I am beginning this blog on Christmas Eve day, Dec. 24, 2010. It has been a year of transitions and change for many kindred spirits I know. The past month has been a time of reflection, contemplation and envisioning for myself. After a lifetime of integrating my professional veterinary journey alongside my personal, spiritual journey, I have come to realize that the two are one, intimately entwined like two strands of DNA. During this journey, I found myself quite hesitant to share the more personal ponderings and musings of the animal lover in me, for fear that I would be ridiculed in my community of scientists. At this point in my life, I am in the process of letting go of those fears and sharing from my heart.
Throughout this journey I have been blessed with meeting so many wise, benevolent, compassionate teachers and healers, two legged, four legged and winged. This afternoon, I met one of the more interesting teachers on my journey, a giant, northwest Pacific crab. As everyone was preparing for the celebration of Christmas in all its glory, I was going along my way accomplishing some errands in the village of Ganges, in the quirky, loving community of Saltspring Island, in the “last best place on earth” as many Canadians describe the province of British Columbia. As I went into the fish store to get some local, wild caught, cold smoked salmon for a gathering, I had no idea that I was about to meet one of my more unusual wild teachers.
As I was waiting to pay for the fish, I had that unusual feeling that one may have, when they feel they are being looked at, being watched. It was not by one of the other customers or the salesperson, but to my surprise, one of the giant crabs was looking at me eye to eye. Most of the crabs were piled one on top of each other in the corners of the crab pool, except for one. This one crab sat in the middle of the pool, looking out of his/her glass aquarium right at me, not moving, not letting his/her eyes off of me. Was this my imagination I pondered. As I moved about a bit in the store looking for something, its eyes followed me, not anyone else in the store. When I came back to the counter, its eyes continued to follow me. The skeptic scientist in me could speculate that perhaps it was the colors I was wearing, a blue patagonia winter jacket. But somehow, it felt different than that. At that moment, I felt I had no other choice but to offer to buy that particular crab from the fisherman.
The fisherman said how would I like it prepared. I replied, no, I want to take it home. The fisherman continued to explain how it was much easier and cleaner to prepare the crab at their place. I realized that I had not explained to her what I was recognizing I needed to do. I said calmly to her, “I want to purchase the crab in order to set it free”. You can only imagine the look I got from her, as if I had two crab legs sticking out of both ears. I commented that I imagine that she had not seen or heard of that before and she quickly replied that “Oh yes, three months prior, there was a Tibetan monk in the store that had purchased all the crabs in the fish tank in order to set them free. I chuckled and commented that I actually was at the three day meditation retreat that Pakchok Rinpoche had just taught at the Tibetan retreat center on top of Mt. Tuam on the island. It was a combination of his actions as well as another Tibetan Rinpoche, H.E. Garchen Rinpoche, that I have studied with that stimulated my action today. In a documentary film about his life, (see www.forthebenefitofallbeings.org) it shows Garchen Rinpoche and his students setting free hundreds of shrimp in a Tibetan ritual of setting free captive sentient beings from suffering as they chant a chant of compassion “Om Mani Padme Om”. May they be free and awakened!
So, I spontaneously bought that one crab that was staring at me eye to eye (that is a good start anyway, I thought). They put her in a cardboard box and I drove her home. I think it was a female, as one person said the females have a rounder, not as pointed bottom at the rear end. Though I could not be absolutely certain. I drove home as she sat in her cardboard box in the passenger seat as I chanted the chant of compassion to her. Carrying the box in my arms, I walked her down to the ocean along a trail near my cabin. I was chanting too her all the time and set her free at the beach there as the sun shown brightly on the calm blue/green lapping waves. The next few moments left me speechless, not fully comprehending all that was about to happen. I let her out of box on the rocky, grey beach just above the water line. She sat there for a moment on the rocks, looked around, perhaps observing her new surroundings, perhaps realizing she was free. She then turned and looked at me, then turned and crabwalked into the water. A few feet into the water, she turned and looked at me again and then turned and continued walking off into the dark blue depths of the ocean beach.
There are no words that can express the joy in my heart seeing her walking off into the ocean, turning back and looking at me again, perhaps, if I am not being way too anthropomorphic (and I probably am ) , recognizing her freedom. These observations were not my imagination. My interpretation of these events is probably way too anthropomorphic for a scientist to describe. However, in this blog I am taking poetic license to share my feelings and perception about this experience, as anthropomorphic as they may be. Sounds crazy..
From another perspective, this experience made me realize that the scientific studies that Dr. Richard Davidson has conducted in his functional MRI unit at his neuroscience laboratory at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, do indeed have everyday applications and benefits. In some of his studies, where he studied functional mri’s of the brains of Tibetan monks when they were meditating, he found that when highly trained Tibetan monks would meditate on compassion for all beings, that the areas in their prefrontal cortex for joy and bliss would light up. When discussing these observations at a meditation retreat I was at with him at the Garrison Institute (www.GarrisonInstitute.org) , he felt that this was an excellent demonstration of selfish altruism in a way. In essence, that when we do something that is of benefit to others, we feel joy and bliss. OK, it does not have to be a crab, it could be any sentient being, anyone suffering anywhere in the world. How appropriate to celebrate Christmas in that way, feeling the joy and bliss of being of benefit to all sentient beings, even a “lowly” crab in a fish tank destined for someone’s dinner table.
It actually even gets better, when I shared this story with some friends and colleagues, many were so touched by this small action, that it led them to perform acts of generosity for other beings. One colleague pondered what level of compassion and empathy might it stimulate in veterinary students if they performed some action like that while in veterinary school. What effect might it have on their career path and helping other animals? Another friend asked if we could do this together for her grandchildren. She thought it would be a wonderful experience for them. It taught me the unlimited potential benefit of what setting one crab free could do for countless others.
It reminded me of a story about a child that was putting starfish back into the sea that were stuck way above the high tide line. Some stranger walked by, mocking the child for the futility of his efforts and asked what a difference that could ever make. The child humbly responded, it made a big difference for at least that one starfish.
So dear kindred spirits, have you had any experiences like that? What was your experience like? If not, perhaps, if so guided, try it and let me know.
Blessings from a kindred spirit!
P.S.: If you would like further descriptions of Dr. Davidson’s work, they are described in the book “The Joy of Living” by Mingyur Rinpoche.