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Bringing a “Whole New Mind” to the BP Oil Catastrophe July 28, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in book review, BP/Deepwater Horizon oil catastrophe, Dalai Lama, fossil fuel, neuroscience, oil, science.
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This piece is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace and truthout.

I recently picked up — and couldn’t stop reading — Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, because I reside with three of his so-called “R(ight brain)-directed” thinkers, and as a scientist I’ve lived most of my professional life in a “L(eft brain)-directed” world. So, though I was motivated by personal reasons to entertain Pink’s hypothesis, I was surprised to find currency in his book for two domains that preoccupy me: Buddhism and earth science.

Pink, a former speechwriter for Al Gore, argues that we now live in the dawning of the “Conceptual Age”—that which has succeeded the Information and Industrial Ages respectively—and that the skills necessary for survival in this age are, roughly put, art and heart.

Pink draws on functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data, well-known to Buddhists interested in neuroscience, that show how the left and right hemispheres divide their labor: the left hemisphere handles logic, sequence, literalness and analysis while the right hemisphere processes and synthesizes emotional expression, metaphor, context, and “the big picture.” Pink uses these data to argue that L-directed aptitudes while necessary, are no longer sufficient for leading satisfactory lives in the Conceptual Age. R-directed talents including artistry, empathy, taking the long view, and pursuing the transcendent — which were undervalued during the Information Age — are now essential. Pink asserts that the requisite abilities—he characterizes them as “Design, Story, Symphony, Empathy, Play and Meaning”—are fundamentally human attributes, things we do out of a sense of intrinsic motivation, that reside in all of us and need only be nurtured into being.

In the chapter titled “Meaning,” Pink refers to the Dalai Lama’s comment at a Mind and Life Institute press conference: “Science and Buddhism are very similar,” he said, “because they are exploring the nature of reality, and both have the goal to lessen the suffering of mankind.” Pink aims to urge the importance in the Conceptual Age of taking spirituality seriously. He offers up examples of ways of doing so—medical schools that teach their students to take “spiritual histories” of patients; village greens, prisons, universities, and hospitals with incorporated labyrinths; employees who articulate hunger for bringing spiritual values—meaning and purpose—to their workplaces as documented in a University of Southern California business school report (A Spiritual Audit of Corporate America).

I bring up spiritual values and business because BP is replacing Tony Hayward, the company CEO who presided over attempts to cap the Gulf of Mexico deep sea oil gusher, with a new CEO: Bob Dudley, who says he will put safety at the center of future exploration. Dudley has spoken of the need to restructure and reorganize in order to advance this goal.

But safety is a value—a deeply held belief that is beyond compromise; if my reading of Pink is on target, BP’s new CEO, and other oil professionals are going to have to enlist “whole minds” to embrace truly safety as a value. Robots run by computers — inventions of the information age — have worked to cap the well but it took months. Many reasons explain the absence of a fast fix, among them the fact that robots and computers can feel no empathy, don’t see “the big picture,” can’t handle context, and don’t work creatively; and approaches to the calamity sprang primarily from L-directed thinking of oil professionals—logic, sequence, and analysis.

If BP enlisted R-directed thinkers and got the benefit of what Pink calls their “high concept-high touch” abilities—emotional intelligence, imagination and creativity—could the company (and others like it), move “Beyond Petroleum,” (BP’s recent and now-ironic) marketing slogan? In The New Division of Labor: How Computers are Creating the Next Job Market, economists Frank Levy and Richard Murnane write that the future belongs to people who excel at expert thinking (solving problems for which there are no rules-based solutions) and complex communication (persuading, explaining, and conveying information). The solution to the BP disaster and future crises like it will not be a new design for deepwater drilling. Rather we’ll need imaginative, emotionally intelligent, R-directed professionals working alongside L-directed professionals in the oil industry. But that’s not all. And in order to make my point I’ll refer to the myth of Pandora, a story I’ve previously found useful in connection with the Gulf of Mexico oil catastrophe.

According to the legend, Pandora opened her jar—a gift from Zeus—and the evil it contained escaped and spread over the earth. Pandora hurried to close the lid, but the entire contents of the jar had escaped, except for hope. I’d like to argue that the analogous gift that “Pandora’s Well” might still release is the human valuing of right hemisphere brain functions—synthesis, emotional expression, metaphor, and context; if so, with regard to human use of fossil fuels, we have the possibility of acting on “the big picture” with a whole new mind.

This entry was created by Jill S. Schneiderman, posted on July 28, 2010 at 12:28 pm and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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Buddhism and Science: Kin by Water July 15, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Barbados, contemplative practice, earth cycles, earth system science, Francisco Varela, hydrologic cycle, hydrosphere, ice cores, meditation, Rabbi Jeff Roth, Rabbi Sheila Weinberg, science.
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This piece is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace


Dr. Francisco Varela (1946-2001), a neuroscientist and Buddhist practitioner involved intimately in the initiative to foster dialogue and collaboration between modern scientists and Buddhist contemplatives, commented that Buddhism, as an outstanding source of observations concerning human mind and experience accumulated over centuries with great theoretical rigor, is an uncanny complement to science.

Appreciating this, Varela and others were able to cultivate a unique forum, the Mind and Life Institute, that for two decades has led conversations between the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan Buddhists and scientists, first from the realms of cognitive psychology and neurobiology and more recently, from physics and cosmology. In his essay “The Importance of the Encounter with Buddhism for Modern Science,” Varela wrote that the natural meeting ground between science and Buddhism is the place where we put together the data from scientific empiricism with the inner examination of human experience. When writing this, Varela had in mind particularly neuroscience, but I believe that earth science may also provide a fertile commons. Allow me to elucidate.

The other day, the sea drew me down the coral escarpment behind my apartment in Barbados for my morning sit. I walked downstairs and across the lawn, now turned emerald with the arrival of the rainy season. I swung outward the heavy iron gate—hinges squeaking—that opens onto the blue water of James Bay. The tide, on its way out, exposed squat, wave-washed pedestals of coral. I walked south with the sea on my right glittering aqua in the early morning sunshine, and found my seat—the water-worn stump of a tree whose girth suggested old age. I rooted my “sit bones” in the sand, my back touched gently what remained of the tree trunk, and I focused my attention on my breath.

Per instructions from my mindfulness teachers, Rabbis Sheila Peltz Weinberg and Jeff Roth, I had reflected all week on the question “Who am I in relation to sensations, feelings, and thoughts that arise and pass from moment to moment?” It arose in shortened form as a mantra during my meditation. With my eyes lightly shut, I saw the waves pulling the coralline sand and cobbles back into the sea, reclaiming that material—the solid calcium carbonate—that it had itself once produced collaboratively with the invertebrate organisms whose home is the sea.

My breathing felt fast and shallow. Was I anxious? Would I be able to settle myself here without my cushion? Worried mind hindered me. I began again. After some time my breathing came more slowly and from deeper down in my body. Along came another distraction familiar to any beachgoer—bugs. Were ants crawling on my leg? Had a fly landed on my neck? I felt annoyed and chastised myself for having chosen an inappropriate place to meditate. Had I deliberately set myself up for failure? Recognizing that I was again beset by another hindrance—doubt—I began again, again.

As I brought my awareness to my body, I discovered that the prickly sensation on my skin was not caused by crawling insects but by my own sweat—droplets of water leaving me. An answer to the question “What am I” became clear; I am part of the hydrosphere. The realization startled me. I already understood myself and other human beings as part of the biosphere, geosphere and atmosphere—the three of the four great interacting spheres that make up the Earth System. As with any living organism, some day I will become part of the solid substrate at the earth’s surface. Through my respiration I participate in the cycling of oxygen and carbon dioxide throughout the atmosphere. But I had not previously conceptualized myself as part of the hydrosphere—surprising, given that more than half of the human body is water.

Of course I know intellectually how we humans interact with the hydrologic cycle—how we commandeer water for industrial, agricultural and domestic purposes. But during this sit I realized myself to be one of the reservoirs of the hydrosphere, albeit a miniscule one. The hydrologic cycle is simple: precipitation falling from the atmosphere as snow accumulates in glaciers and ice caps—though these days there’s more melting than accumulating going on; rainwater from clouds along with meltwater from glaciers become streams, rivers, and lakes—“surface water” in geological parlance; that water soaks into the soil and percolates downward to become groundwater and soil moisture, or it gets incorporated into living matter; ultimately it all flows back to the oceans. Evaporation of water into the atmosphere occurs throughout the hydrologic cycle, but especially from the ocean—the largest of all the reservoirs—and the cycle begins again.

Geologists know empirically something of the history of fossil waters—essentially water entombed for long periods of time in one part of the hydrologic cycle, most typically in the form of groundwater —from studying the oxygen isotopic composition of fluids in geological artifacts such as slices of Antarctic ice (H2O) cores and calcite (CaCO3) in sand-sized deep marine fossils called foraminifera. Put simply, some elements—isotopes—occur as two varieties of the same substance one of which is slightly heavier than the other. Remember Goobers and Raisinets? As chocolate-covered fruits, they are arguably the same confection. (I’m one to pass on the raisinets, preferring the goobers, but this isn’t the venue for detailing their respective virtues). Yet, the goobers are heavier than the raisinets because their insides differ. The same is true for oxygen. One variety of oxygen is the light “oxygen-16” (O16) while another is the heavy “oxygen-18” (O18); they are isotopes of oxygen just as raisinets and goobers are isotopes of chocolate candies—sort of. And if you’ve persisted in following me this far, thank you, and hang in there for I intend to make good on the promise of linking earth science and Buddhist thought.

When water evaporates from oceans, it’s the lighter H2O16 that gets incorporated preferentially into clouds. Therefore, during cold periods in the geological past, when more water is stored in ice caps, seawater concentrates H2O18 in it. That is, since it’s harder for H2O18 to get lifted up into the atmosphere, so to speak, it gets left behind in the ocean. By analogy, think of whether you’d rather heft your jacket or suitcase into the overhead compartment in an airplane and you’ll understand why some heavy items—not all—remain “stowed beneath the seat in front of you” while the lighter ones go into the upper bins. When paleoclimatologists investigate the cold periods in earth history—glacial ages— when more of the hydrosphere’s water stays sequestered in ice, they find that ice core samples from these cold times have more H2O16 in them than they do H2O18. In like manner, calcium carbonate from ice-age foraminifera, tends to be relatively enriched in O18 (as well as the heavier of two carbon isotopes). Paleontologists analyzing their composition find they have relatively more CaC(O18)3 than CaC(O16)3 . It’s clever science but unarguably esoteric business, this isotope geochemistry. It requires ice cores kept frozen from Antarctica to lab, analysis of fluid bubbles enclosed in the ice, and specialized machines called mass spectrometers that can measure miniscule differences in the weight of oxygen atoms. It also requires mathematical calculations that I found tedious in graduate school. Still, all of that is not as difficult as staying focused on my breath.

I sat sweating, and the water droplets from my body connected me to the hydrosphere. Where had that water been before—the water that makes up me? Was part of me once a glacier? Was I a mountain stream? What tale might the oxygen isotopic signature of my bones, calcium phosphate (PO4) tell?

As the perspiration dripped down my shins, it disappeared in the pores between unconsolidated beach sand. Water from the reservoir of me meandered to the sea as moisture between sand grains. The sweat trickling down my spine slid down my back and disappeared into the wood of the tree stump. This “Jillwater” will remain for some time in the soggy wood and won’t soon join the vast oceanic reservoir of the hydrosphere. I finished my sit and rose slowly.

I walked to the water’s edge and felt its cool wetness envelope my toes, the soles of my feet, my ankles and shins. The sea sipped directly the sweat from my skin. These droplets that have eked out of me flowed unimpeded to the ocean. As seawater may one day become part of an ice cap, the water from me will be a drop in the sea.

The dialogue between science and Buddhism has the potential to develop specific interventions that could promote not only psychological and physical wellbeing but planetary health too. Modern earth science allows that human beings interact with the earth system and, to a degree, try to serve as stewards of the planet. But Buddhism offers earth science the possibility of a more unified understanding of the Earth, a science that frames humans as kin rather than stewards of the planet.

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