Balancing Anger with Compassion: Reflections on the May 23 Isla Vista shootings one year later

One year ago today, I was sitting out on my porch listening to a compassion meditation downloaded on my phone. A call came through. It was my Dad: “Did you see the news this morning?” When I heard the tone of his voice, I knew I would need to finish my meditation before I could take this in, so I told him I’d call him back. Like most of our deepest intuitions, this one was dead on. It would take an ocean of compassion just to face the next few days.

As a theatre studies professor at UC-Santa Barbara, the hardest part for me was waiting for the list of victims’ names to be released, all the while not knowing if one of my own precious students would be on there. I breathed a deep sigh of relief when they were not. And yet, they were someone’s students. They were someone’s son or daughter. During the preceding months, crime and sexual assaults had escalated on our campus and in the nearby student neighborhood of Isla Vista. A storm had been brewing, and it culminated in Elliot Rodger’s violent rampage that ended the lives of 6 students and injured 14 others, before this troubled young man (son of Hollywood filmmaker Peter Rodger), took his own life.

A few days later, our department gathered together in a large rehearsal studio, and I exchanged warm hugs with several of my students. This is not typical for me. Usually, I’m careful to maintain a formal professor/student relationship. But that day, my guard came down, and it’s been crumbling ever since. I just felt like they were my kids, and they needed a hug.

Fast-forward to 11 & ½ months later. Once again, I was gathered in a studio theater, surrounded by many of the students in my African theatre class. We were attending a staged reading of a play we are studying this quarter. After it was over, one of the directors came onstage to make an announcement: once again, there were shooting and gun wounds in Isla Vista. The dorms were on lockdown, and we were all encouraged to stay indoors. We huddled in the theatre for an hour before we got clearance to leave (this time, it was drug-related crime, and much less serious). As I watched my students filter out into the night one by one and 2 x 2, I felt panic rising. I hoped with all my heart they would get back to their dorm rooms and apartments OK.

All along, I have wholeheartedly believed in the power of compassion to heal all wounds. And yet, I needed to balance it with the steady undercurrent of anger inside of me. I got that chance this past Monday, when I attended a community meditation and remembrance service in Isla Vista. After a group compassion meditation, one of the leaders read the names of the 6 students who had died a year ago. When he read the name of the killer after that, I thought I would be able to feel compassion for him, but anger kept getting in the way. I kept seeing my students’ faces. I kept remembering his misogynist rant on the video he famously posted online. I kept thinking about the growing number of sexual assaults on campuses nationwide. I kept worrying about how vulnerable my students are, especially the young women. I keenly felt the presence of one of my own students in that very room that night, a young woman and survivor who is bravely and publicly pressing charges against her assailant 2 years later. And of course, my own status as a survivor of trauma and gender violence just made the whole thing that much more triggering.

Anyone who meditates knows that in the course of meditation, everything kind of slows down on the inside. I could literally see the anger rising from the pit of my stomach. It was like a black swirl of smoke surging through the bright yellow light of my compassion. When this happens in meditation, the only thing to do is to sit with that anger. Our whole lives, we may have been subtly trained to tamp down any difficult emotion that comes up. And yet, when we are on a spiritual or conscious path, we know there is no escape. We have to go there. It’s the only way to progress on our path. As Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön says, “Have a sense of gratitude to everything, even difficult emotions, because of their potential to wake you up.” So I consciously re-directed that compassion to myself, knowing that anger was there to teach me something.

It’s at this point that a compassion meditation turns into an exercise in emotional release. There are a lot of wonderful books on this topic, such as David Hawkins’ Letting Go, but the practice is fairly easy to pick up. We keep a steady, compassionate gaze on that anger. Here, I usually dispense with the more common internal mantras usually repeated during a compassion meditation (“May I be free of suffering,” etc.). Instead, I focus on connecting to that emotion, as if there were a silver cord extending from my heart and penetrating that black swirl of anger. I even address it directly: “I see you. I’m here for you. Tell me what I need to know.” And I keep breathing into it, mustering every ounce of self-compassion that I can.

In the course of this practice, the anger often morphs into other difficult emotions. In my case, it was sadness, and feeling the wellspring of concern that I have for my students at this moment in time. I even allowed some gratitude to seep in, thankful that I’m able to open my heart and care so deeply about them. In this way, we allow our emotions to run their course, carefully tracking them with our compassionate eye as they arise within us.

The miraculous thing about emotional release is that simply by breathing steadily into these emotions, they dissipate on their own and give way to a broader understanding. I’m not sure how that works; I just know it does. After that shift happened I was able to go back to that image of Elliot Rodger and see him in a new light: what Buddhists and Hindus call Maya, or illusion, had completely overtaken his mind. He was so entangled in his own pain that even the most senseless act of violence made perfect sense to him. Buddhists identify three poisons in life: ignorance, grasping, and aversion. Elliot Rodger was an example of the extreme to which these three poisons can go if left unchecked. Spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle reminds us that anyone so severely caught up in an imbalanced mind is just like a physically sick person. And the appropriate response to anyone physically ill is compassion, rather than anger.

From there, I gained a renewed sense of confidence in the benefits of doing compassion meditations. When we make compassion a regular practice, we ensure that our own entangled minds will never get that far. While most of us do not have to contend with the chemical imbalances of the mind that people like Elliot Rodger experience, we all still have minds. And those minds can be very powerful in convincing us that things are a lot worse than they actually are. We all know what it is like to read an ambiguously worded email when we are in a bad mood, and feel our minds spit out a host of unfounded assumptions about what the author of that email actually meant. That is Maya; that is illusion. As spiritual practitioners, we are called to wake ourselves out of that trance over and over again until love and clarity of perception become our new normal.

In October 2006, a troubled young man took the lives of 10 young Amish women at a school in Lancaster, PA. The grandfather of one of the young women promptly expressed forgiveness towards the killer, who also took his own life, and later that day, several Amish neighbors visited the killer’s family to provide comfort in their time of sorrow. At his funeral, the Amish attendees far outnumbered the non-Amish ones.

While that kind of forgiveness seems almost superhuman, we all have the capacity to grow it. What the Amish demonstrated at that moment was the unshakable connectivity uniting us all as living beings. By cultivating compassion, the veil of illusion lifts before our eyes, and we honor that spectacular human connection, even in the face of our spectacular pain.