A Centering Prayer for Cephalopods and Marine Mammals

A Centering Prayer for Cephalopods and Marine Mammals

Bringing Water Creatures Into Our Awareness


How can we help ocean life, both practically and spiritually? Our resident animal chaplain shares her (and her father’s) wisdom.

When I was a kid, my father’s best friend lived in Maine, so my family often piled into our car to experience the joy of jumping into the waves and brushing sand off our toes. These are happy memories of laughter and fun, the smell of wet dogs, and the feeling of freedom and timelessness. But sad moments were present, too. I remember crying over washed-up jellyfish and tossing beached alewife back into the water, hoping it would somehow revive them. The ocean was a confusing place, a bringer of both delight and death.

Many years later, we’d relocate to dry, parched Nebraska. The only connection we’d have to the Atlantic was our neighbors’ annual lobster boil. Grudgingly, I’d attend but shield my eyes, baffled by the activity. I never bought into the declaration my father would always share while dropping a live lobster into a pot of scalding water: “Oh, they can’t feel it.”

Advocacy and Action for Ocean Life

Some thirty years later, it turns out I win that argument. Dropping live crustaceans into boiling pots is now illegal in Switzerland, Norway, New Zealand, Austria, and some cities in Germany and Italy, thanks to anti-cruelty legislation. What’s more, over 50 animal protection groups recently helped institute the UK Animal Welfare (Sentience) Act, which may lead to further protection for lobsters and octopuses.

“Octopuses are incredibly intelligent, sentient animals who are capable of feeling emotions like joy, pain, and fear,” reports In Defense of Animals, an animal protection organization. “Scientific research has documented vast evidence that octopuses experience a range of moods, from grumpy to playful, just as humans do, and show remarkable curiosity and problem-solving abilities. They are able to use tools, plan ahead, and even befriend other species.”

Our increasing knowledge about cephalopods and other ocean dwellers increases both direct action efforts and peoples’ interest. For example, the Sea Shepherd Society currently runs over twenty campaigns, from shutting down illegal drift netters to protecting monk seals and Amazon river dolphins. Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness quickly became a bestseller. Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed’s documentary My Octopus Teacher flew up Netflix’s most-watched list and won Best Documentary at the Oscars.

Yet, amidst all this seeming progress, disaster looms on the horizon as plans for the first octopus factory farm are proceeding in Spain. As a result, Harvard’s Animal Law & Policy Clinic and the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine called on the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to enact protections to stop the inhumane handling and use of octopus, squid, and cuttlefish in laboratory research.

How to Spiritually Support Ocean Life

Most people lack a boat or extensive marine knowledge, so how can we help lobsters, octopuses, and other aquatic creatures?

An obvious first step is to add our names to petitions that advocate for their protection. Second, we can help raise awareness of oceanic issues on our social media feeds. Finally, we can try praying.

Does praying on behalf of others work? Scientific literature is mixed. Some studies report a positive treatment effect. Other researchers suggest our time might be better spent focusing on the health and psychosocial benefits for those praying.

Remarkably, prayer may be helpful for its ability to increase our empathetic responses to others. “Embodied practices or spiritual exercises enable a person to see a suffering world and respond to it with compassion,” offers Matthew T. Eggemeier, a professor of political and liberation theologies at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. Or, as my father once preached in one Sunday sermon, “Prayer doesn’t change things. Prayer changes people, and then people change things.”

Try It Yourself

Popularized in modern day by Father Thomas Keating, the practice of centering prayer stems from the Christian tradition. At first, it may seem to share similarities with japa, the meditative repetition of a mantra or divine name popular in Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, and Buddhism. Yet centering prayer in this tradition uses only a single word held silently in mind as a way to deepen a divine connection. I suggest you use the name of the animal you are concerned about and for whom you’d like to increase compassion.

  1. Sit in a comfortable position so that your mind is alert, but your body is relaxed.

  2. Take a few deep breaths to center yourself.

  3. Close your eyes as a symbol of disconnecting from distractions.

  4. Open your heart to the presence of the mysterious force of divine creation.

  5. Bring to mind a creaturely word, such as cephalopod, octopus, lobster, or dolphin.

  6. Sit silently, receptive to the presence of connection with something greater than yourself or to that still presence deep within you.

  7. If your thoughts wander, return your mind to the chosen creaturely word.

  8. Continue for at least 10 minutes.

  9. After your prayer time, stretch gently and return to your day.

A curious thing happened when I started using this practice within my spiritual community. Congregants started emailing me poems, photos, and stories about ocean life. One remarked that she now opened her yoga classes with an octopus meditation. Another reported he had sworn off eating calamari and lobster. Most notably, all had become more interested in how they could take action to help protect these beings that they now felt closer to.

Although my father was most certainly wrong in his knowledge of lobster pain, he was right on target with his advice on prayer.

Want more water spirituality? Read “Lessons From an Underwater Monastery.”

A Centering Prayer for Cephalopods and Marine Mammals

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