An experience as devastating as the earthquake and tsunami in Japan causes us all to wonder why and how such an event can occur. The loss of human life and damage to property poses many sobering questions to a person of compassion and conscience. It touches us at the deepest level and forces us to confront the experience of suffering.

Yet there are lessons, insights, and healings that come from even the darkest night of the soul.

Disasters move us to revisit and reorder our priorities, and transcend old limits and patterns through kindness and caring. If we have become distracted from the values that make life work, upsets can serve as a valuable course correction.

When the Japanese earthquake hit, English teacher Anne Thomas was living in Sendai at the heart of the devastated region. A few days after the disaster I received a forwarded email from one of Anne’s friends, sharing her gripping and inspiring view of the difficulties. In the aftermath people had to come together. They shared water, food, and a kerosene heater. “We sleep lined up in one room, eat by candlelight, and share stories. It is warm, friendly and beautiful.” Those with the good fortune of running water posted signs so others could come and fill up their buckets. “People keep saying, ‘This is how it used to be in the old days when everyone helped one another.’ ”

Without water, people could not bathe or shower. Yet Anne saw a blessing even in this. “We feel grubby, but there are more important concerns than that for us now. I love this peeling away of non-essentials. Living fully on the level of instinct, of intuition, of caring, of what is needed for survival, not just of me, but of the entire group.” And most poetically, “The heavens at night are scattered with stars. I usually can see about two, but now the whole sky is filled.”

Anne’s conclusion: “An enormous cosmic evolutionary step is occurring all over the world…I can feel my heart opening very wide…I feel part of something happening much larger than myself. This wave of birthing worldwide is hard, and yet magnificent.”

While many people are focusing on the tragedy and devastation associated with the disaster, this woman found majesty in the way people were coming together to help, and the rewarding return to essentials. Everything is what we make of it, and some good comes of every bad. The outpouring of love and support to the people of Japan has been phenomenal. So many people have donated money and prayer, and many have traveled to the affected zone to lend a hand. Giving love is healing to those who extend it, and for the Japanese, generally a proud and independent people, receiving love is equally healing. A Japanese friend told me, “I heard about a team of Israeli doctors who came and donated their services. I had no idea anyone in Israel cared about us and would make such an effort. Maybe kindness is still alive in the world.”

A Zen master said, “Now that my house has burned down, I have a much better view of the sky.” Sometimes when something we thought we needed is taken away, the space reveals riches we were missing because we were distracted by our assumed source of security.

In one of my favorite movies, Starman, an extraterrestrial comes to earth for a short but intense adventure. When he has to return to his planet, someone asks him, “What did you learn about human beings?”

He answers, “When things are at their worst, you are at your best.”

Things don’t always have to get to the worst before we bring forth our best. We can offer kindness, compassion, clarity, and appreciation for the simple things without needing a cosmic whack to get our attention. If we appreciate the night sky without an earthquake, we may not need a disaster to remind us of the star-borne gifts it offers.

Metaphysically, an earthquake represents that the ground of our being is shaking. Simple observation reveals that nearly every human institution we have depended on is shaking — economics, education, government, religion, marriage, and how we relate to the environment, to name a few. The Japanese earthquake is not restricted to that foreign island; it represents a worldwide shakeup affecting us all. The event is less important than how we react to it. We can choose fear or love, with no real options in between. You can go into panic and insecurity, or like Anne Thomas, you can relax into security of a higher order than the one we have been trained to depend on.

Shake up can lead to break up or it can lead to wake up. Let’s use the experience as a call to remember how we were born to live.

Devastation, personally or geographically, is never an end. It is always a means to a greater end. For everything taken away, something greater comes to replace it. As Japan rebuilds to become even stronger, may we all find new stars in the sky.

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