How Mindfulness Can Inform a Life and Death Situation

It was the last morning of a mindfulness retreat I was leading. I was getting ready for our final practice and closing circle when the distress call came in.

A guest had gone for an early-morning walk on the beach and had come across a very large aquatic creature that had recently been stranded. It was still alive but deteriorating rapidly.

Image credit: Rebecca Shisler Marshall

At first I thought it was a baby whale but on closer inspection it appeared to be an immense fish. We estimated his weight to be close to 300 pounds. His large eye was open and slowly blinking at us. His expression seemed to be one of confusion and helplessness.

Every once in a while a fin would weakly, helplessly flap against the mass of his gray body trapped firmly in the sand: a futile attempt at finding comfort and ease again.

The tide was going out. Any rescue attempt would be a race against the clock.

One minute you're swimming along, enjoying the sun on your back and the next you're flailing helplessly against the sand, not sure where you took a wrong turn or how to get back on track. Surely we've all felt this.

I remembered all those times I felt desperate, confused, hopeless and trapped. I felt his stuckness as my own.

I put my hand on the firm, cold, musculature of him, looked into his eye and vowed that I would do everything I could to get him back into the ocean.

We pushed as hard as we could but made absolutely no progress. I ran back to the house to see what tools I could find to help.

By this time, two others had arrived. We used a bucket to fill with ocean water and keep him wet while we dug around him. We would push with all our might but he was barely budging. He was about 20 feet from the ocean.

The empaths in the group were having a hard time witnessing his suffering. We used a rope to wrap around his wet body and somehow got enough traction to move him about a foot. We repeated this process over and over and were making slow, painstaking progress.

As we worked, I was trying to stay mindful of my experience. I noticed my intense desire to relieve suffering but remained unattached to the outcome. I was at peace with the fact that the end result of all our efforts might be death.

I noticed love arising for big-hearted R who orchestrated this rescue with her cry for help. She whispered to him gently and kindly as we worked, and sent him blessings and love.

I noticed my aversion and anger towards the person not interested in helping us, who thought the fish should just be left to die. But of course he was entitled to his opinion.

I heard myself saying, "He WILL swim again!"

Then someone in the group remembered that we had talked about setting intentions and manifesting. She yelled out in her most forceful and passionate voice:

"I call in the OCEAN to help! OCEANNNNNNN!"

Within a minute, a large wave flooded the area, allowing us to push him a few feet. Miraculous! At this point we had been at this for about 45 minutes and hadn't seen much wave action until now.

A few more large waves crashed over us. With one last, mighty heave that sent R and I into the cold, February ocean, he was free.

We stood there shivering and wet, with tears streaming down our faces, our hands raw from the effort, not sure if he would survive or not, but knowing we did all we could to save him.

Although this was not the morning I had planned, it was a tremendous final exam of sorts; our very own Mindfulness Capstone project delivered with impeccable timing from Mother Nature herself.

• How would we bring everything we had been cultivating in the retreat out into the real world?
• What is our real work?
• How will we act when the chips are down?
• What is our purpose?
• When is action called for?
• How can we keep our inner peace and equanimity even in the face of adversity and suffering?

And isn't life just like that sometimes? You can strategize and plan your morning down to the minute and then you will suddenly and inexplicably find a giant, gasping, half-dead behemoth at your feet and you will have to decide what to do.

While you are trying to decide, you might be smacked by freezing waves. At the end of it all, you will be left shaken, bruised and trembling from the effort but deeply grateful because you will have had the privilege of embodying compassion and will have seen your efforts magnified through the compassionate acts of others.

You will get to learn that the universe is always there to support you if you just remember to ask.
And you just might have saved a life and isn't that what this is all about anyway?

Even if the life you're saving is really your own.