I have come to realize that the disastrous effects of the denial of death go far beyond the individual: They affect the whole planet. Believing fundamentally that this life is the only one, modern people have developed no long-term vision. So there is nothing to restrain them from plundering the planet for their own immediate ends and from living in a selfish way that could prove fatal for the future – Sogyal Rinpoche , The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying
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Apocalypse—the Global Crisis March 2011
We are sorry for all of our Japanese friends and the challenges they are facing right now. Many students from all over the world have written to me to say they are dedicating their classes to the Japanese people and ask if sending prayers to Japan is enough. Initially I thought of responding to the needs of my Japanese students with a compassionate message especially for them, but as I was putting it together, I realized that the earthquake, tsunami and subsequent damage to the nuclear plants are affecting people all over the world now and incidents like this are almost certain to happen in the future in many places outside of Japan—we are a small, interconnected global community. While many of us live on islands like Japan and New York City, no one of us is an island and so I feel my message must be more generalized.
In regards to the effectiveness of prayer, of course prayers are always good, and for those who are able, donations or volunteering can also be good. Remember that as yogis we are striving to realize the oneness of being. The challenges facing all living beings in Japan, as well as the Earth Herself, are our challenges, and we must respond to them with compassion.
But at the same time, let us as a community take this opportunity to look deeper—to try to understand what has already happened and why and to consider how future suffering can be avoided. While prayer and other direct responses to devastating events can be helpful, they can also be used to deny our own responsibility and as a means to skirt the real issues, and that does not help. It is time that we as human beings question our lifestyle and stop defending it as if we have a right to disregard the laws of Nature over immediate economic gain. Many of us have been accustomed to living in such a way that does not attempt to harmonize with the wild ways of Nature. We act without consideration for how our actions would affect the essential quality of life on Earth (for all animals, plants, soil, water and air) in the near or distant future. For instance: cutting down forests to build shopping malls, airstrips and housing developments; using building materials that are hazardous to life; building nuclear power plants, knowing the dangerous risks involved; knowingly investing in oil and gas drilling that pollutes water, soil and air, as well as injuring and/or killing many animals; using our rivers, lakes and oceans as dumping sites for toxic waste. Did you know that of the trillion plastic bags consumed worldwide each year—requiring millions of barrels of oil to produce—billions end up in the oceans where they kill or maim marine life?
Do we really value our way of life to such an extent that we would pit ourselves against the Earth time and time again and then ask God to give us the courage to rebuild after an earthquake or flood, so that we can open up our shops and go back to business as usual, as soon as possible? Messing things up but then praying to almighty God to come to the rescue is pitiful. To beseech God to help us defend our way of life and fight against an earthquake or a tsunami as if the Earth and the ocean were enemies that are savagely attacking innocent victims shows our disconnection to Nature on a serious level. To ask God to give us the strength to fight the Earth is not to see our place in the whole scheme of things. If a savior should come to the rescue, shouldn’t that savior be a friend to the Earth? We human beings certainly haven’t been too friendly to the Earth. We have lived our lives as if the Earth belongs to us. We even speak of Her in terms of resources available for our use. We have made little or no attempt to learn how to live in harmony with the Earth; instead we have been at war against Mother Nature for the last 10,000 years or more.
The natural disasters occurring in our world today could well be Mother Nature’s way of retaliating. Do we honestly think that she is that complacent and is going to continue to silently allow us to rape and exploit—milking her dry? She is after all a living organism with her own built-in, organic means of homeostasis and will undoubtedly do her best to balance imbalances. Earthquakes and tsunamis are natural phenomena that do not arise out of nowhere. Our biggest mistake as human beings has been to view ourselves as somehow outside of Nature—as a separate case—not of the Earth. We build densely populated cities on fault lines or on low-land river deltas, flaunting the vulnerability rooted in the inflated perception of ourselves as superior and above mere natural forces. We build nuclear power plants, even in places that have experienced the horror of radiation first hand. We look the other way when it comes to the risks involved because it can provide a cheap source of energy right now—who cares about future contamination? We have felt we could live barricaded in a bubble of our own construction—in the form of air-conditioned high rises and/or gated palatial estates—inside watching television or surfing the internet in the safety and privacy of our own homes with limitless cell phone access. We have convinced ourselves that what we do to the Earth, what we do to animals and to each other doesn’t necessarily have to affect us. But the truth is that when we poison the water, we poison ourselves; when we spray toxic chemicals into our atmosphere, we poison ourselves. Every acre of land planted and dowsed with pesticides and herbicides affects us all. Every river, lake or ocean used as a dumping site affects us all. Every animal and plant that is genetically manipulated affects us all. Every gentle animal chained and locked up in a farm and then slaughtered in a bloody slaughterhouse affects us all. Every migrating wild bird dropping from the sky, poisoned, affects us all. Oil drilling, natural gas fracking and nuclear power plants affect us all. We are all Earthlings—our fates intertwined with all of life.
We are in the midst of a global environmental crisis that we human beings are causing primarily by our exploitation of animals and our consumption of the planet’s resources. Most of us aren’t even aware of the devastation we are causing, and those of us who have an inkling don’t really know what to do about it.
Why are these catastrophes happening in the world today? The simple answer would is human greed arising from a feeling of privilege. Greed knows no economic boundary. Rich people and poor alike can be consumed by greed. Most human beings in the world today who consider themselves poor would want to be rich—would want to have the money to buy whatever they want. When people speak of human rights they are usually referring to the right to spend money—the ability to enslave and eat animals and consume resources. The more money you have the better you are treated. People who have less or no money are treated badly by other people. Of course in our culture, animals, who have no money, are treated the worst and are either enslaved as domesticated units of productivity or if they resist and insist on living wild are being rapidly exterminated.
The human population is now 7 billion. Still, many Americans and others in more wealthy countries continue to plan on having children, rationalizing their choice by saying that they have the means/money to support those children. The real question is, “but does the planet?” A baby born in the U.S. will consume, during its lifetime, 20 times more of the world’s resources than that of a child born in India or Africa. Two percent of the world’s human population holds fifty percent of its wealth. If you look at a map of our world, you will see that the people with the highest level of income live mostly along the coasts of the US, Europe, Hong Kong, and Japan and Australia and within a few isolated patches of Saudi Arabia.
Where there are rights there have always been wrongs. Then of course there are truths, which go beyond right and wrong. “Might is Right” has been the driving force propelling most of our actions. Don’t think that Republicans who make a lot of money are the only ones who champion that slogan. It is the slogan embraced by everyone who feels that as long as they have the money to pay for it then they have the right to it. Hence, people keep lights burning in houses and apartments when they are not at home and flush whatever they want to down toilets; hence, anyone who has the money can go to a restaurant or a grocery store and buy a piece of meat or a whole fish; hence, anyone who has the money can get in a car, bus, train or plane and go wherever they want to; hence, anyone who has the money can get just about whatever they want in this world, regardless of the moral or ethical ramifications to other animals or the environment, and no one will question their right to do so.
What is happening to Japan now could happen anywhere—yes, it could happen to any of us, and the likelihood that something similar will happen is pretty certain, especially to people who live in coastal areas and where there are nuclear power plants. But horrible things are happening right now to billions of animals in factory farms and research labs, to billions of fellow Earthlings who live and breath in the oceans, which are being rapidly poisoned. The most meaningful response to the earthquake and tsunami in Japan would be for each of us to seriously examine how we are living our life today and ask ourselves how we could reduce our consumption. Could we live more simply? Real needs are not wrong; wants, on the other hand can be problematic.
Could we wake up from our ignorance and deprogram ourselves from our addictions to comfort, gluttony, entertainment and our right to buy stuff? Or is it too late? I don’t know if it’s too late, but what is our alternative? Should we all just give up and remain blissfully blind because it is too unpleasant to look at the truth of our own actions—are we too far-gone to reverse where we are heading? Okay then if you are really resigned to that kind of pessimism then—why not pull out all the stops and go to hell in a hand-basket, drinking champagne, eating steak and lobster—or what is more likely—just continue with your daily life as usual?
But if that scenario doesn’t appeal to your sensibilities, then there are other options. But those options do require not only a radical change of lifestyle, but also a more expanded perception of oneself—and that may not be for everyone. To live as an intelligent optimist during these times demands that we find ways to simplify our lives, and for that to begin to happen we have to not think of “living simply” as equated with living a deprived life. We must eradicate our notions of human rights as the right to buy stuff. If optimism is to be engendered then each of us must question the very foundation of our lives—what motivates our actions, our relationships, our dreams and aspirations. There is no denying that each one of us is a small but significant part of a larger fragile eco-system. We can daringly choose to see ourselves as a part of the whole and then act accordingly. The most courageous act that any person can do these days is to dare to care about the happiness and well being of others and to expand their vision of others to include all others—other animals as well as the whole environment; to live one’s life in such a way that enhances the lives of others. To live one’s life in such a way that one widens their perception of self, becoming so expansive as to strive to enhance the planet and even beyond, is to evolve to truly living a full life. When one can diminish their own ego and feel part of the whole, then one begins to understand their potential for holiness. It then becomes impossible to see what is happening to Japan as something isolated and apart from one’s own life. What is happening in Japan right now will most likely happen all over the planet sooner or later. We are all in this together.
As Michael Franti sings, “Everyone addicted to the same nicotine, everyone addicted to the same gasoline…everyone addicted to a technicolor screen, everybody tryin’ to get their hands on the same green…” The question now that each one of us should be asking ourselves is can we free ourselves of our addictions—addictions to all the stuff that has come to constitute our precious lifestyle, a way of life that poses terrible risks to the future of life on Earth. Can we live without things like shopping malls, cars, planes, nuclear power plants, oil drilling, fast food and factory farms? Do we have the courage and creativity to find a new way to live that doesn’t destroy the planet and ourselves in the process? Can we be that truthful, that exposed? Can we live that naked? The times we are living in now may well be the prophesized apocalypse. Apocalypse means “to uncover. ” An apocalypse may be just what we need right now to help reveal to us our great potential—what is underneath all the artifice, the trappings and pretense that make us appear as apart from nature and special. If we could use the recent so-called catastrophes as a way to wake up and examine our way of life and thus begin to sort through and find only what is essential and then be brave enough to let go of all of the unnecessary wants we have conditioned ourselves to identify with. Are we ready for that kind of fierce awakening to the knowledge of our true selves? Would we be able to recognize ourselves, naked without the familiar trappings of culture, without our addictions to all the stuff? Perhaps if we were willing to try to overcome our greed, we could discover our ultimate destiny. As Patanjali suggests, when one becomes selfless, ceasing to take more than one needs, one obtains knowledge of why one was born. aparigraha-sthairye janma-kathamta-sambodhah PYSII.39
The eternal truth that burns inside of each soul is joy, happiness, love. It is our essential nature, it is what everyone longs for, and it is our destiny. We may have been looking for it in external things, but it can never be found in things. It has always been available to anyone who wants to look deeply inside, but to be able to do that we will have to take off our clothes and let go of whatever it is that has been covering and obscuring our true heart for so long. We will have to embrace the Apocalypse.
With blessings and prayers for all the people of Japan, human and animal alike, and for the alleviation of suffering for all beings everywhere…