When “Luis” came in, something about his movements put everyone in my classroom on high alert. We had good reason to be scared: a month earlier, a student had had her throat slit right in front of the principal’s office. Random violence was no longer something that happened elsewhere.
The feeling I had then was, I think, the feeling our nation has now. Violence seems inescapable.
And there was Luis, pacing back and forth in front of me. Even after the bell rang, he refused to sit down, choosing instead to mutter and wave his arms about. His classmates looked nervously at each other and then at me. What would I do about this?
I tried to speak to him, and while he did look in my direction, his words back to me were gibberish. Then, when I edged away from him and toward the phone to call for help, his skittishness increased. I tried every strategy I knew of that might calm Luis down but nothing worked.
When a note arrived from the office, I saw an opportunity and said, “Oh, I have to make a phone call.” Luis suddenly focused and looked me straight in the eye. “Yeah right,” he said. “You have to make a phone call. Sure.” Suddenly, his movements became smooth. He removed a pencil from his pocket, clenched his fist around it like it was a shank, and strode towards me.
For most of my life, I’ve worked to prevent situations like this. I have studied non-violence, taught my students about Gandhi, led peace marches. But as Luis approached me, all my practices of deliberately trying to make the world a better place seemed irrelevant.
I wasn’t sure if he was going to stab me, but I knew I had to draw him away from my students. He was much bigger than me. I was in checkmate.
Then something happened which I cannot take credit for. The moment surrendered me.
An incredible sadness washed over me, so weighty that I collapsed in my chair. I felt a pain that wasn’t about me, but rather a connection to something in Luis. Tears came and I said, “I’m so sorry. That must hurt so bad.”
He stopped, relaxed his hand and said, “Yeah.” And just like that it was all over.
What we choose to practice in our everyday lives is also what appears when our lives are on edge. I have no doubt that if I had been practicing how to shoot the people who threaten me, and had a gun in that moment, I would have pulled the trigger.
But I had been practicing something else. Every day after the slashing months before, I had set aside 45 minutes to practice loving-kindness, or metta meditation.
Metta is a simple meditation, in which we first think of somebody who naturally causes us to feel a sense of care and well-being for them—our children or our pets are great subjects here. Then, we work to extend that sense of care and well-being by conjuring a more neutral person in our lives, for example, the mailman that I see regularly but don’t really know. Finally, we move on to generating loving-kindness for a person that we find difficult to deal with. In each case, the practice is to hold the various subjects in our hearts and minds, thinking, “May this person be happy, healthy, and free from danger.” It’s a simple practice, but also a difficult one.
I couldn’t have known it then, but there was a back-story to my episode with Luis. His older brother had just been sentenced to prison, and Luis was taking it pretty hard. Lost, he needed someone who could help him share the burden of what he was carrying. But he didn’t know how to do that, and instead acted out. I don’t know—maybe he was somehow subconsciously looking to get into prison himself.
Now, I don’t believe that what happened that day with Luis was the direct result of my meditation. Rather, some measure of grace surrendered me and brought me to perceive a connection with him. But I do know that my Metta practice had helped open my heart, at least in some small way, so that I might be really present when I needed to. And that’s the whole point.
While I understand the fear that many feel, I also know that in order to build a more beautiful world, we will need to train in the skills of connection, intimacy, and de-escalation. Americans are only buying more and more of guns, and spending more and more hours practicing how to kill other human beings. This virtually eliminates the possibility of the opening of hearts to the gift of connection and healing with others.
In a way, we are all like Luis: scared and longing for a kind of intimacy that allows us to share our sorrows and joys, and experience a sense of meaning in our lives. And all too often when we cannot find this, we try to achieve this connection through the internal violence of addictions, and external violence of force.
I would love to end this article with some kind of inspirational quote like, “Go meditate now and the world will be a better place.” The thing is, I don’t believe that—and you probably don’t either. Instead as I see our world unraveling, another Buddhist concept comes to mind, that of “Non-Attachment”.
Many us think that non-attachment means being enlightened enough to walk through the world, somehow always knowing what to do, or not to do, and—since we are un-attached—free of suffering.
When I began meditating, I thought that it would bring about an outcome: peace. But the outcomes we imagine are themselves a kind of attachment. It was actually the unimagined and unanticipated fruits of my meditation that actually transformed my moment with Luis. (For the record, by the way, I have not heard from Luis since he left high school in 2011.)
When something like this happens, everything changes—but then we find that we are still here, experiencing this precious human life, and our hearts are acutely aware of the suffering in the world. We remain committed, having no idea when or how or if our works or words will ever matter.
The amount of probable suffering over the horizon seems endless, and there’s probably no way to stop much of it. But knowing that, and that we are still here, we can detach ourselves from grandiose ideas and commit ourselves to the seemingly trivial details of our lives. And in these moments, we can find the grace to listen to each Luis in our lives, and truly create peace.