It wakes us up—sometimes literally. I was shaken awake at six in the morning many years ago. The sun was just rising and the full moon setting. Through the east, west, and north windows I could see power lines snapping, arcing pale orange, violet, and blue. Smell the smoke. Hear the dogs howling and the sirens wailing from every direction. I was fortunate that my small wood-frame top-floor apartment on top of a small hill was far enough from the epicenter to survive the quake. Many in Los Angeles were not.
The earthquake woke me up to a psychophysical understanding of the privilege, the unpredictability, the mystery of being alive, and to the unshakeable knowledge that I shared this aliveness with all others on this earth. I could see, hear, smell and feel in body and mind, not only the earthquake, but also my inner sensations and emotions. Not only fear and adrenaline, but also empathy for friends, firemen, all the people in the city, and the animals, whose fear I understood in those moments was the same as mine.
What we call natural disasters—earthquakes, hurricanes, floods—often awaken us from the sleep of dissociation—the arbitrary separation of the heart and mind from the body, the constricted sense that each of us is an individual, solid, and solitary. When we realize how we’re not really separate, we respond empathically and emotionally to the recent earthquake in Mexico and to the Atlantic hurricanes with natural generosity. We know that no matter where we live, it’s earthquake country, hurricane zone.
Such responses are found in contemplative art and literature from the earliest times to the present, part of our human heritage. The “Hymn to Poseidon” in The Homeric Hymns: “I begin to sing of Poseidon, the great god / mover of the earth and of the empty sea.” It ends: “Your heart is good, O blessed one. Come to the aid of the sailors.”
Ruth Ozeki’s recent novel, A Tale for the Time Being, set in both Japan and British Columbia, Canada, bridges the Pacific in a story of the connection between two writers, separated by culture, time, and space. Yet connected, even as strong earthquakes on one side of the Pacific cause tsunamis on the other side.
The artist and geologist J.T. Bullitt uses technology to bring us the deep earth sounds of earthquakes that he collects from geological stations worldwide. He transforms the sound waves from the earth to ones human ears can hear. In the link below, he also expresses his connection with the many who were directly affected by the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami through his artwork.