[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 (pronounced "chee gung") to heal from clinical depression, low back pain, anxiety, and chronic fatigue. Today, I'm the director of Flowing Zen, an international organization with students in 48 counties. I've been teaching qigong since 2005, I've served on the board for the National Qigong Association, and I’ve helped thousands of people to use qigong for their own stubborn health challenges. If you're ready to get started with qigong, there's no better way than my best selling book, which comes with free videos and meditations. The sooner you read my book, the sooner you can start healing! Click here to see my book on Amazon.
Barbara Gamble says
This post brought back so many memories. I’m certain everyone remembers excatly where they were and what they were doing that horrible day. I happened to be in the air working as a flight attendant for Delta Air Lines at the time. Our pilots didn’t know what was the issue, so I had surmised something had gone terribly wrong with air traffic control. Chaos reigned when we landed in Knoxville. We are used to the company taking care of us and telling where to go and when, but they were in a state of chaos and we were left on our own to sink or swim. No rental cars were available, but we did manage to get hotel rooms. We were on a turn-around (out and back in one day),so we didn’t have clothes or toiletries for an extended stay. Walmart was our friend (if you can imagine that…) for the necessities of staying for God only knew how long, but we had the presence of mind to hit the ATM, buy water, and stock up on food. Glad it was a super Walmart (maybe,) My daughter was in high school and knew that I was working that day luckily my husband had already called the school so she didn’t panic. But there were other “Delta” children at her high school – they were a comfort to each other.
Your comments on the almost tribal feel you had with your friends made me remember what it was like to be part of an airline crew – some of us who knew each other and some of us who just happened to be thrown together for this one event. It was comforting for us to sit together in the hotel lobby rather than alone in our respective rooms to let our emotions run rampant – from anger to sadness to fear, and everything in between.
We stayed in Knoxville for three days. The day we left we flew into Atlanta – one of the busiest airports in the world. We were only the second airplane to land there. It was like a deserted movie set. Not a thing was moving and it was totally quiet expect for the sound of our 767. Every airplane was parked perfectly at every gate. Baggage carts were absolutely perpendicular to the airplanes and behind every airplane there was a tug with two people sitting there guarding the airplanes. As we taxied in the people cheered and gave us the thumbs up. The megalithic machinery of America’s airlines was back in motion. I was proud that particular day to be an American. Proud of so many things – our first responders, proud of the heroes on the UAL flight 93, and proud of our air traffic controllers who landed thousands of flights safely.
I learned many of the same lessons as you – in varying degrees. I can’t imagine being in New York that day. I had felt from previsous life experiences that people do pull together during an emergency. What is curious is that we don’t seem to sustain that sense of kindness toward our fellow man. I can’t say that I’m always as proud to be an American as that day, and I bemoan the wars that have followed and the ill-will some of our policies foster. But I never did take another turnaround without clean underwear and a toothbrush!!!
Sifu Anthony says
Thanks for sharing your sharing your story, Barb. I agree that it’s strange how we can’t seem to sustain the same level of kindness. But hopefully that’s changing.
Ellen West says
Thank you for sharing your memories and insights related to 9/11. As you said, I watched it happen on tv. It was my habit as a high school principal to check the news, weather, etc. anything that might have an impact on students, faculty and staff each day so my little office tv was on and I saw the second plane hit.. My thoughts were rapid fire: WAR? What to announce to students and faculty? My family. Bombings to city centers: Atlanta, Jacksonville and most of all Washington D.C. where my sister-in-law lived with my daughter and her family 2 hours away. I called my daughter and we shared the horror and the fear of what might come next and cried.
Hearing that people had jumped to their deaths to escape the fire was unbelieveable and that a priest was actually killed by a falling body. I prayed for those suffering and their families and was also struck by the fact that we never know what may happen in the blink of an eye.
And, that may actually be a blessing.
I tried to “help” with prayers, words to students and donations to a fund set up to provide scholarships for the children left behind. Nothing made a big impact, but
collectively it may have helped.
I agree with your thoughts on peace and try to practice that in my life each day.
Thank you for all of your efforts, Sifu,
PS You don’t have to print this…..for sure.
Sifu Anthony says
Thanks Ellen. But I disagree that you didn’t have an impact. At the very least, you tried to be the change that you wanted to see. That’s no small thing.
Kathy Sarra says
What an incredibly rich and full article. Thank you. You affirm pretty much everything I, too learned during that time and since watching the choices that our government backed by so many continue to make.
I couldn’t agree more with the quote you shared by Thich Nhat Hanh.
Sifu Anthony says
Thanks, Kathy. It’s a great quote, isn’t it?
Del Rodriguez says
I found myself nodding as I read through every point that you enumerated. A powerful set of lessons for some very troubling times and a reminder of some very good reasons to train in our arts. Thanks for writing this!
Sifu Anthony says
My pleasure, Del. Glad you found it helpful.
Jen Rodriguez says
Excellent article! Brings back lots of memories. Our family was actually on vacation in Florida at our base camp that day. Out of all of the things I learned that day your #9 fear makes people crazy is what I will remember the most.
We ventured out in the town that day (remember on vacation) with our 3 yr. in tow. The sights and sounds that we saw were full of people acting irrational and just insane! Traffic like you wouldn’t believe, people running around like maniacs screaming/shouting/waving the American flag.
We already had plans to travel to the Bahamas in 2 days by ship and to vacation there for 5 days. Many of our relatives were aghast that we were not canceling our plans. Planes were grounded for several days, but we thought–OK–we had plans to travel by ship. So travel to the Bahamas we did and had a wonderful time–even got our room upgraded as many people had cancelled their reservations. 🙂 The area we were staying at was quite deserted–only 1 other couple there.
Fear makes most people crazy and we saw it with our own eyes, but I just don’t get it! Thanks for the great article!
Sifu Anthony says
Thanks for the comment, Jen. And I’m glad you had a good time in the Bahamas!
Kathleen Lund says
Thank you so much, Sifu, for your sharing, your insight, and that wonderful quotation! Tears came to my eyes as I relived that day.
I was substituting for a Kindergarten teacher at the time in a small private school. We lived very close to Site R – the “Underground Pentagon”. Our first indication was when military parents began arriving to take their children home. After school was cancelled, I spent the rest of the day trying to keep up with events while protecting my four young children from the most traumatic coverage.
Living only two hours from both DC and Baltimore and closer to Camp David and Site R, we felt particularly exposed. I remember the eerie silence as all air traffic ceased.
Life feels so precious at such times. Everyday annoyances seem so ludicrous. An uplifting sight in the next days and weeks was the blossoming of patriotism – U.S. flags appearing everywhere. While we may not agree with the policies of our government, it is good for us to all pull together to help one another.
I don’t know if we have come very far in promoting peace, but I do feel that your work in spreading Qigong and your “flavor” (so to speak) of Tai Chi to everyday people (not just to the wealthy) leads us in the direction of becoming “solid, calm, and without fear”. Thank you for all that you do.
You decided to be ready to defend yourself. And you are right on that. But the free world has the right to deffend himself of religious extremists, too! Not all muslims are terrorists, of course, but we can’t deny that the world faces a serious trouble with mentally deranged adepts of that religion. There are 5 muslim deadly terrorists attacks every day, average, all over the world, since 9/11. To ignore that is to dig our own grave.
Sifu Anthony Korahais says
Hi Ricardo. Thanks for the input. In my article, I mostly asked questions. I think that those questions are important to ask, and also to answer. For example, are we safer now than we were in 2001? There are some studies that suggest that drone attacks, which often hit innocent people create more terrorists than they eliminate. Those people feel that they also have the right to defend themselves, just like we do.
I worry that this often turns into a vicious cycle of karma, just like a never ending feud. Sooner or later, the cycle needs to be broken. Personally, I think that peace is the best way to break it.
It probably sounds naive or idealistic, but what if, instead of spending trillions on war in Afghanistan and Iraq, we had instead spent trillions on fostering good will? This is a tactic that applies to personal self defense as well. If someone picks a fight with me, for example, I can respond with aggression. Or I can respond with a joke and a smile, diffusing the situation.
In the end, I agree with you that we all have the right to defend ourselves. That’s why I’ve spent decades learning self defense. But in the end, I believe that a policy of peace, whether it is individual or global, is a viable form of defense.