How to Trust the Friendliness of the Universe (even when Disaster is Imminent)

The other day I was listening to a podcast from one of my favorite Buddhist teachers, and was inspired to bring her question into my Wednesday morning yoga class: Can we trust in the friendliness of the Universe? Even just saying the phrase the friendliness of the Universe makes me breathe a sigh of relief, so I have been staying with this powerful inquiry over the last few weeks.

Her suggestion, which we practiced in my class that day, was to start with cultivating awareness and appreciation for the goodness that is inherent in our own basic nature, for if we are basically good and if we can locate and reside in our place of basic goodness, it is easier to believe that the world also possesses that basic goodness.

This weekend I drove with my two little kids and my husband to the Oregon Coast to visit my in-laws. They live in a beautiful, well cared for home just steps from the ocean. I have always enjoyed the luxury of staying here during holidays and visits, but in the last year I have become more acutely aware of another phrase that describes where they live: The Inundation Zone. If you look on a map of the inundation zone, the place where my in-laws live is saturated with a deep red line, the area in which the devastation will be almost total when the long expected major earthquake (and ensuing tsunami) hits. I try to put this fact somewhere in the back of my mind, but before we fell asleep on our first night there my husband said wake me up if you feel an earthquake and we will jump right in the car, like turning over a fresh pile of soil to feed my stagnant paranoia. As I tried to fall asleep, my brain wrestled to imprint some basic facts: The car key is on the table. My shoes are by the door. The baby’s car seat is close to the door but maybe we shouldn’t bother with that. I nicely ask my brain to shut it so I can get some sleep. Soon, my mind was recalling some of the images from a devastating memoir that I started to read a few years ago, about a woman who had lost her entire family in the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004 but had miraculously survived it herself. I was not able to read past the first chapter, which overwhelmed me with grief and fear. Why did I read that book? I chide myself. Now I will never get those images out of my head!.

My monkey mind eventually gave way to sleep.

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The next day I watched as my 3.5 year old learned to play chase with the ocean. He would creep towards the water, and when a wave began to roll in he would run screaming towards the shore, yelling between peals of laughter run for your lives! Sometimes if he was a little too slow his ankles would get licked with the foamy residue before the wave retreated, which would thrill him even more. I hung back, trying to laugh and smile and enjoy his delight, but I could never relax fully. I could not bring myself to return to trusting in the friendliness of the ocean, which used to come so easily to me.

Later, I decided to go for a run by myself on the beach–I have always loved the feeling of running on the wet sand towards the vast landscape where the sky meets the sea, and I don’t get the opportunity very often. I noticed that the planning was still happening in my brain: If I feel an earthquake, I will run towards the house and…

As I ran, I thought about the odds. The odds were very, very low that I would be here, running on the beach when the big one hit. The odds were probably lower than me winning the powerball and becoming a billionaire. Another way to think of that is that I am kind of winning the lottery for every moment I continue to enjoy running on this beach, NOT getting killed in a devastating tsunami. In fact, all of us here on this beach today, we have won this lottery over and over and over again. True, some people will not be so lucky, and some people have not been so lucky, but if a tsunami is a sign of unfriendliness from the universe (and of course that’s a simplified and human-centric way of seeing it), then actually the great majority of the time we are being treated to unquestionable friendliness. I trust in my own basic goodness, and yet I know that I am unfriendly at least as much as the universe is. After all, I get irritable when I am stressed or under-resourced, and I can’t be friendly all of the time. Yet, people generally don’t find me threatening, so why should I find the universe, or this ocean, threatening?

Finally, I settled back to the main teaching of all wisdom traditions: All you can do is enjoy being alive in this moment. You can’t control the future. You can’t fix what happened in the past. You can’t save the world from tsunamis. But you can feel the saltwater breeze pressing against your face and stay present with the sensation of your fear, which is really just your tender heart that loves your life so much, loves your family so much, loves other people so much that you would do anything to keep them from suffering. Trusting in the friendliness of the universe, like any trusting relationship, can’t be built on denial. It is not a helpful strategy for me to ignore my fear, or blame myself for having it. It’s also not a helpful strategy to avoid information completely, like those who deny climate change or refuse to evacuate their homes when they have been given plenty of warning that a natural disaster is imminent. Everybody has different boundaries around the information they can take in before they become overwhelmed, and it’s healthy to set those boundaries, but I also challenge people to increase their tolerance for uncomfortable or painful realities, which ultimately develops a greater capacity for empathy and the strength and inner resources to create positive change in the world. Part of the friendliness of the Universe comes from us participating in it with an open heart.

On my final day at the coast I took my son back to the edge of the waves, and we played until he was covered in sand and surf. I allowed my fear to transform into a feeling of aliveness. Living fully is risky. I might get swept away, right here in this moment, along with my funny, sweet, wild child. We might experience our last moments on Earth, clinging to each other with complete love and surrender. Or we might walk away unscathed and go get a hamburger.

Knowing that a trip to the coast is a slightly more risky endeavor than staying home will not keep me from doing it, but it does heighten my appreciation for each precious moment we spend there.

I think it is worthwhile to participate in planning and self-preservation. I am slowly working on earthquake preparedness in my home. But the day that such planning gets in the way of my ability to trust in the friendliness of the Universe is the day that I must question whether it is doing more harm than good in my life. We can’t choose much when it comes to the myriad possible dangers of being alive, but we can choose to live a life without constant stress, with a willingness to feel a little fear in order to be rewarded with a meaningful exchange with life, with nature, and with being human. I knew this was a risk I took when I decided to have kids. To be honest, I didn’t feel a lot of fear when I thought of myself being swept away into the ocean. I know I will die one day, one way or another. It’s the immense vulnerability of having children that did me in. I can’t bear the thought of losing them or of seeing them suffer unspeakable tragedy. I traded in a life without fear the moment I had them, but it’s worth it. Now I get to experience vulnerability in all of its raw, bleeding glory every damn day.

So yes, I believe I can trust in the friendliness of the Universe, and I can do this without denial, ignorance or unnecessary risks. I encourage you to notice moments this week when you might be feeling stress or dread because of a sense that the Universe is not friendly to you, and inquire into your own basic goodness in search of a different view.

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