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One Earth Sangha January 22, 2014

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in 'Eaarth' Day, Anthropocene, Buddhist concepts, earth community.
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The Earth as Witness:
International Dharma Teachers’ Statement on Climate Change

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I learned of this initiative via a dharma talk podcasted from Spirit Rock. It is right up my alley and probably that of those of you who read this blog. I invite you to sign on.

Being (noun); Human (adjective) October 25, 2012

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Buddhist concepts, Buddhist practice, contemplative practice, earth community, geology, mindfulness practice, slow violence.
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This piece was published by Shambhala SunSpace on October 25.

Trying out a new set of phrases for focusing my attention while sitting a four-day retreat with colleagues from the Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education, I sat on a rock ledge at the Garrison Institute, eyes softly resting on the castle rumored to have been the inspiration for the one in The Wizard of Oz.

“Breathing in, I am aware that I am breathing in; breathing out, I am aware that I am breathing out.”

The castle has long been owned and occupied by the Osborn clan, whose ancestors are not only railroad tycoons but also some scientists — among them geologist and director of the American Museum of Natural History for a quarter century, Henry Fairfield Osborn (1857-1935) as well as conservationist and president of the New York Zoological Society Henry Fairfiled Osborn, Jr. (1887-1969).

A red-tailed hawk sailed in the cloudless, powder blue sky, and the broad leaves of a tulip poplar rustled among the other leaves in robust autumn color. And the thought once again occurred to me: human being is no compound noun; being is the noun, human is just an adjective.

And then my mind wandered to the beings I find in my backyard most days of the week:

Cat, orange;
Chicken, white leghorn;
Deer, white-tailed;
Dog, stray;
Fox, kit;
Heron, great blue;
Maple, norway;
Owl, barred;
Spider, jumping;
Squirrel, gray;
Turtle, snapping;
Woodpecker, red-bellied

All of them beings, living.

When our group came out of silence, we spent a bit of time talking about how our contemplative practices affect us as teachers. One of the more concrete effects the practice has had on me is that in my geology courses, when talking about organisms, I no longer refer to “living things.” Rather, though sometimes sounding odd to my students, I talk about other organisms as “living beings.”

I owe this shift in perspective to the Metta Sutta (the Buddha’s words on kindness)

Wishing: In gladness and in safety,
May all beings be at ease.

Some years ago after reciting the sutta in the course of metta practice (wishing ease for all beings), I experienced this epiphany. Now, all that lives and has lived on this planet is abeing to me, not a thing. And we share this Earth with multitudes of these beings. We need only be still in one place long enough to notice them. For those interested in such an endeavor, check out The Forest Unseen, biologist David Haskell’s observations over the course of one year of a single square meter of forest in Tennessee.

Have you had this kind of perspective-shifting experience as a result of your sitting practice? I’d love to know. In the meantime, may all beings live with ease.

Predictably Unpredictable Earthquakes Require Compassion, Not Conviction October 25, 2012

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Buddhist concepts, Buddhist practice, contemplative practice, earth community, earth system science, earthquakes, environmentalism, mindfulness practice, science.
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Published on Wednesday, October 24, 2012 by Common Dreams and October 25 by Truthout.

Like many scientists, I am aghast at an Italian court’s conviction of geoscientists on criminal charges for their judgements made about seismic risks prior to a 6.3 magnitude earthquake that descimated the L’Aquila, capital of the Abruzzo region, and killed more than 300 people in 2009.

 A crowd on Monday watching the trial of seven earthquake experts in L’Aquila.
(Filippo Monteforte/Agence France-Presse – Getty Images)
Anyone who lives there knows that L’Aquila lies in a tremendously seismically active area of Italy.  In fact, Italy is one of the most earthquake-prone regions of the world– dozens of earthquakes occur every day there though many are low magnitude and not felt by human beings. But sizeable seismicity is recent history: a 6.9-magnitude earthquake struck Eboli, south of Naples, in 1980, killing more than 2,700 people and another major quake struck the Molise region in 2002, killing 28 people, including 27 children who died when a school collapsed.
As journalist Stephen Hall reported in a feature article for Nature, L’Aquila was devastated by earthquakes in 1461 and in 1703; he quotes British travel writer Augustus Hare in 1883 on the seismic reputation of the place: “Its rocks, its soil, its churches, are riven and rifted by constant earthquakes, for even now nature suddenly often sets all the bells ringing and the clocks striking, and makes fresh chasms in the old yellow walls.”
My heart aches for those beings that lost their lives in the L’Aqulia quake of 2009. But why blame scientists for a natural event and its consequent unnatural disaster just because human beings live in harm’s way?   This seismic event and the unjust conviction of scientists trying to understand an always and yet increasingly unpredictable Earth remind me of words attributed to historian Will Durant, “civilization exists by geological consent subject to change without notice.”
Geologists cannot predict with exactitude when an earthquake will occur. We can get some notion of how often seismically-induced motion will occur on a particular fault because we can check the timing of previous jolts along the fault. But really this allows us only to forecast, in decades-wide windows, the inevitability of such events.
When we examine a geologic map of the world, an unfortunate reality becomes clear: the most populous cities on Earth exist along plate boundaries. Plate boundaries are typical sites of seismicity AND since they frequently coincide with shorelines and sources of water our earliest civilizations arose and grew there.  Rather than focus on retrospective blame for today’s unnatural disasters, especially in light of inevitable yet unpredicatble seismicity in poorly constructed megacities, society as a whole must accept the fact that geoscientists will never be able to predict these types of events with temporal accuracy enough to save lives.
We would do better to focus on the fact that today large population centers in places like Tehran and Istanbul are disasters waiting to happen. As we saw in the 2010 Port-au-Prince quake, haphazardly constructed communities in vulnerable mega-cities put millions of people at risk for the suffering that ensues after a large earthquake in a poorly prepared region. The answer to the problem lies not in the impossible prediction of the timing of earthquakes. Rather it requires that existing buildings be reinforced and that new construction be done such that buildings don’t collapse when the ground shakes.
Rather than punish the geoscientists in Italy who did what they could given the predicatable unpredictability of earthquakes, the Italian government should bear responsibility for not taking steps to secure buildings in this seismically active area. And in terms of the future, may we recognize that the Earth is a dynamic planet. As a planetary community, we must find ways for all human beings to live in tune with the movements of Earth.

Earth, Mars, and Meteorites Inter-Are October 1, 2012

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Buddhist concepts, earth community, geology, Iron Man/Space Buddha, Mars, meteorites, Norman Fischer, science, Thich Nhat Hanh.
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This piece is cross-posted on Shambhala SunSpace.

Credit: Dr. Elmar Buchner

While discussing the five skandhas (aspects) that constitute a human being during a dharma talk on The Heart Sutra—a core Buddhist text—renowned Zen teacher Norman Fischer commented that although we don’t need science to confirm the veracity of what we think to be true, it’s nice when it happens that way.

Recently some extraterrestrial data sources corroborated for me what my beginner’s mind thinks The Heart Sutra teaches—that all phenomena are expressions of emptiness. Fischer says this teaching on emptiness is really a teaching about connection. Emptiness, he says, refers to the emptiness of any separation and therefore to the radical connection or interdependence of all things.

Thich Nhat Hanh coined the term “interbeing” to express this idea that no thing arises independently. As he described in The Heart of Understanding, there is only the constant arising of the universe (which etymologically means “turned into one”)—each so-called thing enables every other so-called thing. News of the past weeks from both Mars and the asteroid belt confirm such connection between Earth and our neighbors in the solar system.

Ever since it landed in Mars’ Gale Crater in early August I’ve been following the discoveries of NASA’s Curiosity rover (a car-sized, six-wheeled robot), the $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory whose mission is to see if the red planet ever could have supported small life forms called microbes. The photos the rover sends back are mesmerizing and the discoveries tremendously exciting for they show that the material substance and processes of Mars are the material substance and processes of Earth.

Curiosity’s discoveries in the past months repeatedly reveal rocks and rock formations that are similar maybe even the same, as what we see on Earth. For example, the first rock analyzed chemically by Curiosity, just for the sake of target practice and dubbed “Coronation,” turns out to be basalt. This is no more spiritually surprising than it is scientifically surprising: this type of volcanic rock is common on Earth and Earth’s moon as well as known from previous missions to Mars to be abundant there.

In at least three sites, visual observations by Curiosity’s high-resolution imager reveal sedimentary conglomerate—a rock composed of compacted and rounded gravels naturally cemented together. We know from geological observations on Earth that water transport is the only process capable of producing the rounded shape of rock fragments this size. Curiosity has found evidence of an ancient Martian streambed!

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS and PSI

Listen to Rebecca Williams of the Planetary Space Institute describe these findings. Williams is able to offer her lucid explanation because Curiosity is seeing on Mars the same materials and processes we are accustomed to seeing on Earth.

And as if I were not already convinced of the truth of The Heart Sutra, word arrived that a one thousand year old Buddhist statue taken during a Nazi expedition in 1938 turned up five years ago and was analyzed by planetary scientists in Germany.

Guess what the monument is carved from: iron meteorite, a piece of a meteor from the asteroid belt. Okay, so this piece of iron meteorite has an unusual composition. It’s an especially nickel- and cobalt-rich variety and so is easily traced to the Chinga meteorite that 15,000 years ago smashed into the border area between Mongolia and Siberia. Nonetheless, this “Iron Man” was carved from a piece of space rock whose major elements, iron and nickel, are the very same elements that make up the core of Earth.

Not that we need science to confirm that what we think is true. We’ve also got the wisdom of the ancients. Earth, Mars, and meteorites, for example, inter-are.

This entry was created by Jill S. Schneiderman, posted on October 1, 2012 at 10:28 am and tagged. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

Bringing Wise MInd to “Mine-golia” May 30, 2012

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Buddhist concepts, Copper, environmental justice, mineral resources, Mongolia, slow violence.
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This piece is cross-posted on Shambhala SunSpace.

How shall we bring the Buddhist “perfections of the heart,” such as generosity, patience, equanimity, truthfulness, renunciation, and wisdom, to the ways we interact with the earth? I sometimes find myself adopting what might be considered a generous stance of sharing equally what Earth offers. But then I realize that I’m reacting to a feeling of needing more than what I already have.

In “The Bodhisattva Path,” the eighth-century monk, scholar and poet Shantideva wrote:

May I become an inexhaustible treasure
For those who are poor and destitute.
May I turn into all things they could need,
And may these be placed close beside them….

Just like space
And the great elements such as earth,
May I always support the life
Of all the boundless creatures.

I reflected on these verses, and having listened recently to Sylvia Boorstein’s talk “The Paramitas as the Path” and a four-part series on National Public Radio about resource development in the Central Asian nation of Mongolia, I wondered how we human beings might apply Wise Mind to the issue of extraction of Mongolian mineral resources.

As reported in the NPR series, the sparsely populated nation of Mongolia is in the midst of a mining boom that has the potential to reduce widespread poverty there. The country is rich in copper and gold, among other metals, particularly in the Gobi region where nomadic herders have traditionally depended on water for sustenance. But water will be used in vast quantities at the copper mega-mine being developed at Oyu Tolgoi(“Turquoise Hill”) about 50 miles north of the Chinese border. Mining operations willlower the water table and threaten the livelihood of herders who constitute as much as 40% of the population.

Humans have used copper for thousands of years. King Solomon mined it at Timna to help build the temple in Jerusalem. It’s a critical resource for most of humanity, but it is also easily recycled. According to the International Copper Association, 80% of the copper ever mined is in use today. So something doesn’t feel right about unearthing more copper to lift a portion of a nation’s people out of poverty while sacrificing compatriots who will suffer from groundwater depletion.

And yet, as Sylvia says (a phrase that is heard nearly every day in my household) when she teaches about the paramis (the fully cultivated mind and heart qualities of a fully awakened being), to practice generosity and equanimity is to be wise. That is, Sylvia teaches that wisdom is an anomalous parami because we can’t wake up in the morning and say “Today I am going to be wise.” Instead one can treat simply nine of the paramis as aspects of one: wisdom.

Is it generous to endorse the actions of Rio Tinto, a massive Australian mining company, so that the financial wealth that accrues from copper mining trickles down to the people of Mongolia? Or is that simply plundering the earth? Perhaps as Sylvia teaches, giving up destructive habits such as surface and underground mining on massive scales is truly the manifestation of generosity.

Sylvia also teaches that suffering is caused by the imperative in the mind that things be different. The truth of Mongolia is that it is a landlocked nation with little arable land. Does it make sense to struggle with this reality, to pry from the earth more of what we think we need? In my view, creation of a vast mine in a remote region for the extraction of a recyclable mineral resource seems to be the result of confused rather than clear, wise minds.

After Earth Day, Active Hope April 30, 2012

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in "Eaarth", book review, Buddhist concepts, climate change, earth community, earth system science, environmentalism, geologic time, Joanna Macy, mineral resources, science.
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This piece is cross-posted on Shambhala Sunspace and truthout.org


With its numbered teachings, Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in Without Going Crazy (2012)a new book by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone, pays tribute to its Buddhist roots. However, instead of the four noble truths, the noble eightfold path, the five hindrances, and the four brahmaviharas, readers of Active Hope get three stories of our time, five signs of the great unraveling, four stations of the work that reconnects, and three dimensions of the great turning. In their book, Macy and Johnstone update the repertoire of teachings that will enhance our abilities to acknowledge disturbing ecological truths and respond with creativity and resilience.

According to Macy and Johnstone, Active Hope is a practice—we do it rather than have it—with three key steps: obtaining a clear view of reality, identifying the values and directions we hope for, and taking steps to move our situation along that path. In their view, since it requires no optimism, but simply intention, we can apply it even in seemingly hopeless arenas.

Good thing. Macy and Johnstone name resource depletion, mass extinction of species, climate change, economic decline, and social division and war as five signs of the great unraveling, but the signs also bear striking resemblance to the Book of Revelation’s four horsemen of the apocalypse: Famine, Death, Pestilence, and War. I don’t mean to be alarmist, but Macy and Johnstone say it themselves:

“We can no longer take it for granted that the resources we’re dependent on—food, fuel, and drinkable water—will be available. We can no longer take it for granted even that our civilization will survive or that conditions on our planet will remain hospitable for complex forms of life.”

Scientists’ take on Earth’s vital signs suggest such an imminent reality.

The author of numerous books, Joanna Macy is a scholar of Buddhism, general systems theory, and deep ecology. Hers is a deservedly respected voice for peace, justice and the environment, honed over fifty years of activism. In this clear and practical book, physician Chris Johnstone joins her to articulate her approach to activism and empowerment, which she calls The Work That Reconnects.

I first learned of Macy in 2007 when I googled “deep time” and “Buddhism” in a search for a meditation teacher who might help me integrate my preoccupation with contemplative practice and geologic time.  Reading Active Hope gave me a window into Macy’s Work that Reconnects and fueled my inclination towards it. Here’s why.

Other recent books on global change focus on dire, dispiriting problems and offer sweeping seeming-solutions. Macy and Johnstone’s manual strives to equip us with a “transformational mindset.” Conceptualized as a journey, the book takes readers along a stream of thinking that, in the authors’ words, flows toward a way of life that enriches rather than depletes the Earth. Chapters in the book guided me through the four stages of the spiral of the Work that Reconnects: Coming from Gratitude, Honoring our Pain for the World, Seeing with New Eyes, and Going Forth. I could tell you more but I’d rather you read the book.

What I will say is that this book offers poetically scientific and accurate renderings of feedback loops and geologic time that will, I think, be helpful as we work little by little toward radically reconfiguring life on Earth. I love that Macy and Johnstone devote a chapter to helping readers develop that critical “larger view of time.” I think the book will refresh environmentally-minded Buddhists who suffer from what I’ve come unfortunately to think of as environmental change fatigue. In Active Hope, Macy and Johnstone teach us how to focus on our intention and strengthen our ability to respond happily to the vexing global crisis in which we live.

This entry was created by Jill S. Schneiderman, posted on April 30, 2012 at 10:19 pm and tagged. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

What Pema Chödrön (Unwittingly) Taught Me About Climate Change March 30, 2012

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Buddhist concepts, Buddhist practice, climate change, disasters, earth community, earth system science, mindfulness practice, slow violence.
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This piece is cross-posted on Shambhala SunSpace.

Recently, when I opened my copy of Offerings: Buddhist Wisdom for Every Day for a bit of early morning inspiration, as has become my habit, I found the following insight from Pema Chödrön:

Not causing harm requires staying awake. Part of being awake is slowing down enough to notice what we say and do. The more we witness our emotional chain reactions and understand how they work, the easier it is to refrain. It becomes a way of life to stay awake, slow down, and notice.

Reading it, I couldn’t help but think how relevant her comment is to the situation of North America in March of this year, a month that has felt downright summery. On the college campus where I teach, students have been gallivanting about in shorts, t-shirts and sandals, basking in the warm sunshine, and asking me to hold class outdoors.

It was unseasonably warm around the Ides of March 2012 and I’ve had an appropriate sense of foreboding. On that day The Washington Post reported that hundreds of temperature records had been broken; and the pattern continued for days with unprecedented record heat spanning much of the continental U.S. and Canada. In some places, temperatures were more than 30-40 degrees above normal — breathtaking.

The extent and intensity of the heat wave can be seen on the diagram below, courtesy of NASA’s Earth Observatory, a map that shows just how out of the ordinary these temperatures have been.  It shows temperatures of the land surface compared to the same eight-day period of March since the millennium turned. The red color represents areas with warmer than average temperatures while the blue reflects areas that were cooler than usual.

During this balmy spell, I’ve been teaching a course on so-called “natural” hazards. Pema Chödrön’s comment helps me realize how important it is that I enable students and other fellow beings to awaken to the seriousness of this unseasonal surprise. Though in my class I’ve concentrated so far on the more dramatic disasters — earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions — the truth is that more human beings died from exposure to heat and drought in the period 1986 to 2008 than from any other type of hazard including floods and tornadoes, among the others I’ve already mentioned. Not far behind heat and drought in the list of leading causes of hazard-related fatalities is winter weather.

Weather-related disasters are unspectacular and slow-moving so they are easy to not notice. We can get caught up in the elation of a summer day seemingly gifted to us ahead of schedule or an October storm that causes celebratory whoops among school children who are seeing their first snow day of the season.

But if we slow down and take notice we learn from studies such as one completed by scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research that daily record high temperatures occurred twice as often as record lows over the last ten years across the continental United States. This shows that climate is shifting for if the planet was not warming, there would be roughly equal numbers of record high temperatures and record lows over the last few decades.

Despite the fact that teaching about such hazards can sometimes erode hope, I’m motivated by the desire to do no harm. I realized the other day that there is virtue in paying attention to not only the wrenching disasters but the slow-moving, potentially catastrophic ones. Doing so provides the opportunity to integrate mind and heart, understanding and behavior.

This entry was created by Jill S. Schneiderman, posted on March 30, 2012 at 5:23 pm and tagged. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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Falling in Love with “Other” Earth February 27, 2012

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Buddhist concepts, Buddhist practice, environmentalism, mineral resources, science, Thich Nhat Hanh.
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This piece is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace.

Photo by Don Farber

In his recent interview with Guardian editor Jo Confino, Zen master Thich Nhat Hanhsuggested that a spiritual revolution is needed so that we might avoid living in a future world torn asunder by societal stresses related to climate change. He characterized such a spiritual revolution as one in which we fall back in love with the planet and see the connection between the Earth and ourselves. In doing so, he says, we will heal the planet.

I had just heard Christian Parenti, contributing editor at The Nation and author of Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence (2011) speak about the “catastrophic convergence” of climate change and increased social and political violence, and as a result felt convinced that Thich Nhat Hanh’s radical prescription for repair is precisely what we need. But how does one fall back in love with the Earth?

For me, learning about this remarkable planet is an important means to that end. And though I’ve studied the earth for three decades, I continue to understand it in new ways that inspire my devotion. For example, currently I am enamored of a new and unusual framework within which to think about the Earth’s minerals.

In 2008, geoscientist Robert Hazen with collaborating colleagues proposed a radical revision to the way we think about minerals. In the past, mineralogy was considered an ahistorical subject, one in which formation of minerals was viewed as unlinked to the twists and turns of history. In this view, the quartz of today is the quartz of yesteryear, relatively unaffected by the moment in time when the mineral grew.

But Hazen and his colleagues suggested that minerals have evolved over time along with the Earth. Why? As we know from studying meteorites, only about 60 different minerals existed in the materials that came together to form planets and asteroids in Earth’s solar system. Hazen’s group pointed out that today we count more than four thousand minerals on Earth. Through processes such as the formation of oceanic and continental crust, melting, and volcanism, mineral diversity has increased over geological time.

At first, the notion that minerals have evolved in concert with life seems surprising. Since nearly one hundred elements make up the periodic table you might think that an almost infinite number of crystalline compounds might form from the get-go. But different minerals develop only under very particular conditions of pressure, temperature, and concentrations of specific elements.

After initial accretion, the numerically small array of Earth’s minerals were affected by rapidly changing internal temperatures and pressures and external fluctuations in the chemistry of surface waters and atmospheric gases. Thus, according to these researchers, the first minerals combined to birth new mineral species.

Then when life originated on the planet, even more possibilities arose for the evolution of new mineral species because even the simplest organisms– colonies of microbes– metabolized minerals. As life evolved, organisms directly made minerals that served good purposes like shells, bones and teeth. And by the time that photosynthesizing plants caused the atmosphere to have an overabundance of oxygen, indirectly they were responsible for the formation of a multitude of new oxide minerals at the surface of the Earth.

If Hazen and others are right, then minerals evolve along a linear arrow of time; there is no going back to bygone Eons of a limited number of mineral types.  Minerals diversify in irreversible manner just as organisms do and I’m excited to think in this new way about these mostly inorganic substances!

What’s more, although reports from the Kepler mission to survey near realms of the Milky Way galaxy and find Earth-size planets around other stars have inspired dreams of finding an Earth-like planet, it seems unlikely that any such planets would look like our blue-green home.

As reported in a recent issue of Nature Geoscience, an array of research contends that ostensibly original environmental features of the Earth in fact appeared late in the planet’s history and were brought about by evolution in the three domains of life with unpredictable contingencies.

These recent developments in the way we think about both minerals and life have caused me to fall in love again with this planet, as Thich Nhat Hanh has urged.

But though I agree with this beloved teacher that we must develop that “insight of inter-being” which concedes the connection between the Earth and ourselves, I differ with this teacher whom I respect and admire, when he refers to our planet as “Mother Earth.”

I believe that harm may come from referring to our planet as “Mother Earth.” Instead, I think it is critical to acknowledge that well into the 21st century we have rendered the planet Other Earth, a system separate and apart from ourselves. In academic parlance, we have “Othered” the Earth–made it into an object rather than a beloved subject. Such acknowledgement is part of the “real awakening, enlightenment, to change our way of thinking and seeing things” which Thich Nhat Hanh advises.

We have distanced ourselves from the Earth. But as Thich Nhat Hanh says, we are the Earth. And,

When we recognize the virtues, the talent, the beauty of (M)other Earth, something is born in us, some kind of connection, love is born. We want to be connected. That is the meaning of love, to be at one. When you love someone you want to say I need you, I take refuge in you. You do anything for the benefit of the Earth and the Earth will do anything for your wellbeing.

The complex interactions between minerals, life, and landscapes of our host planet have enabled our wellbeing. It is up to us to love it in return.

Cherishing Living Beings — Seen and Unseen January 9, 2012

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Antarctica, Buddhist concepts, earth community, earth system science, environmentalism, fracking, hydraulic fracturing, hydrosphere, ocean pollution, oil spill, science, yeti crab.
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This piece is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace.

(Image from the first-ever video footage of the newly found Yeti Crab.)

The first time I chanted the Metta Sutta — the Buddha’s teaching on lovingkindness — I was a retreatant at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts and I got caught up in the inflection marks that appeared above the words; I couldn’t quite figure out when my voice should go up and when it should go down. I felt self conscious about not getting it right and awkward each time we chanted thesutta (in Pali, the language of the Buddha, sutta means “thread” and its presence in the title of a text indicates that it is a sermon of the Buddha or one of his major disciples). Still, at each sit I looked forward to the collective chant. I listened carefully and chanted along with the group following the rhythm, tempo,  and pitch. Eventually the sutta seeped into my bones, resonated in my body. In short order, I loved it.

These days, one of my favorite aspects of a retreat with Sylvia Boorstein and Sharon Salzberg is our coming out of silence by reciting together this sutta and discussing the lines we love. Usually my mind settles on “contented and easily satisfied” or “so with a boundless heart should one cherish all living beings.”

For there, seven thousand feet beneath the sea surface, are  “black smokers” — hydrothermal vents in the ocean floor — that spew hot, mineral-rich water into cold deep and build chimneys of a sort. Around them, living beings seen and unseen, cluster–species of giant tube worms and clams feeding on microscopic organisms, species sharing this spot on Earth over millions of years.

Not that I’m trying here to suggest that either the microscopic organisms or the larger animals at the vents are sentient and feel what human beings call contentment; rather, these critters are simply eking out a living — making the best out of their (sub)station in life. And I guess that to me, this is another manifestation of the wisdom of the Earth System; at these black smokers we see other beings that live within the constraints of their situation –”contented and easily satisfied.”

I’m inspired by these beings that make their own food not from sunlight (photosynthesis) but from chemicals in the water (chemosynthesis)! They’re not grazing on golden hills like the deer Sylvia has described that wander near Spirit Rock Meditation Center. They are what biologists call extremophiles. They dwell under pressure, in the dark, making their food from the Earth’s hot effluent!

Amazingly, but perhaps not surprisingly given that three-quarters of the Earth is ocean and we’ve explored precious little of the floor beneath, there seem to be plenty of living beings we’ve yet to meet. A few days ago, published research on newly discovered deep sea hydrothermal vents in the Southern Ocean near Antarctica revealed some entirely new species. Check out this previously unknown species of hairy-armed crustaceans called “yeti crabs” living tightly packed together on and around the vents.

In the aftermath of various insults to the salty portion of the Earth’s hydrosphere such as the recent oil spill off the Nigerian coast, and in anticipation of damage from hydrofracking to unknown beings that undoubtedly reside in deep regions of the lithosphere, I offer these observations.

Perhaps one day we may, in the words of the sutta, cherish with a boundless heart all living beings, omitting none.

This entry was created by Jill S. Schneiderman, posted on January 9, 2012 at 11:04 am and tagged. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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A Taste of Impermanence December 14, 2011

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Buddhist concepts, Buddhist practice, contemplative practice, impermanence.
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This piece is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace.

We were a few days into a week-long silent meditation retreat and pecan bars were on the lunchtime dessert menu. I was particularly into the process of bringing mindful awareness to mealtime. In the past, the practice resulted in loosening knots in my mind so I felt open to the possible surprises this retreat might offer.

A sign next to the dessert tray listed the ingredients: brown sugar, butter, eggs, pecans. I decided to indulge and took one pecan bar to my seat at the massive, dark table in the silent dining room of this one-time monastery. It was small, soft, and barely held the rectangular shape into which it had been cut. I placed it in my mouth and felt the sweetness on my tongue.

Served at room temperature, the pecan bar began to melt in my mouth — literally. Since I was practicing mindful eating, I didn’t chew at first. For many moments I held a nutty morsel in my mouth. Over time, my saliva dissolved the sugary brown butter. Sitting in attentive stillness I noticed the changing size and shape of this small mouthful. Over time, my mouth held nothing more than pecan fragments. Slowly I chewed and swallowed them.

A remarkable thing about this experience of mindful eating was that it provided an embodied way to appreciate the phenomenon of weathering — the process by which Himalayan-sized mountains get transformed into Appalachian-sized nubs. It’s not an easy transformation to envision — 24,000 feet-high mountains being reduced an order of magnitude to 2,000 feet in hundreds of millions of years. And yet it is true that impermanence applies to Earth formations as well as to mental ones. Even seemingly permanent landscapes don’t last forever in the fullness of geologic time. How does this happen? Mindful consumption of pecan bars shows the way.

Because pressure and temperature conditions deep inside the Earth differ substantially from those above ground, rocks and minerals experience a change of state from equilibrium — a mineralogical equivalent of equanimity, if you will — to disequilibrium when they become exposed at the surface. Rocks and minerals disintegrate and decompose as they readjust to the changed conditions. Without needing to be transported, they are chemically and mechanically transformed.

Rocks and minerals are not organic, living beings and yet they are impermanent. During the type of chemical weathering known as dissolution, fluids alter the structure of a mineral by adding or removing elements. It is by this process that marble monuments become less defined when subjected to acidic rainwater.

In the case of the melting pecan bars, the moist warmth of the mouth provides both a chemically active fluid and temperature conducive to the breakdown of sugar crystals.

During mechanical weathering, rocks disintegrate physically into smaller fragments, each with no chemical transformation. In the case of those easy-to-swallow pecan bars, teeth did the mechanical work of breaking down the resilient nuts.

Though I often find that earth processes recapitulate the dharma I was delighted to experience in this instance an example of mindfulness practice illuminating earth processes. Impermanence holds true for human beings and mountains but how nice it was to become aware of this benign example during the retreat.

Click here to read more of Jill S. Schneiderman’s “Earth Dharma” posts on Shambhala SunSpace.

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