A Colorado Mindfulness Teacher’s Response to Gun Violence

By Cynthia Garner, founder and director of SafeWithin Mindfulness Education

Like many Coloradoans this morning, I am experiencing a tremendous outpouring of anger, grief, and confusion after learning that ten people were murdered in a shooting spree at a King Soopers grocery store in Boulder.

I am also noticing that I am not that shocked. This alone is enough to unground me, and to send me into the stratosphere of swirling thoughts around school shootings, gun violence, social injustice, systemic oppression, the lack of adequate mental health education and supports, and the demand for real reform at the root of the illness.

Sadly, the tragedy isn’t really a surprise. As an educator, I’ve been watching the unraveling of people’s capacity to cope with challenge. I have been aware of many people (yes even in my predominantly white, privileged community) at their very edge of reason, living in fight flight, suppressing, isolating, drugging, numbing and disconnecting for more than a decade since I began teaching in the public school system near Boulder.

So, what do we do now? How do we make sense of the senseless? If you feel paralyzed or hyper-vigilant today, you are not alone.

This confusion and disorientation is completely normal. What you are feeling is actually your nervous system, doing the best it can to survive. The brain is designed this way, to protect you from pain and threat, mobilizing or freezing and catapulting you into dysregulated arousal, just the way it is supposed to.

Here’s the kicker though: we understand how the brain works with fear, we can engage our attention skillfully to bring ourselves back into our window of tolerance, and into our capacity to act and choose.

So, try this if you are willing:

See if just for the next few moments, you can give yourself a little space not to have to make sense of anything. Let yourself simply feel, for a short time, what it means to be human, and to be alive.

Notice the sensations of your feet on the ground. Feel the air moving across your skin. Experience the movement of your chest and belly as you breathe in and out.

In this moment, you are alive. You are breathing. You are here.

There might be a lot that happens for you as you slow down and notice the inner experience you are having in the present moment. This is okay, and whatever you are noticing is probably already here, simmering beneath the surface.

Simply bringing awareness to what we are feeling physically can bring a shift to our experience and change the chemicals being released in the brain. In doing this, we can make some space for ourselves to feel what we feel, regulate our nervous systems, and give ourselves permission to tend to this moment in time, even if it is very painful.

See if you can identify the sensations that arise without needing to make meaning or figure out why. Perhaps you notice a heaviness in your chest, an impulse to clench your fists, tightness in your jaw, or a fire in your stomach. Maybe there are no sensations at all, so simply noticing this if it is true for you.

In this quieter space that you create here, your mind may become very active. Thoughts will likely jump in and get you to try to go back to figuring things out and making sense of the senseless. It may be very difficult to be still, or to close your eyes, or to go slow. Notice this tendency, and as best you can, gently redirect your attention into the body, to the breath, allowing yourself to anchor fully into something solid and certain in the present moment.

If it is challenging to find a safe place to rest attention inside the body or inside your own experience, using an external anchor or object from nature might be helpful. If it is available, you might connect physically with a plant or tree, place your hands in the soil, or hold a small rock or leaf in your hand. Again, engaging the awareness of physical sensations, solidity, and bringing the senses online, noticing sight, sounds, smell, taste.

The best thing we can do right now for ourselves, and for each other, is to intentionally step out of reactivity, to bring awareness to our surroundings and to the present moment. We can keep our pre-frontal cortices online so that we have all our capacities available and can act from a place of calm, responsive, focused awareness.

Throughout your day, if you meet a moment of despair or dysregulation, come back to an anchor in the present moment. Maybe even bring a colleague or family member with you. Direct their attention to a blooming flower, a gust of wind, a full breath all the way in and all the way out.

When we don’t know what else to do, we can breathe together, and let that be enough.

Anxiety happens when fear meets uncertainty, and this is a toxic combination. We are all primed for anxiety right now, and despite the fact that it isn’t actually useful, we do it anyway. Anxiety and worry are very tempting rabbit holes to go down, especially today, and they are deeply-engrained, societally-reinforced habits that are extremely challenging to protect against. Additionally, anxiety is highly contagious, more so even than Covid-19. So, if we succumb to the temptation, spend our days doom-scrolling, worrying, angry without a productive outlet, we are actually contributing to the growth of dysregulation and fueling the collective fear machine.

By the same token, if we have a toolkit for working with our nervous systems, and for down-regulating our amygdalae, we can show up for each other and influence the world around us in dramatic ways.

Our calm, non-reactivity is also contagious. Kindness and love are tremendously effective connective practices, and without having to do anything special, we can influence the social fabric and improve the wellbeing of those around us.

The bottom line here is that we have failed to teach people how to manage mental health in school and we are living in trying times.

Yes, gun laws need to change, pronto. AND, students from the earliest ages should have access to science-backed instruction that teaches healthy coping strategies. Schools still aren’t universally teaching these concrete skills, based in neuroscience, that offer us the capacity to respond rather than react, to choose actions other than self-harm and violence. We aren’t teaching kindness, compassion, empathy across the lifespan. We aren’t teaching students or teachers how to work with their window of tolerance, how to recognize the signs of trauma in the nervous system, how to make space for the depth of human experience and our inherent interconnectedness with each other.

In fact, even after a year of space to re-evaluate and start again, we are still pushing students and teachers too hard, placing the focus on what has been lost or how behind students are now. One district superintendent near Boulder recently announced “there will be no more snow days. Now that we have shown we can quickly switch to remote learning, we’ll never need to give a non-instructional day off again.”

We are heavily pressuring even the youngest humans to speed up, hurry up, catch up, chin up, toughen up. As educators, parents, students we are ANGRY. And rightfully so.

There is no way to “make sense” of this violence, and that is what our minds want to do. We go spinning into thinking, wondering how on earth something like this could happen, here. In our privileged Boulder bubble. Not somewhere else, but right here, across the street, down the block, just a mile or so, from where we live.

And even though there have been tragic mass shootings in Columbine, Aurora, and Highlands Ranch, only a handful of miles down the road, there is still disbelief. Even desensitization. Numbness. A shaking of the head, a sigh, a moving on with the day.

This numbing to the violence of the world is a strategy that makes a lot of sense, and allows us to keep going with our lives. However, this ignorance of the larger mental health crisis keeps the dialogue in the political realm, around legislation for gun control, rather than addressing the brokenness of the human spirit at its core.

Let us do the alchemical work of turning poison into medicine. Let us access and feel the anger in our bones, the longing in our hearts, the heaviness of our grief. Let us collectively cry out for justice at its roots, for deep systemic change within the school system, to meet the moment with strength and to be fueled with the passionate energy of care and right speech and wise action.

Let us turn our rage into love and start the generational work of dismantling our industrial and isolationist educational system, by teaching every child that they are enough, that they belong, and by giving them skills to manage the real-world challenges that lie ahead.

For today, let us breathe together. Let us move, dance, sing, wail, and gather together. Let us feel together and allow ourselves to be human and to be here, fully alive, wide awake, each of us doing our best to care for each other and for ourselves.

Let us be the kind of love that drives out hate. This is the only moment we really have, so let’s start right here, right now, and be the change we wish to see in the world.

Cindy is the Executive Director of the Rocky Mountain Mindfulness Center. She facilitates community groups and brings meaningful mindfulness programs to schools