Buddhist Survival in the Andes February 5, 2010Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Andes, book review, Buddhist concepts.
This piece is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace.
I just finished reading Nando Parrado’s account of his 72-day ordeal of pain and suffering in the South American cordillera, Miracle in the Andes (2006). It’s an extraordinary testimony of his survival, along with 15 out of 45 people, most of them rugby teammates, after their privately chartered airplane crashes into the side of a volcano en route from Montevideo, Uruguay to San Fernando, Chile and comes to rest on a glacier at nearly 12,000 feet above sea level. Instead of having these members of the Old Christians rugby team play an exhibition game in Chile, the boys—most of them no more than 23 years old—find themselves relying on each other and their most intimate interior selves as they struggle to survive after the Argentine, Uruguayan and Chilean rescue teams have given up the search. Parrado’s observations about the exterior landscape in which he survives impressed me as a geologist. Even more amazing however were his remarks about the interior landscape of survival because to me they resonated with Buddhist thinking about living with suffering.
I’d read Alive (1975), Piers Paul Read’s gruesome and sensational tale of this disaster replete with charges of cannibalism and ostensibly heroic feats, as a high school student in the late seventies; as much as I can remember, it bears little resemblance to the book I just read. In this book, Parrado details the mountainous landscape that hosts the plane’s fuselage including notes about the appearance of glacial ice, volcanic rocks, sedimentary strata, skin-shredding talus slopes, and house-sized boulders reposing in braided streams. Even more noteworthy is his deep appreciation of the Earth’s vast scales of geologic time. Parrado writes: “I felt an involuntary sense of privilege and gratitude, as humans often do when treated to one of nature’s wonders, but it lasted only a moment. After my education on the mountain, I understood that all this beauty was not for me. The Andes had staged this spectacle for millions of years, long before humans even walked the earth, and it would continue to do so after all of us were gone” (203). Parrado has the eye of a naturalist. Benefiting from the gift of time more than 30 years after his hardship he describes with poetic accuracy this remote, inaccessible high-reaching cordillera, a terrain that most people will never encounter.
Parrado’s description of this trek to salvation on his own behalf, as well as that of other survivors, hints at the truly remarkable interior landscape to which his trial allowed access:
On the morning of December 8, the seventh day of our trek, the punishing snow cover began to give way to scattered patches of gray ice and fields of sharp loose rubble. I was weakening rapidly. Each step now required supreme effort, and a total concentration of my will. My mind had narrowed until there was no room in my consciousness for anything but my next stride, the careful placement of a foot, the critical issue of moving forward….
I would feel an apprehension of the age and experience of the mountains, and realize that they had stood here silent and oblivious, as civilizations rose and fell. Against the backdrop of the Andes, it was impossible to ignore the fact that human life was just a tiny blip in time, and I knew that if the mountains had minds, our lives would pass too quickly for them to notice. It struck me, though, that even the mountains were not eternal. If the earth lasts long enough, all these peaks will someday crumble to dust. So what is the significance of a single human life? Why do we struggle? Why do we endure such suffering and pain? What keeps us battling so desperately to live, when we could simply surrender, sink into the silence in the shadows, and know peace? (212-213)
Parrado’s depiction of his interior journey resonates with Buddhist approaches to a life of suffering. Central to Parrado’s ability to survive was his emphasis on breathing. More than once he recounts how his reminder to focus on the breath was the key to his survival. He writes:
I drew a long breath and then slowly, richly, I exhaled. Breathe once more, we used to say on the mountain, to encourage each other in moments of despair. As long as you breathe, you are alive. In those days, each breath was almost an act of defiance… Again and again, I filled my lungs, then let the air out in long, unhurried exhalations, and with each breath I whispered to myself in amazement: I am alive. I am alive. I am alive. (233)
What’s more, Parrado exhorted himself to pay attention for he saw that ability as life-saving. In puzzling over whether his survival was an act of God or of self-reliance he wrote:
It was not a God who would choose to save us or abandon us, or change [us] in any way. It was simply a silence, a wholeness, an awe-inspiring simplicity. It seemed to reach me through my own feelings of love and I have often thought that when we feel what we call love, we are really feeling our connection to this awesome presence. I feel this presence still when my mind quiets and I really pay attention. (263)
Parrado described how, by being present for every step and every breath, he was able to survive each moment of pain, loss, and suffering: “These moments bring time to a stop for me. I savor them and let each one become a miniature eternity, and by living the small moments of my life so fully, I defy the shadow of death that hovers over all of us, I reaffirm my love and gratitude for all the gifts I’ve been given, and I feel myself more and more deeply with life.” (262) Though Parrado gives no indication that he studied Buddhist teachings, he sounds as if before the crash he’d been meditating for years. He tells his readers that something in the mountains wanted him to be still: “I gazed at this place: we had upset an ancient balance, and balance would have to be restored. It was all around me, in the silence, in the cold. Something wanted all that perfect silence back again; something in the mountain wanted us to be still.” (188)
In these trying times that to some may feel as difficult as survival in the high Andes, Parrado offers well-tested advice—breathe, pay attention, be still.