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The Economist on The Anthropocene May 27, 2011

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Anthropocene.
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Please read this important article from the May 26, 2011 issue of The Economist that focuses on the Anthropocene. I’ll have more to say about this soon.

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Oxygen in My Bones May 22, 2011

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Buddhist practice, earth system science, hydrosphere, Jewish spirituality, meditation, mindfulness practice, science, Sylvia Boorstein.
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This piece is cross-posted on Shambhala SunSpace.

In his book A Path With Heart Jack Kornfield asserted that great spiritual traditions “are used as means to ripen us, to bring us face to face with our life, and to help us to see in a new way by developing a stillness of mind and a strength of heart.” Having just returned from a seven-day mindfulness retreat with the two dozen or so other contemplatives in my Institute for Jewish Spirituality-sponsored Jewish Mindfulness Teacher Training cohort, Kornfield’s statement resonates for me. Seeing in a new way requires that I continue to cultivate what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called “radical amazement,”—a heart-strengthening feeling of awe and connection.

Amidst the daily activities familiar to all mindfulness practitioners—walk-sit-walk-sit-walk-sit-eat-walk-sit-walk-sit…— retreatants led three prayer services: sharacharit, mincha, maariv and an afternoon teaching. The services were atypical in that they involved only a brief introduction to each prayer, group chanting, and then silence. In the course of the week, each individual offered a teaching on an assigned subject. My assignment, scheduled for Shabbat afternoon, was instructions for breathing.

Now I have to admit, having received the assignment, initially I hoped it would simply go away! I wondered what I, a geoscientist, could offer this experienced group of spiritual practitioners by way of breath instructions. We had already been sitting for days together concentrating on the breath. Donald Rothberg’s humorous quip at a previous retreat kept coming up: breathing through the mouth is like trying to eat spaghetti through the nose! Fortunately, I found a possible answer in a teaching by Rabbi Jeff Roth during an evening dharma talk.

Jeff instructed each of us to “teach our own Torah”—in other words, our own truth—so I resolved to teach mine: the Torah of the Earth System.

At first I was intimidated because for “the people of the book” the Torah itself is the quintessential text, the most worthy object of scrutiny. But since my Torah is the Earth, I feared being perceived as a bit dim. “Dull as a rock” resounded in my head. Fortunately I was able to acknowledge the hindrance of doubt and pressed onward. Using Sylvia Boorstein’s metta phrases in order to soothe myself —may I feel safe, may I feel content, may I feel strong, may I live with ease—I offered to the group my teaching, breath instructions for cultivating radical amazement, breath instructions that emphasize our connections to the Earth as a living system.

We geoscientists think of the Earth as a system of four interacting spheres, approximately from the inside outward: geosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere, and atmosphere. Humans and other mammals are obviously connected to the atmosphere through our inhalation of oxygen and exhalation of carbon dioxide. Our respiration also connects us to trees because they essentially inhale carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen. And human bodies as a whole contain up to 60 % water. So as embodied beings we are intimately interconnected with atmosphere, biosphere, and hydropshere. What may be less obvious is that we are linked closely with the geosphere. Our teeth and bones, parts of living beings that readily fossilize, are composed of hydroxyapatite, a carbonate mineral made of the elements calcium, phosphorus, oxygen, and hydrogen. The very air we breathe and the water we drink has been incorporated into our skeletal framework and gets preserved in the fossil record!

I find it remarkable that isotope geochemists can analyze the ratio of heavy and light oxygen isotopes (O-18 and O-16) in the bones and teeth of fossilized organisms and identify the environments in which they lived. Since teeth and bone form in a relatively narrow window of time, the oxygen isotope composition inherited from drinking water taken into the body of a living being gets locked into the hydroxyapatite. Using the distinctive oxygen isotopic signatures of water in different environments, some investigators have been able to determine the habitats and migration patterns of extinct organisms. What is the oxygen isotopic signature of my bones? What is the past history of the oxygen that in part forms the skeleton that makes up the body that I inhabit?

So with my cohort we sat: breathing in may I feel connected to the atmosphere; breathing out may I feel connected to the hydrosphere; breathing in may I feel connected to the geosphere; breathing out may I feel connected to all beings of the biosphere. Stilling our minds with this breathing practice, together we undertook the project of cultivating radical amazement.

From the Being Blog May 18, 2011

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Cape Cod, contemplative practice, earth cycles, earth system science, geologic time, glaciation, Krista Tippett on Being, satellite images.
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This piece is cross-posted on Krista Tippett’s Being blog

Plugged In to the Outer Cape

by Jill Schneiderman, guest contributor

Wellfleet

Sand dunes at Wellfleet. (photo: Joshua Bousel/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)

“If you don’t teach your children to be alone, they’ll only always know how to be lonely.”
Sherry Turkle, from “Alive Enough? Reflections on Our Technology”

The founder of MIT’s Initiative on Technology and Self made this remark in the context of describing the awe she feels when she walks among the magnificent dunes near Provincetown, Massachusetts. I know well those sand dunes and the extensive tidal mudflats that mark the tip of the Cape.

Dr. Turkle thinks of these places as sacred spaces, and I agree. I take my earth science students there to witness the work of wind, water, and sand. And, for a week or two each summer, I go with my children so we can experience the flow of the tides. These are indeed remarkable places in the landscape ripe with possibilities for self-realization.

I take my geology students to the dunes and mudflats of the Outer Cape so that they can experience the vast time scales and spaces of earth system processes.

Settling on the CoastA satellite view of Cape Cod. (photo courtesy of NASA)

The Cape itself, as some readers may know, owes its existence to the great ice sheets that extended as far south as Long Island during the late Pleistocene more than 10,000 years ago. The mud of the tidal flats and the sand of the dunes are the glacial debris, reworked and sorted by the wind and water long after the ice sheet retreated north.

Other reminders of the presence of the massive ice cover in the region are cliffs above the dune fields — the edge of the glacial moraine (a pile of boulders pushed along as the ice pushed south) — and freshwater ponds of neighboring Truro and Wellfleet (“kettle holes” formed when stadium-sized chunks of ice broke off the glacier, became engulfed by glacial sediment, and then melted). All of these features stretch for miles and remind me and all my geologically time-traveling companions that 18,000 years ago — a seemingly long time — this portion of the Earth was covered by a one mile-thick sheet of ice.

Eyes of the EarthWellfleet Bay Audubon Sanctuary. (photo: Susan Cole Kelly/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)

Encountering this landscape cultivates in me, and I hope in my students, what Jewish scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel called “radical amazement.” For me, this is a soothing feeling of awe and connection. Walking in the dunes or across these mudflats puts me in touch with deep time — for the particles that compose them may themselves be millions of years old, silt and sand moved there merely thousands of years before.

Although we walk among them today, the particles have been through many cycles of existence. Formerly they were part of a mountainous land mass; subsequently they were eroded, transported, and deposited at least once. Each grain has an individual history. Collectively they tell a story that encompasses swaths of time that hold all of humanity. I find this reality comforting.

Provincetown MA 068The sands of Provincetown’s dunes. (photo: Leonarda DaSilva/Flickr, cc by-nc-nd 2.0)

Dr. Turkle worries helpfully about the inner effects of digital objects. Though she acknowledges the benefits of digital connection, Dr. Turkle laments what people lose as they take to the dunes and mudflats with their earphones in and handheld electronic devices on and open. To her mind, people lose the ability to feel at peace in their own company. I agree, but also would like to suggest that by unplugging from the electronic world in such sacred spaces we increase our capacity to encounter entities larger than ourselves — vast time scales, and past and ongoing earth processes. Thus we enhance our ability to connect with the earth system of which we are a powerful part, and this experience lessens loneliness.


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Awake in the Anthropocene May 12, 2011

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Anthropocene, Buddhist concepts, earth cycles, geology.
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Indus Karakoram highway.jpg
The Indus and the Karakoram highway in N. Pakistan

Because of the extended time frame over which they occur, human-induced environmental changes—increased temperature, rising sea level, high-energy storm patterns, desertification and drought—are out of sync with human lives lived in an age of short attention span. The violence exacted on all living beings by these changes poses real representational challenges to our abilities to address it. Are there any tools within Buddhist view and practice that can help us work progressively at the intersection of violence and environmental degradation? How can Buddhism facilitate the work of awakening human beings to violence that is potentially catastrophic, but so slow that it’s difficult to discern and counter?

Read the rest of this piece, a featured article from Ecological Buddhism: A Buddhist Response to Global Warming, here.