September 12, 2001

July 21, 2012   |   4 Comments  |   FavoriteLoadingAdd to favorites

My heart (and everyone’s heart) goes out to the citizens of Aurora and beyond. We all want to do something to help. I decided to repost this piece in case it’s useful.


September 12, 2011

There is a Buddhist meditation practice called Tonglen. In Tibetan, tong means “sending out” and len means “receiving.” So Tonglen is known as the practice of sending and taking, or of exchanging self for other. Instead of inhaling what makes us feel good and exhaling what makes us feel bad, this practice asks that we do the opposite. We breathe in the suffering of others by visualizing it as dark, hot, sticky, soot and smoke coming into our lungs. We breathe out what is positive in the form of air that is light, bright, clean, and cool. In this way, we volunteer to take in some portion of the world’s suffering and offer up to it whatever good we possess.

On this day ten years ago, I decided to drive into Manhattan.

On September 11, 2001 I was in Washington, DC visting my parents. I was scheduled for a book signing at Borders in the World Trade Center on September 12. I woke up early that morning, unsure of where to go. Should I stay in DC? Should I try and make it home to Boston? Would the roads even be passable? Would the streets be lined with armored vehicles? Would there be checkpoints at every on-ramp? Low-flying helicopters? Terrorists speeding for the border? At the very least, I imagined that the highways would be crammed with motorists now that the skies had been shut down to flight. If not terrorists, then for sure I would encounter rental cars full of businesspeople who had met at airports and formed groups heading to Cleveland or Atlanta or Toronto.

I decided to to get an early start and take my chances. So I had a cup of tea and was on the road by 6AM.

Although the drive from DC to Boston would take eight or so hours under normal circumstances, I was prepared for least twelve hours in the car, maybe more, maybe even a few days. I was thinking I might have to spend a night or two on the road, what with all the detours and slowdowns that I was sure to find around New York City. I considered heading west and up through Harrisburg and then across the Hudson Valley into Western Massachusetts, bypassing any and all routes into Manhattan.

As I approached the exit for the Pennsylvania Turnpike, I looked around. Pretty quiet. Very quiet, actually. I decided to continue on with a direct route toward New York City, thinking I’d divert when I came upon the first delay.

Just a few months prior to this, I had moved to Boston from an apartment on West 23rd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues. I loved living in Manhattan. I loved my apartment. I loved everything about my beloved city, including my running route—down the side streets of Chelsea and across the West Side Highway, south toward Battery Park, a look across the river at New Jersey, a view of the Statue of Liberty and on to the World Financial Center Plaza, weaving through throngs of people disembarking from various ferries. At this point I would slow and cool down by walking through the World Financial Center to the World Trade Center, always against the crowd of men and women in suits who were moving through turnstiles, boarding elevators for work. You could feel them still trying to wake up, clothes pressed, bits of hair still wet from the shower. These sweet signs of morning were a tender contrast to their staring-ahead expressions (another day at work) or gait (I can do this). I on the other hand was not pressed, not fresh, and heading home; I always loved that I was going the exact opposite way of everyone else. As they streamed up the steps from the subway, I threaded my way down, underground, past the shops, past Greys Papaya, Starbucks, Borders. Every morning I would stop at the newsstand at the turnstiles, buy the New York Post, and read it on the ride back up to Chelsea. Then off at 23rd and 8th for a short walk back to my apartment. Someday, I hoped, I would build up the stamina to run down and back. Or not. Which would have been OK, because I so loved the routine as it was.

As I drove, I tried to picture what this route would look like today. What parts of it still existed? Who had been walking there when the planes hit? What had the ferry riders seen? Who had gone in early to get some extra work done, or late because what the hell, I’m sleeping in this morning? I kept the radio on in the car. I heard that entry to Manhattan via the Holland and Lincoln tunnels was prohibited and it made me incredibly sad to think of New York City in isolation like this. And so along with everyone else, along with our country, the other countries, and with all of New York, I cried.

Several hours into the drive, it appeared there actually weren’t carloads of businesspeople or terrorists racing hither and yon, nor had I seen a single armored vehicle or helicopter, or passed through one checkpoint. In fact, the roads were eerie and deserted.

Suddenly I noticed that I was approaching the Tappan Zee Bridge. Suddenly I noticed that my right turn signal was on and I was taking this exit, heading into Manhattan.

Apparently, I was the only one out driving that day who felt they had to go in to New York City. I was downtown and in Union Square within about 20 minutes. I parked in the garage next to the yoga studio my friend owned and went in. I had no idea what I was going to do when I got there, how long I was going to stay in NYC, or who or what I was trying to see, exactly. I made my way up the stairs to the yoga studio on the second floor. It was open. I didn’t recognize the person behind the desk—a new employee. She said “are you here for Tonglen practice?” Apparently I was, so I said “yes.” She said, “we’ll be starting in 10 minutes” and indicated the front studio. I took a seat on a cushion in the back and watched as the room filled up. I looked out the big picture windows that faced onto 14th Street and imagined what was just beyond—St. Vincent’s Hospital, the Village, Soho, Tribeca, the Financial District. We were less than 2 miles from what wasn’t yet called Ground Zero.

September 12th was as bright as September 11th had been. The sun was streaming through the windows and the light was thick with dust and particles. The air smelled heavy, like burning rubber and metal. I briefly wondered what exactly it was that I was breathing in. But there was no time to consider this further—practice began. The gong rang. The 30 or so people in the room began to settle. The first minutes of practice involved simply attuning to the breath, coming in, going out. Breathing in some sense of this new reality and breathing out to meet it. We can’t undo it. We can only be in it.

In Buddhist thought, to die unexpectedly is considered the most difficult circumstance in which to find one’s bearings in the bardo. You are likely to be quite surprised upon finding yourself dead. You don’t know where you are. It is a state of extreme disorientation and suffering. Thus, family and friends are asked not to beseech their dear ones to return, or even to long for their presence—this furthers the confusion of the being who is now moving on. Instead, we say and feel something like “You are dead now. It’s OK. We support you on your journey. You have our love.”

Tonglen practice began. We imagined that we were surrounded by innumerable unseen confused souls, very surprised, very upset, very, very frightened. In silence, we offered companionship and courage. The instruction is first to connect with your own suffering and then extend to take in the suffering around you. Breathe into that. Relax around it. Then connect with your own goodness—your sadness for others, the strength you have to offer, your very willingness to help, even if you have no idea how—and breathe that out, offer it, give it away. Do it again and again. Imagine the suffering around you as dark, thick soot and breathe it in, offer to take it. Now breathe out light, bright, cool air. Now do it again. And again. And again. As we practiced, I realized that the air itself literally met the description. It was dark. It was thick. It was sooty. I tried not to space out and reject it. I failed. I tried again. We breathed in the dust of the World Trade Centers, the particles of blood and bone and computer keyboards, and breathed out, maybe, something cleansed and pacified.

After the practice I went back out to the street. I was going to try to walk as close as I could to the site. The first thing I did was look up for the Towers to get my bearings, but they weren’t there. I started down Sixth Avenue, normally so loud and chaotic, now closed to all but foot traffic and emergency vehicles. Droves of people were wandering slowly, some alone, some in pairs or small groups. The streets of lower Manhattan were full. No one wanted to be alone, yet there was nothing to say. There was silence, broken only by police or fire sirens coming up behind people, trying to get by. We parted for them without looking.

Manhattan was closed off at Houston Street so I turned and walked back through the side streets of the West Village, also full. The crowd grew bigger as I returned to my starting point, Union Square. I looked up to see it filled with people—wandering about, crying, embracing, sitting expressionless. Someone had unraveled a huge roll of brown butcher paper, at least 40 feet long. It was weighted down by dozens of candles and vases of flowers and was already largely covered with scrawled prayers, drawings, questions, words of shock, words of pain, attempts at explanation. Most were exhortations against hate of any kind and sorrow for all victims. For the thousandth time since I’d moved there and away, I thought how decent New Yorkers are, how kind, how open, and how passionately and always I will love New York City.

To close a meditation practice, Buddhists do something called “dedicating the merit.” It’s a way of saying “whatever benefit may have been generated by my practice is offered for the benefit of all sentient beings.” You give it away. My teacher says that not dedicating the merit is like not pressing the save button before shutting your computer off—you may have done a lot of work but you’ll probably have to start over. So this is what I wrote on that long scroll of brown paper, weaving words between candles:

By the confidence of the golden sun of the great East, 
May the lotus garden of the Rigden’s wisdom bloom.
May the dark ignorance of sentient beings be dispelled.
May all beings enjoy profound, brilliant glory.

I circled around Union Square a few more times and returned to my car for the rest of the drive home.

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  • Posted by:  d martin

    Thank you

  • Posted by:  Joanna Paterson

    This is so thoughtful, and beautiful. Thank you so much.

  • Posted by:  Holly Woods

    Susan, I have really come to love your routine teachings and meditations. Thank you for sharing your soul with us. And thank you for reposting this essay. It seems to me that sharing tonglen with the universe on a daily basis is a great idea, or at least dedicating the merit, given what we experience. I often give my prayer wheel a twirl or two every day to send out some prayers to the cosmos, knowing there are people suffering everywhere who may benefit from my energy. I will remember this vision you painted of taking in the suffering of the souls on that day after. Thank you.

    • Posted by:  susan

      Thank you, Holly. So glad to know we’re practicing together.

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