A Spiritual First Responder’s Remembrance of 9/11: Not What I Expected at Ground Zero

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A Spiritual First Responder’s Remembrance of 9/11: Not What I Expected at Ground Zero

I had just returned home to New York City on September 7th, 2001 from a week long meditation retreat with Tibetan Buddhist teacher Tsoknyi Rinpoche in Colorado. During the retreat we received training to recognize our true nature as already awake and unconditionally loving, and then seeing this in ordinary everyday life. There was no question that the support of that retreat helped me to face the events that followed.

What happened next was September 11th 2001. I was working in a clinic in Harlem as the planes flew by my office and into the world trade centers. Though my wife Paige and I had been up late the night of September 11th talking with friends and family from out of town who had been calling to see if we were ok, we both woke up at break of dawn on the 12th. Like many of us, I hoped that the events of the past day had been a bad dream. Turning on the TV that early morning brought back the pain of the devastating tragedy and loss. Paige and I felt called to see what kind of help we could offer, so we decided to make our way down there from the upper Westside of Manhattan to Ground Zero.

We took the subway down to 14th St station, which was as far as we could go, and then began walking south toward the smoke. We couldn’t help notice that it was a beautiful cloudless day, oddly quiet. Everyone who lived in the area was still asleep or staying inside so the streets were eerily empty except for emergency vehicles, police and military personnel.

To get to the site, we had to go through four different checkpoints. At each barricade, I gave an ID showing I was serving as the Interspiritual Chaplain at Union Theological Seminary and Paige showed a card saying she was a clinical social worker. At the last check-point there were reporters and others waiting at the barricade who were not allowed to enter the site. As we walked to the gate a very young national guardsman with a rifle stopped us and looked quickly at my ID and said, “Nobody but official emergency personnel are allowed past here.” I took a deep breath and looked at him and out of my mouth came, “Who is going to be there for victims and the emergency personnel. There are spiritual needs here as well, don’t you agree.” He looked me in the eye and we gazed at each other for what felt like a full minute and then right as I saw a tear begin to form in his eye he said, “Go ahead” As we walked past the final barrier I heard his partner say, “God Bless.”

As we came closer toward Ground Zero, ash was everywhere on the ground like fine white sand; pieces of paper from office files were strewn about everywhere. Walking through the atrium of the World Financial Center, we saw cafe tables with half-eaten breakfasts covered in dust, frozen in time from the morning of September 11th.
We continued walking and came face-to-face with a makeshift morgue inside the American Express building. Body bags were being unloaded from the trucks and being carried toward ground zero. We stopped for a moment of prayer and meditation. The reality of the enormous loss of life struck home. Paige began to shake and my body felt heavy with sadness.

We were walking toward the site from the west and the slight wind was blowing directly east so we saw a crystal clear blue sky just as it had been the day before. The faces of the firemen and medics leaving the site spoke of shock, exhaustion and disbelief. As we walked into the site, I tried to prepare myself for carnage and horror, for overwhelming terror and chaos. But as I entered Ground Zero I experienced instead a feeling of awe, like entering a great cathedral, the Grand Canyon or a sacred circle or burial ground. It was both infinite and intimate. The remaining buildings surrounding the area where the Twin Towers had stood formed an enormous amphitheater and mostly what was there was a kind of presence or pure space. I felt my heart break wide open.
We followed a line of firefighters further into the site and walked onto the first pile of rubble. We climbed and stood at the top of the small hill overlooking the entire site and stood without moving for nearly 30 minutes. As I watched in silence, the words that came to me were, “Oh, this is how it is.” This is who I am, this is the way the world is, this is the way of life and death, this is the nature of things. Everything that is created comes and goes, comes together and falls apart. Yet everything is infused.

All of history seemed to be there. Visions of ancient civilizations rising and falling flashed through my mind, and I had an intense awareness of the preciousness of human life and the incredible ignorance of people that led to this destructive murderous acts. I felt grief for those who had died, and for the families who would live on without them, but I also felt a deep sense of hurt for the continuing insanity of the human race. Yesterday, two huge human-made structures stood here with thousands of people working inside, and 24 hours later, they were completely gone, now dust. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

But what was missing revealed something else. My mind was stopped or seemed to drop away, and in this seeing, it was as if everything was present as vast, open space, light and even love. It was as if love and hate, life and death, the inner and outer, all experience, moved as an infinite space of consciousness. There was a pervasive seamless, empty, silent, vast, loving light. On top of the hill of rubble in Ground Zero, amidst all the sadness and loss, it was as if a veil had parted and revealed a luminous, loving presence that had been hidden but was always there, like Jesus saying, “Split a piece of wood, and I am there.”

Without saying anything out loud I turned to Paige, who had not been on a recent Dzogchen retreat and asked her what her experience was. “Complete stillness and grace,” she responded. We remained standing there a while longer, sending our prayers and feeling like we were reassuring all those who had died and encouraging them to go to the light. Both Paige and I had a strong impression that the power of love that was filling this place was partly the good intentions, love, prayers, and healing, pouring into that place like water of life flowing over the tops of the surrounding buildings into the site from all over the world.

Suddenly, a fire chief called out, “Quiet everyone. Quiet!” Within seconds, hundreds of firemen and emergency workers stopped digging, turned off their equipment and stood completely still, listening for the sounds of anyone trapped in the rubble. For five minutes I stood with hundreds of human beings, all united, resting and alert, listening for life. As the word came to return to the rescue effort, it was as if the five minutes of silence and stillness had renewed the workers’ courage and resolve. It was inspiring to experience first-hand such tireless compassion. Right after this some of the workers took a break and we brought them water, talked with them and shared a few hugs. Some seemed sad, others smiled and one fireman talked about the friends of his who were probably lost but said it was comforting to talk about it and be here at the site, “it’s like the a memorial service, don’t you think?” “Yes, it is really sacred” I said, “yeah really sacred, thanks. It was good to say that”.

We left the pile and walked out toward the back. We saw workers resting. We brought them water and asked if they needed anything. They just responded: “Thanks for being here,” looked into our eyes, and nodded. One older firefighter turned around as he was walking back to the pile and took me aside and said, “Can you keep my nephew in your prayers?” There was a feeling that we were all supporting each other by just being together.

Later on that day and the next few days, I volunteer at the makeshift counseling and information center established at Chelsea Piers for families searching for missing loved ones. There we met face to face with these families, who showed us photos and expressed a mixture of shock, hope and grief. One young woman wearing a baseball cap came up to me at the table and said, “Here is the name of my fiancée. Do you know where he is?” When I said that we did not have information at this time about specific people. She said in a very upset way, “You have to know something. I went to all the hospitals and he is not there so they sent me here so there has to be some way for you to tell me how he is, I just can’t bear it”. I looked at her and said,“I am so sorry.” She gritted her teeth but then burst out crying. I walked around the table and held her as she sobbed, “He’s gone, I know.”

That first weekend after 9/11 I was exhausted and so I went roller-blading in Central Park. I saw a friend running in the other direction. I waved, and as he passed, my heart felt so full that I began to cry. I felt the human connection and friendliness as well as the grief of loss and gratitude of being alive with the wind blowing on my skin and the people all around, appreciating every moment.

In the next year there was a deep feeling of kindness and family community in New York City. The heartfelt feelings and support poured in from around the country and the world. I feel that there is a lasting change that is present as we remember the 15th anniversary of 9/11.

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