Friday, March 18, 2011

"Being With" Disaster


This past week has brought home the importance of dharma when grappling with massive suffering and increased uncertainty. The devastation wrought by the earthquake in Northern Japan and subsequent tsunami was horrible enough, but the continuing uncertainty of uncontainable nuclear disaster makes it hard to imagine how the devastated citizens of Japan can “be with” distress of this magnitude. 
It is easy to see how disasters like this can force the three marks of existence (impermanence anicca, suffering dukkha, not-self anatta) onto the center-stage of our awareness. We witnessed the reality of impermanence and suffering in the washing away of whole villages. We understood the meaning of not-self through lives torn asunder in the flash of an eye by water and shaking earth. Who are we when we have lost everything? What do we identify with when livelihood, family, home and village are erased by natural forces that dwarf human efforts to build legacy and permanence? How does one cope with the specter of future radiation contamination in food, soil, and community?
These very tough questions find answers in the experience of life after disaster. It is so true that extraordinary circumstances like this remind us that human beings when faced with great adversity, are capable of astonishing inner strength and resilience. Think of those brave individuals continuing to work at the Fukushima nuclear site, risking their own lives to save the lives of others.
Inner strength and resilience arise out of qualities of mind and heart that the Buddha emphasized in his teachings. These qualities make it possible to create the internal conditions so the mind can “be with” experience; even horrific events. The qualities I think of most are: Mindfulness, Clear Comprehension, Loving-kindness and Compassion, Equanimity, Renunciation, Generosity, Diligence, Patience, and Skillful Means.
Mindfulness is our internal and external gauge during and after a disaster. The mind does have the capacity to know things as they are; even in the middle of shock, fear and flight. In fact, some people report that during a traumatic event their thinking became intensely clear and focused, and some experienced their bodies as capable of superhuman strength and endurance. Conversely, mindfulness is also an invaluable tool when trauma is sustained in body and mind. The ability to feel into the here and now, to know one has survived, is critical for healing trauma.
Clear comprehension makes it possible to know what has happened, how we are, and what can be done. Clearly seeing the nature of human existence as uncertain, impermanent, and insubstantial helps us avoid the wrong view that life is unfair, meaningless, and hopeless.
Loving-kindness and compassion help us cope with uncertainty, regret, fear, anger and loss by opening the heart to the ubiquity of suffering and our innate capacity to free ourselves and all beings from further suffering. Often, our own lack of kindness and care toward others and ourselves can make unfortunate circumstances seem intolerable. Generosity and renunciation are the building blocks of magnanimity, sacrifice and selflessness. Visioning a future, picking up the pieces of a devastated life, going on without those we love, seems impossible without the help of others. Selfless giving and reaching out to community resources is so important in times of need. 
These aforementioned six qualities create the conditions for equanimity, patience, diligence and skillful means to flourish in the mind. When the mind opens to all of these qualities, the door to liberation opens as well. No matter what adversity we may face, know that liberation can occur in any circumstance. In fact it is often during the most challenging times that we have the greatest potential to awaken to our true unbounded nature through suffering or relieving the suffering of others.
I spent almost four years living in Tokyo during the early 1990’s and my heart truly goes out to every Japanese citizen suffering from loss, fear, and mental/physical pain. May you all be free from every manner of suffering.

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