It lasted no longer than a few seconds yet it was a turning point in my life… a moment that would continue to inform my choices for years to come. Was it enlightenment? or simple grace? The definition doesn’t matter really. Something extraordinary happened and apparently it is not exclusively reserved for those who spend years in remote monasteries. I call it The Theater of Violence…
It is around 2pm on a September weekday and I am riding the subway uptown to spend the Jewish Yom Kippur holiday with my father’s family. The train is quite spacious with plenty of empty seats. Just a few middle-aged white folks as well as a young African American kid, maybe 15-16 yrs old who is seated next to a window in the third row from the end. I am seated on a long bench facing the entrance. Everyone seems absorbed in their own thoughts, minding their own business.
The Theater of Violence – Chapter I
The doors open at the next station and the apparent peace is suddenly interrupted when a heavily tattooed, stocky guy with fierce eyes comes aboard. His hostile demeanor jolts me. Others withdraw even more deeply into their own spaces. I feel suddenly grateful that I am seated near the door with lots of extra space in front of me.
Given the abundance of empty seats, it is quite strange that this man would walk straight toward the end of the car and sit next to the young Black kid, blocking him in.
I assume the kid feels quite uncomfortable and probably intimidated. I imagine I would. The kid moves more closely toward the window, trying to create some space for himself. Then he turns toward the guy and makes a quiet remark which is about to shift our reality in dramatic ways.
No one hears what he says.
Within seconds, the stocky guy, who based upon accent is likely to be Puerto-Rican, looks as if he is engulfed in flames. He roars with rage, shouting violent, inconceivable string of curses. It is as if he has a whole treasure box full of them. I am captivated! I have never heard so many curses coming out of one person’s mouth ever in my entire life.
I never even knew so many curses existed in the English language.
Whatever the kid said, seems to have triggered a cascade of explosions and like fire raging out of control, it must run its course…
Riding the wave of his own uncontrolled rage and becoming increasingly more and more violent, the guy begins to shove the kid toward the window all the while continuing with the most versatile flow of foul language.
The kid does not respond. He does not utter a word. He is in a survival mode now and attempts to become invisible. The few passengers who were seated across from them on the other side move to the front of the car.
Someone rings the emergency bell.
I am somewhat fascinated by the energetic phenomenon of this extreme expression of rage manifesting independently of external stimuli.
Then, something extraordinary happens.
Something that would trigger my psyche in unexpected manner.
The kid just gets up and walks pass the guy having to literally squeeze in front of him to get out.
I later reflect that he moved without hesitation as if he knew exactly where he was going; as if he had a plan. He must have known something I did not know because he comes straight toward me and sits to my right, as close as he possibly can without actually sitting on my lap.
I can hear his heart beat. I can palpate his fear. He leaves no space between us…
Why me? I think. He does not even know who I am…
What is so obvious to him?
Does he think I can protect him?
How come does he get me involved playing a role I don’t understand nor choose?
Mr. stocky guy is startled for a minute. He thought he was in complete control when unexpectedly he was stripped of his convenient fuel for his raging fire.
He ponders for a mili-second what his next move might be and then simply following the urge that is consuming him from the inside, he gets up and walks over to us.
He pays no attention to me but with as much precision as violence permits, he directs his intensified verbal abuse at the black kid who continues to say nothing.
The Theater of Violence – Chapter II
Suddenly, when it seems just bad enough as it is, he turns up the volume…
and the small crowd freaks out…
He pulls out a knife.
It is a large, threatening switchblade.
People scream and try hopelessly to open the door into the next car.
Several people are simply glued on top of each other as the door would not open.
Surprisingly, no one screams… or maybe I cannot hear….
Strangely, I feel no urge to move.
A Real Moment of Peace
A part of me is completely detached as if I am watching a movie but at the same time, I also feel incredibly present and my heart is completely open.
In some strange way, I am more present in this moment than I have ever been in my entire life. I can’t explain it.
A deep peace comes upon me. Profound stillness.
I am aware of the continued foul language, the poking of the knife at the kid next to me, the fear factor in the car…
I am aware of the danger but I hear no sounds or it seems to be coming from far away.
I remember thinking there must be a reason why the kid came to sit next to me.
I remember sensing a blue energy floating between them and I knew everything was going to be fine.
I am in a zone where I experience no sense of fear and really, no sense of ‘self’.
I am part of something much bigger than me and yet it is ME. Strange.
Eternity seems to slip by.
Then, just as it pulled me into it, everything returns to polarized perception.
The Real Test, or Not? – Theater of Violence Chapter III
The train slows down and the guy folds his knife.
Next time, he says with a threatening tone, there will be no next time.
The train stops. The kid jumps off the car and disappears in the anonymity of the subway station.
The guy returns to his seat as if nothing out of the ordinary had just happened.
He pays no attention to anyone, staring into the far distance contained within the prison of his own fury.
New passengers come into the car, having no clue what has just transpired.
The train takes off again.
But my initiation continues.
A few more stops and the train finally arrives at Washington Heights station. My stop.
The place is completely empty at this time of day and once the train leaves, you can hear a pin drop. I begin to walk toward the exit. It is a long walk and in that mid afternoon dead silence I can hear my own steps as my shoes hit the cement platform.
A minute goes by and then I hear forceful steps behind me with an almost clicking sound; the kind that would be created by men’s boots that have metal at the bottom.
Oh, my God! I think. He had boots, just this kind.
In this instant, all the fear, the anxiety and the recognition of the immediate danger I have just been exposed to, takes over my body. It is like a post-traumatic reaction and for a moment, I am absolutely convinced that the steps behind me, belong to the Puerto Rican guy… that he now is coming after me…
There I am all alone, vulnerable and he can have his treat of violent revenge after all.
I begin to sweat. I am too scared to turn my head but hurry as fast as I can to get to the stairs.
I don’t want to run to not indicate any signs of fear. Yet, no matter how fast I walk, the clicking steps get closer and closer.
I can hear my heart beating and feel the adrenalin rush in my body.
Without turning my head, continuing to walk as if nothing alarming is happening, I see HIM from the corner of my eye passing me on the left.
With squinted eyes looking forward at his imagined goal ahead, he again pays me no attention.
I see him walk up the stairs and disappear in the street above us.
Contemplations & Afterthoughts
I would never know if in fact he was coming after me… if he had changed his mind in the last minute… if I just was lucky to have great protection or if it was all a faculty of my imagination.
I would never know for sure if my presence changed the outcome of the encounter inside the train or if in fact, it was I who was a part in orchestrating it.
Maybe they were simply actors in my own theater of spiritual initiation.
It would be years of meditative practice and spiritual training before I would realize that in 1989 on the subway in NYC, I had an enlightened moment, a moment of peace, an encounter with the True Essence of Life; That I was to become a Healer, a Spiritual Counselor and a Practitioner of Nonviolence.
There were many times, I wished I could slip back into that mystical zone but I know now that it’s very nature is void of all wanting, that it is not mystical after all. It is Just Being. Detached yet deeply connected. Vulnerable yet distinctly powerful.
I am reminded of an answer given once by the famous poet, Gary Snyder during the Vietnam War. An activist asked him during a meditative gathering, who would save the world if everyone just set and meditated? He said (paraphrased): I don’t know who this person might be but I can tell you something about them… They DO NOT NEED to save the world.
For me, the question is not so much what I need to DO to change the world but rather who I need to BECOME in order for the world to BE a safe, peaceful and sustainable place for all sentient beings.