Love and Terrorism

Second in a multipart series addressing how those on a spiritual path can encounter, make meaning of, and respond to terrorism.

The essence of any spiritual path is love. As a physician committed to a spiritual path, I’ve learned to ask, “What is the most loving thing to do?” Answering this question, whether when helping patients and their families face difficult medical choices or in small and large moments in my own life, inevitably leads to wise, compassionate choices. It is a foundational question for anyone on a spiritual path.

When I open the newspaper and read about the latest act of terrorism—innocent people intentionally killed, bodies of men, women and children torn and bloodied, maximal suffering inflicted—I do not feel the impulse to ask “What is the most loving thing to do?”

I do not feel loving at all. Such moments create a crisis on my spiritual path. I try to convince myself this is all Maya, illusion. I want to see the perpetrators of this latest terrorist act as children of God, lost and confused on this earthwalk, deserving of love both from me and from God. (I will deal with forgiveness in the next blog in this series.) But if I am honest, I feel anger and blame. I feel my heart shut down. I want to see the perpetrators caught and punished. If they died in the attack, I feel some grim satisfaction. This is not loving.

Encountering terrorism creates new urgency for those on a spiritual path in answering the question, “What is the most loving thing to do?”

We can find answers to this question in the words and deeds of the enlightened spiritual masters at the origins of the great world religions. When the Buddha encountered Angulimata, a vicious serial killer who had murdered 999 people, cutting off one finger from each dead victim to string around his neck and planning to kill his mother as his 1000th victim, instead of condemnation he offered redemption. Angulimata converted in that instant, eventually becoming a Buddhist monk and serving the light the rest of his life. In the famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.”

The Buddha and Jesus both manifested the same profound insight: “Love in the face of unloving behavior is the essence of the healing element.” (I am indebted to Saul Silverman, a wise and gifted marriage and family counselor and one of the great teachers in my life, for this eloquent formulation of this universal truth.) We recognize the same healing dynamic in the examples of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., both of whom lived and taught non-violence, love, as the highest response to violence.

This is an authentic spiritual response to terrorism, to offer love in the face of unloving behavior. But how?

Those committed to a spiritual path seem to have two options for responding to terrorism with love, one in the realm of action and one in what could be called the realm of consciousness. The realm of action, what the Bhagavad Gita calls the Yoga of Action, moves one into politics, a worthy endeavor. (The Bhagavad Gita would also recognize waging war as part of the Yoga of Action, but I have difficulty with this and choose not to take this leap as part of a truly spiritual path.) I honor those who choose the Yoga of Action by engaging in politics as part of their spiritual path, provided all such political action is rooted in and manifests love. This means political action that takes aim at eliminating the root causes of terrorism (a topic that goes far beyond the scope of this blog).

Politics has not been my path (at least not since my early activist years in the 1960s and 70s). My Yoga of Action has been expressed first in my work as a family physician helping to heal patients and now in my consulting work with physicians and hospitals across America, doing all I can to help heal healthcare and those who work in it. So I choose not to respond to terrorism through the Yoga of Action.

I do choose to respond to terrorism in the realm of consciousness, I find guidance, truth and hope in the work of David Hawkins (see his important book Power vs. Force). He recognized that one person functioning with the consciousness of a Buddha, Jesus, Gandhi or King carries far greater power than thousands committing acts of violence out of anger, resentment, fear, desire for power, or any of the many baser manifestations of consciousness that undergird acts of terrorism. Hawkins understood that we all share a unified consciousness throughout our planet. This spiritual wisdom, shared by so many enlightened masters throughout the ages, teaches that by focusing inward on my own consciousness through meditation and outward through prayer, I can meaningfully impact this worldwide shared consciousness. This is my daily spiritual practice. It takes different form from one day to the next, yet always with the same intent. It is also my response to terrorism. Every morning and as often as I can throughout the day, I join with the consciousness of all human beings throughout our planet and do all I can to awaken and raise this shared consciousness to light and love, joy and peace, including in this the consciousness of those who perpetrate terrorism, and I do so with love.