© Andrew Safer 2015
When the story arc morphs from the Paris attacks to air strikes in Syria, it begs the question: Are we learning from the lessons of history?
Michael Flynn, who recently retired as chief of the US Defense Intelligence Agency, told a Der Spiegel reporter, “When 9/11 occurred, all the emotions took over, and our response was, ‘Where did those bastards come from? Let’s go kill them. Let’s go get them.’ Instead of asking why they attacked us, we asked where they came from. Then we strategically marched in the wrong direction.”
He went on to add, “Then we went into Iraq. Instead of asking ourselves why the phenomenon of terror occurred, we were looking for locations. This is a major lesson we must learn in order not to make the same mistakes again.”
It would seem that having some insight as to why these attacks are occurring should be a top priority before an appropriate response can be made. But when emotional reactivity leads the way, there is no room for clarity and insight. After the Paris attacks, the pressures on world leaders must have been enormous—pressure to do something. In our culture we are habituated to always do something, even before we know what’s really going on, so the action is often half-baked or wrong-headed. Mindfulness would be so relevant for these leaders as an ongoing practice because of the deep training it offers in the opposite approach: doing nothing initially, which is very different from passivity. Mindfulness allows for a gap—open space—during which time fixed views, agendas, beliefs, ambitions are suspended. Our innate intelligence and warmth can then lead the way.
In formal mindfulness practice, one scheme, project, problem-solving exercise, conclusion, judgment after another marches through our head—often carrying a very eye-catching sign, making the latest item into a headline that is particularly compelling. We are coached to see it all as “thinking” and to acknowledge the cast of characters non-judgmentally, as we return to the real world of breath and posture. This “boot camp” of the mind, if you will, trains us—slowly, over time—in not getting caught up in the flavour of the moment, which makes it possible to cultivate a big-picture view.
I can’t help but think that if world leaders were able to pause, putting aside all of the influences pressuring them to go to war, they could productively grapple with challenging and pertinent questions, like the one posed by Michael Flynn: “Why did the phenomenon of terror occur?” One side orchestrates targeted attacks on civilians; the other rains down destruction from the sky. A further question that could be considered is: What can we do differently that will break this cycle?