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Practical Wisdom

"At the end of thought is an action."

Transforming our Terror

April Hejka-Ekins, Ph.D.

(Reprinted from The Serapeum Summer 2003) 

Recognizing the volcanic escalation of hatred in the world since 9-11 leaves me with a deep sense of foreboding and compels me to ponder some serious moral questions.  To what degree has humanity made any moral progress over the centuries? What needs to be done individually and collectively to reduce the violence and hatred in the world and encourage justice and compassion on a global level?  Is there something we can learn from exploring contemporary spiritual thinking and the wisdom traditions of the past that can help us deal with the impending moral dilemmas of our day?  This column is dedicated to explore these queries.

In his book, Transforming our Terror: A Spiritual Approach to Making Sense of Senseless Tragedy, the British Buddhist author, Christopher Titmuss draws on principles of great spiritual teachers, such as, Buddha, Sura, Lao Tzu, Krishna, and others to help us in coping with fear, trauma, and death.  He offers us ways to resolve suffering, regardless of the circumstances we encounter.  Appealing to our thought, emotion, and conduct, Titmuss describes an essential truth about the human condition: we incessantly try to avoid the terrible grief and distress which can explode upon our lives at any time.  Our conduct or that of others can cause un-imaginable pain, either through careless actions or deliberate intention.  Titmuss summons us to take responsibility by working together to transform deeply distressing events in our lives for the peace of mind and security of all.

Titmuss suggests to overcome our terror are facing up to the truth, realizing that we have a choice as to how we will act, and finally deciding how to take a constructive action, instead of a destructive one.  The key to moving in this direction is to get in touch with the fear and anger that underlies many of our reactions.  By becoming aware of our feelings, thinking, and action, and developing self-discipline, we can learn to exercise openness, compassion, and understanding in the midst of conflict, violence, or tragedy.  For example, the author suggests that the deepest fear we have is towards our death, but confronting this inevitability paves the way towards spiritual growth and maturity.  Titmuss suggests that we can learn to help others deal with their grief, anger, and fear through a process called witnessing, which comes from attempting to maintain an overview of the situation and express caring responsibility for the totality of the event—free from bias.  The goal is to acknowledge the position of all parties, yet to help them to keep an open mind and receptiveness towards those with whom they are in conflict.

Committing ourselves to our own transformational process involves cultivating intimacy with life or an unspoken depth of interconnectedness with all areas of existence.  Titmuss describes this intimacy as a spiritual perspective in which we bring all that we know and experience to the totality of the present moment, which represents the mystery of life, unaffected by the changing face of time.  Fear is the obstacle that can lead us to fragment our intimacy with life by holding on to painful memories of the past.  Titmuss maintains only the power of love can restore balance and harmony that is required to express intimacy with life.  How do we gain this compassion but by a meditative process of soul searching in which we deeply reflect upon the blockages to our intimacy with others and take responsibility to recognize our ego attachments that separate us from connecting to the wholeness of life.

To develop the skillful means of soul searching and witnessing, Titmuss offers us a series of meditation exercises to help us in working with such problems as grief, negativity, conflict, fear, anger, prejudice, abuse, and death.  His prudent ideas come at a time in which those who are concerned with the state of the world and our relationship to it can find the hope and encouragement necessary to realize that our efforts do indeed make a difference.  Yet the spiritual road map that Titmuss provides challenges us to summon our courage and commitment in working for spiritual maturity in ourselves and for the peace and wellbeing of humanity and the planet.

Further Reading:

 Transforming our Terror: a

 Spiritual Approach to making

 Sense of Senseless Tragedy.

 New York, Barrons, 2002