That terrible day changed me. I didn’t realize it at first. But 11 years later, I can look back and see how much I learned from 9/11, and how much I’ve changed as a result. Here are the biggest lessons I learned that day:
1. Life is fragile.
I had already learned this lesson during my battle with depression, but somehow, I had forgotten. I got a refresher on 9/11. This time, the lesson stuck. Not long after 9/11, I made the decision to quit my job as a computer engineer, and commit full time to being a healer. Life is fragile. Go do what you were meant to do.
2. Be grateful.
My life could end an hour from now. So could yours. You don’t know. I don’t know. I plan to live to the ripe old age of 120, but things don’t always go as planned.
After 9/11, I got in the habit of taking a moment to feel grateful when I wake up each morning. It’s a good habit. Start tomorrow morning. Don’t let another day go by without being grateful. That stuff you’re worrying about right now — it doesn’t matter. Gratitude does.
This is what Zen teaches. Be present. Be happy. Right here. Right now. The present moment is all we have.
3. Stay calm.
During the first few minutes of the attack, we didn’t know what was happening. We didn’t know if this was the beginning of an all-out attack on the US, if it was going to get worse, or if it was over. Not knowing can be incredibly hard on the psyche.
Honestly, it was torture for me. I didn’t know what to do. Leave? Try to walk to Jersey? Find a basement? Overwhelmed, I eventually went and did the 2-Minute Drill. It was amazing how much it helped. Just breathing and moving made such a difference. Suddenly, I could think clearly again.
Maybe that’s one reason I love Qigong and Tai Chi. Every day, I enjoy relaxing, letting go, and calming my nervous system. With Tai Chi, you even learn to stay calm while someone is trying to push you or attack you. It’s an important skill to have. Not that people try to push you very often, but because life does.
4. People die.
When the first tower fell, all I could think was: People just died. Just a few miles from me. They died in a matter of seconds. Later, I would find out that I knew some of those people, albeit distantly.
Until that day, the only death I had ever been around was my great grandmother’s (she was 98). Technically, I was several miles away from the towers on 9/11, but somehow, I could feel the death, the sudden transition of all those souls. I can’t explain it, although I suspect that lots of New Yorkers know what I’m talking about.
For me, it was a wake up call. I feel like, on that terrible morning, I suddenly stopped being naive about death. And life.
5. Never buy fake swords.
During the first few hours, when we were waiting for news of more attacks, many of us wondered if there would be crime, riots, or heck, even a terrorist invasion. We were overwhelmed with fear and confusion. Out of paranoia, I started looking around my apartment for a weapon to defend myself, just in case.
The best I could come up with was a fake Tai Chi sword. Somehow, the irony of that sword hit me in that moment. I knew how to use it. I had been training martial arts for about a decade. But the sword itself was useless. It would probably break if I hit something with it.
Today, I still train with Tai Chi swords. But they’re real. And sharp. So if the Zombies come, I’m ready.
Training with real swords has been transformational for me. Instead of just waving around a fake sword, each move is real. Each movement could literally kill a person (or the Walking Dead!). It’s an amazing type of meditation. And it brings out the true beauty of the martial arts, especially Tai Chi — that through training violence, you learn to truly value peace.
6. Be prepared.
New Yorkers aren’t known for their disaster preparedness, especially 29-year-old bachelors. After the towers fell, I looked in my fridge. I had some leftover Chinese food, some eggs, and some milk. Oh, and ketchup. Can’t forget the ketchup.
Then I looked at my Britta filter, and it hit me. Water! What if the water goes out? What do I do?
After 9/11, I stopped taking things like food and water for granted. People thought I was crazy to store a week’s worth of food and water in my apartment — until Katrina. After that, people started to see the sense in being prepared. (Hopefully, they still do.)
A few years after 9/11, the big blackout hit NYC. This time, I was prepared. I had food and water. Unfortunately, I didn’t have batteries. Live and learn. (Perhaps now my wife will understand why I have so many rechargeable batteries, flashlights, and solar chargers.)
7. Tragedy can bring out the best in people.
There were a ton of heroes that day. NYPD. FDNY. Unsung heroes. They rose to the occasion. I even saw random heroes on the street, like a young man offering his taxi (they were impossible to find because the subway was closed) to an older lady. Honestly, it gave me a lot of faith in humanity. I saw with my own eyes how people are capable of pulling together. It was beautiful to watch. If you look for them, those heroes are always there in a crisis.
8. Radios are amazing technology.
When you can’t get news via the Internet or your cell phone, a handheld radio can be a godsend. I mean, the news just flies through the air, no matter what else is happening! Isn’t that amazing?
9. Fear Makes People Crazy.
A few days later, a colleague said to me: “We should just kill all the Muslims!” I was shocked. Even 11 years later, it amazes me that someone could say that. “But there are a billion of them,” I responded. The so-called “conversation” that ensued was absolute madness.
That’s when I first learned that fear turns people into crazy Zombies and blocks all rational thought. When someone gets like this, there’s nothing you can say. Logic is useless. Facts are meaningless. And that, my friends, is a scary thing.
10. Never quit smoking during a terrorist attack.
Okay, so I didn’t actually quit smoking that morning. But I was trying not to smoke. That lasted, oh, about five minutes into the news. (I walked downstairs, bought a pack, walked halfway back upstairs, then went back down and bought two more. Just in case. At least I was prepared for smoking!)
11. Friends matter.
Having a close group of trusted friends matters, especially in a crisis. That evening, a bunch of us gathered at a friend’s house. It was tribal. We didn’t need to say much. We were just happy to be connected to each other. I won’t soon forget that feeling.
12. We Need to Give Peace a Chance
I may take heat for this, possibly from people who were nowhere near NYC but somehow think that they have a monopoly on patriotism, but so be it. My opinion, after watching the horrors on 9/11, and then the invasion of Afghanistan, then Iraq, and now possibly Iran — is that we as a species desperately need to cultivate peace. I think that our survival probably depends on it.
The war machine has grown and grown over the past 100 years. When will it stop? When will we try something different? When will peace be something that is taken seriously?
13. Karma is powerful.
Karma means cause and effect. For every effect, there is a cause. And for every cause, there is an effect. It’s an inescapable natural law.
After 9/11, many people wanted revenge. They also wanted to simplify a complex situation. The easy solution was to blame Islam (the cause) for 9/11 (the effect).
I know that’s not true. And I hope you know too. I hope that by now every American knows that “Islamic” militancy didn’t begin on 9/11. (I put “Islamic” in quotes because I don’t think that Al Qaeda represents Islam any more than David Koresh represents Christianity.)
I’m not saying that we deserved it. No one deserves that. But what were the causes that led to us being attacked? And how did we respond? What karma have we created since 9/11? What causes have we initiated, and what will the effects be years down the road?
14. Gandhi Was Right
Gandhi was right. We must be the change that we want to see in the world. If we want peace, we must first become peaceful.
Here’s one of my favorite quotes. It’s from a famous Zen master named Thich Nhat Hanh:
I want to be solid, calm, and without fear, so I practice Qigong, Tai Chi, and Meditation every day. I tell my students that, if they want to change the world, they should practice every day too. This way, they’ll become solid, calm, and without fear too. Gradually, day by day, as we transform ourselves, we also transform the world.
I’ve changed since 9/11. In these 11 years, I’ve healed myself, taught thousands of students, and found my soul mate. And I see that others are changing too. And that’s wonderful, because the world needs it. Because 11 years after 9/11, I think that we have less peace in the world, not more.
So on this anniversary of a terrible day, let’s be peaceful. Let’s meditate, and flow, and heal our wounds. Let’s be happy and grateful. Let’s be good. Let’s be the change that this world so desperately needs.