I don’t typically write blog posts. However, I wanted to share my story from Sunday, October 1st and what it was like to be in Las Vegas—1,000 feet from the shooter and on lockdown. In this story, there are positive psychology teachings, funny moments, examples of self-care, gentle musings—and moments of struggle.
Research shows that part of resilience and growth through trauma is story telling and sharing the narrative. I was and am safe, grateful, and not suffering the way that so many people were who have been affected by the shooting. I am grateful that you’re reading this and giving me an opportunity to find my voice amongst the sadness. I also apologize that this is written more as a freely associated journal entry and not a typically polished post. Okay, here goes…
It’s Sunday evening, October 1st. While I live in New York City, I’m in Las Vegas for a speech and two workshops I’m giving on Wednesday. My best friend Sasha drove from Los Angeles to Las Vegas for us to spend some time together. We’re in Vegas en route to dinner, and since we’re not the drinking/gambling type, we thought we’d be spontaneous and go see a show. So we book last minute tickets to see the Michael Jackson “One” by Cirque du Soleil at 9:30pm at the Mandalay Bay.
The show starts. Holy sensory stimuli! Bright lights, loud sounds, bodies flying from the ceiling onto the stage. Acrobatics, art, and just pure awe. We’re nearing the peak of the show and the crescendo is building. The music slows and comes to a pause. They announce that due to a request at the Mandalay Hotel, the show is being paused and we (audience members) should remain in our seats until further notice. Sasha and I look at each other thinking, “Hmm, is this part of the show? A pretend intermission?” They bring the house lights up, but we’re still sitting in our seats.
They’re still playing clips of Michael Jackson music on loop in the background, so we’re in suspense, but then people start buzzing. Another announcement comes: There’s something happening at the hotel, and we’re told to remain in our seats until they get more information. People start pulling out their phones.
Local news? Nothing. Twitter? Lots.
Gun shots out of the Mandalay Hotel. Clear the area. Run if you can. Scroll… Video… Bodies moving…
Country music festival shooting. People are fleeing. Scroll, scroll, refresh. 20 people dead…
Holy shit. There we sat in our seats, locked safely in the theater until 6am when we were cleared to leave. As a positive psychology and mind-body medicine expert I’m grateful for the tools I have that helped me zoom out my lens, catch the moments of realtime resilience, and most importantly, self-sooth and show up in the world the way that I want to—even through catastrophe.
There were a few “scares” and heart-pounding moments. Remember, we didn’t know what was happening. And while news spreads fast on Twitter, so do rumors. We were hearing that there were three killers, not one. That there were shooters running up the “strip.” That there was an incident at the New York-New York hotel and casino in Las Vegas. And all we could do is wait. Keep calm and carry on… but there was nowhere to carry on to.
Someone started pounding on the theater doors. “Everybody down!” as we ducked for cover under our theater seats. There we sat for just a few moments until we were told it was safe. They let us out in rounds to use the bathroom as we needed. There were two families sitting around us with tween-age kids. Sasha and I helped reassure them that everything was going to be okay. We were safe. There were first responders who were evacuating everyone out of the hotel and going room by room. While there was scary stuff going on outside, we’re safe in here.
When there are unknowns, the mind is wired to wander into “What if?” land. To create stories and imagine scenarios. To fill in pieces of puzzles just to have a coherent puzzle. Those are the moments that we need to stay in the now. Over and over again. I’d come back to my breathing, which brought me back into the now.
Mind you, the now was pretty boring. The theater seats are pretty comfy for a 90-minute show and get pretty old five hours later.
What do you do when your mind wanders and there are unknowns? I kept focusing my mind. I often quote Ben Zander’s book, The Art of Possibility, when he says that one way to practice being non-reactive is to say, “How fascinating!” It’s neither good nor bad. Just a fascinating state of affairs. This moves us from unhelpful judgment and keeps us open and calm.
How fascinating that we chose to book this show two hours before it started. How fascinating to go from this state of feeling so moved by art and in awe of what people can do with their body to this heart-breaking crash. We were inside, yet just across the street, people were lying dead and hundreds were injured.
I teach relaxation and mindfulness. I was aware of my heart beat escalating and I could feel my adrenaline rise during some of the scary moments. They announced on the intercom that it was brought to their attention that someone in the theater had a gun on them. The announcement was for the armed person not to, under any circumstance, draw their weapon. They reinforced that we are safe and everything was under control. That there was no need to draw their firearm.
Great. Locked in a theater with 1,799 other folks with a massacre on the outside, but now there’s someone armed in the inside? My heart rate sped up. “Five breaths per minute” came to my mind and I filled my lungs and diaphragm with breath. It took a little while, but my heart rate calmed.
There’s a time for hyper-vigilance—a time for all that adrenaline to be put into action. However, there was no use in stressing in that moment because there was nothing to be done. I used my body to calm my mind. I encouraged the family behind me to do the same. The young girl started shaking with fear. I told them that it’s normal when the body gets that scared. Animals will fight, flight, or freeze, but then when hormone levels get really high, we shake. I told her dad to stroke the side of her arms. The stroking motion, combined with a gentle squeeze, can calm the nervous system down. I too was stroking my palms—a technique called Havening—when the adrenaline spiked and I had to calm down.
A moment in time I can laugh about now but clearly wasn’t funny at the time came around 4am. I was sleeping in the fetal position on two chairs when we heard, “Everybody get down!” I rolled from the chairs onto the floor in the crouched position. Afterwards, Sasha remarked about my “cat-like reflexes,” and it still makes my chuckle to reminisce on my swift, graceful tip to the ground.
I also had an opportunity to feel something that I can say I had not felt since I was in middle school: Boredom. It was… fascinating. I’m in a chair. I’m exhausted, but wired on adrenaline. I didn’t bring my phone with me to dinner because I decided I needed a technology break, so we only had Sasha’s phone to use. We were trying to conserve our battery for occasional Twitter updates and we didn’t know how long it would be till we were released. As an entrepreneur with dozens of tasks to do at any given moment, all I could do was sit there. As my mind flooded to the hundreds of tasks that I couldn’t work on, I had to bring myself back to the now. To connecting with my friend. To the physical sensations of my body. (Which was barking at me from a five-hour plane ride that morning followed by sedentary time at the theater. I don’t typically sit for so long.)
We didn’t learn about the extent to the massacre until around 6am. At first we thought it was a rumor—over 50 dead. Then it was confirmed. The intensity of the situation kicked in.
The theater fits 1,800 people, and I think it was a sold out show. We knew it was going to take a while before they could usher us out. They were moving us in waves (about a hundred at a time) to either the airport or another shelter point where we could catch a taxi to our hotel. It was beautiful to see how many people, while physically uncomfortable and frustrated, were able to reframe. We chose gratitude that we were safe. Yes, we were cold and exhausted. The officers, security, and other first responders would apologize to us that they couldn’t give us more information on when we’d get out of there. We told them they had nothing to apologize for; we were thanking them for keeping us safe.
People frequently ask me about my meditation practice. Do I sit every day? How long do I meditate for? While I can honestly say that I don’t sit in meditation every day, I practice mindful moments hundreds of times a day. I train my breath and I notice the sensations of my body. While I’m far from perfect at it, it’s trying times like this that remind me that these practices work. It’s like tai-chi where you practice tiny, very slow movements, over and over again, so that when you need to, you can act instantly and instinctively. I’m grateful for every teacher I have had—from living mentors, to book authors, to spiritual guides—for the skills they’ve taught me.
I was fine during the whole thing. I was able to down-regulate my body and my mind. I’m working on my emotions, as waves of sadness come over me about the lives lost and the many injured. This afternoon, I’m headed back to the hotel to volunteer around trauma support for victims and their family. I hope my sense of stillness can be of service and that I’ll be able to hold space for what they’re feeling. If you’re wanting to contribute and are not in the area, here’s a Go Fund Me that is raising money to support the victims and their families.
I’m also working through the pieces of this that are harder for me to swallow. Gun control: How do we let people get by with so many weapons? How do we change this? How does a person enter a hotel room and stay there for days without being caught? Why didn’t alarms go off when windows were broken? How is this possible? Why did he have a military grade weapon? WTF? What can we do?
Breathe. One step at a time. That’s all we have. Thanks for reading. Thank you for sending love to the friends and family of those grieving, and all those who aren’t directly involved but are feeling the collective pain of our times.