April 6, 2011

Spiritual Responses to the Tsunami & Nuclear Disaster.

Would You Like Some Reality With That?

How we deal with disasters is fascinating. Being in the yogic/spiritual community, I had the following two responses show up on my radar in the last week:

“What The Bleep” alumnus and author of the popular “Messages From Water,” Masaru Emoto suggested that we offer prayers to the water around Japan based on his assertions that thought has the power to transform the structure of water. Perhaps we could all pull together and eliminate radioactivity through the power of the mind!

Next I saw Anusara Yoga founder John Friend being interviewed by bayshakti.com on why disastrous events occur. He asked himself, “What are the reasons that people might have to suffer these events, where there is such tremendous pain and loss?”

He answered, “This has to do with very deep aspects of philosophy that deal with Karma,” and continued “ I don’t think there are any coincidences, we create our destiny through our choices.”

Friend contended that we don’t remember our past lives, and so our understanding of the “mysteries of causal events is very limited.”

While his interviewer looked on appreciatively, he offered a distinction between pain on the one hand and suffering on the other, “A building collapses, and they get a part of it caught on their foot and that causes pain, but the suffering comes from it not being what they want.”

The interview also included the following statements: “Earthquakes are not necessarily a bad thing – its just what the Earth does.” “I never think of nature as being bad.” “Death is not a bad thing.” “This is just nature’s dance, I see it as spirit’s natural way.”

I have an alternate point of view. It is primarily based in the perhaps radical-seeming idea that spirituality should be based in reality.

When natural disasters strike it is terrifying. We are reminded of how small we are, and how forces beyond our control can annihilate us in an instant, with no warning. We are reminded that no matter whether you are a kind or mean person, no matter if you said your prayers, did your affirmations, meditated, donated to charity or swindled an old lady out of her life savings — certain blind and impersonal forces can cause immense suffering based solely on pressure building up in a system in nature completely unrelated to human moral codes or attempts to find meaning. Being confronted with this is a shock – but it can also be a glimpse of honest wakefulness as to the nature of reality.

This disturbs our belief that we are somehow central to the universe or what happens on planet earth. It is disturbing to our sense of order, meaning, justice and control. Imagine living in the time when human beings suddenly realized that the Earth was not the unmoving center of all things with the Sun orbiting us.

Imagine living in the time when we were first realizing that we actually are related to all the other animals and our closest cousins are the other great apes. This meant we had to let go of the long cherished idea that we were God’s unique and special creatures – that we ourselves were not animals. Many parts of the world and even of the USA still rage against this fact.

Our narcissism is great. We want to believe it is all about us. But it isn’t. We want to believe that God made us in his image and that everything that happens is a lesson for our benefit from a higher intelligence — even when it creates massive, senseless death and destruction. If you think about this for a moment, it is quite odd, but we would often rather make up an elaborate and implausible rationalization for why horrible things are not really horrible —  rather than just call them by their true name.

The events in Japan are really overwhelming — but there are ways to work with it that have powerful potential to wake us up into an integrated, honest spirituality that faces reality on it’s own terms.

These ways don’t have to do with blaming the victims for their bad karma or being somehow punished by God.

These ways don’t have to do with buying into fantasies about being able to cleanse water of radioactivity by mental intention.

These ways don’t have to do with imagining that natural disasters are somehow evidence of a 2012 prophecy.

No, these ways don’t have to do with going deeper into delusion — they have to do with using the only reality we have (this beautiful, fleeting, fucked-up, magnificent, dangerous, unpredictable, painful, ecstatic, powerful, ordinary reality) as a way to wakeup into a fiercely courageous and compassionate acknowledgment of what we are and where we live.

My advice: if it feels good to you to meditate on sending love in whatever way you like to Japan, do it. It may help you to connect to your heart and process the fear and grief that such events are bringing up for you.

But then, take the next step: as you meditate, let yourself connect more deeply into your own fear of death, of meaningless suffering, of the power of forces that make no “sense” to the human mind. Spend some time loving the part of each of us that wants to make it all fit into some metaphysical narrative. Now see this strategy for what it is – a flimsy defense against a difficult reality. Feel into what lies beneath that defense.

Sit with the truth of uncertainty, of unfairness, of a universe in which both good and bad people suffer for no reason, and both good and bad people can and do prosper. Living a good life is not something we should do because it will make us attractive, wealthy, happy or famous – these things have more to do with genetics, economic privilege and dumb luck.

Likewise, not living a bad life is not something we should do because we fear being punished with poverty, illness or an earthquake – it just doesn’t work that way. Ethical decisions are true in and of themselves and their rewards and punishment come from legal institutions, social reputation and personal conscience.

This is not to say there aren’t certain ways in which we can affect our levels of certain kinds of suffering — we can eat healthily, exercise, engage in practices that train our brains and nervous systems to be more balanced, we can love other people and try to live ethical lives — but remind yourself that there are also all sorts of variables in our lives that are completely unrelated to any of these good intentions — this is just part of being human.

Children die, illness strikes, natural disasters occur, economies crash, and none of this is a punishment from the gods — it is just life on this planet in this cosmos. We are all stardust from the massive thermonuclear explosions of supernovae. We are in one little corner of a galaxy that, like every other galaxy is expanding faster and faster into a vast, empty and cold space.

Sound like a drag?

Well, sure it is. Sound like the opposite of the spiritual responses based in positivity, prayer and magical thinking that makes you feel better? Well it is — BUT in a very important, profound way — it isn’t. Why?

Because it is in recognizing where we don’t have power that we can more skillfully hone in on where do have power. In recognizing what doesn’t have meaning, we can penetrate more deeply into the nature of meaning itself. In recognizing the ugliness and cruelty that exists we can value the preciousness of beauty and compassion that much more.

Sorry, but we simply can’t eliminate the radioactivity in Japan’s water through the power of intention. If you can ever prove me wrong on this, I will celebrate with you, because it will be the biggest news in the history of news and Masaru Emoto will win the Nobel Prize. But deep down we all know this isn’t really going to happen.

I can guarantee you with almost complete certainty that if the whole world were still and meditated on sending loving thoughts to the water in Japan it might well do many things: create a sense of unity, bring us into a heightened sense of compassion, allow us to think in important ways about the environment, and perhaps others — but it would not have any effect whatsoever on the levels of radioactivity in the water.

Want to make a real difference?  Join the campaign to get all nuclear power plants shut down so that these kinds of events can be avoided!

Photo: Greenpeace

Sorry, but sending your prayers to Japan probably won’t do much except make you feel better — which is fine — but if you really want to make a difference, give of your time, your money, your energy to do something in the real world that will help real people.

Sorry, but everything does not happen for some cookie-cutter reason, but in the moment of grasping the inherent crushing meaninglessness that actually makes this such a tragedy, we can turn our attention toward what does have meaning: love, beauty, compassion, intelligent thought, knowledge, inquiry, art — the list is long and magnificent!

The list has meaning precisely because it exists against the backdrop of a universe not created for us, not in line with our moral codes or sense of justice. These things have meaning because they are expressions of our unique and sublime human capacities:

Compassion matters because there is so much cruelty, and human beings are so fragile and fleeting.

Beauty is precious because there is real ugliness and squalor in the world.

Knowledge matters because it is easy to be ignorant and to be fooled by your innate sense of how things “should” be.

Intelligent inquiry matters because the world is complex and worth exploring and this is one of the most unique, powerful and indeed, spiritual capacities, that makes us human.

For me, all of this is under the umbrella of a single statement that you can take or leave:

Being in touch with reality is more valuable, beautiful, powerful and spiritual than believing in something not true.

This idea took root for me as a result of meditating over the years on another single question:

What is it in us human beings that wants to believe in untrue things?

The answer: We think it makes us feel better — but this is a band aid.  The next step is to turn and face what we are avoiding and learn to work skillfully, compassionately and courageously with it, so we can feel truly better — without deluding ourselves.

That’s all I have on this one. I know it will make some folks really mad. I know it will seem mean or angry or arrogant. It isn’t.

However you choose to deal with these events and what they bring up for you, is up to you — and if it helps you, I am all for it and support you 100%. These are just some thoughts and observations about  a next stage of spiritual growth that I am passionate about describing and sharing. Peace be with you.

The following is a meditation I created and work with in my own practice and teaching:

Breathing in I connect to whatever evokes love, beauty, gratitude, compassion or inspiration.

Breathing out I surrender what is beyond my control.

Breathing in I can be at peace in this moment.

Breathing out I forgive myself, others, and life itself for being the way it is.

Breathing in I connect to love.

Breathing out I surrender.

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