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James Baraz

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Anything Can Happen at Any Time: Zen Lessons from Japan

Posted: 04/01/11 08:09 PM ET

What's happened in Japan affects all of us. Perhaps, like me, you've noticed a sober backdrop of stunned sadness that's been pervading our collective psyche. If we are to become more conscious human beings then each moment can be taken as an opportunity to wake up. What can we learn so that this tragedy helps us deepen our understanding and become more awake?

A central tenet of existence is the truth of impermanence. Ultimately there is no stability in a constantly changing world. Everything on this physical plane is subject to this law of unreliability -- our bodies, our mind-states, our relationships, even the very earth we stand on. As one of my teachers puts it: "Anything can happen at any time." Zen philosopher Alan Watts called it "the wisdom of insecurity." An earthquake is a direct experience that there's no solid ground to stand on. The images coming out of Japan not only touch our hearts, they underscore the fragility of life. How can we relate to the unpredictability of life so that rather than living in a continual state of anxiety this truth helps us grow and informs our lives?

Buddhist teachings encourage people to reflect every day on the fact that, because of the truth of impermanence, everything near and dear to us will sooner or later be separated from us. The aim of this practice is not to depress or dwell on the morbid, but to inoculate us from the pain and confusion when the inevitable comes. Knowing that anything can happen at any time can remind us to wake up and be present for life as it's happening now. Instead of sleepwalking through it, taking it for granted as we fantasize about the future or live in the past, life's fragility awakens us to the precious gift we've been given. When we realize that the only moment there is is the one we are in, we're more motivated to be here for it and honor it with our presence. It becomes a sacred gift worthy of our attention.

We often carry the vague hope that there's something out there to make our lives better or relieve our boredom. But we can feel the fullness of the miracle of life as it is right now. The breath you're breathing now doesn't seem like a big deal but if a 20-foot wall of water was quickly descending upon you it would suddenly be the most important thing in the world. Why wait for a tsunami to appreciate it? Your family and friends may sometimes get on your nerves or annoy you. If they were all swallowed up in an instant, your life would be turned upside down. You would probably give anything to hold them one more time and let them know how much you love them. Why not feel that love now and let it be a larger context that holds any annoyances that get in its way?

Accepting that anything can happen at any time helps us understand that life is out of our control. As much as we want to feel secure, events will unfold as they will. And in this physical plane, events do not happen in a vacuum. They affect everything around them. Buddhists call this interconnectedness. One metaphor describing how a small change in one location can have a major influence in another is the famous "butterfly effect" of chaos theory: A butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can alter the path of a tornado in Texas. In a complex system a change in one condition can produce a result in another part of the system. As we're seeing now, what happens to those far away can ultimately affect those near and dear to us.

What we do now has major consequences in the future. Knowing how the delicate balance can be so easily disrupted should motivate us be as prudent and conscious as we can, to do our part to support the safety and welfare not only of those we love but of all of us. When it comes to nuclear energy, not preparing for an absolutely worst case scenario is, in effect, crossing our fingers and gambling with possibly hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of lives.

It's hard to imagine that Japan, known for its thoroughness and impeccability, didn't prepare for a scenario of a huge quake followed by a tsunami and power outage that could affect the cooling system of a nuclear reactor. But it seems their final backup plan to protect millions from radiation poisoning includes hoping that the wind blows in the right direction. What happens in Japan could happen to us and may still directly affect those thousands of miles away.

Here in the U.S., we are guilty of the same "head in the sand" approach regarding nuclear power. David Lochbaum, Director of the Nuclear Safety Project for the Union of Concerned Scientists, wrote in his book Nuclear Waste Disposal Crisis, published in 1996, about a scenario similar to Japan's. He described a situation with disastrous consequences that could take place in numerous reactors in the U.S. and around the world.

For instance, in Baton Rouge, La., all that would be needed for an 87 percent chance of the same potential core meltdown disaster to occur would be for a hurricane (do they ever happen there?) to knock out the backup cooling generators of a nuclear reactor. As he says in his understated way, U.S. nuclear power plants are safe "as long as natural and man-made disasters do not occur." How can we not take something like this into account when we build these plants? Now Germany, Russia, Venezuela and other countries are thinking twice about the risks of depending on nuclear energy. Hopefully, the U.S. and other countries will wake up to the potentially dire consequences of not believing nuclear accidents could happen on a grand scale.

It's rare that the whole world watches an event such as Japan's tragedy with the universal concern we are all sharing, especially when the potential danger is not just far away but can directly impact all of us. Another lesson from this tragedy is that boundaries and borders dissolve when we see suffering on the scale we're seeing it now. The human heart opens with compassion and cares about those thousands of miles away. Your heart has probably been moved by the images in the news and the continuing plight of those affected by this disaster.

You may want to do something and don't know quite where to start. As one of my teachers says, "Action absorbs anxiety." If you let yourself feel the caring and connection that comes from your heart, you may find ways to put that compassion into action. Meditation master and social activist Thich Nhat Hanh teaches us that compassion is a verb. Whether it's sending support or prayers to the victims in Japan or working to raise consciousness to the nuclear issue here, what you do in response to this situation can lessen feelings of helplessness. What you do matters and affects us all.

James Baraz is a co-founder of Spirit Rock Meditation Center and has taught the online "Awakening Joy" course since 2003. To learn more about the course, visit Awakeningjoy.info.