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In the years following 9/11/2001, I had a jarring experience that I needed to write about. Not sure how to wrap my arms around the task, I started an exploration that has continued since. The exploration included interviewing people who were in New York or Washington DC that day, talking to professionals in the field of grief and trauma, questioning philosophers, healers, holistic practitioners, attending plays on the topic of loss on 9/11, listening to survivors’ stories, visiting the New York Historical Society, art galleries, and returning to Ground Zero for the reading of the names, on several anniversaries.

In 2007, I returned to New York City during the week of September 11, and interviewed several friends, and one stranger, who were there in 2001.

What strikes me in reading the interviews now, and in listening to the conversations, is the depth of processing that took place in our talking. Six years later, we were still in the deep, working it out. There were emotional treatises on government action or inaction, and long reports on how people were seeking, personally, to understand ourselves and our places in a post-9/11 New York, country, world, and existence.

Fear, sadness, guilt, patriotism, shame were all in heavy rotation. For me, the interviews are a snapshot in time, each voice testing the tide, as we pulled our way through a roiling current.

The conversation that follows is part two of the interview posted yesterday. My subject had had a seat booked on United Flight 93, and changed it the night before take-off. The highjacked United Flight 93 crashed in a Pennsylvania field the next day, after passengers stormed the cock pit and forced the plane to miss its target.

Conversations on Fear

P: I interviewed, my teacher from that day. She said, “I immediately was sad because I knew we were going to go to war.”

She said, “From that point on, I have felt sad because the way that we felt on that day, how terrified we were and how we had no idea what to expect next — that’s the way our country, our government is making Baghdad feel. That’s how Baghdad feels every single day, still after all this time.” She said, “To be there, to live there in New York City, and to experience that happen and then to know that we are by extension part of—”

B: Repeatedly

P: “–other people’s experience of that terror, I just can hardly—”

B: And historically inflicting that terror and more. Hiroshima.

[Long pause]

B: I went to a seminar three or four months ago. It was about being fearless. Al Gore was the speaker and he was phenomenal. He talked about how we had an opportunity at 9/11 to respond. Imagine if we had responded peacefully, with love and understanding, instead of going into this military eye for an eye. Where does that get you? Violence begets violence and the cycle continues. But if we had responded in a way that – you know the whole WORLD was with us. You remember seeing candlelight vigils in Germany and Japan, our previous enemies! The Soviet Union. Here’s the world coming together. And we have since, I mean if you think about the perception of the United States in the world right now, it’s never been worse.

P: And what an opportunity to shift the direction of our entire way of doing things.

B: This was the subject of the conference. If you live your life and your actions are based on fear, even if you think you’re taking strong actions, but if they’re the result of fear–like in our nation’s security, we’ve got Homeland Security and our mission in Iraq is for security of the United States, and our way of life and democracy–it’s all still based in fear. It’s acting for the wrong reason. It’s acting on the worst instincts of human nature.

P: The fear, shoring up security. I’m sure some of this is necessary. But I get deeper and deeper with the themes of my book, and one of the themes I’ve discovered is grief and transformation.

And how there’s a time of grief. Yours might be five days, mine might be five years, someone else’s might be five months, that kind of thing. But at the end of the cycle we turn around and discover that we have transformed. That’s the point of trauma.

… 9/11 wasn’t a bomb in a marketplace. More than 52 people died. It hit our financial center. It affected the world in waves. It was an Achilles heel. When there’s a trauma to that extent, and then you factor in the theory that when something disintegrates, something else comes up in its place. Well, let’s disintegrate our whole tradition of responding with war or fear. What I’m trying to say is that we have an opportunity to create in the void that has been left, new ways of relating. And I see that in areas, but of course I still see parts of our society gripping on to old ways of doing things, while watching the old ways just not working. Warfare is not the same as it used to be, and the whole notion of being secure, having army bases in Germany, those don’t even make sense anymore.

B: And how presumptuous of us. And how desensitized everybody is. Every day in the paper? Every day in Baghdad?

P: Every day there’s a body count.

B: Some bomb. Some explosion, and it doesn’t even register anymore. The current administration fosters fear. Every time they’ve done something wrong, they raise the threat a level. To distract people to, “Remember the fear! Remember the fear!”

P: That’s a terrorist government! Hello, the use of the word “terror” in order to keep people in line.

B: Yep, but we’ve turned that word “terror” to “safety.”

P: Being Fearless. What an activist conference to have in the face of everything we’re under right now.

B: That’s why I think it drew so many people. I think there were over 1200 people.

. . . . .

P: …How do you begin to wrap your head around…what has happened, six years later thinking, “One of those seats was mine [on Flight 93].”

B: …I don’t know I just have extreme faith in the universe. Who knows 10 years from now, or whenever? My number’s up…

P: …It makes me wonder about the rest of your life, the people there are for you to touch, and the people who will touch your experience.

B: Which way it unfolds.

P: Each of those moments we cross paths, we change each other in tiny ways, and each of those interactions is part of grid that changes who we are forever, whether that’s good or bad.

B: I think it also has to do with your relationship with and your idea of death. For Tom, he’s very afraid of his death, and mostly of death of people he loves. I don’t know maybe I’ve put up a barrier, but I’m pretty stoic about it. …If I was on that flight it would have been my time to die.

. . . . .

P: It goes back to that theme of fear, becoming fearless. Courage is, even while you’re fearful, being in that space and seeing what comes of it…If our country’s government is leading us by fear–

B: Which it is.

P: Fear of death, fear of loss, of life–

B: Fear of loss of our financial security.

P: If we’re afraid to die, then we’ll always be controlled. By all our fears, by not going outside, by not walking at night. We’ll always be controlled by that fear. But if we’re aware, consciously aware that we’re gonna die–

B: We all are gonna die.

P: Then it seems like we’d be less controlled by the things that we don’t know. And that when we’re less controlled by what we don’t know, our lives unfold to… this mystery, this beauty, this constant beauty. Everything is always new.

B: Well, it’s such a distraction. If you’re afraid of death all the time then basically death’s got the better of you. Because you’re living your life with that end in mind and you’re not really living your life. It’s like Elizabeth Edwards. I loved what she said when she just found out that she had recurring breast cancer and there was no treatment for her. People were stunned that she was continuing with the campaign. She said, “You know, I really have two choices. I can start to die or I can continue to live. I want to continue to live. If I quit the campaign, then I’m starting to die. I’m not gonna do that.”

I just thought, that pretty much sums it up for all of us. You can start to die or you can continue to live. And that’s courage.


(You can read all of the Memory to Light stories in order on the side bar –->)

. . . . . . . . . . .

Thanks for reading Day 17 of “Memory to Light: 31 Days of Stories, August 11 – September 11, 2011.” It is an exercise in writing about loss, for the purpose of letting grief wake, live, and pass through the system. Grief is transformation. Story is transformation. Our world could use a some wakeful transformation right now. Take a peek at the introductory post for the full story of what we’re up to.

P.S. Names were changed in my story today, in the interest of focusing on the story rather than the identifiable in it.

Join me

Consider this project an online story circle. Read a story that moves you. Write your own on your blog. Link it to the comments below, so we can read your piece. If you don’t have a blog, write your story in the comments.

Let your memories live. Let small corners of your grief breathe. Let your loss be swept into the collective experience of people sharing, witnessing, and letting be.

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Much as many of us relate to God in varying degrees, lets forget the big eye in the sky for a moment. Now that Judgment Day is over, let’s talk about the other side of it. I talked to Padma Maxwell, the genius-heart behind Art of Thriving, about getting free. Liberation at the hands of letting go. Of the things we judge ourselves and each other about. Sometimes obsessively, cruelly, unconsciously. What happens when you liberate yourself from judgment? How do you do it? Read on and ascend into Padma’s delicious vision of letting go into a cage-free life. It is beautiful.

PT:  When we talk about liberation, what occurs for you? What is there for you in liberation and sharing about it and educating about it and believing what you believe about it?

PM:  When I think about the word liberation and how it came to play a part in my life, and how it came to be expressed in my professional life, it is in thinking about non-judgment. I’ve lived a huge part of my life judging myself. Literally have had my best friend say to me one time, “You know, Padma…

you are the most non-judgmental person I’ve met in my life, but you are incredibly judgmental of yourself. All the time. It’s coming out of your mouth. It oozes out of the way that you hold yourself. You’re constantly keeping yourself in a cage because you don’t think you’re good enough.”

When I look in the dictionary about liberation it says to be set free from a situation imprisonment or slavery.

In particular, the liberation I like to talk about is the imprisonment or enslavement that we put on ourselves. The cage that we put around ourselves that usually stems from trying to be who others think we are or who we should be. We’re spending our whole lives trying to liberate ourselves from the cage of who we think we should be, or what we should be. It never feels good when we think about what we should be.

PT:  What do you have today to be liberated from?

PM: Today I’ll put it this way. Today I am hoping, I am looking, I am seeking to liberate myself from anxiety. I would say that I could see the anxiety as something coming at me from work, from emails, from calls, from what Alex wants me to do in the house, to being behind on Mother’s Day. But that actually the anxious feeling [itself] is what I’m liberating myself from; it’s not actually happening in my life.

PT:  What’s your experience of non-judgment today?

PM: I feel  like I could put those in two categories so that today I can be letting go of judgment on myself for desiring a glass of wine as soon as I get home from work. From not answering ten other emails. From judgment that says, “I can’t do this, I’m not good enough to get all of this done.”

And I can be free of judgment from the guy on the subway who wouldn’t stop staring at me and a woman sitting next to me. My mind wanted to go to a realm that said, “He’s not a good person.” Or, “He’s invading my space. I want to say something. I want to control the environment.” And the only way to release these feelings or this uncomfortableness that is coming up in me is to release whatever his story is, whatever I’m thinking is going on.


PT:  What turns you on about what there is to share about liberation? It was one of the things you really warmed to in our first interviews. They just lit you on fire. What can you tell me about that, from that fire in your soul, fire in your belly?

I couldn’t be where I am [now] if I didn’t let myself let go of judgment internally. Yes, I want to talk about letting go of judgment of your neighbor.

Letting go of what other people are doing in their lives, because [we think] the only way we can control something is to look at someone else’s life and their choices, and feel that we’re in control of our own life by judging others.

Now that lights me on fire. However, if I kind of rein it into my personal experience, I do judge myself the worst. I think we all do that internally. Whether or not we say it or express it, we’re constantly judging ourselves. We may use it to cage us in, or it may be a motivation to better ourselves or expand.

What really lit the fire initially is that my past is incredibly chaotic. If I stayed in the realm of judging my past, judging my family, the lack of support, judging the situations and the decisions I made especially as a young woman, I would be stuck in a cage or in a realm that said, “I don’t have the resources,” “I am not smart enough,” “I don’t have the knowledge it takes.” I would never manifest or create what I wanted in life.

So literally letting go of any judgment where I am coming from, it starts within. You can let go of even what you’re thinking.

You know, sometimes people will say, “I’m sorry, I’m just thinking negative thoughts right now.” So what! You’re not meant to be perfect, so what.

I mean, we’re too worried about being extremely positive or extremely negative. And to even label that means we’re judging something as positive or judging as negative. And that becomes a problem.


PT:  So do you ever counsel people to just go into that negative thought and wear it around and see what there is for them to learn or be told from it?

PM: Absolutely. You have to puke it on the table. You have to say, “Here’s my situation, here’s what’s going on, here’s what I hate, here’s what really bugs me, and here’s what–oh, man, just lights my fire in a way that I just wanna burn through everybody.” And it’s important to go there, because even when you hear people talk about enlightenment, they have to be willing to look at their thoughts.

So no matter what, if you let go of labeling, which really is a judgment, if something’s positive or negative, let it be a thought. It comes up on the mind. And then you let it go. No big deal. I’m not even gonna give myself the space to view it as a judgment. It’s just a thought. I get to choose if it’s a thought I’m actually going to say or express.


PT:  How do you counsel people to let it go? Here it is, it’s a thought, it’s coming up in my brain. How do I let it go if it’s something that I spin on?

PM:  I generally feel like I’m guiding people to let go of every single thought. No matter what. You see it and you let it go. When a thought comes up and you’re conversing with people, or you’re talking about yourself or your situation, when the thought comes up, it feels good. So you’ll notice when it starts coming out of your mouth, you actually feel something. And I don’t want to call it negative because that would be a judgment, but when it comes out of your mouth, something actually darkens in the space around you.  Something, it starts to just–you feel like because it’s coming back around into your ears,  it’s actually creating an enabling of the cage within yourself and someone else.


PT:  It is creating that cage when you say it? Or do you feel like it is and we think that that’s wrong?

PM:  I would say that it is strengthening it. Because if someone is– Most all of us are caged-in mentally or emotionally if not both. So if you’re speaking something that doesn’t feel good within every bone of your body as you speak it, that it’s not actually lifting you up, then generally, that energy that comes out of your mouth, it’s like it strengthens the bars around your mental or emotional body. Not just you but, of course, the other person too.

Now granted, it could be another conversation as to whether that person allows you to strengthen it. They have to actually agree with what you’re saying. Let’s say you’re at a party and someone starts to speak negatively and you just walk away, because of a part of you says, “Oh they were just too negative.” But you also feel that it’s instigating something in you you don’t like. You need to let yourself distance it because you don’t want it to be strengthened.


PT:  When you say something’s good, what do you mean by good? Do you mean it’s something true, something authentic to you?

PM:  It comes down to how you know when you’re feeling something. When we have a certain pattern within ourselves, it’s going to feel good to stick with it. When someone can feel good from the drama and the negativity that’s coming out of them, they feed on that. So how do you know [if] what you’re thinking and what comes out of you is good or bad?

You can get into semantics because labeling what we’re thinking causes us to not go with what we’re feeling. Here’s what I would say to that. Even someone who speaks something that could be categorized as negative, even if they’re addicted to that negativity or the drama that’s created from that, they don’t actually feel a sense of truth within themselves. They might be addicted to the reaction they get from it. The drama that comes from it. But

there is a feeling within ourselves when we know something is “right or wrong” or “good and bad.”

And the thing is we exercise this often in our lives. For you to be in a relationship with someone, you can talk about all the pros and cons and goods and bads about it, but if you’re going to go into a relationship, there is a knowingness that happens down to the bones of your body if this is right for you. Thing is, someone can easily be in a marriage for 15 years. Say things don’t work out. When they get out of the marriage, if they really authentically look back, they can say, “I knew all along, but I did it because we had a daughter.” There’s a knowingness thats there.

It’s almost hard to talk about because– There’s a great saying that comes from Adyashanti. He said that talking about enlightenment and awareness was like trying to describe to a child how to ride a bike. I think that’s the same for knowingness. Someone wants to clarify, “Well, am I going to feel good or am I gonna feel bad?” But really it’s just a knowingness within yourself.

I like to use Wolverine [to explain knowingness]. Wolverine, the character, will walk into a room and not only will he smell something, he’ll feel it, and respond with hair standing on its back, or excitement. There’s just a knowingness. I would say there’s an instinct, versus intuition.

PT:  How does liberation relate to knowingness? Do we need to get free in order to understand that knowingness? In order to get the message from our knowingness?

PM:  Mm, good question. I would say that it’s actually trusting in the knowingness and letting yourself begin to speak that knowingness. That is what starts to help liberate you.

Because otherwise, you know, we can liberate ourselves if we sit down and meditate for two hours. Sure, you can start to feel that you’re letting go of your thoughts and you’re not judging yourself and others. But then you go to a party, and you’re around a lot of people and you’re not used to practicing speaking authentically because you don’t know how to trust that knowingness unless you’re alone.

It’s really about expressing your knowingness. When you want to speak something, check in and see, well, maybe it’s not that it feels good but does it feel right in the bones of my body? And to give permission that

if it starts to come out of your mouth and you realize you don’t actually believe it, or it’s not really true for you, just stop mid-sentence. I mean, you and I are doin’ it. We just stop and we go, “Wait a minute, that’s not–wait a minute, let me pull back and start over.”

And giving yourself that permission allows you to start to get in touch with what’s true for you.

That truth is where you’re looking beyond the bars. It’s like if someone was caged-in and they’re watching the world from the cage, and they see the things that they want. If they could could talk about all the things outside of the cage and talk less about what’s keeping them in the cage, it’s more likely that the key comes along, and helps you to liberate yourself, and you can actually go get what you want.

PT:  There’s that teaching that says in order to gain freedom you have to accept where you are. How does that relate to inside-the-cage, outside-the-cage, to the semantic practice? Where does that fall in, if it falls in at all?

PM:  The idea is that you accept where you are but you are not constantly talking about what limits you from living. So you can accept where you are and you can let yourself come home behind closed doors and feel defeated and fearful, because those emotions want to come up. Those emotions are there asking you to move into them.

You don’t want to deny it. Imagine if [the emotion] was bird. For it to come up, you’re allowing yourself to support the bird. It can still breathe and move and sing its song. Even though it’s singing a song of fear you’re allowing it to sing the song. So you ARE accepting it. But as [the emotion] moves up and out, if you are squeezing it because you fear you’re going to let go of it, you fear the judgment of what others are going to think about your bird, then you are keeping yourself in the cage versus saying,

“Yes, I am in this cage, I am scared shitless, and I may not know the next step but I’ll tell you this much: here’s what I want.”

So if we were to add in semantics, let yourself feel what your feeling without judging that you’re feeling it. And when you’re speaking to other people, about where you are, you’re actually speaking less about the cage and more about what you’re seeing outside of the cage.

PT: So that you’re revolving less around what’s trapping you.

PM:  I gotta tell you, Pema, these questions are what everyone is constantly asking. I want to emphasize that I wholeheartedly believe that for you to even get out of the cage, you have to let yourself see the cage and be in the cage.

And you know what, if you have a best girlfriend that you can call up and say, “Can you give me ten minutes to talk about my cage? Can I just please puke it up because I have no one else to just go there with?” And when you give yourself permission to just puke it and just bleh, get it out, and you just cry and you’re sobbing and you’re just, “Oh I hate being here, I am so limited.” Then when you get it out, if you think of  a little child who’s like [pant pant pant], they’ve thrown everything around and they’ve just let all their emotion out, then you open the door and you say, “So what do you want to do now?”
And usually, they’re like, “I wanna go get ice cream.”

To enable someone to move forward–and now I’m speaking from the context of outside of it–if you want to be the best friend to someone going through it, then you will say, “Yes, I will give you ten minutes. I’ll time it and you just go. Don’t worry about what you’re saying. And then after ten minutes, I’m gonna ask you what you see outside of that cage.” And that’s actually the key that helps open it up.

PT:  I imagine that’s also an opportunity to see things outside the cage you never saw before because they were obscured by the cage itself.

PM:  In a way someone can be so caged in there aren’t bars. It’s like a box. Part of just recognizing the ability to see what’s outside of that, is if you can’t visually see it, if you’re not someone who has that visionary process to say, “Yes, I’m here but I want to go here,” by just getting in touch with,

“Well, what is actually keeping you caged in?”

then the blanket gets lifted. Then you’re okay with sitting there watching everyone else having what you want but you’re not able to get it. So, you complain about people who inherit money or who have a great business and yours isn’t doing so great, and you see it all outside of yourself. When you recognize that you’re in it only because you put yourself there, then you’re able to break free.