David Kennedy of the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration (NOAA) is “frightened.” An estimated 5,000 barrels of oil a day—that’s 210,000 gallons daily, 8,750 an hour, 146 gallons a minute—are spewing into the Gulf of Mexico from a leaking oil well a mile deep in the ocean. Recent NOAA satellite images show the oil slick to be about 125 miles long and 40 miles wide, covering approximately 5,000 square miles. That’s about the size of Connecticut. The Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig explosion of last week seriously injured 17 workers. Eleven are missing and are presumed dead. As the first strands of oil begin to reach environmentally sensitive Louisiana wetlands, 100’s of species of birds and countless other forms of marine life are threatened.
Contemplating the effects of this disaster, I am frightened too. And that is only one of myriad feelings. There is deep sadness at the injury and loss of life and the inevitable future destruction to wildlife and environment; anger, confusion, and a knee-jerk desire to place blame somewhere, anywhere; feelings of helplessness; and guilt over my part in creating the insatiable need for oil that led to this event. Like most of us, I am, willing or not, a daily consumer and user of petroleum products. Indeed, it occurs to me that the plastic keyboard I am typing on as I write this is probably derived from oil, as is much of the computer you are using to read this.
Heart aching, almost physically feeling the environmental devastation, and at a complete loss as to what to do, I recall the “slogan” of Atisha, used in the practice of lojong and tonglen, Tibetan contemplative practices to develop nondual compassion:
“When the world is filled with evil,
Transform all mishaps into the path of bodhi.”
That ache we feel when we contemplate the harm happening to the Earth can become the seed of bodhi, the beginning of awakening and compassion. If feeling distress over the current environmental destruction, this could be a good time to take a moment from the world of action—even if that action is directed to saving the world—to expand our wisdom and enlarge our hearts to include the whole ocean, even the whole planet, and all of its creatures. Such wisdom and compassion—such a heart of bodhi—can only help us in our response to disaster and our healing of the Earth and ourselves.
You might do this by taking a moment to relax, and then open your heart, and with an open heart practice tonglen, contemplative “taking and sending.” With a spirit of fearlessness and generosity, take a leap, fearlessly expanding your care and concern. Using the breath as a vehicle, take in the sadness, the fear, the chaos, the injury, even the toxins and the ugliness of the disaster. Open your heart to them, really allowing yourself to feel that this Earth’s creatures—the birds, fish and mammals threatened by the oil spill, even the billions of affected micro-organisms in the ocean, are not separate from you. They are your family, they are “all my relations,” as the Lakota Sioux say. The Earth itself, including its oceans, are also not apart from you. Indeed you can feel them—you cannot help but feel them—because they are your body. Allow yourself to experience this with your whole being, your body, mind and emotions, if you can. Then, after a little while, breathe out in the form of brilliant golden rays your love, your care and your wishes for healing the planet and all life on it. Do this again and again until peace and love are established within you, and you are ready to walk the path of bodhi, the path of awakening, peace and love.