Sunday, May 8, 2011

Understanding Everyone: Empathic Reflections about Osama Bin-Laden’s Killing

by Miki Kashtan

I have had a dream for many years now to be able to provide an empathic response to the news, whatever they are, so that everyone is seen as fully human. I see this situation as just the right time to explore this approach. There are so many ways in which people have participated in or responded to this event, and I want to capture the humanity of all of them. Some are rejoicing, some are horrified, some are skeptical, some are apathetic, and all are fellow humans. As tough as it sometimes is to really feel that commonality, that is what I most want to do.

People Celebrating Bin-Laden’s Death
I confess that this one is particularly challenging for me. Then I remind myself: the more challenging it is to viscerally step into the experience of another, the more necessary it is for me to do so in order to mend the separation. Whatever else is true, what is foreign to me, what is challenging, what is frightening, what I may judge, is also part of life. By distancing myself from it, I remain closed to some aspect of life. When I can truly get into those different experiences, then I embrace life, then I am in flow, without resistance, without claiming to know, and certainly without claiming to control any outcomes. Certainly a tall order.

And so I try to imagine myself being so happy that someone is dead. Why would I be happy that someone is dead? What could possibly be the experience that would lead me to wish for someone’s death? I don’t have to go very far. While I never wanted to kill anyone, I did have a few experiences in my life of reaching such a degree of helplessness and despair in a relationship, that I fantasized about the possibility that a particular person would die, somehow, and relieve me of my immense suffering. I also remember twice in my life when someone died and the primary feeling I had was one of relief. Now I can use these experiences as entry points. I can imagine having so much fear, so much helplessness about the basic, primal sense of safety for me and for the people I care about, both individually and collectively, that I would just be consumed with thoughts about how to get rid of this individual I see as the direct cause of my suffering. Of course, my fear, if I am this person, is likely fed by the media. That doesn’t make my experience one bit less real. I am rejoicing because, for a moment, I actually believe that the source of my troubles is removed.

And what’s the effect on me of having done this exploration? Twofold. First, I feel much less separate. For as long as I held the people celebrating Bin-Laden’s death as “other,” I didn’t even have the memory of my own experiences of extreme helplessness. Now I have more tenderness, for them, and for me. Something feels soft, and in that softness I relax into such immense anguish, and I have tears streaming down my face, and they are the first since I heard the news. My reaching across the divide to understand has opened me to me more fully to my own fallible humanity, as well as to my passion and dreams for how I want the world to be. I know I want different responses, and now I can stand within that dream more fully. I am soft, and I am committed to do what I can.

People Judging the Killing and the Celebration
I have a different challenge altogether in opening my heart here. As is likely evident already, I, too, responded with shock and despair when I heard about people celebrating. On that level it’s so much easier for me to understand the experience that leads to the judgment. At the same time I can also easily access disappointment that people who speak about nonviolent solutions, especially those who have been steeped in the study and practice of nonviolence, respond with distance and judgment. I can easily tell myself that they are reaffirming the very kind of thinking that perpetuates the structures and practices we have in the world. In moments of unconscious righteousness I can be pulled to minimize the differences between the celebrators and the judgers of the celebration.

I wake up from such moments through remembering that my own judging of the judgers is no different, either. Once I remember, the full openness is right there. Why do they judge, why do I judge? Time and again I have come back to the same clarity: when I judge, I am protected in some way. I don’t have to feel whatever is going on in its fullness. I have done that so many times, and continue to do it. Most of the time only for brief seconds, because I so prefer the open-hearted state that I easily choose to unfurl my protection and enter into the experience underneath. Not all the time. In some areas my judgments have not yet been dissolved. Those are the ones that are most likely to help me understand those who judge others. It’s not my agreement with their fundamental perspective. Agreement does not easily lead to empathy, because agreement keeps us at the level of content, and empathy arises at a different level of meaning, closer to the core of our shared human experience of responding to life, moment by moment.

As I keep asking, I see my judgment arising from the depth of my care, and in those places where I least know how to contribute to transformation. I judge, most easily, any time I view someone else as not caring, or not caring enough, and taking actions that I see as potentially harmful. I know that believing there’s lack of care on anyone’s part, whether small or large, frightens me deeply. So I judge as a way to have hope, perhaps. Because the judgment has some strength to it, some conviction. Even after so many years of study and practice, I still don’t have sufficient visceral trust in the power of just being with my own depth of experience, with my own needs, and dreams, and visions. I have seen time and again that the willingness to be with my experience, and to open my heart to another’s, has created breakthrough outcomes. How very sad that this is so. And how very human, given the thousands of years of being taught separation, distance, and creating order through enforecement.

Now the cycle is complete. I can now experience that blessed tenderness, that essential compassion, for the judgers, too. Because, once again, I am not separate. I am, once again, in the flow of life, open to all of us, regardless of where we are.

More to Come
This piece is only the beginning, as there are so many more players. I had, truly, no idea of where this writing would take me. This has been a personal exploration. Without quite planning to do so, the internal integrity or following truth led me to delve into the one-person experience that I have in trying to imagine how all the players are human like me. I am amazed, moved, and grateful for the many years of practice that allow me to share with such vulnerability, and through that experience such connection with life. As I am about to post this piece, I now imagine you reading it, and I feel the stretching into the vulnerability extending further. So many of you I don’t even know. Will you accept me? I see, vividly, that my own relaxed and complete acceptance of myself is what makes it possible to post this. I share this, because I am longing to inspire you all to embrace who you are more and more, so you can be stronger and stronger.

In the coming days I plan to come back and explore additional perspectives. You can help me with this by letting me know through your comments about anyone whose response is challenging for you to understand. Depending on how many such comments I receive, I may or may not find ways to explore them all. I am also inviting you to engage in the same way I did, or in any other way that would support you in seeing the humanity of all.


  1. I notice that my own connection with those celebrating the death is around needing to be understood for my own pain. I know that when I have experienced deep hurt and loss, and have ascribed its cause to someone, that one of my nearly automatic defense mechanisms is to wish that person suffering and pain. When I go deeper into it, the real wish is to be fully and completely seen and understood for the depth of my own suffering, and there is a place in me that lacks faith that it could be possible for that to happen without the other person experiencing similar pain directly. Remembering that in myself is where I was able to connect with those celebrating Osama's death -- it was my empathic guess. I appreciated reading your exploration around feeling relief and imagining the death led to greater safety, because I had not imagined that, so it expanded my avenues for connection. Thank you.

  2. I watched Maya Anagelou on in "Master Classes" on OWN. And writing is not my strength. She said something to the affect, we are all human beings so one persons experience is something every human being is capable of experiencing. This was in explanation of finding heart when someone is creating violence in the world. I think you already have a great and enlightening knowledge of this truth, still I wish you could watch this show, it was very revealing for me.
    I heard Obama say justice was served with the death of Osama. I have hard time putting this statement into perspective.

  3. Miki.

    I also had a challenge with the celebrations on Bin Laden's death.

    Then I reminded myself about NVC encouraging me to look beyond the form of how people express themselves and see all communication as a manifestation of needs met/not met. When I can do this I guess the celebrations are not about his killing but maybe about needs of security, being heard and shared reality being met (or partially so).

    Doing this I also try to see the needs behind the strategy of killing by people on both sides of this artificial line we've collectively drawn. I just wish with all my heart those who choose killing would find other ways of meeting their needs.


  4. Gratitude for healing words to my heart, Miki. The need for integrity, nurturance, compassion, flow, companionship and presence all met.

  5. I, too, have felt relief at the death of others because I wanted release from my pain and the freedom I imagined I would experience after they were gone. I, too, have violent thoughts and deal with anger and judgment. This is part of the collective experience of humankind, as far as I can determine. To have awareness of my thoughts and feelings without judging myself is the first step for transformation. Then there is an opportunity to work on myself. But its not so easy as the mind wants to discriminate. I often go to a place of despair as I can see that I want others to change those same things which I don't or can't seem to change in myself. Its very humbling. And frightening. I am reminded of something that my Zen teacher said to me in retreat, "They are just thoughts and insubstantial. Let them go, do not engage them." More grist for the mill. Am I willing to surrender, let go?

  6. Miki, I'm moved by your post so far and look forward to the possibility that you will empathize with Osama bin Laden himself -- what human needs motivated him to do what he did (or at least as clear as we can tell what he did, as we have learned from the media).

    Jeff Brown

  7. I felt sad seeing the photos of people celebrating the killing of Osama bin Laden. I also felt shame. Living outside the US, I was concerned about how the rest of the world was seeing us. I am an American, therefore I am associated with the celebrants. And, while I am grateful to be a US citizen, I want to be seen for my personal values, and not as part of a collective whose actions don't reflect my values.

  8. I feel despair. I'm struggling with hearing any kind of thinking about this, including this online discussion here.

  9. I watched Obama's 60 minutes interview, (which you can google and watch online) and it showed how thoughtful he was about the process. That made me feel better about it, like it was a responsible thing for him to do. I suppose it is the Dharma of a statesman to protect his country this way. I kind of think that's how he felt about it. It does also have a hollow feeling, along with it too..I guess my strategy is to return to thoughts of his responsibilty and need to protect the nation. He also spoke about giving proper funeral rights, regarding Bin Laden's faith, because that's who we are..there was alot of thought that went into this. I know that the previous president would have handled it much differently, and there's some relief there that that isn't happening.

  10. Thank you. Thank you! And once again, thank you! I read way too much news, and I am often torn about my own reaction, let alone the reaction others experience. I am often not sure what way is "right" to respond. I know there is no right way, but my mind still runs through each reaction and judgment until I give up. The death of Osama Bin Laden took that general reaction to a level I have never seen before.

    I am currently living in New Zealand, and my flatmate is studying peace and conflict studies. I heard the news here and watched with slight embarrassment at the dancing in the streets. It took me days to understand it, but I eventually did. To me it was a release of years of pent-up tension. With that understanding came greater empathy. But my flatmate opened up my judgments. Her reaction to the death was, "what a tragedy." Her reason was that a human life was taken. I understood. But then I judged myself for not having the same reaction. I am honestly at a point where I cannot discuss the issue with her. My head swirls, and her judgments of me, of the United States, and of the entire situation are making me sick - literally physically sick.

    So thank you for writing this. You have helped me understand some of what I have experienced being here and witnessing these events from across the pacific. I truly appreciate you sharing your story, and I look forward to the continuation.

  11. I have empathized with Osama from the beginning. I also hate much about the United States. However, he embodied everything that sucks about the United Stages. He was just projecting his shadow onto us, and therefore concluded that our citizens deserved to die. This kind of thinking and behaving is like a cancer that will destroy everything we care about if it is not stopped. Sometimes you can heal cancer with loving, gentle, methods, like good diet, positive thinking, laughter, etc. Other times the cancer is too stubborn, and you must cut it out or kill it with harsh chemicals if you want to have any hope of survival. Osama was one of those types of cancers. He needed to be removed. I wasn't dancing in the streets when I heard the news. But I can easily empathize with those who were. Celebrating anyone's death seems cruel on the service. Even the death of a mass murderer. However, I can understand celebrating that the body of humanity is a bit more free of that cancer.

  12. I think you missed a vital point while trying to walk in someone else's shoes, and that is that some people seemed to be celebrating because they believe in vengeance. The are not afraid, and it's not because, as you said, of "having so much fear, so much helplessness about the basic, primal sense of safety for me and for the people I care about, both individually and collectively, that I would just be consumed with thoughts about how to get rid of this individual I see as the direct cause of my suffering..."

    They are celebrating because it's a video game, because they believe in an eye for an eye, because he's the bad guy and we're the good guys, and because they don't see him as a real human being.

    Yes, many of us can remember a time when we wished someone would die, and maybe even felt relief when they did, but it's much more of a challenge to empathise with someone who believes in the justness of the killing (murder, actually), and think they would be happy to do it themselves, given half a chance.