“My stomach dropped”….said the mother on the news, as she remembered the moment that she heard of the knife stabbings at her child’s school. Only the most fortunate among us have not felt that hollow ‘stomach drop’ that accompanies shocking news.
I was about to experience it again.
It was a bright day in the Appalachian mountains of Virginia USA, I had just given an early morning talk in Nelson County, when from the audience Sam pipes up, “You must meet Kia.”
In a kitchen filled with the sweet smell of slowly braising red peppers, sunlight streaming across jars and bottles of herbs and spices, Kia stops chopping onions . She is physically petite, but carries around her a warm strength and assurance that surrounds those who move through life with purpose.
As is my way, my opening question gets straight to the point. “What is your story, why did Sam believe we needed to meet?” Kia pauses for a moment , smiles wistfully, then starts telling her story, one I quickly realize she has told many, many times before. I watch her carefully as the terror unfolds.
Kia Sherr’s story has been covered many times before. I will not repeat it here but I am sure you are curious, so here is the background, do come back when you have finished.
Her calm never waivers, and then the climax. My stomach drops … as my mind involuntarily recalls my own moment of loss. One that fortunately had a happy ending quite soon afterwards. But in my moment of hearing the unthinkable I felt exactly what Kia describes; a physical reaction in which the survival instinct causes the blood flow to the stomach to instantly halt; causing that hollow drop as all blood is directed to the extremities, to fight or flight , which ever is our natural inclination. With the blood goes a huge dose of adrenaline, allowing these moments to be indelibly etched into our minds. This common base human reaction is what enables my mind to recall my stomach dropping moment as vividly as if it were happening right this instant.
I hesitate before asking my next question. But as it is my aim to delve into the minds of those whom I interview, I plunge ahead.
What was your first reaction?
” I can still remember precisely what happened when that moment exploded around me. It is like yesterday. I was sitting on the sofa with my family when the anxiously awaited phone call came. The bodies of my husband and daughter had been identified, they had been shot dead. Everything crumbled, the bottom dropped out of my world, and at the same time, a thought dropped into my mind. Forgive them they know not what they do.”
This was an instant reaction?
” It came instantly, the thought dropped right into the void. It was connected to my heart. A moment of peace – Love is lacking over there, we must forgive them – My life had been blown away, I was left with nothing except love.”
How did your family react to this? Did they feel that you were trying to compensate, were in denial?
” My family looked doubtful, they did not believe they could forgive. My father was quite honest with me. Coming from a military background he felt blame should be apportioned and punishment meted out, and indeed it should, and it was. The lone surviving terrorist was arrested and sentenced to death.
But, it just felt right, adopting this natural state of forgiveness and compassion. Forgiveness is to understand that there are people out there who are deeply disconnected from themselves, and will cling to any cause. To not forgive is to carry their hatred with me, to poison myself. Forgiveness is the only bridge out of that pit. When this reaction to forgive first dropped into my head, I also did not understand it, I simply accepted it. It was only afterwards, when the press questioned whether I was simply in denial, that I began to question my own response. I set out to define what forgiveness is.
Forgiveness does not mean to condone. It means to have compassion and empathy. There is so much hatred already. We must have compassion.”
I watch Kia as she says these words and note my immediate reaction; Are you kidding me? That’s not normal. While the instinctive stomach-drop fight or flight response is common to all of us. The immediate control of emotions is not. For most an emotional abandon to grief and sorrow, and even rage, anger and hatred seems appropriate.
But is it?
I discover that Kia has been a student of meditation since the age of 17, this intensified when she and her family moved to the ‘Synchronicity Foundation’ to immerse themselves in a conscious mindful lifestyle, in which awareness of thought and emotion is practiced. To go beyond the mind has long been a natural part of her life.
” Over time you transcend the mind, you get into an expansive state. Slowly you connect to the central source of quiet that we all share, and eventually you catch glimpses of no-mind. With practice you become part of no-mind without meditation. In that you achieve a constant connection to the quiet strong core. We all have it, there is just so much busyness that we forget it is there. With meditation we learn to sink back into the emptiness that Buddhism describes as no-mind. I spent so much time doing it that the stillness is integrated in my life.”
When tragedy struck, Kia’s deep connection to this quiet core allowed her to control her emotional response. Kia chose to forgive and to send love.
This impromptu interview ended with growing curiosity on my part. Can we really train our brains to the extent that we can control our most basic survival instinct, that part of the brain that we up to now have truly held to be absolutely hardwired?
After some thought I contacted Kia to set up another meeting, this time on Skype as Kia is now in Mumbai working on the ‘One Life Alliance’ project. Asking her to present me with a ‘What if scenario’ ( background on this here)
She immediately responds. What if we love like extremists?
I bend my brain to try to imagine how a society steeped in extreme love would look. Most everything we know would be swept away. From lawyers to horror movies, from charities to prisons. All gone.
We live in a society fueled by fear and distrust. Fear feeds on fear and destroys trust. Love does not grow in fear but in trust. Fear is a far easier emotion to act out. It is far easier to be fearful and to strike out, to barricade yourself and withdraw. To be a fearful victim is to take no responsibility, to shift the blame. To love requires trust and full responsibility, as what you are doing is declaring to the world that ; I am not a victim.
In preparation for this conversation I have been trying to visualize your world of love. It seems such a desirable state, but in trying to break my thoughts down into practical steps to reach this state I find myself up against a brick wall.
Yours is a very ‘liberal’ position. The American ‘conservatives’ have a cynical definition of a liberal as someone who has not yet experienced first hand the evils of the world. You are the unmaking of that statement. The usual thing we hear from people who have gone through a negative life changing event, is that they move towards spirituality. You on the other hand are moving towards a more practical pragmatic life, infused with spirituality.
“Despite my public image, privately I have been living on a razors edge. I can feel simultaneously the uncertainty and the exhilaration of the new direction my life has taken. My life had such a calm spiritual emphasis that , when cast into this role, I did often think what’s the point. I felt inadequate, not enough, I went through all the doubt. I asked who cares, what difference does it make?
Now that I am once again in the mainstream I need to reconnect with the more practical human part of myself, this causes some friction. But because of my years of meditation I am so connected to the core that I know that at the core I can not separate myself from the terrorist. He is a sentient being who shares my life-force and the life-force of everything. Embracing oneness was not an intellectual decision at the time. It was only later in trying to discover why I was reacting the way I was, that I realized when you begin to experience the wholeness that binds us, you cannot separate from it. You have to make a choice.
The choice I made was to look at those that hate and say; you are going to hate and kill, well I am not going to follow your example. I am going to love and honor the sacredness of life with all my heart, and I am going to inspire everyone to do the same. I am going to be the complete opposite of a terrorist. Because I care. It is important that I care, and no matter what, I will keep caring because it makes me feel good.
While I came to this conclusion through a spiritual meditative background, I learnt from my experience in working with the ‘One life alliance’ that you can reach this point from the outside and work your way in. Most people don’t realize they can grab the reigns of their minds. The mind is a beautiful tool, and we can only use that tool if we learn how to think. Then we can direct it; all negative or positive actions are a choice.
To try to create a practical path to aid in this choice, I broke down living like a love extremist into 30 steps ( Pocketbook of Peace. ISBN-13: 978-1461157038) which is almost too simple. But yet, when people work through the 30 steps, it transforms their relationships. When they make a conscious attempt to be patient, forgiving, accepting, to honor all their agreements, it all leads to love, compassion and peace. It really transforms people. So I have decided to trust this simple thing, and instead of being overwhelmed, I will just keep offering it.”
That is an important step. To ask; is my purpose worthy? If you conclude that, yes my purpose is worthy, then you lose doubt and are prepared to take on full responsibility. When this happens others who share your purpose will hear you and help build the path to that new goal, in which this concept of a world guided by a loving force becomes a completely natural thing.
“The thought that keeps coming to me is connection and disconnection. As we become more disconnected from our source, or central value system, we need to create some new structure in which we feel comfortable and secure. This is usually in material possession. But when we restore connection to our core, we restore compassion, empathy and love. First and foremost we need to restore connection to ourselves. To be compassionate with ourselves. When we feel our own emotions it allows us to more easily align and connect with others. The core in me is the same core in every being. The life force that keeps me alive is the life force that keeps you alive. If we connect to that life force in ourselves and others, we restore connection and this allows the love to flow. That is loving like an extremist, stay connected stay connected.”
Kia through her work with the One Life Alliance and the Global Peace Initiative is trying to create practical measurable ways of determining that peace and love are not just good for humanity but for the economy, and of course the ecosystem that supports us all.
But it is difficult to imagine how a world guided by love will look from this vantage point, where our values are skewed to greed for material possessions. But I can begin to imagine that as we become more mindful our values will shift, from external body centric values, to internal mind centric values. We will start to value things that promote a calm honorable mindset. The choices we make will affect everything. We will change how we eat, how we spend our time. Careers based in a value system of fear and dishonor will vanish. As we become more mind centric we will shift away from the human centric technology, which we now create. The technology we choose to create will be beneficial to the ecosystem as a whole. Education will shift its emphasis from learning by route, to learning to use the mind. I imagine the arts will change, in a mindful, empathetic society what will we choose to create?
Kia Sherr admits that despite her meditative mindset she still has to make the choice to love. To reaffirm her commitment to being a love extremist. That is the core of change.
The simply truth is that we have a choice, but the choice is our responsibility and to fully accept responsibility is hard. Perhaps this is exactly the reason that we do not achieve the state of love that everybody professes to want. We do not apply our minds to the practical measurable methods of creating this love. We are apathetic and reactionary, we wait to fall in love, then indulge our base emotions with the feel good of it all. Never applying our minds to protecting and growing this emotion beyond the simple chemical reaction that it is at first.
We all feel the ‘stomach-drop’, we all feel the ‘fall in love’. Two very different causes that create the same emotional response. These chemical/physical reactions are not special. Only when we apply conscious thought, and make a mindful decision to act in honor and love, can we elevate our base emotions into those world changers we wish they were.