Being thankful for the gifts of tragic experiences

The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity – even under the most difficult circumstances –
to add deeper meaning to his life.
Viktor Frankl, doctor, psychotherapist and concentration camp survivor

Ten days out from Christmas and an unknown number of people were being held hostage at the Lindt store in Martin Place in Sydney. That’s when I wrote most of this post. Tragically, two of the hostages died and the others are no doubt still extremely traumatised.  The gunman, a man plagued by many demons and facing many charges for sexual assaults and for being implicated in the death of his wife, also lost his life.

And it wasn’t the only violence that week. In Pakistan, nearly 150 people, mostly children, were massacred at a school by Taliban militants. Closer to home, back in Australia, a woman was charged with stabbing 8 children to death, seven of them her own children. This doesn’t even take into account the daily acts of violence, both here in Australia and abroad.

Ironically, I had just finished reading “Forgiving the Unforgivable” by Master Charles Cannon. In 2008, Master Charles and a group of his students were in India, staying at the Oberoi Hotel in Mumbai when it was attacked by terrorists. The group was held hostage for over 48 hours. Four of them were injured and two died, a man and his 13-year old daughter. But all of them, and the wife and mother of the two who didn’t survive, Kia Scherr, have expressed nothing but compassion and forgiveness for the perpetrators. The One Life Alliance was established to counter-balance terrorism with love and compassion.


Yes, they are all meditators. Yes, they are all seeking a spiritual life but does this really make them any different to you and me? Is their response to such a tragic and traumatic situation really that unusual? Do we all have the capacity to see such events through such eyes?

Of course we do. After all we are all human. We are all the same. We all suffer and we all have an enormous capacity for love.

How we respond to these situations is really just a question of perspective. We can either see the situation through eyes of fear, condemning the perpetrator, seeing them as an agent of hate or we can see it through eyes of love and compassion. After all, what drives someone to do something like this? One of my favourite quotes of the Buddha is that he who loves himself will never harm another.  It seems to me that the corollary has to be that someone who does harm others, must not love themselves.  And in the case of someone who kills for no apparent reason, they may even hate themselves or be insane.  When we see it that way, we can learn from it. As individuals and as a society.

If we do choose to see it through a loving lens, it doesn’t mean that we can’t respond decisively and strongly. What counts is what is in our hearts when we do so.  Being driven by thoughts of hatred and revenge is very different to taking a firm stand with an open heart. Being loving does not mean accepting the unacceptable. Sometimes, the most loving thing is to say “no.” When asked how he would respond to an armed intruder in his home, the Dalai Lama said first he would shoot the intruder in the leg to immobilise him and then he would sit and comfort him while they waited for the ambulance.

There is no right and wrong. There are no accidents.
There is just growth (or not) through experience, all experience is valid.

Master Charles Cannon, Forgiving the Unforgivable

As soon as I heard about the hostage situation in Sydney (#sydneysiege), I sat to practise Tonglen. Tonglen is a Buddhist meditation practice. It means giving and receiving. Taking on the suffering of others and giving back love. I brought to mind the hostages and the man holding them in that place. Inhaling the suffering and exhaling love to enfold the site. As I did this, I got a sense of the fear and anxiety they would ALL be experiencing, hostages and gunman alike. Suddenly memories of my first day working as a supermarket checkout chick at the age of 15 came flooding back to me and tears starting pouring down my face.

It was about 5 o’clock in the afternoon.  The supermarket was busy. I was allocated to register 5. Register 6 was empty and the store manager was at register 7 programming prices. Behind me stood another young woman, Kristen, supervising me and answering any questions I had. I finished serving one customer and was about to put through a large bottle of Lemon-Lime Kia-Ora Cordial. Its image is burned on my mind.

There was a loud bang. I turned to my left, where the noise had seemed to come from.  I saw the manager clutching his chest and staggering, his face white and confused. I turned to Kristen and asked what had happened. As she shrugged her shoulders and said “I’m not sure,” a man moved between us. The next thing I knew I was staring down the barrel of a gun. A plastic bag was shoved under my nose and all I could hear was “Fill the bag! Fill the bag!”

Trying desperately to remember the code to open the register, I hit all sorts of keys. The man kept shouting “Come on. Fill the bag!” Kristen tried to move closer to help me but he held her back. “Don’t move!”

Frustrated by my failed attempts, he ran along all the registers screaming to the other checkout operators “Fill the bag!” Eventually some brave soul said “I can’t open it”. Customers were queued at all the registers, frozen by what was happening. But one clever old man called out “Police!”  The gunman ran.  There were no police. Not yet anyway.

As you can expect, this event played out in my mind for a long time. Post traumatic stress is normal. A never-ending cycle of the bottle of cordial, the manager’s face and the gun. Over and over. For weeks sleep only came to me after this movie had screened for hours. Gradually the images faded. But for years, and even still today occasionally, a loud bang would make me jump and begin to shake. Magically, the manager survived.

I have been reading a lot about forgiveness recently. And doing a lot of work in that area. Which is why I read Forgiving the Unforgivable. I want to understand what forgiveness is and how to do it. And it came to me that I didn’t need to forgive the man who held a gun to my head. Why? Because I already had. When I look back on the situation, I can see that I have never harboured thoughts of anger or resentment against him.

Although his behaviour seriously frightened me, I remember his desperation. Something irrational was driving him. I always assumed, whether rightly or wrongly, that he was a drug addict looking for some quick cash. There was no need for me to take it personally. He didn’t do it “to me”. I just happened to be in that place at that time. I have only compassion for him. Compassion doesn’t judge. It allows a person to have their own experience, whatever that may be.

It was subsequently revealed that at least one of the Mumbai terrorists had been sold to a terrorist organisation by his parents.  They were all terribly young men. How much fear must they have experienced? How bewildered and overwhelmed by their own actions must they have been?

Can we really see and be thankful for the gifts of tragic experiences?

Each experience is an experience whose time has come. And each experience offers us a range of options in how we respond. How we respond depends on our perspective, the way we choose to see what happened. And on the day of the Sydney siege, I found that my experience all those years ago was a gift. It enabled me to understand the suffering of all those caught up in this situation. It happened all those years ago and only now is its benefit realised.  It may just be that I had to go through that experience simply to have this realisation today. That is what I have taken from Master Charles’ book.

That is the full truth of forgiveness. Not to “forgive” someone for how they mistreated me or you,
but to be for giving. To give. To be for that, for giving, not for hating. Imagine a world filled
with all of us making that choice. It can happen, it is happening,
one person at a time. It begins with you.
Master Charles Cannon, Forgiving the Unforgivable

And having such experiences can help others. I have found that speaking honestly permits others to speak out. The fact that one person reveals his or herself, empowers others to make similar disclosures. When our experience can benefit others, it becomes a gift rather than a stone to drag us down.

Certainly we got a taste of what can be with the “I’ll ride with you” campaign. There was fear of reprisals for the siege, even though, as it turns out, the gunman did not represent anyone except himself. It was a pre-emptive strike against racism and bigotry. But this seems to have fizzled out.  And has been labelled a lefty anti-white plot.  You can’t please everyone, can you?

So how will we look back on these events? Will we look with love and compassion? Will we grow from them? Will we learn from them? Or will they provide us with yet another reason to demonise, to hate and to condemn others? To reinforce the perceived separation of us and them? Or will the lessons or gifts they have to offer us be revealed over time? Might we come to see that we are all one, and if one of us is suffering, all of us are suffering?

Only time will disclose the answers to these questions. In the meantime I continue to send love to all those caught up in all of these situations. And continue to imagine a peaceful world as we head into a new year. Every reality begins with a thought.

May everyone be happy. May everyone be well.

And so be it.

Jane x


Forgiving the Unforgivable by Master Charles Cannon

One Life Alliance

Happiness by Matthieu Ricard

The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche

About Jane Treleaven

Jane Treleaven is a meditation teacher and health coach empowering people to be happy and well through just being, essentially being.

4 comments on “Being thankful for the gifts of tragic experiences

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  3. A very inspiring post thank you. I remember reading that the Buddha once said there is either suffering or lack of it, there’s no distinction between a person being harmed and the one doing the harming. Blessings.

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