A ritual for responding to natural disasters

March 14, 2011

I look with horror at what’s happened and happening in Japan, searching for clues that can lead me toward trust. I can’t ever trust that earthquakes won’t happen again, of course, or that tsunamis or other natural forces won’t again devastate masses of our planet’s life. At this writing it looks as if radioactive fallout will be part of many of our imminent futures.

I want to trust, however, that it’s possible to see devastation like this with compassion and strength, neither depending on sure-fire rescue/protection/healing-the-survivors missions in order to have hope, nor going limp and despairing in light of how small I feel in the face of such tragedies and the surety of our earth – and likely my own self – enduring many, many more of them.

I want to trust, too, that there’s a view, an outlook, that neither minimizes suffering, nor makes it out to be the last word on what really IS.

And I want to trust that suffering is and always can be more than awful. More so than a nevertheless or any platitude about the value of suffering could ever convey. Part of some kind of whole that is deeply, inexplicably good.

Here’s a ritual that, for me, is a path toward this kind of trust. I created it for myself, and offer it with those like me in mind: people more than a step removed from the heart of the devastation, but who are nonetheless moved and stricken by what has occurred and aware that no one is exempt from experiencing future disasters comparable, in some way, to these.

No magic bullets here. Just a pathway that’s taking me in a good direction.


Water Bowl Stones
A ritual for responding to natural disasters
This ritual is designed to do four things:
  • Raise consciousness about what it is we’re actually feeling in response to natural disasters. Sometimes free-floating, unnamed, and often conflicting emotions are our greatest source of fear, and our sense of trust rises dramatically just by naming what they are. Naming our emotions is also an important step in knowing what, if anything, to constructively do about them.
  • Reduce feelings of smallness, helplessness, and detachment from any ability to help.
  • Clarify the work that is ours to do and consciously leave the work of others for them to do.
  • Give a tangible, visual metaphor that anchors the points above in our active memory.

This ritual can take half an hour or much more, depending on how much reflection you want to put into it.

To Begin

Find a bowl – preferably one that you like – and fill it half way full with water. Imagine that this water is the common human experience, and thus a symbol of that which holds and connects our species. A unitive force.

Set this bowl on a table or the floor, and sit in front of it for some time of reflection.

Begin by getting mindful of the water as a symbol. Imagine the ways that this force, this common human experience, is pulsing in and around your veins as well as every other human on this planet…including those in northern Japan, and all the folks who listen to news about what’s happening there.

All of us know life’s joy. All of us know pain.
All of us are intimately acquainted with fear and
all of us hope for greater reasons to trust.

Next, with pencil and paper in hand, take a few minutes to answer the following questions. Be as brief or as detailed as you wish.

  1. What feelings am I having in response to what happened in _________? (This week, that blank would be Japan. Other weeks, other devastated places.)
  2. In what ways do I connect compassionately with others? (This can feel out of left field, but connects deeply with the second goal above.) “Others” can include your connections with plants and animals, and be as close-in (your partner or dearest friend) or as broadly encompassing (relief and human rights work) as you wish it to be. The idea is to honor the ways that you already connect compassionately in our world and to see these connections, in light of the bowl of water in front of you, as inextricable parts of a broader story of connection.
  3. What is my heart nudging me to consider doing? This doesn’t mean in response to Japan necessarily, but it could. Just neutrally, what has your heart been nudging you to consider doing recently? This is a chance for you to get more clear about the work that is yours to do right now and to release the work of others for them to do (including, sometimes, relief work in places of recent disasters).

    It could be that your work IS to respond practically to what’s happening in Japan – by offering money, prayer/meditation, time, or other resources. If this is true, what an important thing to name! Naming it might be a doorway to an important new life-season for you.

    It could be that your North Star has been beckoning and beckons still for you to take some other heart-felt step, though. This is a chance to get conscious of what that call might be and to release all other callings to the people to whom they rightfully belong. (And by calling, I don’t mean something inherently huge and beyond your four walls. This could mean getting your finances in order; spending more or less time with your kids; buying some art supplies; simplifying; etc.).

Once you’re done reflecting, try to write or circle a word or short phrase for each of your responses to make them easy to count.

Here’s my list of emotions for the first question with my circled words in bold. Your list, of course, would include responses to the other two questions as well.


Fear: I feel afraid of natural disasters harming me or people that I love. I don’t want to travel to places where they’re likely to happen, and hate the fact that I live right on top of where a massive earthquake is predicted to happen in the near future. I feel afraid of nuclear contamination and cancers that can grow in response to it, too. I don’t want to suffer their effects or have to watch others suffer them, either.

Horror: I feel horrified as I see what people have and are suffering in Japan. It feels too much. Too awful. To gruesome. Too terrifying.

Grief: I grieve that anyone has to suffer anything at all, and most acutely the suffering that’s being experienced right now in Japan.

Numbness: Sometimes I just don’t care or think about Japan at all. Sometimes I read a headline about it and brush past it like it’s nothing. Sometimes I avoid the headlines because I don’t want to think about them at all.

Relief: I feel lucky that I haven’t had to endure anything remotely like this and that my loved ones are not in Japan.

Anger: Life feels so unjust. I’m angry at the apparent inequity in the way suffering is spread across our globe.

Guilt/Shame: I’m not clear which one of these I feel, but there’s something here about the way I tune suffering out a lot of the time that feels shameful or wrong. There’s something here about me feeling embarrassed about taking my own life and struggles so seriously – how my hardships seem ridiculous when compared to what others are facing right now.

Aliveness: though I’m not yet sure what my practical response to Japan will be, I feel more acutely aware this week of my presence on our globe, and the many opportunities I have to participate in healing and nourishing trust.


With list in hand, or simply with the number of items on your list in mind, take a walk somewhere where you can collect one small stone for each item on your list. Be as symbolic as you wish to be in this – grabbing any stone you see to reach the right number, or mindfully choosing certain sizes or shapes to match each item on your list.

Return to your bowl of water and mindfully place each stone into the water, taking some moments to consider what each one represents. Notice the way each stone makes you feel as you place it into the water. Notice the way the water surrounds it. Consider what you’re seeing as a small representation of something vast – billions of people feeling their feelings, knowing their fears, observing suffering, hearing the nudgings of their hearts.

Consider the ways in which you, immersed in this water, heart and mind full of images of nature’s fearsome ways, are

uniquely positioned to follow your one heart,
connected to every other human, near and far,
responding compassionately to others on the planet,
honoring the full range of emotions in you.

Leave your bowl in a place where you will see it regularly, and give it a small, internal bow when you see it there, and whenever you think and feel about Japan (or whatever natural disaster is in focus for you now).

This month’s theme at Trust Tending is nature. Click here for a description of the theme, and here for a working list of themes in months to come.
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17 comments   |   Filed in: Rituals   |   Tags: ,   |  


  1. Wow.

    I’ve been feeling like a good cry for a week now and this really opened the flood gates. I work with a number of folks from Asia and the woman that does our reshelving came in yesterday and we asked how her family are doing back in Japan (she’s from near where the quake hit.) Her uncle is missing and her elderly parents were further inland but she’s visibly shaken and feeling rather helpless. She told me she hasn’t eaten much all weekend just junk food because she feels so guilty she has food and her countrymen don’t.

    Today I’m going to help her with her work just so she has someone else around her so she doesn’t feel so isolated. And I think tomorrow I’ll bring in something nutritious for her to eat- one really shouldn’t try to survive on chocolate and potato chips.

    Thanks for this beautiful website. I may not always contribute, but I am always out here reading.

    I’m off to collect some stones.

    Comment by Keri — March 15, 2011 @ 1:52 am
  2. This is so lovely, Kristin – I feel soothed just reading it. I love that you provided something that we can all do in a time when the helplessness can be so overwhelming and scary. Of course not to help, but to feel as though we are somehow emotionally sending support, and calming our own hearts. To be reminded, as you say, of the connection to all of humanity. Thank you. xo

    Comment by Lindsey — March 15, 2011 @ 4:26 am
  3. Keri, oh, I can so imagine the need for tears, being this close to someone personally affected. Wow. I love the ideas you describe here. I love examples of any of us not suffering alone.

    I’m so grateful for your company here.

    Lindsey, thank you. I hope that in addition to giving time, money, companionship, etc. to those personally affected by these disasters, our steps to grow peace and follow our hearts’ lead really do affect such people, too. Sometimes I feel silly saying that, but sometimes it seems so utterly, clearly true.

    Comment by Kristin — March 15, 2011 @ 7:13 am
  4. [...] Kristin Noelle’s Ritual for Responding to Natural Disasters [...]

    Pingback by How Can We Respond to the Disaster in Japan? — Gaian Soul — March 15, 2011 @ 7:54 am
  5. Kristin,

    Thank you for this. What a lovely thing to do. I truly believe that our energy is tangible and can be extended to those in other places for both our benefit and theirs.

    Much love,

    Comment by Pamela — March 15, 2011 @ 12:17 pm
  6. This is so lovely, Kristin.
    I often struggle with how to address situations like that in Japan with my children. Stepping through a ritual like this would be really helpful. Thank you so much.

    Comment by JC — March 15, 2011 @ 2:29 pm
  7. Pamela, me too!! xo

    JC, I hear you. How old are your kids? Mine are still really little and I’m trying to find the line between protecting my kids too much from life’s tragedies and exposing them to more than their little psyches need to handle. If you have insights or experience with this, I’m all ears.

    Comment by Kristin — March 15, 2011 @ 2:50 pm
  8. This is a really beautiful and centering ritual – thank you for sharing it!

    Comment by Deborah Weber — March 15, 2011 @ 5:20 pm
  9. My deep pleasure, Deborah!

    Comment by Kristin — March 15, 2011 @ 7:54 pm
  10. Kristin, I wish had insight on talking to kids and finding that balance between being honest and practical and being alarming. My kids are 9 and almost 5 and still feel like I’m fumbling and confronting it for the first time every time. Both of my kids are kind of anxious by nature (and probably nurture…) so I find that I often err on the side of saying too little, when actually talking through the feelings generated by seeing what’s in the news would be probably be better in the long run.

    Comment by JC — March 16, 2011 @ 9:33 am
  11. JC, I hear you. Fumbling is a lot of what I feel like I’m doing too.

    Here’s what I’m thinking: the more I can embody a sense of courage and peace – can actually live such things even when I’m not talking about them – the more my kids will feel such things, too. This doesn’t mean I don’t want to continually think heartfully and strategically about what I SAY to my kids, but it takes the pressure a little more off of words and gives me good motivation and permission to keep tending trust in myself, keep taking time to meditate, journal, etc. My inner health is so connected with that of my kids.

    Comment by Kristin — March 16, 2011 @ 3:03 pm
  12. Thank you for this. As someone who is self-employed and coaches self-employed people, I notice that we who work for ourselves can easily feel overwhelmed. Especially those of us in creative and caring professions can unconsciously take on the suffering while feeling so small in the face of them. Your ritual gives us all a way to be present to our feelings so that we can respond from the heart in spiritual and material ways.

    Comment by Molly Gordon — March 17, 2011 @ 9:22 am
  13. Molly, I think you’re so right about people in creative and caring professions. And maybe people who work for themselves have the double whammy of feeling more vulnerable in general – even before a disaster strikes – and having fewer people around them, in person, to talk with about and distract them from these big events.

    Thanks for your reflection here.

    Comment by Kristin — March 17, 2011 @ 9:27 am
  14. Kristin I’ve just found your blog thanks to Twitter (social media magic ;)) and just felt the need to comment here.

    Last year my boyfriend and me went to Japan for the first time, it was a dream coming true for both of us. Since then, this country is part of us. Which is why what’s happening right now is heartbreaking for the two of us.
    But I am not powerless. I’ll keep teaching yoga, that’s my work to do right now (I’m not talking about my day job ;)), it’s what I wrote in my blog yesterday.

    Thank you for the beautiful ritual!

    Comment by Emmanuelle — March 17, 2011 @ 9:41 am
  15. thank you ever so much. My friends and I are having a full moon ceremony tonight and I will bring this as my offering.
    We are one.

    Comment by Pam — March 18, 2011 @ 4:50 am
  16. Pam, the thought of you doing so makes me so glad.
    Yes: we are one.

    Comment by Kristin — March 18, 2011 @ 7:03 am
  17. [...] Noelle offers a beautiful Ritual for Responding to Natural Disasters inviting us to feel our feelings, connect compassionately with others, and listen for the nudgings [...]

    Pingback by Responding with Compassion « Abbey of the Arts — March 18, 2011 @ 8:40 am

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