How to Sit Still When Tragedy Strikes

01/10/2011 03:25 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

When I first heard the news of the deadly shootings in Arizona, I wanted to do something, anything: talk to friends and family, rant about the toxic political climate in our country, watch TV, surf the Web for updates, cry, post things on Facebook.

But most of all, I wanted to make sense of what had happened.

And none of those things helped me do that.

In an age when information is accessible everywhere, anytime, there was no real information that could explain to me why a nine-year-old child who had just been elected to her school council was gunned down trying to meet her congressperson. Why Representative Giffords was shot in the head at close range. Why five other people standing patiently in a supermarket parking lot were murdered in the Arizona sunshine. Why so many more were injured. Why millions were in shock.

I was in my own fog of grief, having lost a beloved friend over the holidays, a doctor who died suddenly after suffering a tragic accident. Scores of patients attended her funeral. We were used to relying on her to heal us; now we sat stunned, bereft and confused.

Last year, I attended a retreat with Pema Chodron, a brilliant Buddhist teacher. Pema is someone I always imagined as a brave, fearless warrior. The titles of her books terrified me: "When Things Fall Apart," "The Places that Scare You."

I hoped she would teach me some lessons about coping when things fall apart, when events and circumstances scared me. "Strength doesn't come from running away from fear, armoring ourselves or putting on a mask," she told the hundreds of people who came to learn from her. "We can't try to run away from feelings or avoid them. Strength comes from allowing ourselves to not grow a thick skin, to be willing to take a chance and not have anything to lose."

Pema quoted her revered teacher, Chogyum Trungpa, who said, "A rainbow is made of sunshine and tears mixed together." He told a bride and groom, "Pleasure is not a reward, and pain is not a punishment. They are just ordinary occurrences."

Since hearing those words, I've tried to look at life events as occurrences. To take the sting of emotions out of the equation as often as I can. To sit still and let feelings wash over me -- good, bad and indifferent. When I take that time to be still, I find that my heart, body and mind are refreshed by that stillness. I can take action that will be of some comfort to me. And then sit still again.

"No feeling is ever final," Pema also taught us. "Everything can fall apart. We all feel that what's happening now will last forever. But feeling your worst is the end of one thing and the beginning of something else."

When I traveled to Oklahoma City a couple of years ago, I was privileged to be given a tour of the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum. A stark, still plaza in the middle of the city is now filled with haunting, empty chairs. As I walked among them, the silence was comforting. No words were necessary.

Many words were spoken in the aftermath of that tragedy. Many words will be spoken in the aftermath of the killings in Arizona. Action will be taken. Ideas and emotions will be processed.

But for now I will sit still, meditate and let time pass.

I will remember walking through that plaza in Oklahoma City and taking comfort in the words of one of my favorite writers, Thomas Wolfe, who wrote in "You Can't Go Home Again":

Pain and death will always be the same. But under the pavements trembling like a pulse, under the buildings trembling like a cry ... there will be something growing like a flower, something bursting from the earth again, forever deathless, faithful, coming into life again like April.


Priscilla Warner is the co-author of "The Faith Club." Her new book, about her journey from panic to peace, will be published by The Free Press in September 2011. Follow her progress on her blog. And meet her mother at