Tricycle: The Buddhist Review

What is the Mindful Response to a School Shooting?

In the wake of last week’s tragedy in Parkland, Florida, some people were left wondering: How do you respond mindfully to a mass shooting at a high school? Well, there are at least two things that question can mean.

The first is: How do you deal mindfully with the emotions aroused by the shooting? Feelings like fear and anxiety, for example, which you may feel if you have a school-aged child; or outrage, if you think politicians should offer better policy responses than they’re offering; or despair, if you believe politicians will never change, or you just feel that things are spinning out of control.

A meditation teacher, if asked this question, might say something like, “You should experience these feelings mindfully, and this may give you a kind of critical distance from them, so they don’t dominate and distort your thinking.”

And a meditation teacher trained in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy might add some facts to facilitate this perspective.

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For example, there are more than 50 million public school students in America. So, to judge by the school shooting statistics of the past two years, the chances of a child of yours dying in a school shooting this year are less than one in a million.

And when you read about the “18 school shootings” that have occurred in 2018, remember that this statistic rests on a broad definition of a school shooting: the discharging of a firearm on school grounds. In about half of these “shootings,” no one was shot. Some of the others were either suicides or led to injuries but not deaths. If you define a mass shooting as a shooting that kills at least four people—as this Washington Post tally does—there have been two mass shootings at schools over the past three years (plus one at a college).

Obviously, none of this means we don’t have a serious problem here. As that Washington Post tally shows, the number of mass shootings, including school shootings, has been clearly, if unevenly, rising over the past few decades.

Besides, the damage done by mass shootings doesn’t stop with the physical casualties. Whether or not these shootings are labeled “terrorist attacks,” they have the psychological impact that terrorism is meant to have. And the terror isn’t confined to the communities where they happen. I recently learned that one of my daughters was for years afraid to go to movie theaters because of the much-publicized 2012 shooting at a theater in Aurora, Colorado.

If more people responded mindfully to mass shootings—experienced their emotional reactions without being dominated by them—these psychological wounds would be at least somewhat lessened. And if enough people reacted mindfully, there might be healthy second-order effects.

After all, the less enthralled you are by your emotions, the less time you’ll spend clicking to see the latest (and quite possibly erroneous) update on the shooter’s personal history. And the less clicking there is, the less the media will inundate us with unsettling, and sometimes traumatizing, imagery.

What’s more, with fewer pictures of a mass shooter popping up on websites and TV screens, troubled souls might be less inspired to emulate the shooter. Nikolas Kruz, the Florida shooter, had reportedly written on a website this fall, “I’m going to be a professional school shooter.” When people say they’re going to be a professional  anything, that often means that, somewhere along the way, a role model got their attention.

All of this leads to the second meaning of the question about how to respond to a school shooting mindfully: How do we, as a society, respond to the school shooting calmly but deliberately, with careful attention to the most important factors? In other words, how do we react in ways that will reduce the number of future shootings and the toll they take?    

For starters, we can hope that there is indeed a connection between the first and second meanings of the question. In other words, the more people there are who react mindfully in the first sense, the less of a psychological toll the shootings will take on the public, and, maybe, the less likely that each shooting will inspire emulation.


But all of this highlights a challenge for those of us who aspire to mindfulness. Even if our natural reaction to mass shootings is in some sense an overreaction—based, implicitly or explicitly, on an exaggerated idea of how prevalent such shootings are—doesn’t this “overreaction” have the welcome effect of mobilizing public opinion, galvanizing us into doing something about what is clearly a serious and growing problem? If people, in pursuit of mindfulness, become so dispassionate about these shootings that they quit worrying about how to curtail them, then what pressure will politicians feel to address the problem?  

This is a critical question, not easily answered. But I think part of the answer is that the intense passion aroused by mass shootings often fails to translate into meaningful reform anyway. After last year’s concert massacre in Las Vegas, there was a burst of enthusiasm for banning “bump stocks.” You’d think that would be uncontroversial, since a bump stock basically transforms a semi-automatic rifle into a machine gun—and machine guns are illegal. But nothing happened, and much of the passion eventually faded; outrage is a hard thing to sustain. And if the murder of 58 concertgoers wasn’t enough to sustain it, what would it take?

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One reason the National Rifle Association (NRA) is such a powerful lobby is that it has a big base of supporters whose passion is less prone to fading. They keep giving the NRA money, and they can be counted on to punish politicians who defy the NRA’s will. There are plenty of people on the other side of the issue, but they don’t have the same passion—or, at least, their passion waxes and wanes, depending on when the latest mass shooting was, on where exactly we are along the nation’s emotional roller coaster.

Mindfulness doesn’t numb you to your emotions, but it makes them less of a roller coaster. It brings a measure of equanimity. So commitment to a cause—a commitment likely to fade if based on the passions of the moment—can endure. What’s more, a mindful attitude can preserve a sense for the big picture—for example, the fact that, even aside from mass shootings, thousands of Americans are killed by handguns every year.

At least, in theory mindfulness can bring all these things. I don’t want to understate the danger that meditative calm can subdue the activist impulse. This can happen, and I’ve seen it happen.

So we’re left with a deep challenge for the mindful activist: loosening the grip of emotional reactions—like fear and outrage—that might have been energizing in their own way, while preserving a different kind of energy, a tightly focused concern that can coexist with equanimity. If the balance is struck well, the result can be potent: someone who is undistracted by emotional reactivity, someone whose commitment remains undulled by setbacks. None of us ever strikes the balance perfectly. But maybe if more people gave it a try, we’d find that it beats the alternatives.

This article originally appeared, in slightly different form, in The Mindful Resistance Newsletter.