I spent hours today watching the 9/11 anniversary coverage on TV. And I felt as horrified as I did the first time I saw it, at home with my dad in upstate New York, ten years ago.
The 9/11 coverage got me thinking about how much our country and our collective lives have changed since that day. It got me thinking about how unprepared we were for this shocking display of hatred and disregard for human life. And yet over and over today, I heard stories of compassion and courage and kindness: stories of people rescuing fellow citizens, stories of strangers comforting each other on the streets of New York and elsewhere, and stories of our citizens’ amazing heroism in the face of grave danger.
These stories reminded me of one of the most important lessons my yoga practice has ever taught me: You can’t always control what happens to you. But you can control how you react to it.
You can’t always control what happens to you. None of the two thousand-plus people who died on 9/11 ever expected to be the victim of a terrorist attack. None of the victims’ families ever thought they would lose a loved one to this kind of hate crime.
On a smaller scale, we are all occasionally the victim of unexpected, undeserved, and senseless loss (or other negative events). Maybe you get into a car accident. Maybe a loved one gets sick. Maybe you lose your job. Maybe you can’t find a job. And yet we are also sometimes the recipient of unexpected blessings. Maybe you fall in love. Maybe you have a child. Maybe you receive a promotion. Maybe you discover a new passion.
Life will inevitably have its peaks and valleys. No one’s life is completely positive. One of the hardest lessons for us to learn as humans is that we can’t control everything that happens to us. And yet, there is one thing we do have control over: how we react to what happens to us.
You can control your reactions. This statement is worth repeating: You can control your reactions. In other words, you have the power to control how you experience your own world. In yoga, a lot of time is devoted to discussing the concept of attachment. As humans, our tendency is to attach to things that happen to us … and like a yo-yo, we bounce back and forth between experiencing extreme joy and extreme pain depending on whether things are going well or going poorly. This is because we tend to define ourselves by our external experiences: by whether we get the promotion or not; by whether we fit into a size 6 or not; by whether other people like us or not.
But yoga teaches us that we do not need to resign ourselves to living like an emotional yo-yo. Our happiness and our sense of self do not have to be dictated by our external world. In other words, our emotional health does not have to be the result of the positive and the negative things that happen to us.
You control how you react to the world around you — and thus you control how you perceive the world. 9/11 is a perfect example of this. Since 9/11, some people have chosen to react to that awful event with fear, with hatred, and with prejudice. They have chosen to see the world as a scary place, and their resulting beliefs and behaviors stem from feelings of fear and victimization. When we choose to react negatively to negative events, we are the victims of our own perception.
The good news is that many people have reacted to 9/11 by choosing love and compassion over fear and victimization. These people have decided to see the good in other people. They have decided to take control of their own reactions, and act from a place of loving kindness. They have recognized that they have the power to see the world with benevolent, loving eyes.
This week, I encourage you to think about your own attachments. In what ways is your happiness (or unhappiness) the result of what happens to you? How can you change your mindset so that you experience more joy and happiness?
“You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty.”
In loving remembrence of those who lost their lives in 9/11,