James Ismael Ford, who is also a guiding teacher of the rapidly-growing practice network, Boundless Way Zen, has a new book out called If You’re Lucky, Your Heart Will Break: Field Notes from a Zen Life. We’re pleased to share with you here one of that book’s early chapters, entitled “Earthquakes”:
The first half of 2010 felt like the year of the earthquake. In January Haiti was absolutely devastated; in February there was another, even stronger quake in Chile, although fortunately less damaging; in March another tumbler in Taiwan; quickly followed by one more in Mexico; then in April, a pretty bad one on the Tibetan plateau. No doubt, such things can give one pause.
Among the responses to the devastation of these events was New Age guru Dr. Deepak Chopra sending a tweet to his followers, apologizing for starting the quake in Mexico through the force of his meditations. I assumed it was a joke—if one in pretty bad taste. But when asked for clarification, the good doctor didn’t plead an unfortunate sense of humor; instead he explained that he’d indeed been doing a powerful meditation at the time of the quake, though he did acknowledge that correlation isn’t necessarily causation.
As creepy as that might be, however, it pales when compared to fundamentalist Christian preacher Pat Robertson’s astonishing assertion that the horrendous Haitian earthquake was the result of Haiti’s founders having made a pact with the devil. “Blame the victim” is a venerable if reprehensible tradition explaining horrors, natural and otherwise.
Of course both these characters stand in a long line of people getting out in front of disasters and suggesting they know why they happened. The ones above are classic examples: one to claim unseen powers, another to blame the victim—though blaming victims is a way to claim power, as well. And these sorts of responses are about power—who has it, and who doesn’t.
And these are among the reasons I’m not overly enamored with religions.
Too often it’s just about power. No doubt natural disasters are very powerful things—and few are as mysterious and confusing and frightening as earthquakes. As a native Californian, I know—I’ve experienced many quakes. By and large, for most of my life, I didn’t really give them a lot of thought—until, that is, October 1989.
My wife Jan and I were living in Berkeley, California. On October 17, at 5:04 PM, I was at my internship site at the First Unitarian Church in San Jose, at the bottom of the Bay some forty-five miles from Berkeley. The whole thing remains vivid in my mind. I was standing in the front office, as was Lindi, our senior minister. Margie, our church’s administrator, was sitting at her desk. That’s when the earthquake struck. We were all native Californians so we ignored the first pitch. But with the second roll, as products of California’s public education system, Lindi and I each stepped into doorways while Margie went under her desk.
And that’s when I realized there was something they didn’t mention in those instructions at school. It was true I was in a relatively secure place should the building collapse—but I was also sharing that space with a door that wanted to fly back and forth. At 6.9 on the Richter scale and known later as the “pretty big one,” the Loma Prieta remains one of the largest recorded earthquakes in the lower forty-eight, and the most severe quake either Jan or I have ever experienced.
While I was in San Jose sharing space with that door, Jan was up in Berkeley in our apartment, ironing and listening to records. The room she was in, as were all our rooms in that small apartment, was filled with jerry-rigged bookshelves reaching from floor nearly to the ceiling on every wall. She felt one sharp jolt. A book fell off one shelf. As we were the building managers, Jan went outside to see if the earthquake valve—a mechanical device that turns the gas flowing into a building off at any severe jolt—had been thrown. It hadn’t, so she returned to her ironing. It would be an hour or so later when she turned on the radio before she learned why I wasn’t about to walk through the door.
Turns out that our neighborhood sat on a solid hunk of granite, and a big one at that. However, this wasn’t true for most of the rest of the Bay Area, which had experienced a hellish fifteen seconds. There were sixty-two deaths; nearly four thousand people were hurt; parts of several freeways—including one that I drove along pretty nearly every day— and a section of the Bay Bridge collapsed; eighteen thousand homes were damaged; and a total estimated six billion dollars were lost in those fifteen seconds. That’s power.
And Jan and I, like so many others, were left shaken to the core. I can’t quite describe the feeling after such an experience. The fragility of it all, and the tentativeness of life itself, seemed to seep into our pores, and grew slowly from the first exhilaration of having made it, to a bone-and-marrow knowing that the earth could move from under us at any time, and no place really was safe, no place. The next year when I was offered a call to serve a church in Wisconsin, despite being Californians who had never lived outside the boundaries of our native state, Jan and I were pretty happy to leave earthquake country.
And I’ve found I have a take-away from that experience: I find myself thinking a lot about how the lessons that stick tend to be the ones that catch me off guard, that knock me out of my safety zones. They can be big, and they can be small. These experiences, big and small, are all intimations of what we really are.
Paul Evans, who blogs as “Melville at the Custom-House” provides a nice example of what that small intimation might look like:
Panhandlers frequented most of the main streets in Clifton, the neighborhood in Cincinnati where I lived from 1990 until 1995. They were quite a nuisance, especially when they set up shop by ATMs and pay phones. I made it a point to never make eye contact or acknowledge them.
One night, a bearded street person in his mid-60s came up to me and actually clutched my sleeve. “Young man, do you have money for dinner?” They always needed it for a cup of coffee, or bus fare, or for a meal—never to buy booze. That was how cynical I was.
“No, I don’t,” I said, using a tone that telegraphed to him the matter was not open for discussion.
“Well, for God’s sake, get yourself something!” he said, stuffing a five-dollar bill in the breast pocket of my shirt. Before I could fully comprehend what had just happened, he disappeared in the other direction.
I queried Paul and he assured me the person was almost certainly indigent: his clothes needed cleaning, and so did he. I’ve been thinking about that, and the small earthquake for my new friend. And what it has meant for him in the days and weeks and years since.
I found myself thinking of that old Yiddish saying: “God is not nice. God is not your uncle. God is an earthquake.”
We all can make ourselves the center of the universe a bit too easily, and start seeing everything that is going on as being about us, about me. Like Dr. Chopra “causing” the earthquake. There is danger in this way of thinking. The truth is that in most of life, most of our lives, most of us are walk-ons, minor characters at best, with a single line to say.
But we can also, like my friend and that poor man who gave him five dollars, let the encounter open us up like a flower in bloom. It is at such moments—when I just open up, when my heart is thrown open in spite of myself—in which I discover the beginnings of meaning. Not meaning in the sense of an Aristotelian thread of argument, but meaning as something powerful and compelling, and for our human hearts maybe more important than the solution to a problem.
This sense of deep meaning is the sense that informs the Yiddish saying above: the earthquake upsets what we expect and gives us something else, something quite possibly devastating. I suggest this isn’t so much even about letting go, but about discovering there is nothing to hold on to, and nor has there ever been.
This is about being thrown into the chaos of it all, of being swept away.
In this context I’d like to hold up the Book of Job for your consideration. I’ve wrestled with that book for ages and have come back to its points on any number of occasions. I’ve found in that ancient book how, in the midst of suffering and longing and frustrated desire, in the midst of that deafening silence to our pleas and calls, we are in fact given a gift. It is a terrible gift, no doubt. The wounds we receive in our lives, the death of children, the ravages of disease, the hunger and want that haunt this world—in addition to the horror of their reality—that moment of confusion and uncertainty can also open our hearts to some fearful reality, some astonishing reality.
I’m not calling for a joyful embrace here; at least not exactly. One would be right in raging against the horror of such things as follow in the wake of these earthquakes. Indeed there is an almost endless litany of things in life that should offend us. But, in addition to weeping for the children, and doing our best to work to help the survivors—we can also look full on, and not turn away. And if we do, if we really do not turn away from those hurts, we find something.
We discover that who we are counts, however important or not we might be in the ordering of things. We discover that what we are as individuals is in fact holy. But, it is a terrible holiness. After all that happens to Job, after his great demand for justice, then, there, from out of the whirlwind—or, you can just as easily say from within the earthquake—he and we get the gift of a terrible presence and a roaring confrontation with all that is.
It is that which pulls out of Job his hymn, “I have spoken of the unspeakable and tried to grasp the infinite… I had heard of you with my ears; but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I will be quiet, comforted that I am dust.”
Comforted that I am dust. This passage has long haunted people. Some rage against it, saying all that Job is doing is wallowing in that dust, squeaking his submission to the great cosmic bully. But I suggest there is more here. That wise commentator on this whole great mess, Stephen Mitchell, in his modern spiritual classic, The Book of Job, tells us, “Job’s comfort at the end is in his mortality.”
So we need to be appalled at what has happened. We need to reach out a hand to those in need. We need to stop, to notice, and to discover in this terrible moment something about ourselves. It is, I suggest, the gateway to wisdom. And that is where we find meaning, purpose, and direction, which is also our work, perhaps the great work itself.
Out of the earthquakes of our lives, small and great—in the awe, in the silence that follows—notice.
Everything follows this noticing.