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Posted By Opening the Heart

   On Friday afternoon, December 14th about 3:30, I was at Kripalu setting up the circle for the Opening the Heart Workshop which would start about 7:30 that night. I was in the Mountain View Room, facing west, and the sun was streaming in the windows. I like going to Kripalu early on a workshop weekend, to hang out, have an iced drink, set up the circle, check the lighting, read, sit quietly. My mind was calm  and focused on the participants who would be sitting on those backjacks in a few short hours.

   Just after 3:30, my friend, Peter, who was on his way to help lead the workshop, called to tell me the heartbreaking news he'd heard on the radio about the murders in New Town, Connecticut. As my mind began to wrap itself around this unbearable news, I had a vague awareness that I'd stopped breathing. Then came the thoughts: "Oh God, not again!... When, when will we have enough spine to stand up to gun lobbies and congressmen who are bought?... How many more dollars need to be cut for providing seriously mentally ill people, before we realize how much damage we are doing?..."

   The thoughts came like an avalanche, released by the sudden shot of a loud gun. I watched my body continue to set up backjacks and pillows until a perfect circle was formed. Then I sat on one of the backjacks, breathed and let the circle begin to fill with the presence of 28 lives cut short in New Town. My heart began to beat as the circle continued to fill with 12 more souls killed in Aurora, Colorado; 13 in Columbine; 6 at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin; 9 more souls entered the circle, killed in Manchester, Connecticut; 7 more in Minneapolis this past year. The circle continued to fill, all the way back to our violent birth as a nation. I just sat, one beating heart, and I cried. No more thoughts, the mind finally still, the heart broken and aching. I cried til the crying stopped...  

   I'm not big on t-shirts or messages on t-shirts. I will go out of my way during the rare times I dare to shop for clothes by myself, to buy clothes that have no visible label or message. I know, I know- it's basically the same kind of snobbery that leads people to buy labels and messages. Anyway, when I was at Omega a few years ago, I saw a t-shirt with a message that I liked enough to buy: "Don't ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and do that. Because what the world needs are people who have come alive".

    These words made me think of what Thich Nhat Hanh teaches: The foundations of one's being form the basis of one's actions. I believe what this great Zen master is talking about is his concept of "engaged Buddhism": before one can change the world for the good, one must open one's heart, still the mind and be in the present moment. This sometimes means bearing heartbreaking witness to deep suffering, as he did during the Vietnam War.

   When I stopped the avalanche of thoughts and breathed and just attempted to sit with the broken heart, what became clearer to me in the moment was that I needed to do what I had come to Kripalu to do that weekend: to help people look into each other's eyes and see no difference- to be more compassionate and loving. So, I slowly got up from my cushion in the circle and saved the only thing I could save in that moment. I put tissue boxes around the circle, adjusted lighting, offered a prayer, blessed the souls in the center of the circle, bowed and waited quietly to welcome the first participants for the workshop.

With Love and Respect, Jon