Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Like an Elephant

A Buddhist Response to the Japanese Disaster.

Earthquake, tsunami, are scary enough, but news of the nuclear disaster of the kind  in Fukushima have taken my anxiety to another level. I have had the hardest time concentrating and doing work during the past twenty four hours. Gil's talk last night about the Buddhist Approach to Facing Challenges in Life  came as a welcomed balm of wisdom. Here are my notes from the talk:

We train to have the capacity to be present for whatever happens in the world so that we don't get pushed around by our reactivity. 

The Buddhist teachings challenge us to meet the tremendous existential issues that befall us. Meditating is a radical act, that we continue throughout the day as we stay present for what is. The Buddha's life can be viewed as a metaphor, as he leaves the protection of his castle, and encounters the tsunami of life, i.e. old age, sickness, and death, and chooses to face it instead of retreating back. 

Our first task is to develop the capacity to be present and see. Then comes the question of, am I obligated to respond? Buddhism obligates no one to do anything. Rather it leaves us to the workings of our own heart. The open heart will want to respond. Hence the Buddhist response is, listen to your heart and let it move you. If we do not respond, we do violence to ourselves by bottling up our response. 

We ought to become aware of attitude present in our response. If a fly lands on an ant, it is a big deal for the ant. If a fly lands on an elephant, it is not big deal for the elephant. When faced with a challenge, do we react as an ant or an elephant? Hopefully, our practice is training us to be an elephant that can respond and take action in the world. We don't need a metaphysical understanding of the world. It is enough to respond. 

Regarding the current situation in Japan, we can donate money. Or, we can take the energy in our urge to respond and apply it to doing what we are already doing even better. If we are a teacher, we become an even better teacher, etc . . .

First, seeing crippling anxiety for what it is, a manifestation of ant like powerlessness, and a hindrance to overcome. Second, transforming the fear into action, pouring even more energy into what matters to me most, i.e. bettering the lives of those living with Alzheimer's.

How are you responding to the news in Japan? What are you doing? How is your practice helping? Please share.


  1. Hi Marguerite,

    Yes, I have also felt this situation in Japan weighing heavily on my heart and mind today. It feels so beyond comprehension -- and I am especially moved by and concerned for the workers at the nuclear plants who are almost certainly sacrificing their lives in order to try to control this crisis (see http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/16/world/asia/16workers.html?_r=2&pagewanted=all).

    I think the analogy of the fly landing on the elephant may be a bit off the mark, in this case. This feels more akin to a poacher coming up on an elephant, and elephants have been known to rear up and defend themselves quite violently when that happens.

    Even so, I appreciate the teaching here -- we practice so that we can come from our center rather than to flail out in fear and panic.

    What I did for practice today was to sit zazen with this pain and anxiety, to simply be with my concern and heartache for the people of Japan. Then I did some writing... you can see it here: http://liberatedlifeproject.com/2011/03/four-ways-to-show-your-love-for-japan-%E2%80%93-and-the-whole-world/

    Thank you for your practice, and for the invitation to share here.

  2. Dear Marguerite,

    My response was to talk about the events in Japan with the sangha in Modesto tonight. I could not but notice that many people I was in contact with in the last few days were fearful, anxious and overwhelmed with what was happening in Japan.

    Our practice is about how to be with what is difficult - to understand what takes us away from ease, to see how we can become overwhelmed by emotion, proliferating thoughts and thinking about, rather than being with. I think that what the Buddha taught about liberation is about finding stability and ease in the midst of difficulty (tatra-majjhattata), without being swept away or crushed by the weight of our experiences... to be that elephant, rather than the ant, and seeing clearly what leads to agitation and dukkha and what leads to freedom. It doesn't mean we turn away, but instead we turn toward the suffering, to understand its cause and ceasing. If we are not caught and can see clearly with open hearts, the only natural response is kindness and compassion.

    If one person tonight had a little more ease or saw that the path is through suffering, rather than adding to it, it will have been a small way that I have helped. We sat in meditation, we chanted lovingkindness and we dedicated our practice tonight for the ease, comfort and freedom from suffering for all beings affected by these events.

  3. Thankyou for this thoughtful post xo

  4. Maia

    Thanks for your comment. Elephant represents 'magnitude'.

    when in a constricted awareness, we suffer from things. When perception is 'whole', we see the arising, phenomenon of extending (waxing or waning) and passing of suffering-this requires magnitude.

    Hence the constricted mindset compared with ant, and expansive awareness with Elephant/strength/deep concentration.

  5. Thank you for this post. My brother and his family live in Tokyo and I am trying to be the elephant and not the fly. Thank you for this gentle reminder.

  6. Hi Pooja,

    I'm thinking a lot about elephants these days because I recently spent time with them in Thailand... and heard stories about how they protect themselves when threatened. So I'm taking the teaching quite literally, which perhaps isn't the way it was offered!

    I think what I was trying to say is that the crisis that Japan is undergoing right now is immense, particularly the nuclear aspect of it. So it seemed to minimize the situation to compare it to a fly landing on an elephant, though I do understand the equanimous nature of the elephant.

  7. Thank you Maia for sharing your practice! I too have been thinking a lot about the workers at the plant. Heroes without faces, and names . . . I will make sure to read your post.

    The elephant metaphor, like any image, is bound to conjure up many different associations depending on one's experience. Thank you Pooja for elaborating on the image. This is how I took it, and also how Gil intended it I believe.

  8. Lori (DharmaDancer), thank you for all the work you do in your community, and for sharing your beautiful thoughts and intention.

  9. BookBird, nice seeing your name again :) and much metta to you!

  10. Mandy, I hope your loved ones are well, and I say to you:

    May you be at peace, may you be at ease, in the midst of your worries and loving concern for your brother and his family.

  11. My challenge has been my daughter watching the news and discussions at school. There is so much misinformation it is causing a lot of worry and stress, most understandable to be sure and yet my message to her is,
    right now, is what matters- the future hasn't happened. Hoping that will reduce her stress. At twelve years old, it's hard for me to see this level of fear and stress in her .

  12. Thank you for bringing this up, BD. I am sure a lot of parents are struggling with the same issue. It is hard to protect our children from the outside world, and particularly the news. I have always looked at such events as teaching moments with my children.

    Your daughter is very fortunate to have you as a father. Mindfulness practice, our own, can go such a long way toward raising happy, well adjusted children!

  13. Many personal decisions resting in the background have rushed suddenly forward. The usual hope I rested on, dissolves into what is not happening causing me to consider action around home and my/our future.