Coping with Distressing News

Do we need a bandaid for distressing news?

The recent shootings in Tuscon have left many stunned and groundless.

This essential advice from Deepak Chopra – in response to the tragedy – tells us how to deal with distressing news.

Linda Gabriel at Thought Medicine summarized Chopra’s heartfelt advice into four key points:

  1. Become a neutral observer of your feelings
  2. Remember a time you felt better
  3. Try to find something positive in the negative situation
  4. Take positive action

In one way, we absolutely need an emergency tool-kit for times like these when mind and emotions are overwhelmed by tragedy.  We are only human. Underneath our bravado, we are ever so fragile.  Bad news and the ensuing shock have the power to unleash a biochemical rampage in the body and the brain.  Witnessing violence can leave seemingly indelible marks on our being.

In addition to taking care of ourselves, we may also need to soothe our children.

Dad, why do people kill other people?

That’s the question Bill Gerlach’s son asked.  Bill dug deeply into his huge compassionate heart and used the question as a springboard for making sense out of senseless tragedy.

Asking the Deeper Questions of Life

Once we’ve regained our center – instead of blinding skipping forward – shouldn’t we too be asking these deeper questions about life?  These are some of the questions that have arisen in my mind.

  • Why are we always so taken by surprise when tragedy occurs?
  • Why do we deny death?
  • Why do we cling so fiercely to life?
  • Why do we believe we are this body?
  • Why do we feel we need to protect ourselves from distress?
  • Why do we need to push distress away by creating a contrived state of inner peace?
  • Why do we expect life to be different?
  • Why do we feel that longevity is our right?
  • Why are we afraid to see the suffering nature of life?

Reflection:  To practice death is to practice freedom

If all those questions aren’t enough, this week’s reflection focuses on the freedom that comes when we make friends with death, the ultimate expression of change and impermanence.

“There is no place on earth where death cannot find us—even if we constantly twist our heads about in all directions as in a dubious and suspect land… If there were any way of sheltering from death’s blows – I am not the man to recoil form it… But it is madness to think that you can succeed…

Men come and they go and they trot and they dance, and never a word about death.  All well and good.  Yet when death does come – to them, their wives, their children, their friends – catching them unawares and unprepared, then what storms of passion overwhelm them, what cries, what fury, what despair!…

To begin depriving death of its greatest advantage over us, let us adapt a way clean contrary to that common one; let us deprive death of its strangeness, let us frequent it, let us get used to it; let us have nothing more often in mind than death… We do not know where death awaits us:  so let us wait for it everywhere.  To practice death is to practice freedom.  A man who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.”

-Montaigne as quoted in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying

In my tradition of spiritual practice, it is said:  “Death is real, comes without warning, this body will be a corpse.”  Although I recall this verse to mind each day, I know it’s not easy to undo the solidity and permanence I have affixed to life.

Yet death – and tragedy – happen every day, every hour, every moment in the world around us.  Some times timely, some times untimely.  Some times naturally, some times tragically.  Death is a fact of life.  We can’t make the truth of change and impermanence go away by “remembering a time you felt better.”  A bandaid is useful in an emergency, but eventually we have to take it off.  We have to face the truth.

From a spiritual perspective, death is not necessarily a tragedy.  It is actually an opportunity to realize our true nature if we prepare well.  The Dalai Lama says he tends to “think of death as being like changing your clothes when they are old and worn out, rather than as some final end.”  He also says,   “…if we wish to die well, we must learn how to live well. Hoping for a peaceful death, we must cultivate peace in our mind, and in our way of life.”

Death is not the problem. Our suffering doesn’t come from death, but from the meaning we attribute to it.

This is not meant to dismiss the tragedy of Tuscon or the suffering that has occurred in its wake.  I know I will feel devastated when loss visits me too.  My heartfelt sympathy goes out to all those who are suffering.

How have the Tuscon shootings touched you?  Does the thought of death make you recoil?  Do you feel you will meet death with peace and confidence?

This article is part of a weekly series of reflective exercises to help you – and me – uproot limiting thoughts, emotions, views, and habits. See more mini-mind challenges.

If you liked this article, please share the link with others.  Thank you so much!  Sandra

Comments

  1. says

    Hey Sandra, this is most perfectly timed. My best friend from school passed away this week. A lot of people close to me have passed away recently, my sister, another friend just over a year ago. All this contact with death has definitely made me fear it less. In the case of my friend who passed away this week, I see his passing as a release for him, he’s no longer in the pain he had while he was alive. Some may say it’s heartless to think that way but I disagree. Having been around death so much it’s so comforting…I don’t see death as something to fear…something to embrace, as it’s a new journey.

    • says

      Amit,

      I’m sorry for your losses. At the same time, I see how they are helping you blossom such an open attitude about death. I know it your view will continue to bring you comfort and ease in this life and when the time comes to move on. I’m really inspired by your willingness to embrace death with open arms and curiosity.

      I have moments like that and moments of fear. My aspiration is to get more and more comfortable with death over time like you have.

      Thanks for sharing your experience. It is very encouraging for all of us.

  2. says

    Hi Sandra,

    I agree with you, death and tragedy happen every day, every hour and every moment in the world around us. Yet it is surprising to see that most of us are taken by surprise because we do not think of it. In the immediate aftermath of the shock there is heightened awareness, but after which most people go back to their everyday lives.

    With regards to the Tuscon shootings, there was a whole chain of signs and events that happened which led up to this tragedy. What is truly tragic is that no one foresaw or did anything to stop it. All we can do then as people is to accept that tragedies and death happen. They are part and parcel of life. That events conditioned the killer and allowed him to obtain the means to carry out his killings. If corrective measures are to be taken to prevent a repeat of this tragedy, then hopefully it would eliminate the root cause of the problem if possible.

    What you say is true. Unless we have a greater awareness of death and make our peace with it, we will always be taken by surprise especially by the shocks of fate. All we can really do is to prepare as best as we can.

    My heart goes out to all the innocent people who have suffered because of the Tuscon shootings. I hope that the people who have the power to prevent a repeat do something about it so that this is one less tragedy we can avoid in the future.

    Irving the Vizier

    • says

      Irving,

      This is so true: “In the immediate aftermath of the shock there is heightened awareness, but after which most people go back to their everyday lives.” The trick is to keep the reality of death alive without getting depressed about it. This can make our life seems so precious and help us get our priorities straight.

      I like you focus on foresight. I’ve enjoyed the articles on your blog that discuss seeing the “signs” that are constantly presenting themselves to us through circumstances and people. As you say, if we don’t search for and go to the root of these problems, the same events will occur and we will continue to be shocked each time.

      Thank for your wise and your heartfelt response.

  3. says

    This is a healing post Sandra. The events in Tucson remind me of the wonderful gift of Free Will. Even though some use Free Will to do evil things, Free Will also allows us to love and live according to our heart’s desire.

    Thank you for this.

    Alex

    • says

      Thank you, Alex. You’ve written a wonderful post on this same topic about using our Free Will positively to choose love. I just read it myself last night. I recommend it as another important and healing post to read.

  4. says

    Thank you for the suggestions in this post. I find a great deal of guidance and peace in them.

    Like Alex and this post suggests, this tragic event gives us the opportunity to exercise our free will to choose compassion and inspiration….to better ourselves and to help others to do so as well.

    While this is a tragedy, I agree that death does not always have to be seen as such. It can be the next leg of a great journey. Just a transition. Might be even better. As you say, it is all in the meaning we attribute to it.

    • says

      Hi Debbie,

      I agree. This is a tragedy that stems from not choosing love and compassion. As Tess at The Bold Life often points out, we are a microcosm of the world, the world is a reflection of us. If we were to all choose love, peace, and compassion the world would be a different place. It is possible!

      But like you say, tragedy or not, death will come. It’s good to take some time to examine how we see death so we can face it with confidence and peace.

  5. says

    Hi Sandra,
    With so much tragedy in the world today, it is easy to see how one can become numb and unaffected by these events. Although I can empathize with the need to always see the “brighter side” of things, I also agree with dealing with the matter at hand. Acknowledging the how, what, when, and why’s of life. For better or for worse. My intentions in life are to live with my eyes open and not shut. I hope that peace will find me when it is my time. My sympathy and prayers go out to all the families suffering.

    Peace and blessings,
    Lisa

    • says

      Lisa,

      Thank you for raising this crucial point about how it’s so easy to become numb and unaffected. This helps us to have tolerance and understanding for those who seem untouched by tragedy. None of us ever are ~ it only seems that way.

      I like what you said about focusing on the positive but at the same time seeing things as they are. This is a magical combination. Thanks for your comment.

      And thanks for your important post about Haiti one year later. It really moved me.

  6. says

    Sandra, this is beautiful! I love the questions you post. This is how I approach tragedy and death – I always try to be a neutral observer, and try to ask similar questions as you posed above. I’ve thought about death a lot, and the most peaceful way for me to view death is as an act of nature. In terms of the environment, longevity is not so wonderful. Perhaps the idea that ‘longevity is our right’ comes from a cultural tendency towards human selfishness – we deserve everything: manipulation of the natural world, access to natural resources, to be with our loved ones until the end of time, without fear of death.

    I think what makes the Tucson event so heart-wrenching is not just the amount of death, but also the pathological anger that produced this violence. How could someone be so heartless to commit such a crime?

    I really appreciate your gentle, but fierce, head-on look at death. It’s something many of us are afraid to do on our own.

    • says

      Hi Lynn,

      I really applaud your courage to take time and reflect on the meaning of death. It’s unusual these days when our tendency is to deny death.

      Your approach is so inspiring. I appreciate how you integrate your natural affinity for nature with an enlightened perspective on death and dying. The self-centered tendency you speak of is certainly something we need to uproot if we are to find our own true happiness and also contribute to a better world.

      This is another question to reflect upon deeply: “How could someone be so heartless to commit such a crime?” I don’t think there are easy answers. The Buddhist view of dependent origination says that everything comes about due to causes and conditions. Interdependence is complex and an event like this does not necessarily result due to the fault of one individual alone.

      Thank you for the very insightful comment.

  7. says

    Hi Sandra,
    You tips on healing are wonderful. I too have been bothered by what happened in Tuscon. This post has made me feel a little better. Thanks Sandra. You’re just wonderful!

  8. says

    First: Beautiful new header! It kind of took my breath away. Very expressive.

    I’m not addressing your questions or maybe even your point, but your article brought several things rushing to mind.

    Interestingly, Ramana Maharshi came to his revelations by “pretending” to himself as fully as he possibly could, that he was dead. And what was left at that point is what became the object (and indeed, the subject too) of his teachings.

    And I’ve had a few of my own personal experiences that this reminded me of. But as I started typing them in here, it was getting much too long for a comment. (But I have a new post idea ;-))

    Suffice to say that some of my most devastating experiences have taken me right-quick to precisely that place where no band-aid is necessary. To where I am experiencing life so excruciatingly intimately that I have no need for anything else. I’m probably not making a lot of sense, but it’s kind of hard to describe in so many words.

    Great post. So thought-provoking and refreshing. Thank you!

    • says

      Patti,

      Thanks for the feedback on the header. It’s a small way to bring more beauty into my life and the others’ too.

      I think your comments are actually right on target. This is such an important point ~ when the body dies, what remains? When we know that ~ TRULY know that ~ we can feel so much more confidence and freedom in the face of death or anything that happens to us. Can’t wait to see your new post on what you discovered for yourself.

      I found this very interesting: “Suffice to say that some of my most devastating experiences have taken me right-quick to precisely that place where no band-aid is necessary.”

      So much is beyond words indeed. Thanks for your deeply insightful comments.

  9. says

    Hi Sandra. Thank you for such a beautiful post at such a tragic time. All of the questions you pose have crossed my mind at various times and I have struggled consistently with the answers. I recently heard a comedian say that we are dead so much longer than we are alive-this really puts death in perspective. We have such a strong survival instinct and so much fear surrounding death. Your words are so comforting-to practice death is to practice freedom. Thank you to the Dalai Lama reminding us that we must learn how to live well.

  10. says

    Hi Lori,

    Sometimes comedians can really hit the nail on the head! These are not easy questions, but they are part of the path of finding true freedom. I’m honored to know people like you who are not afraid to grapple with life’s most important questions!

  11. says

    Hi Sandra,
    I love the new look too.
    I live less than two miles from Tuscon. When all were saying, “How could this happen?” My thoughts were “how could it not?” We shoot each other all the time with thoughts, actions and words. The people we attack are rarely aware of these things unless we do it loudly. When we have peace within this stuff won’t happen externally. So will everyone please take a personal inventory????

    I also think we can figure out our projections on the event by seeing our own traits in each person who was present or harmed that day. The innocent child, Gabby G, her hubs, all of them. Then we would get further direction on how to respond. I think each one has something to teach me.

    I had a strong feeling she wouldn’t die. And she’ll come back stronger than ever with her message because it’s so needed.

    I love what you wrote on death and because we’re human I do thing we’ll always be taken by surprise and need to process our loss.

    • says

      Tess,

      You have such a profound and insightful perspective. This is really at the heart of it, isn’t it: “We shoot each other all the time with thoughts, actions and words.”

      There’s an almost automatic tendency to blame others, but almost all of us need focus on cleaning up our own mind and actions. I know I need to!

      I agree that peace within will create peace without. That doesn’t mean we don’t need to take practical steps too, but without the inner change, outer change won’t succeed.
      That’s a very interesting point about projects.

      Still, as you so clearly point out, we are human and it is important to grieve and process our loss.

      Your courageous perspective always inspires me.

      P. S. Thanks for the positive feedback on the new look.

  12. says

    Sandra,

    I’m touched that you included the exchange between my son and I. This is a wonderful post. The questions you pose are so important.

    This is incredible insight: “Death is not the problem. Our suffering doesn’t come from death, but from the meaning we attribute to it.” Couple that with the quote from HHDL and it’s a game changer of thought and perspective.

    I appreciate the compassion you pour into every single post. Absolutely wonderful.

    Much peace for the week ahead. Be well.

    • says

      Bill,

      How could I not mention the conversation with your son! It’s such a model of compassionate parenting. I’m constantly amazed by you.

      I like this –> “game changer of thought and perspective.”

      Yes, let’s change the game! Much peace for you too.

  13. says

    Sandra: A very profound post…a topic that is so very important. Indeed, we must learn to converse and become more “friendly” with death.

    The quote from the Tibetan book of the living and dying touches me in a very profound way. It is the truth – plain and simple.

    It is no easy task…I have been keeping this in my meditation practice for years and it is so very difficult. Yet I know it is probably the most important lesson of a lifetime – and there is no doubt in my mind that it is the path to freedom. But oh; the aching along the way.

    Thanks for raising the conversation.

    I am going to use the title “To practice death is to practice freedom” as one of my very personal mantras.

    Terry

  14. says

    Terry,

    I agree with you completely – this is not necessarily an easy task. I’m really glad that you said that. I’ve also been working on accepting death for years. It gets easier as time goes on. In some moments it seems very clear and other moments more challenging. Like you though, I am choosing – as best I can – to live consciously and walk the path of freedom.

    I’m happy that you can take away a phrase (thanks to Montaigne!) that can become a personal mantra for you for awhile and ease the way.

    Thanks for speaking so openly. All the best to you.

  15. says

    I recently came across Thich Nhat Hanh’s Five Awarenesses exercise, which includes this: “Breathing in, I know that I am of the nature to die. Breathing out, I know that I cannot escape dying.” I like its simplicity and honesty, and I think it will help me face my own eventual death with equanimity. What’s harder is accepting the loss of dear friends — for those losses, I don’t think there are bandaids, only the realization that suffering, too, is part of life.

    • says

      Hi Jennifer,

      Thich Nhat Hanh’s Five Awareness exercises are very nice in their simplicity but also profound edge. Thanks for mentioning them here. It’s natural to grieve when we lose others and important to do so. At the same time, loss helps us to also see the truth of impermanence. Thanks for your thoughts on this.

  16. says

    I love the whole thrust and tenor of your post Sandra. You have indeed taken a very clear-eyed look at this phenomenon we call death.

    What comes up for me is this: let me make wise use of my time here and now so that to whatever degree possible I become aware of what is and always will be timeless in me.

    • says

      Welcome Christopher,

      You’ve summarized the key point so succinctly: coming to know what is timeless within each of us. Thank you for adding your profound insight and taking the time to leave your thoughts.

  17. says

    My dear Sandra, this may be the first time we disagree. The Tuscon shootings are not about the thought of “death” – they are about the thoughts AND actions of “killing” which are not quite the same. So the thought of killing makes me recoil while the thought of natural death is difficult but eventually acceptable.

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