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David Nichtern

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Facing the Tsunami: Understanding the Strength and Fragility of Human Life

Posted: 03/17/2011 9:50 am

My wife, Cyndi Lee, landed at Narita Airport near Tokyo at almost the exact time the earthquake hit last Friday. She had come to Japan to lead a yoga teacher training program in Tokyo, and then a public program the following weekend in Osaka.

At the very moment she was handing the customs officer her passport, the entire airport began to shake. The shaking continued and intensified for several long minutes. At that point, all the passengers were quickly ushered out into the parking lot and were asked to stay there for several hours.

Cyndi ended up spending the night sleeping on the floor in the airport, and in the morning, with the help of some new "earthquake friends," she was able to make her way to Tokyo and to her hotel there. In Tokyo there had only been minor damage from the quake, and in some sense life was mostly "normal" for a couple of days.

The first two days of the teacher training program at Tokyo Yoga went reasonably well (with most participants in attendance), but it became increasingly obvious that travel was getting more difficult for the students (due to closed roads, rolling power outages and gas shortages). Aftershocks were making everybody nervous, and the emerging crisis with Japan's nuclear reactors was creating a very unstable environment.

I was scheduled to join Cyndi in Tokyo on Wednesday March 16 to lead the meditation aspect of the training over the following weekend, but after much consideration, Cyndi decided to postpone the program, get herself back to terra firma in New York City as quickly as possible and re-schedule our programs there to continue in September.

Like most of us, I have been glued to HuffPost and CNN to see the latest evolution in this powerful drama that has been unfolding in Japan. People's lives have been transformed within minutes, sometimes even seconds. It seems impossible for us to understand all the forces at work here, and why one person is snatched away by a tsunami in the blink of an eye, never to be seen again, while in the same situation, rescuers can find a baby that has survived on her own for three days in the midst of all that turmoil and devastation.

As I watch these dramas unfold, I am struck once again by the strength and fragility of our human life. If we do not understand the one, we will not truly understand the other. There are such powerful forces that can take away our life at any time.

From the Earth's and ocean's point of view, these recent events are actually small in scale. It's like the shrug of a giant when asleep, slightly shifting position -- a very minor adjustment. Yet for us here in the human world, that shrug, that shift, can mean life or death in an instant, or at least a complete transformation of everything we held to be reliable and solid up until that very moment.

I can't really offer a clever Buddhist analysis to make sense of all these events, but I would like to note that we, as human beings, seem to have so much strength and wisdom to draw on -- even while our situation is so completely ephemeral and hazardous. How is it possible for us to reconcile this strength and fragility within our being and in the world we inhabit?

In the Buddhist view we talk about karma -- the chain of causality. Causes and conditions from the past come together and create the current circumstances we face. We choose our response to these circumstances and create the basis for further causes and conditions moving into the future.

But who can say they comprehend, in this powerfully interdependent world we all share, the deeper meanings of these catastrophic events in the natural world and the profound currents and shifts in human society that are brought about by them?

There is, however, in this vast ocean of uncertainty, one thing I think we all can agree on: In times like these, we do have a powerful choice to make. We can choose fear and panic, or we can choose mindfulness, love and compassion. Such is the power of our human heart and mind.

Our hearts go out to our friends in Japan. They have survived powerful obstacles in the past, and no doubt they will rise to this new challenge. We are connected to them in seen and unseen ways. Their fragility is our fragility. Their strength is our strength. Their suffering is our suffering. Their survival is our survival.

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