Murder in a House of Worship

sad How mindfulness and self-compassion can help you manage fear, sorrow, and rage

Lori Kaye, gunned down on Saturday morning, April 27, 2019, at the Chabad Synagogue in Poway, California was an acquaintance of mine. She was an observant Jew, so when I heard about the shooting I feared she might have been in her house of worship on the last day of Passover.  

I texted her “sending love” and didn’t receive a reply. I thought she might not be responding because it was still Shabbat until sundown, and I didn’t know whether she followed the custom of not using her electronics on Shabbat. I called and texted Stacy (one of her best friends from childhood) and her husband Jon – our close friends – so they would know that a shooting occurred in case they wanted to reach out to Lori. 

I’ll never forget Jon’s voice on the line, “I think Lori is dead, Stacy and Michelle are on their way up to the hospital.” 

What unfolded is surreal, unthinkable, and unfortunately not unusual on this planet. Our town is still reeling; her funeral was an international event that was live streamed over the internet. Over four thousand people gathered on the sports field at the public high school in Poway for a unity rally against hate the night she was buried. 

The dialogue concerning hate speech, how far our society in the United States has fallen in its national discourse, and why usually pops up after a shooting. That conversation is inexorably linked to the gun control conversation, and how hate groups that flourish on the internet are radicalizing people who then have the ability to own and use assault weapons. (Even people who love their guns and want the right to keep them must agree that assault weapons have no place in civilian hands. Assault weapons are for hunting humans.) This conversation gets quickly politicalized and tempers flare, leaving many of us feeling hopeless. 

Last night our 24-year old twin daughters were seriously urging us to leave the United States for Canada. I understand their feelings. It’s difficult to feel safe anywhere in this world. Suicide bombers and mass shooters have succeeded in their mission to shatter our sense of peace and safety. 

Finding Our Way Forward

So how do we as a society move forward? What can help us? On a personal level, mindfulness, meditation, and self-compassion practice as well as consciously taking in and focusing on positive mental states can help us feel grounded, safe, and loved. 

Mindfulness – paying attention to what you’re doing when you’re doing it, without judgment, instead of ruminating on past events or worrying about future events – has been validated by scientific studies. Many courses have been created using mindfulness as their base, such as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy, Compassion Cultivation Training, Mindful Self-Compassion, and others. (For a review of mindfulness based interventions, see the published research, “Effects of Mindfulness on Psychological Health: A Review of Empirical Studies.”)

Meditation slows you down. It calms you down. It increases helpful grey matter in the brain. It lowers your heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration. It decreases anxiety and depression, increases well being, benefits interpersonal relationships, and helps maintain healthy lifestyle choices. (Learn more about the benefits of meditation in published research in the Journal of the American Heart Association. For an exploration of brain changes when studying meditators, see this 2013 study and this research from the early ‘90s.)

Meditation helps you to pause, opening up a space between “the match and the fuse,” in the words of Viktor Frankl. In that space, which is the development of patience, you can engage your prefrontal cortex to choose a more skillful response instead of an immediate reaction prompted by your amygdala (which reacts instantly). That pause is golden. 

In that pause, you have the time to notice what thoughts, feelings, and emotions are arising. That noticing, or awareness, is the basis of mindfulness. Once you notice a difficult emotion like sadness arising, or anger arising, you can manage the difficult emotion with specific techniques to soothe yourself.  

Soothing touch (taught in the Mindful Self-Compassion curriculum created by Christopher Germer and Kristin Neff) explains that placing our hands where we find them most soothing releases oxytocin and opiates, helping us to down regulate the coritsol and adrenalin stress hormones that flood us when we are in a state of threat – where our body is ready to fight, flight or freeze. (For a general discussion of oxytocin release with various types of touch, see this study. To learn more about the efficacy of the Mindful Self-Compassion curriculum, check out this study.)

When I heard the news of the shooting in Poway, my body naturally went into threat defense mode: flight/fight/freeze. I instantly placed both hands on my heart to tap into my mammalian caregiver response. I paused. I noticed panic arising; it felt like shaky energy in my stomach and chest, going up to my head. I kept my hands on my heart, paused, and listened. I then practiced a self-compassion technique called R.A.I.N., which I have added to the already robust Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) curriculum that I am trained to teach. R.A.I.N. (popularized by Tara Brach) works best for me. It’s similar to the Self-Compassion Break that is taught in the MSC course. 

Using R.A.I.N., I recognized and labeled panic arising; that is the first step, the R of rain is Recognize. Labeling the emotion makes a little more room around it; I was no longer panicked, I was noticing panic arising. The A of rain is Allow; I allowed the emotion to be there for right now. I didn’t try to resist it, or numb it; I allowed it to make me feel bad for a few minutes. The I of rain is Investigate; I gently investigated why the panic was there. In the case of reading this horrific news story of man’s inhumanity toward man – like any of the many suicide bombings and mass shootings we are confronted with all too often in our broken world – it is understandable that I would feel bad. And in the case of this particular anti-Semitic attack at a synagogue in my town where a woman I know personally was murdered, of course I would feel panic. That brings me to the N of rain, which is Nurture. I needed to ask myself, “What do I need to hear right now to make me feel better? What do I need to do right now to feel better?” 

I told myself that I am strong, and that our community is strong, and that we will somehow rise above this. Then in the category of what can I do to make myself feel better, I went to visit my dad at his independent living senior residence to celebrate one of his friends’ 100thbirthday. I knew that getting out of my head and my house to celebrate in community with this fabulous “super ager” and her friends and family would make me feel awe. Taking in awe – a positive mental state – and letting it land for a few moments pushes that mental state into a neural trait. What fires together wires together, forming positive bridges that help counteract the negativity bias that we all have because we are primates. (That is the basis for Experience Dependent Neuroplasticity, brilliantly taught by Rick Hanson.) 

Alice, at age 100, still drives, volunteers, travels, exercises an hour a day, uses no mobility appliances, and has all her senses intact. My sister thinks she’s an alien, here to observe us mere mortals! We all would love to age like her. It wasn’t lost on me, when my mind drifted, that Alice was turning 100 and Lori was gunned down at age 60. Life is crazy. 

The following day, there was a celebration scheduled at the Jewish Community Center (JCC) for Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. I wasn’t originally planning on attending, but because of the attack at the synagogue, I knew that being in community would feel good to me. I know that about myself. Being in connection helps me. 

So I went, by myself, and sat and made conversation with the strangers on either side of me. I knew many people at the JCC that day, and the JCC in particular makes me feel safe and happy because I have been a volunteer there for the past 20 years. Yes, there were armed guards, and bag checks to provide safety within this Jewish institution after a terrorist attack on Jews, but there’s a different kind of safety I am referring to, and that is one of tone. Being in community at the JCC fills up my soul with love. 

I also called Rabbi Daniel Landes in Jerusalem once it was Saturday night in my time zone and Sunday morning in Israel. When terrorists at Hebrew University in Jerusalem blew up Marla Bennet from San Diego in July of 2002, she was a student in a joint program of The Pardes Institute and Hebrew University. I helped raise the scholarship funds that sent her on that journey – it was her life’s dream, and it caused her life’s end. Rabbi Landes was the head of Pardes Institute at the time, and he was and still is a beloved mentor to me. Marla’s funeral will be forever etched in my mind. Danny said he was just writing to me when I rang his phone. He told me what prayer to say (The lord is my shepherd, Psalm 23) and to carry on being the strength to those around me. His counsel helped me feel strong and capable. 

I didn’t make it inside the synagogue for Lori Kaye’s funeral. I was ushered into the overflow crowd in the parking lot where a large screen and speaker system was set up. Instead of standing on the asphalt in the drizzle, my husband picked me up and I watched the live stream of the service on Facebook. One of Lori’s friends set up a whole social media machine, with a website:

That night, Lori was supposed to take dinner to her friend Stacy – the woman who was one of Lori’s childhood best friends, the woman who ran to the hospital and was able to say goodbye – because Stacy was having surgery. Stacy is my friend. She is the reason I knew Lori Kaye. During the last 15 or 20 years when Stacy’s family had life cycle events, Lori and I would see each other or host events together for Stacy. I cooked dinner and brought it to Stacy and Jon, and we watched Anderson Cooper on CNN interviewing the Rabbi of Chabad of Poway about the shooting. There was Stacy’s dear friend Lori Kaye, her photo on the television for the umpteenth time in the past 48 hours. 

I continue to use the tools I have available to me to make peace in my heart, install good experiences, and move forward. And thanks to Lori’s friends, we have all been charged to perform random acts of kindness in her memory. Let’s get to work creating more goodness in this world, together.

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