence and say “this is not my responsibility” then we are part of the problem. There are many parents, teachers and community leaders who are endeavoring to make a difference to the existing state of affairs in their homes, schools and communities, but their efforts may be too slow for our children.
The high school murders are not a teenage problem. They are a societal problem of systemic violence penetrating to the consciousness of young people through their sensory doorways. Thus a societal solution is necessary. One that deals with anger, frustration, mental health and hatred. It must also provide an alternative paradigm that impacts the internal environment of violence and transforms it. One reason there are disturbed young people is a lack of positive models. Neither group had adjusted in order to protect themselves from toxins and violence in the media. If we do not guard our sensory doorways, there will be negative effects.
After the platitudes of politicians and the media were delivered following the high school and university murders, not much has changed in terms of institutional structures or constraints on the production of violence in the media, video games and movies. Providing young people with mindfulness tools to take care of the energies produced by hatred and violence I suggest mindful engagement, the subtitle of this collection of essays.
There are parents and teachers everywhere who are desperate for a change of direction, recognizing the enormous crisis. The Chinese letter for crisis has two characters, the first is danger, the second is opportunity. We need to recognize the danger of violence combined with mental illness and seize the opportunity of mindful engagement to deal with it. In the space created by meditation, the toxic and violent consumption of every day life has no doorways to pass through. It is not a total solution but it is a start.
To young people I recommend simple tools of handling anger, hatred, distress and mental illness. There are techniques of meditation that allow the person doing them to recognize their negative emotions and deal with it. I tend to think that the most useful technique is walking meditation, simply because it is hard to sit and meditate when you feel angry or violent (further discussed in essay six). We can literally walk ourselves out of crisis by taking care of the distress and releasing the energy of it into the ground. Recognize the danger of anger and hatred and seize the opportunity of walking meditation to deal with it.
I invite meditation teachers to take their skills into schools and community centers. Providing these methods can make an impact on the anger and hatred that affects our children. I invite young people to bring such teachers into their midst and see what they can teach. Remember that we are either part of the problem or part of the solution. As citizens we all have the capacity and the responsibility to change things for the better: at home, at work and in our public life. We have to take a stand not to condone violence. It is our actions, from a space of clarity that provides solutions. Our indifference to the dangerous environment we have created means that we perpetuate the problem. I ask everyone to choose wisely, and immediately.
This message was been sent far and wide, thanks to internet technology, and to good people everywhere who passed it on through their own networks. It was used in many communities, particularly Colorado. In my own city, Ottawa, I gave workshops and retreats for students about violence in schools and mindful engagement and continue to do so.