Knock on the Tank

They’re a lot like us.

We recently visited an aquarium in Tokyo.  A smiling dolphin is the mascot of the place, and the twice-daily dolphin shows are the highlight of a visit there.  As space is at such a premium in Tokyo, the tanks are small — by American standards, or (it must be said) in comparison to the ocean from which all the creatures had been taken.  Before the show we watched a pair of dolphins swim round and round a tank the size of my living room.  Their eyes were closed as they swam, and it made me wonder if they swam that way in nature, or if they did that to avoid the dozens of eyes that watched them on the other side of the glass.  Were they imagining that they were really swimming in the sea?  Maybe it was relaxing to swim that way.  I don’t know.

I was ambivalent about being there at all.  I had recently watched the movie, “The Cove,” about a cove here in Japan into which fishermen drive pods of dolphins.  They put metal pipes down into the sea beyond the cove and beat the pipes.  This metal cacophony would confuse any sea creature, but it is torture for the dolphin, who navigates its world through sonar.  The confused and frightened dolphins swim as fast as they can away from the noise only to end up trapped in the cove.  The fishermen then capture the ones who seem fit for sale to aquariums – they can fetch $100,000 per dolphin – and the rest they kill and sell as “whale meat,” which Japanese people began eating after WWII.  Japanese people would not knowingly eat dolphin for the same reasons Americans wouldn’t.  Dolphin flesh is saturated with mercury, so it is toxic to the body.  But the thought of eating a dolphin. . . well, it’s toxic to the soul, as well.

I learned from the movie that aquarium dolphins often die soon after they are captured.  Those who live develop ulcers and have short life spans compared to wild dolphins.

The activist behind “The Cove” is actually the man who trained Flipper.  He says he realized the harm he was perpetuating by keeping dolphins in captivity when the main dolphin who played Flipper, whom he called Kathy, whom he loved like a child, swam into his arms and stopped breathing.  Unlike us, dolphins are conscious breathers; they choose when – and if, apparently – to breathe.  He says Kathy “committed suicide” by choosing not to breathe.  Since that moment he has made it his life’s work to free captive dolphins everywhere.  Once he learned of the source of captured dolphins, this Cove, he has risked his life again and again to expose it.

And there I was, choosing to support an aquarium that drives the market for captured dolphins because I wanted to entertain my children for the day.

I’m a life coach, and I identified with this activist and dolphin liberator, because it’s my life’s work to liberate mothers from captivity – not physical captivity but the captivity of self-defeating thoughts.  Most of us swim in our own invisible tank, the glass walls made of self-criticism and our culture’s impossible expectations of women, but especially of mothers.  We swim round and round with our eyes closed – telling ourselves it’s enough, telling ourselves it’s safe here, maybe opening our eyes to watch go by the world on the other side, maybe wondering if the spectators think we look fat from behind.  Like the captive dolphins, many of us develop stress-related illness – I am not a doctor but I have read enough Christiane Northrup and Deepak Chopra to know how mental and emotional distress causes physical illness.  We also forget to breathe – not the little, shallow breaths that just get the job done, but deep belly breaths that come naturally to babies and animals, and which communicate to our bodies that we are fine.

My cognitive dissonance – identifying with this activist and liberator and then working against him anyway by supporting the market for captured dolphins – has made me wonder how I work against myself, keep myself in captivity while exhorting my clients to be free.

Inspired by my Martha Beck Certified Life Coach colleagues, weight loss coach Betsy Salzer ( and executive coach Susan Foster (, I’m setting myself a public challenge:  to write and publish a blog post every day about the ways in which I walk-the-walk of liberation.  The reason I’m doing this is that it’s what I’m most afraid of.  On the glass walls of my captivity are written thoughts like this:  “Sure, I can write, but publish?  What if people don’t like it?  What if no one reads it? People will think I’m self-absorbed to be writing about my own experiences.  Who am I to be adding my voice to an already crowded blogosphere?”  I actually could go on, but you get the point!

Join me?

I’m challenging myself.  I’d like to challenge you, too.  Kathy, the dolphin, ended her life by choosing not to breathe anymore.  My challenge to you today is to affirm your commitment to living by breathing deeply.  Spend ten minutes sitting comfortably, feet on the ground, and breathe in all the way down to your toes.  Inhale through your nose to a count of ten and exhale out your nose to a count of ten.  Fill your lungs then keep pulling air in, allowing your diaphragm to expand deeply into your belly, until your entire torso feels full of breath.  Allow the muscles of your face to relax, relax your jaw, your shoulders, then your pelvic floor.  Notice how it feels in your body to breathe so deeply and to relax so profoundly.

What do you notice?

2012 February 6

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