“A single event can awaken within a stranger totally unknown. To live is to be slowly born.”
Antoine de Saint Exupery
Part I – The Fortune Cookie
All packed up and ready to go! This would be the journey of a lifetime for my thirteen year old daughter Naomi and husband Alan, who had been planning and organizing this trip to India for months. A group of twenty-five people from the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand were set to embark on a pilgrimage with their meditation master, Charles Cannon, founder of Synchronicity Foundation for Modern Spirituality. He would introduce them to the roots of his spiritual awakening where he spent twelve years in an ashram three hours outside Mumbai with a traditional Indian guru. This trip would be focused in Mumbai itself, known to its residents as ‘the city of dreams’. They would stay in first class accommodations at Oberoi Resort, a 5 star luxury hotel located on Marine Drive, facing the Arabian Sea. By day they would tour temples, shop, and bask in the colorful and exotic Indian culture. In the evenings they would gather with their teacher for Synchronicity Meditation sessions that were also open to the public.
This trip would open a new world for Naomi who had been raised and home-schooled since the age of three at the Sanctuary Retreat Center in the Blue Ridge Mountains of rural Virginia, where Alan and I were resident staff members living an unorthodox yet idyllic family life. Their plane was scheduled to take off that afternoon from Dulles Airport. After one last cup of coffee we loaded the car with their luggage and enjoyed a three hour ride listening to music and sharing plans for their return. Naomi was over the moon with excitement. Other than our weekly errands in Charlottesville, the furthest she had ever been from home was holiday visits to Alan’s family in Baltimore. And now she was about to travel half-way across the world to a foreign land for two whole weeks! I chose not to join them on this trip, but rather let them have their special father/daughter time together while I visited my two sons and other family members in Florida for the Thanksgiving holiday.
When we arrived at Dulles Airport we parked the car so I could walk around with them for awhile before their flight. It was soon time for them to go through security so we stood together in a long three-way hug, exchanging ‘I love you’s’ before they entered the long security line. I walked back to the parking garage with a light and happy heart, knowing they would have so much fun and have much to share upon their return in two weeks. I was also looking forward to spending time with my sons in Florida, who now shared an apartment together in Tampa. I was excited to be on my own for the first time since Naomi was born and would celebrate by having lunch at our favorite Chinese restaurant, Jade Garden, on the way back to the Sanctuary. I had never been to a restaurant on my own before and felt a bit awkward so I took a booth in a corner by the fish tank. I don’t remember what I ordered but I do remember the fortune cookie. We always enjoyed that part of the meal best – what would our fortune say this time? It was usually something like ‘the love of your life will appear’ or ‘the early bird gets the worm’ or even philosophical like ‘the usefulness of a cup is in its emptiness’. This one took me by surprise: ‘Today your luck has changed forever.’ What could that possibly mean? I took it to mean good luck was coming for the whole family and slipped the slip of paper into my wallet to show Alan and Naomi when they returned in two weeks.
Part 2 – An Unexpected Phone Call
About a week later I was on a plane looking over the beautiful sparkling blue water of Tampa Bay. Tears filled my eyes as I remembered how much I loved Florida as a child. I hadn’t been back since I was 13 years old when we lived outside Orlando where my Dad was stationed at a Naval Hospital. There’s something so relaxing about Florida – I felt it as soon as I stepped outside the airport into the warm breeze. I was so excited to be here to see my family and to see my mother’s Florida house for the first time. My sister lived right next door and both of my sons lived an hour away in Tampa. We would all gather for Thanksgiving in two days. My Dad would fly in from Arizona where he now lived. We were all so grateful our parents were able to remain friends since their divorce years earlier.
Just the day before I left, I spoke to Alan and Naomi on the phone to share exciting news. Naomi had received a whopping 95% on her entrance exams to a private boarding school in upstate New York. Her full scholarship was now guaranteed. It would be an incredible opportunity for her to receive the best education possible at this time of her life. The India trip was icing on the cake. She was planning to do a photo essay to submit with her application and now her acceptance was assured. She was ecstatic with relief and anticipation for the beginning of an exciting school year. She had good news to share as well – she finally got her long awaited nose piercing and had sent a photo by email that morning. It was surprisingly attractive and complimented her face beautifully. She couldn’t wait to show it off to all her friends in Virginia. They would be returning the following week and were so happy with their experience in Mumbai. Alan said it surpassed all expectations and added, ‘I love India I could die here.’ I replied, ‘Well, we’ll return another time together and you can show me everything!”
My first morning in Florida was so peaceful. I took a long walk around the tranquil neighborhood, a gated senior community filled with palm trees, ponds, golf carts driving past and people walking their small dogs. That afternoon I was happily preparing tea and cookies as my mother and I were about to watch The Oprah Winfrey show on TV.
And then the phone rang.
As I was standing right there I picked up and was surprised to hear a familiar voice, the managing director of the Sanctuary Retreat Center. She came right to the point – “Kia turn on the news. The Oberoi Hotel is being attacked by terrorists.” That was it; she had to go and make more calls. I dropped the phone and fell to my knees in disbelief. I shouted out to my mother to turn on the news. And then the waiting began. On and on it went, hour by hour, no news of Alan and Naomi. I called the U.S. State Department to let them know we had family at the Oberoi and to keep us informed. Later that night, another phone call from Bobbie at the Sanctuary- ‘All of our people are now accounted for except for Alan and Naomi. Everyone is locked in their rooms. We were told Alan took a shot to the head and Naomi was hiding under a table in the restaurant. We don’t know if Alan has survived.’ At this point we couldn’t just sit there and wait. My son Aaron filed their photos on CNN iReport in case they were unconscious in a Mumbai hospital. We called friends and other relatives to meditate and pray they would be found alive. This was Wednesday night. Thursday, Thanksgiving Day came and went in a big blur. I was camped on the living room sofa to be near the phone that night. Early Friday morning, 6 a.m. the phone rang. I knew this was it – ‘I’m so sorry Mrs. Scherr, a women’s voice said. I’m calling from the U.S. Consulate in Mumbai. It is now confirmed that both Alan and Naomi were shot and killed at the Oberoi restaurant.’ ‘Both of them? I said, Both of them? Are you sure?’ “Yes, I’m so sorry.’
My family came out and we all cried and hugged. There were still a lot of questions, but no one to ask, so we turned on the news to see what else was being reported about the attacks.
And there he was – the lone surviving terrorist, Ajmal Kasab, a 20 year old kid from Pakistan, holding an AK-47 assault rifle at the Mumbai train station. There were 10 terrorists total, spread out over various locations in Mumbai, and nine of them had been killed by Indian commandos. Kasab was heroically captured by Mumbai police, one of whom sacrificed his own life to hold him down as he himself was being shot.
As I gazed at this young man’s photo on the TV screen I heard the words ‘Forgive them, they know not what they do.’ It was a distinct inner voice and so I spoke this aloud to my family. I went on to say ‘There’s already too much hate, we must send love and compassion.’
I was in a state of numb shock and disbelief, but yet as I said these words a ray of peace entered my heart and I knew it was right. Did I know what it actually meant? No, how could I know anything in that moment? I only knew those words were the truth and the rest of my life would be spent finding out what this meant, put it into practice and share it with others. I had no idea how, but I knew this was now my path, my road to resilience.
Part 3 – Tsunami of Love
It has now been almost 14 years since the Mumbai terrorist attack when life as I knew it ended abruptly. What has fueled the re-building of my life was the tsumani of love that poured out from thousands of people in the aftermath of the attack. I received over a thousand emails from people all over the world through the Synchronicity Foundation website – people of all religions including Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and Christians. For the first time I felt a personal connection to the world family at a deep level. This connection led to the formation of One Life Alliance, a non-profit dedicated to the opposite of terrorism.- love, peace and compassion. Along with the survivors from our group, we created a mission to ‘honor the oneness and sacredness of life in ourselves and each other.’ I agreed to be the voice of this vision and had much to learn about how it would all play out, I just said ‘Yes’.
Saying Yes is always the first step in moving forward with anything, even in the midst of uncertainty. Uncertainty became my new normal, whereas before the Mumbai attack, I lived a stable peaceful life with my family at a meditation retreat center in the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia for 11 years prior to the attack. The tsumani of love that I received from family, friends and even strangers gave me the strength and courage to step into the outside world beyond the Sanctuary. I discovered that my inner world was merging with the so-called outer world. There was just one world, no longer separate, one unbounded ocean of life inviting me to explore its diversity. How could I refuse? What was left? There was much to discover and so I said Yes to that as well.
As Lao Tzu famously said, ‘The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.’ I had to keep telling myself ‘just take the next step.’ In 2010 I traveled to the very place Alan and Naomi were killed and spent the next six years coming back to life as I engaged with the people of Mumbai – students, business, and police – to increase both inner and outer peace in practical ways.
Sometimes these were baby steps and sometimes giant leaps of faith. As I got to know myself as a single person in late middle age, I was painfully confronted with every flaw, weakness and vulnerability, self-sabotage, resistance, fear, and doubts. I was embarrassed and humiliated at what I couldn’t do very well to accomplish this great mission. And there were also many times I was surprised at what did get accomplished and how well it turned out. The more the ‘little me’ opened to a greater vision of myself the more success I was able to enjoy, the more friends I made and the more creative inspirations came forth. Life became abundant, resilient and full of love.
I discovered I could bring forth the unbounded reservoir of love that lived inside of me and share it with others. In this process I brought peace back into my life, and even joy. I learned what true abundance is and how to live it daily. I learned how to celebrate life fully and completely. I learned the true meaning of forgiveness, the first step and the key to everything that has unfolded for me. I learned to love in new ways and even had my heart broken a time or two, but the love, laughter and the learning it brought me was worth it.
I set out to bring a message of peace, love and compassion to the world to help prevent violence in all forms. I worked with schools in India and Mexico, business and even the Mumbai police. However imperfectly, somehow it all worked out in its own unique way. I have published two books, and am featured in three documentary films and have now formed a program to build personal resilience, based on what I have learned and put into practice.
I am currently at another crossroads as I begin a new chapter. As if right on schedule, my friend Ken Harris asked me to write a chapter for his book, which you are now reading.
If you are reading this I hope you will take some time to reflect on your own new chapter and what you would like it to contain. As long as you are alive there will always be new chapters. If you don’t like the current chapter, start a new one. Know that what is necessary is contained within you.
I am calling my new personal development business Unbounded Ocean because there is an abundance of life to be experienced on so many levels and in so many ways and to be shared with so many people. We’re all in this together and we each contribute our individual gifts to the world. These gifts are unlimited, some are well known to you and some are waiting to be discovered. Whatever happened in the past is over now. We bring some of our past with us as it has played a role in shaping who we are, but the past does not define who we are. We can shift our reality as we tap into the unbounded ocean of life each day. The word miracle comes to mind. Life is indeed a miracle and we are alive and so we too are miracles in our own crazy ways. By crazy I mean unpredictable, uncertain, surprising and even delightful. The road to resilience is built with all of this. Here is a summary of the steps I took on my personal road to resilience:
- Know Yourself – Include quiet time and reflection each day
- Acknowledgment – Be honest. Acknowledge strengths and weaknesses.
- Release – Forgive yourself and others
- Focus– what you focus on becomes stronger in your life. Pay attention.
- Discernment– Learn your priorities and act accordingly
- Exploration– Try new experiences, travel to new places both locally and abroad
- Trust– Trust yourself and trust the process of life as it unfolds
- Invitation– Say yes. What is life inviting you to do and be?
- Investment – Invest in yourself – care for yourself, invest time and money in what’s important to you
- Celebration- Celebrate the magic and miracle of life – be creative
If you start here you will naturally connect, share, receive, grow stronger and increase love for yourself and others. Building resilience is a natural outcome of interacting with life without reserve and embracing it all. Because the nature of life is resilient and unbounded. Even after tragic loss, joy can be found and love will remain forever.
This article appears in an upcoming book Second Chances: from Surviving to Thriving.