Spiritual Responses to the Tsunami & Nuclear Disaster.

Via Julian Walker
on Apr 6, 2011
get elephant's newsletter

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.


About Julian Walker

Julian Walker is the founder of http://www.yogateachergradschool.com/ where he supports new and established yoga teachers in living their dreams through business development. He is a writer who has been teaching yoga since 1994, and co-teaches the Awakened Heart, Embodied Mind Yoga Teacher Training in LA with Hala Khouri.Julian's writing is featured in the book 21st Century Yoga available on Amazon.com. www.julianwalkeryoga.com


81 Responses to “Spiritual Responses to the Tsunami & Nuclear Disaster.”

  1. yogijulian says:

    lloyd – i apologize if i have ever not seemed real in my responses to you! i agree with you in principle 100% and am not just blowing smoke up your ass!

  2. yogijulian says:

    seeing as you allude to the exercise we talked about – i have found that there is a major difference between the pasted on pretense of denying painful feelings and being inauthentic, vs. using neuroplasticity by linking breath and words and affective states in CONJUNCTION with diving in deep and doing the real shadow work on the trauma, rage, fear, shame and grief.

    we are on the same side you and i, and not too long ago i would have had a red flag about an exercise like that too!

    every single day of my life in class and one on one i encourage people to feel their true feelings and do the deep work. i have found that in conjunction with that it is possible and indeed helpful to activate certain resilient and resourceful neural pathways that didn't get used in many of us to be able to take in and sustain positive feelings, soften and surrender resistance to difficult emotions, be in touch with the nervous system's (often hijacked) capacity for self-regulation (and the subjective experience of "peace" that this results in) and keep shedding layers of resentment in order to be more free and able to forgive both ourselves and others.

    these may seem like divergent paths to you at this time – and maybe you are right.at this point in my journey (after working hard to integrate yoga, psychology and science for many years) i do not find that they are and in fact think they are wonderfully complementary.

    what might look on the surface like bullshit affirmations, in this case are from my perspective nuanced tools to use in the service of healing, growth and authentic integration. could they be used in the standard denial based way? sure. might some of my students be using them this way for he time being? sure. is the overall arc of where i guide people about denying the reality of the psyche? i think you know better than that…

  3. yogijulian says:

    thanks KL!

  4. […] Spiritual Responses to the Tsunami & Nuclear Disaster. ~ Julian Walker […]

  5. yogijulian says:

    lloyd – to use this weekend as an example:

    i just returned form being on retreat for 3 days with a group of almost 40 people. we meditated, stretched, flowed, danced, spent periods in silence, did some journaling with every session and as is customary, had an opening and closing circle in which people got to be heard by the group.

    as part of my instruction i used both buddhist loving kindness meditation (in which one uses phrases like "may i be well" to access one's emotional intelligence and exercise the capacity for compassion) and my love, surrender, peace, forgiveness meditation to which you are having such a raised eyebrow. i make it clear with both these meditations that a) we are not asking some external force to grant us these feeling states or somehow intervene in our lives, nor are we b) buying into some magical notion that thought or belief will somehow make things the way we would prefer in the outside world etc…

    rather, we are cultivating a kind of antidote to what for most people is a default position of being very self-critical, feeling unworthy, not trusting our ability to give and receive love, and focusing on/strengthening our negative conditioning.

    this of course is in service of the deep work of using the various practices to get very real about where we have pain, trauma, unresolved emotions etc and simply "going there."

    what you may not know is that over the years i have been a kind of lone voice in my extended community encouraging people to use embodied practices to connect very authentically to their emotions, and NOT as a way to enact a denial-based, dissociative, rationalized spiritual tap dance away from reality, either inner or outer. through my process over the last 18 years i have had to look at how i sometimes pushed people too hard and blew them open in ways they were not ready for or able to integrate – and so the (autonomic nervous system based) concepts of "resourcing" from somatic psychology (see peter levine for more on this) and the (now neuroscience validated) buddhist idea of cultivating positive emotional states as part of a transformative practice started to become tools i would use to balance out the cathartic and confrontive process i was already very adept at guiding people into.

    lloyd i am confident you would have loved the closing circle. three people openly expressed how much anger they were able to get in touch with – they didnt candy coat it, didnt feel that they had to pretend or modify it in some way to please either me as the teacher, or some group-think zeitgeist. there was a set of powerful themes around miscarriage, fertility challenges, and the loss of parents – all centered around a stage of life that many of us are entering together in our 40s and 50s, having been in this supportive and authentic community now for 10 to 15 years. tears, cursing, laughter about feeling rebellious against some of the structure of what i create, and most of all – a thoroughgoing thread of realness, of unapologetic honesty about where each person was at and feeling 100% supported in just owning, expressing and revealing that emotional truth.

    your most welcome critique of the dalai lama and his homophobia, as well as your raised eyebrow toward my meditation and what it no doubt evokes for you viz magical thinking and denial of true feelings, would have been completely at home in the space we created together.

    i think lloyd you have a completely valid point. i think perhaps you want to call me out on something you see me doing that appears incongruent to you and goes against some of my critique of the new age etc…. i hear you – and i am going to significant lengths to share how ti fits into a bigger picture in my work, and how i feel it actually supports, rather than limits the kind of deep work i know we both value.

    all the best

  6. yogijulian says:

    just saw your above comments viz jung etc and i agree with you. some of what you are angrily labeling as bullshit (and i get it lloyd, i do) is my way of accepting where people are at and having learned to let go just a tad through many years of online debate and trying to get people to see both reason and wake up to psychological reality when they were not willing or perhaps ready. you are coming in at the tail end (lol) of about 5 years in which i let my barking dog run the show! so forgive me if i don't feel like enough of a representative of fierce unyielding commitment to what you are passionate about right now – but know i am on your side my friend.

  7. yogijulian says:

    good point john! thanks..

  8. Padma Kadag says:

    Thank you for the response. Your "reality" based spirituality is calling for discerning observation of what is happening, inner and outer. This is inkeeping with Buddhist method but this is where it ends. Your origin for all of this is the Big Bang. A theory to which you ascribe and , as individuals, we cannot prove this happened one way or the other through our own experience. So, either by faith in science or indoctrination into science as a profession this is your veiled view which is only available to a few. You accept this explanation. And you want to be the "Keeper" of reality based linear thinking which has it's roots in nihilism. Your alluding to "intelligent thought" is nothing new. You are taking, it seems, all that this western culture of nihilism has to offer and making it a spiritual path. How does one progress on this path? What does my IQ need to be? Shall my reality reflect "a vast, empty and cold space."? I suggest the reality of which we are not accustomed is warm, full, and spacious. Your school is placing importance on "intelligence" which for the most part is cold and exclusive.

  9. yogijulian says:

    thanks michael!

  10. yogijulian says:


  11. yogijulian says:

    padma, again – i do not in any way identify with the word "nihilism." lack of supernatural faith does not equate to lack of meaning. embracing the cosmos as inherently meaningless and meaning (real and imagined) asa uniquely human concept, a product of our evolutionary complexity, does not negate the aspects of our lives that are indeed deeply, substantively meaningful.

    the sly rhetoric of using the word "faith" with regard to science is a total misnomer. our current theory on the origin of the universe is extremely well evidenced and widely accepted amongst educated people. this does not remove the element of mystery and wonder from the equation. the debate tactic of trying to put scientific theory on the same level as metaphysical belief, and demoting science to being merely one persepctive amongst many of equal value is, i think misguided and perhaps a little dishonest.

    lastly, i am not claiming to be the "keeper" of any kind of absolute truth (though of course if you think – as i admit many do, that it is still possible that old world metaphysics is correct about the nature of reality and origins of the cosmos, then it might correctly appear that i quite emphatically do not think so) – i am merely discussing the implications for spirituality of being more scientifically, rationally and psychologically grounded – and not using spirituality as a compartmentalizing distortion of how things are and how they feel to us.

    i do not find intelligence cold or exclusive, nor do i think a rational perspective on reality in any way excludes warmth, emotion, wonder or reverence.

    appreciate your time.


  12. yogijulian says:

    i appreciate that lloyd – AND i agree with you on that point!

  13. yogijulian says:

    that is kind of you to acknowledge lloyd – AND you have made your own way in grappling with these difficult and important distinctions and aspects of interior work that most people would rather avoid or deny – so i bow to you. 🙂

  14. […] agitated as before. Two Japanese women in pink bows and knee socks dropped to the floor next to me. Cries and shrieking all around. No more business as usual. This much moving force so soon after the first can’t […]

  15. Frank Marino says:

    Julian – Wow! Brilliant, poignant, discerning, compassionate and real… (I'm still just kinda pissed-off you busted my pink unicorn ride, though… 😉 truly, thank you. I'm really looking forward to your book.

  16. michelle says:

    thank you for this beautiful, truthful meditation on reality. yes, sometimes we do want to believe in the implausible because reality feels so painful but this will not change reality one bit. i have learned that to dive into reality brings more understanding and eventually healing than any fairy tale. it is time for us to wake up to the reality and as you suggested take real action to make changes to ease suffering and hopefully change somethings so that more disasters like this cannot happen.
    deep bow to you and what you have shared with us.

  17. Interesting article, thank you. I have only perused it, and I see the wisdom in "both" perspectives presented by your article. Reality as you describe it, is outside of our personal purview, and no amount of "good behavior/moral escrow" will change that! When and if one has the experience of undifferentiated consciousness, reality is without content; I have experienced this. So when pain comes, pain! When no pain comes, no pain! It is impossible to speak about states and experiences of consciousness that occur "outside of reality" or in formless dreamless sleep. Yet they are real.

  18. […] asks tough questions about the yogic response to shocking natural disasters such as the recent earthquake and tsunami in […]

  19. B Goodrich-Dunn says:

    Thank you, Julian for this post. Sometimes detachment is spiritual and sometimes detachment is a denial of feeling and an attempt to get above it all. I choose all of our responses to disaster that affect humans and all other living aspects of our earth.

  20. me1issa85 says:

    Thank you Julian for this article. As always I applaud you courage and honesty. I really enjoyed this article and agree that mediation (most likely and positively)cannot removed radioactivity. Your writing is so absolutely based in reality that the mythological notions mentioned seem laughable. However, the tragedy in Japan is definitely no laughing matter.

    Keep it up, I cannot wait to read your forthcoming book!


  21. me1issa85 says:

    Thank you Julian for this article. As always I applaud you courage and honesty. I really enjoyed this article and agree that mediation (most likely and positively)cannot removed radioactivity. Your writing is so absolutely based in reality that the mythological notions mentioned seem laughable. However, the tragedy in Japan is definitely no laughing matter.

  22. yogijulian says:


  23. Ginger-
    These sentences are at direct odds with one another-
    "Karma is destiny played out over generations."
    "This is not to say that the Japanese are or were “bad” people and this is their Karmic cycle."

  24. Melinda says:

    Spireality — next book title?
    Thanks for helping me in my recovery from magical thinking…. which includes a deeper appreciation of the magnificent universe. Love, Melinda

  25. […] moment actually inspired my first ever Elephant Journal piece—and I was critical of not only Friend’s handling of it, but also of that patron saint […]

  26. Copyright – How Can The Week Magazine Re-Print Magazine Articles?