Coping with Tragedy: the Spiritual Meaning of 9/11

The 9/11 Memorial. Creative Commons, photo by DMZ111.

The 9/11 Memorial. Creative Commons, photo by DMZ111.

We are coming up, as I’m sure we’re all aware, on the first anniversary of September 11.

It was a most dramatic day, and life-changing for our country. Those of you who came to church the Sunday after September 11 will remember that this room was packed. It wasn’t that we were seeing new faces, but we saw every face we’d ever seen.

Afterward, discussing the events with friends from the Palo Alto Ministers Association, we realized that it was the biggest Sunday our churches had ever had. Our members were deeply shocked, powerfully reminded of the ephemeral nature of this life, and how utterly insecure we are, no matter how we try to shore up our lives against unforeseeable events. People were feeling a tremendous longing for something good and worthy to hold onto.

Before the service, one of our regulars expressed his ideas about what I should say. But I ended up talking about the galactic gases.

It became a joke at Ananda, how Swamiji would talk about some simple topic, and how he would start out by talking about the cosmic gases – how they drift in space for eons, and then slowly begin to draw together, to eventually form vast galaxies – and how similar it is to the disciples of our gurus, where so many souls have been drawn together and coalesced into a great spiritual family.

When Swami would talk that way, those of us who held a narrower perspective would wait patiently for him to get down to a hands-on level that we could relate to.

But September 11 reminded us very powerfully that there are no final answers in this world, and that the only satisfying answers are to be found by opening ourselves to a higher understanding.

Throughout the many years that I was closely associated with Swamiji, I gradually began to understand how to think about his consciousness. Everything that I know of the teachings of Yogananda has come through Swamiji’s articulation of them. And if there was ever a time when I thought he might be contradicting some principle that he had taught us, I would always realize that I hadn’t understood the larger frame that he was coming from.

I knew that Swami always spoke and acted from his attunement with the highest source of wisdom. But, at the same time, he taught us that God expects us to use our own intelligence. The Lord doesn’t expect us to be passive instruments – God-driven automatons, blindly doing whatever we imagine will please Him. And I realized that I had to do my best to grow, starting from my own limited understanding.

Swamiji would make fun of an old-time hymn, “Have Thine Own Way”:

Have Thine own way, Lord,
  Have Thine own way;
Thou art the Potter,
  I am the clay.

Mould me and make me
  After Thy will,
While I am waiting,
  Yielded and still.

Swamiji took particular delight in making fun of the last line – he would sing it in a weakly pious voice that matched the insipid vibration of the words – “while I am waiting…yielded and still.”

Swami said that the idea of sitting there like a lump of clay and waiting for God to shape us is much too passive. It isn’t at all how God wants us to relate to Him – always waiting for Him to tell us what to do, and expecting Him to do all the work of expanding our consciousness.

God wants us to be true to ourselves, and learn exactly where we’re standing, even to the extent that if we don’t understand something, we should be courageous enough to stand by our stupidity, instead of blindly saying “Yes, yes!” because we imagine it’s what God expects.

In a recent talk, Swamiji warned us against play-acting – trying to look “spiritual,” even though it might not be our true reality. He pointed out that the passivity of that old hymn is very far from the dynamic self-offering that’s required of the true renunciate, where we vigorously and courageously set aside our self-interest and unreservedly give our lives with great energy to God.

He consoled us, “Don’t worry, you’ll get there eventually.” But then he said, very strongly, “Do not assume an attitude merely because it is the ‘in’ thing to do.”

It’s spiritual death for the devotee to be a hypocrite. Far better to be strongly and even obnoxiously ignorant than to be phony, pretending we know more than we do. Of course, it’s far better to learn our lessons and become truly wise, or at least to be humble in our ignorance.

Ignorant though we may be, we might as well be humble about it, and keep the door open to learn. “This is how the world looks to me, but maybe there’s something else I can learn, and let me not cling to my ignorance.”

In all my years with Swamiji, one of the most important things I learned from him is that each of us can only see the world from the level of our own experience. Because, after all, from what other level could we possibly view it?

As I tried to understand the level of wisdom that Swamiji was expressing, I realized that I tended to put a box around my experiences with him. His actions would enter the far edge of my consciousness and exit at the other edge, and I would put his actions in a box that was just big enough to hold what I could understand. And then I would put my own judgments on the contents of the box, according to my limited understanding.

In time, I realized that my little view of the world wasn’t wrong, but that Swami’s consciousness was so much bigger than my little box. It didn’t start where my box started, and it didn’t end where my box ended. I realized that there was a tremendous universe of wisdom that he was aware of, and that that was guiding his words and actions.

Many years ago, there was an interesting controversy in our community. There was an individual who was at the center of it, and I remember how Swamiji made some strong suggestions during a public gathering about how this man ought to change his behavior. Swamiji was always very protective of people’s sensitivity, but there were times when he would blithely disregard our ego’s desire to protect itself. And on this occasion he completely ignored this person’s need to be shielded.

Later, someone came to Swami and demanded to know why he had spoken so strongly and openly. And Swami’s answer was interesting. He said, “In order to explain myself to you, I would have to tell you more about that person than you have any right to know.”

It reminded me of the Tolkien books, where one of the characters says, “Never judge the behavior of wizards. You never actually know what they’re doing.” Swami operated from a reality that we are all struggling to comprehend.

In The Essence of Self-Realization, Master says that God has to incarnate in a human form because the teachings need to be more than an abstraction.

If you only have the spiritual principles laid out in words, it’s much harder to grasp their meaning than if you have a living example of God in the form of a Christ or Krishna or Buddha. Because then your heart can get engaged. In the presence of a master, you feel what’s true, and it’s this inner feeling that helps us change, far more than any mental understanding. The living example of the saints inspires us from inside and opens channels for God’s love to come to us.

It isn’t that God is limited to that particular form, but through the saints He can help us understand what He is like, by giving us an experience of His qualities of divine love and bliss and wisdom and power.

To return to September 11, it was an event that threw people completely out of their familiar box. Several thousand people lost their lives in an instant, and it’s hard not to feel a sense of rebellion when such things happen. It was a tremendous challenge to absorb and understand it, and it would be fatuous to claim that it wasn’t.

It’s said that no one in New York was more than one person removed from someone who died. Everybody knew somebody who knew somebody who had died. It’s an interesting way to see how powerfully it affected everyone in the city.

A friend of mine told me about a commemorative ceremony that some people held in recent weeks. He told me about a Jewish man who took the September 11 victims’ last words and turned them into a prayer. He chanted the prayer over and over: “Goodbye, my darling, tell the children I love them. I’ll see you again, don’t forget me.” They were the actual last words that the victims had said to family and friends on their cell phones. And on one hand, it’s eerily beautiful, but on the other hand, how long do you want to commemorate one fleeting incarnation?

When I tried to understand why it touched me so deeply, it struck me that the human heart responds very tenderly when it contemplates a life that is about to end, when the curtain of this cycle of life is about to fall.

I remember a dream I had, where I was executed with an axe. It was one of those big, curved axes, from the medieval times. I had to put my head down, and the executioner was a friend, and he picked up the axe and chopped my head off. It was accompanied by a strangely convivial feeling – oh well, this is your job, and it’s okay. So I put my head down, and just as the axe fell I had a moment of fear. The fear was that it would hurt, but then I remembered what Master said, that the soul knows when the body is about to be destroyed, and the soul withdraws, so you aren’t really present at the moment of death. You’re looking down at your former body, and you’re free of it.

As the axe came down and the fear hit me, I remembered this statement of Master’s, and I found myself looking down on the events as if they were taking place on a movie stage.

An amusing part of the dream was that I heard my own little voice saying, “Bye-bye!” And when I woke up I was so proud of myself, because I thought, “That’s the spirit!” And I hope I’ll be able to end this life like that.

So there’s an aspect of death where, if you’re going to go, you might as well summon the courage to say, “It’s over – bye-bye!” But what inspired me was the vein of love that I could feel in the dream, and that saved me from the fear. And what we need to appreciate is that none of us are creating our own lives. Because we are simply aware that we’re living, and where does this life actually come from?

Swami’s beautiful song, “What is Love?” asks a similar question: what is the source of love? And the answer that’s revealed in the song is that love is the essence of everything. The world is made of love, and when we love, we’re really just opening a window and allowing it to waft through us. I remember when we visited the great Indian saint, Anandamoyi Ma. When we told her how much we loved her, she replied with impersonal wisdom, “There is no love but God’s love.”

The feeling that inspires us to love is not something that we generate by our own power. It’s not a self-generated infatuation with this or that person. It’s a love that flows through us. And conversely, we’re repelled, as we all were on September 11, by the extraordinary confusion that makes people feel that something good will come to them if they cause tremendous grief to other people.

It’s a level of consciousness that is so confused that it imagines that causing great pain here will give me great joy there. And it’s an absolutely demonic distortion of the truth.

Yet, it’s also an expression on a grand scale of the weird idea that we’ve all had at one time or another, that if we behave selfishly and try to take for ourselves, it will somehow make us happy. And we experiment with this thought for a very long time, over and over, until we learn through our own experiences that it doesn’t work, because selfishness only causes us to suffer.

The Bible Belt Christian stance tells us that reincarnation isn’t true, even though we find Jesus challenging his disciples in the Bible, “Who do you think I am?” And they begin naming the prophets of the past. And it’s self-evident that they were talking about reincarnation.

Reincarnation was an accepted and central part of the early Christian teachings. It’s clearly expressed in the Bible: “As ye sow, so shall ye reap.” And anybody with half a brain knows that people don’t always reap the results of their actions in one lifetime. Many people live by the sword and die happily in their beds, wealthy and surrounded by their family. But the truth is that whatever you sow, you’re bound to reap, even if it takes a long time, because we need these experiences for our learning.

But this, again, is why I’m using September 11 as an example. Because those who planned and executed the deaths of thousands will inevitably have to learn their lesson.

Yet there’s also room for misunderstanding here, because we need to understand reincarnation and karma in the right way.

When we’re talking impersonally of how those who live by the sword will die by the sword, it doesn’t give us an excuse to be hard-hearted, or to lack compassion. Because compassion is the supreme nature of God, and it’s a quality of the Divine that we, too, must learn to express.

Master said that the reason difficult experiences come to us is so that we can learn compassion, by experiencing what it means to suffer. In this way, we slowly learn to give our hearts in caring concern to others.

If we speak impersonally about these things, it’s not for lack of feeling, but because we need to draw the right lessons.

God put us here to watch an airplane smash into a building and kill three or four thousand people. It’s almost more than you can believe, that anyone would dream of doing such a thing. And it’s almost unbearable to contemplate the suffering that followed. And then there’s the question: Why? For what reason?

I can’t give you an adequate answer, but I believe we can draw some valid conclusions. I believe it’s ultimately because God wants us to understand the nature of true joy.

Last night we sang “Mañana,” a song by Swami Kriyananda. The words are: 

Mañana, friends, the world will still be there:
A world of suffering, a world of care.
Today we’ll dance and tell the universe
There’s love and song for everyone.

Fling joy, like roses, on the laughing wind,
Send melodies upon the air!
Tell everyone that joy is theirs alone
Who smile at life and call it fair.

Swami originally wrote, “Laugh at life without a care.” But he changed it, because who can really laugh at life without a care? It now says, “Smile at life and call if fair.”

And yet, who can call it fair to have all those people die? To understand what’s really going on, you have to make your frame bigger. Because God hasn’t sent us into this world of suffering so that we can just get what we want and cling to it.

I heard Swamiji say something a long time ago that struck me deeply: “Most people suffer when things change. The one certainty in life is change. That’s why most people suffer.”

It’s simple, but it’s huge in what it implies.

We come into this life, and we put our hopes in our children, and our relationships, and our own powers.

We put our hope in our talents and our ability to earn as much money as we want. And then something happens, and we suddenly don’t have that ability anymore.

About a year ago, when there was a big downturn in the stock market, I listened to a financial analyst on the radio. People were calling in, very angry and demanding that the worth of their stock portfolios be returned to them. And the analyst said, “How can I put this? Let’s just say that trillions of dollars have gone to money heaven, and they’re never coming back.”

During the big financial bubble of the late 1990s and early 2000s, many people assumed that they could get rich effortlessly and live comfortably, and retire at thirty-five and travel the world. And where did this idea come from? Whoever told us that our children would grow up to be wonderful people and never die? Whoever said that our parents would live forever?

And yet, that’s what people continue to hope for, in the face of all of the hard evidence to the contrary – that reversals are bound to happen, and that they will happen again and again.

Swamiji asked Master, “How long have I been your disciple?”

Master smiled and said, “Let’s just say, it’s been a long time.”

Swamiji said, “Does it always take such a long time?” And Master replied, “Oh, yes. Desires for one thing or another take them away again and again.”

We sort of half-realize that this life is a dream, because we’ve spent time in the astral world between our lives, and we eventually begin to get a hint.

We realize that this earthly life is not the wonderful, eternal thing we thought it would be; that it’s merely an assignment that God sent us on, so that we can learn.

Every Sunday in the Festival of Light we listen to the story of the little bird whose parents tell it, “Go out and be fruitful, and what you acquire, share with others.”

But the little bird has another idea. “How foolish I would be not to keep what I have for myself.” And then the little bird repeatedly loses everything it has. And it doesn’t begin to get the point for a long time.

God takes everything away from us, time after time – “not for thy harms,” as the beautiful poem by Francis Thompson puts it, “but just that thou might’st seek it in My arms.”

This is where “Tell everyone that joy is theirs alone who smile at life and call it fair” comes into the picture. This life with its countless bitter experiences is not meant to hurt us or make embitter us, but to show us how much joy can be ours when we learn to live in harmony with the Divine, and not always wanting to please the selfish ego.

The ego is the lunatic part of ourselves that imagines joy will come when we get what we want. When I have my children, my family, my money, and my house, I’ll be happy. But in the end none of those things count for anything. What counts is when we can learn to feel God’s ever-existing, ever-new, ever-blissful power in the midst of this ever-changing life.

Sometimes the waves will rise, sometimes they will fall. And it’s natural to weep. It’s heartbreaking to listen to the last words of those who died on 9/11. It’s so poignant that you can hardly bear it.

Yet, does anything ever really happen outside of the will of God? And is there anything in this world that happens randomly? If you stand back and reflect on these things, I think you’ll find that the answer is: No.

The power of the divine is always operating behind the scenes. And maybe we can only recognize it within the boundaries of our own small frame of consciousness. Maybe we’ve only tested it with a few small disappointments, where we found that in the long run they were taking us to a place we actually wanted to be. It may be harder to apply these truths on the scale of airplanes smashing into buildings. But if it’s true in the microcosm, why would it stop being true in a larger frame?

Where do God’s hands stop working? Which one of the thousands of people who died was not being guided by God into a higher understanding? God is always reminding us, “This isn’t where your true happiness lies. You must become more expansive in your consciousness.”

The black spot doesn’t cease to be black, but if we stand back we can see its role in the greater reality. And only then can we smile at life and call it fair.

There’s joy for everyone, even as the tears stream down our faces. But if we don’t accept that God is in charge, we will only be aware of the suffering.

That’s all. We suffer, not because it’s what God wants for us. But we will continue to suffer until we understand the true nature of this life.

Change is inevitable. All of the little systems we set up to try to find our happiness in this changing world are destined to disappoint us. You may reap a temporary happiness, but when the pendulum swings, you’ll suffer.

Yet, if the systems we set up in this world are based on our inner attunement with the unchanging presence of God, we’ll find that there is indeed joy for everyone.

No one ever said that it’s easy, but it’s self-evidently worthwhile.

Lahiri Mahasaya said, “The worldly man is the true renunciate.” See how different this world looks when you begin to see it with divine eyes. It doesn’t make you less soft and compassionate; it makes you far more compassionate, because you can see people walking down the path of suffering, and your heart longs to do what it can to help them.

But how can you help if you yourself are sad? This is why we sing,

“Fling joy like roses on the laughing wind,
Send melodies upon the air.
Tell everyone that joy is theirs alone
Who smile at life and call it fair!”

As with each of Swamiji’s songs, at the center of the song we find a deep teaching. Learn to smile at life and call it fair, recognizing that it’s fairness as God defines it.

(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on September 8, 2002.)

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