When the World Falls Apart

Jay Michaelson
April 16, 2019
A stained glass ceiling

Like many of you, I watched in horror as one of the world’s greatest works of art, the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris was severely damaged by fire earlier this week. I find myself reeling.

The strength of my reaction surprises me. Although I’d twice visited the cathedral, and studied it in art history class, I have no special connection to Notre-Dame. I’m neither French nor Catholic. And yet I feel personally attacked, like a part of me has been torn out.

I remember feeling this way on 9/11, too -- as though civilization itself was falling apart, as though the ground had shaken beneath my feet. Even though this fire was an accident, it feels like a symbol of how so much of our civilization seems to be crumbling in front of our eyes: civility, reason, science, truth. Not to mention the stability of our planet’s climate, on which our civilization depends.

I’ve been meditating for about twenty years now. Mindfulness has become my default mental position. So I didn’t have to consciously “check in” or ground myself in the present moment – I did so almost reflexively. The world is falling apart – and also, here’s the sensation of pressure on my leg, here’s the rising and falling of the chest as I breathe.

One doesn’t negate the other. I’m not taking a deep breath to try to calm down and pretend that everything is just fine. Mindfulness is a “yes-and,” not a “yes-but.”

Meaning: this is what is happening, and also here I am, mindfully aware, centered in my present-moment experience, and thus not feeding the cycles of shock and fear and rage and grief.

The latter doesn’t negate the former. I’m not shouting “serenity now!” to drown out the truth of what’s happening, to massage and aromatherapy myself into a pleasant, narcissistic somnolence. I’m just grounding myself in these very simple embodied sensations that are with me in every conscious moment. Here I am.

And from there – from that base of presence – several successive insights arise.

First, I can be present with fear, and not be carried away by it. When something as foundational to Western Civilization as Notre-Dame can simply disappear in an instant, I’m reminded that life is terrifying and unpredictable. It’s scary as hell. It’s also a tragic loss for humanity.

I don’t want to make those feelings go away. On the contrary, I want to feel that fear and loss. I’m human, I’m engaged with the world, and this is how I’m feeling. At the same time, I also don’t want to panic, or indulge in conspiracy theories (yes, they’ve already begun), or lash out at my partner because I’ve been unsettled by the news. The space of mindfulness and calm allows me to feel these emotions, to recognize them, and also to be aware that they’re swirling around. Be careful, I tell myself. And be gentle.

Second, yes, there is the foundational insight, found in philosophical and spiritual traditions the world over, that “this too shall pass.” Everything is impermanent, even eight-hundred-year-old cathedrals. Even things that we basically take for granted – I’m not sure when I last thought of Notre-Dame, it’s certainly not part of my life, but it’s part of the scenery of the world that I had, until this week, taken for granted. It’s just part of the world. Until it isn’t.

Everything can be taken away in an instant. To deny this is to deny reality. To affirm it means to live courageously in the face of radical impermanence. I’ve heard people say that focusing on impermanence seems gloomy or morbid, but to me the opposite is true. Life is so completely uncertain, so random, so unpredictable, that our moments of authenticity, happiness, love, and connection are incredibly precious.

Finally, there’s the human truth of loss, grief, and pain. (Okay, this part is a little gloomy, I admit.) Suffering happens. We love people, and we lose them. We love things, and they are gone.

I see, even now, how my mind is trying to shield me from the painful sense of loss, by moving away from that sensation toward stories about what this fire means on some metaphorical level, or, for that matter, how mindfulness can be grounding and instructive. This, too, is human: we take refuge in that which brings us comfort. It’s natural to open an umbrella in the rain.

And yet what unites us is the emotional truth that precedes all of that. After all, what did Notre-Dame stand for if not the human yearning for transcendence and meaning? I may not share a specific religion’s theological answers to those questions, but I feel a great kinship to the questions themselves. We are brought together by suffering, and we grow as people in how we respond to it.

Dr. Jay Michaelson has been teaching meditation for fifteen years in secular, Buddhist, and Jewish communities. Jay is a journalist on CNN Tonight and at Rolling Stone, having been a weekly columnist for the Daily Beast for eight years. Jay was also an editor and podcast host for Ten Percent Happier for four years. He's an affiliated professor at Chicago Theological Seminary. Jay’s eight books include "The Gate of Tears: Sadness and the Spiritual Path" and the brand new "Enlightenment by Trial and Error".

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