[Note: This article was originally written on September 11, 2012, but was updated and revised on September 11, 2013.]
Like most Americans, I watched the towers falling on TV. Unlike most Americans, I could see the smoke from the top of my roof in NYC.
That terrible day changed me. I didn’t realize this for many years. But now, I can look back and see how much I learned as a result of 9/11. Here are the biggest lessons:
1. Life is Fragile.
I had already learned this lesson during my battle with depression. But I needed a reminder, and I got a big one 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 teacher.
Life is fragile. That thing you’ve been meaning to do with your life? You should go do it. Now.
2. Gratitude Matters
I plan to live to the ripe old age of 120, but things don’t always go as planned. My life could end an hour from now. So could yours. You don’t know. I don’t know.
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. You should try it tomorrow morning. Don’t let another day go by without being grateful.
That stuff you’re worrying about right now — it probably 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. Keep Calm and Qigong On.
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 war 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.
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, we were overwhelmed with fear and confusion. We were waiting for news of more attacks, and many of us in NYC wondered if there would be crime, riots, or heck, even a terrorist invasion. Out of paranoia, I started looking around my apartment for a weapon to defend myself, just in case.
Many years ago, my teacher’s teacher, Sigung Ho Fatt Nam, defended his family from a mob of race rioters in Malaysia. They came to his house with axes and shovels and torches, prepared to kill him and his family. In a time of complete lawlessness, he used his trusty spear to fight off the attackers and protect his family. Amazingly, he managed to scare them away without hurting anyone, which is truly remarkable.
And me? Well, the best I could find in may apartment was a fake Tai Chi sword. I had been training martial arts for nearly a decade, and I was pretty good with the sword. At least in theory. But this particular sword was just a replica.
I remember laughing out loud at the situation. I had the necessary skills, and here I was in an emergency situation — but my sword was fake. Oh, the irony.
That day forever changed how I train the martial arts. Today, I still train with Tai Chi swords and other weapons. But my training is deadly serious. My swords, literally and figuratively, are razor sharp. If the Zombies come, I’m ready.
The amazing thing about training martial arts with this kind of intensity is that you don’t become more violent. The opposite. It’s a paradox that those who don’t practice martial arts will never understand — that by preparing yourself for violence, you become more peaceful.
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.
In 2003, roughly 2 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.)[Edit: A few months after writing this, Hurricane Sandy devastated the NY area. Many people were caught unprepared. Even now, after 9/11, the blackout, and Hurricane Sandy, I suspect there are millions who aren’t prepared.]
7. Heroes Still Exist
There were heroes that day in NYC. Real, honest-to-goodness heroes.
NYPD. FDNY. Thousands of unsung heroes. They rose to the occasion. I saw random heroes on the street, like the young man offering his taxi (they were impossible to find because the subway was closed) to an older lady. I saw with my own eyes how people are capable of pulling together. It was beautiful to watch.
If you look, you’ll always find heroes in a crisis, big or small. That was an important lesson.
8. Radios Are Amazing.
When you can’t get news via the Internet or your cell phone, a handheld radio is 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 today, 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 is a scary thing.
10. Always Quit Smoking BEFORE A Terrorist Attack.
Okay, so I didn’t actually quit smoking that morning. But I was trying my best not to smoke. That lasted, oh, about five milliseconds 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 Should Be Talking About Peace
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 (Edit: and now Syria in 2013) — 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 something that caused it. And for every cause, there is an effect that happens later. 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, and 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 even though it’s been years since 9/11, I think that we have less peace in the world, not more. [Edit: In 2013, with the possibility of World World 3 looming in Syria, the world is even less peaceful.]
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.Best regards, Sifu Anthony I’m Anthony Korahais, and I used qigong to heal from clinical depression, low back pain, anxiety, and chronic fatigue. I’ve already taught thousands of people from all over the world how to use qigong for their own stubborn health challenges. As the director of Flowing Zen, I'm fully committed to helping people with these arts. In addition to my blog, I also teach online courses and offer in-person retreats and workshops.