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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.

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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.

Taking the Practice Seriously June 19, 2012

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Buddhist practice, meditation, mindfulness practice, monastery, Thomas Berry, Vassar College.
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This piece is cross-posted on Shambhala SunSpace.

Shambhala SunSpace blogger Jill S. Schneiderman noticed an interesting article in the New York Times yesterday. And she wasn’t the only one; James Atlas’ “Buddhists’ Delight” is currently the most-emailed story on the Times site. (And interestingly enough, the Washington Post published an American-Buddhism piece yesterday, too.) Here Schneiderman responds to Atlas’s piece.
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Tengboche Buddhist monastery, Nepal (via Creative Commons)

Yesterday I read “Buddhists’ Delight,” an opinion piece in the Sunday New York Timesby James Atlas, a long-time literary journalist who has written for the New Yorker and published a biography of Saul Bellow. In the piece Atlas describes four days he spent at a Buddhist meditation center “in retreat, from a frenetic Manhattan life.” It’s obvious from the essay that Atlas brought “beginner’s mind” to the retreat and his report of this first encounter with Buddhist meditation is pretty insightful. Atlas’ piece is a good introduction to the experience and I intend to give it to friends who are contemplating the possibility of sitting a multi-day retreat. Nonetheless, as experienced meditators know, there’s more to meditation than beginners may realize.

So although it’s a bit outside my usual bailiwick of earth science and dharma, I wanted to add to Atlas’ observations from my position as a professional educator who is convinced that the practice of meditation is not only powerful but crucial to the rehabilitation of a society and planet in critically ill condition.  Atlas recognizes that meditation is an important tool for individuals trying to cope with the insane state of our world; he even notes the heft of Engaged Buddhism.

While sitting this morning I heard the carillon ring the early morning hour and I felt grateful, as I always do, to the monastic traditions that created the institution of the Monastery, the precursor to the modern University. Though most universities today have lost the spiritual dimension that once accompanied the educational mission of the Monastery, as an educator today, I aspire to reclaim the spiritual as a legitimate dimension of higher education.

As a regular practitioner and frequent retreatant at the Garrison Institute, I have experienced the transformational power of meditation that Atlas reports having sensed while he was on retreat in Vermont. Though as a beginner in the practice he may not realize it, Atlas has tapped into what multitudes of more experienced meditators know: meditation transforms minds and lives.

In “The University” a chapter in his book The Great Work: Our Way Into the Future, ecotheologian Thomas Berry  admonishes readers that universities should “reorient the human community toward a greater awareness that the human exists, survives, and becomes whole only within the single great community of the planet Earth. “ The bells ringing in the carillon of the Vassar College Chapel every hour remind me of this; the bells validate my impulse to teach meditation as a tool for societal rehabilitation.

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.

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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Ecological Buddhism July 3, 2011

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Anthropocene, Buddhist concepts, Buddhist practice, environmentalism, geologic time, mindfulness practice, science, slow violence.
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This piece is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace.

 

Earth Dharma: “Awake in the Anthropocene”

The Indus and the Karakoram highway in N. Pakistan

By Jill S. Schneiderman

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?

 

The Realm of the Eternal Moment
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From perches that encompass great swaths of space, geologists view changes of landscapes over vast sweeps of time. In outcrops of rocks, forgotten fossils, and minute mineral fragments, they find evidence of earlier events on Earth. It is a cultivated skill that requires patience, grown from sitting still or walking slowly in the field, and watching nothing happen rather than observing processes in “real time.” Yet geoscience can also  elucidate the interrelation of all existences and phenomena, enriching a compassionate, time-transcendent vision and Buddhist-inspired systems thinking.

Mircea Eliade retold how Indra, King of the Gods, came to understand the importance of engaging compassionately with the responsibilities of the historical moment, while keeping in mind the perspectives of Great Time. That time and timelessness can lose their apparent opposition has a geological resonance, for in some ways geologists experience the flow of time differently than other people. They let the earth teach them. I have walked up arid slopes on the Caribbean island of Barbados that reveal that the land underfoot once was beneath the sea. Old coastal features some distance above the modern coastline tell of tectonic uplift, changed climate, and sea level fluctuations that caused the extinction and succession of coral reef colonies. A mountain exemplifies equanimity, because it remains unwavering amid the tumultuous activity of atmosphere, hydrosphere, geosphere and biosphere. Those coral reef paleo-communities also display geological equanimity and tenacity.

In the 13th century Zen master Dogen devoted The Time-Being, an important fascicle of his Treasury of the True Dharma Eye, to the recognition that “time itself is being, and all being is time.” For him, time consisted not of the past, present and future so much as events, moments and movements: “See each thing in this entire world as a moment of time… Do not think that time merely flies away… In essence, all things in the entire world are linked with one another as moments.” It is in the realm of eternal moment that the thinking of geology and Buddhism overlap.

Slow Violence & Environmental Degradation
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Robert Nixon has written evocatively about slow violence, acts whose “lethal repercussions sprawl across space and time;” oblique, unspectacular and amorphous. Its results are “attritional calamities” with “deferred consequences and casualties” that “pose formidable imaginative difficulties…(since) they star nobody.” The most ominous example is the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and consequent climate change.

Slow violence is synonymous with global environmental degradation in general. How do we bring to life catastrophes that are “low in instant spectacle” but “high in long-term effects”? They pose overwhelming representational challenges, and we must summon exceptional creativity. It is out of sync with human lifetimes, difficult to represent, and presents motivational challenges—yet we must render slow violence both actionable and visible.

Norwegian peace scholar Johan Galtung pointed out that personal violence entails an immediate connection between the perpetrator and recipient of violence, but structural violence involves no direct relationship between perpetrators and recipients. It is built into economic, political, or social systems at multiple levels. It occupies the interstices of a system’s framework, often manifesting as unequal power and unequal life chances.

Galtung also described a cultural violence that obscures both personal and structural violence. This operates through norms or ideologies that promote a culture of impunity among perpetrators: as in racism, sexism or homophobia. The slow violence of creeping environmental degradation endures because it is supported by cultural violence. Here we are talking about an ideology asserting that greenhouse gas emissions and the resulting climate change are “inevitable” products of modern society.

Scientists have been heard most loudly on the subject of global warming, and because of a professed divorce of head from heart in the scientific enterprise, ethical conduct has not been at the forefront of the conversation. But compassionate heart, a fundamental element of Buddhism, is important for people to attend fully to the slow violence of climate change. Society today also requires startling icons to vivify environmental degradation, and narratives that communicate urgency. A film like Avatar imaginatively, if imperfectly, communicates the slow catastrophes of deforestation, extreme resource extraction and ecological collapse.

Awakening to the Anthropocene
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In 1990, I worked with colleagues to geologically map part of the Karakoram Range in North Pakistan. There I saw Nanga Parbat, at 26660 feet, the ninth highest peak in the world. The Raikot glacier yawned beneath its north face. The glacier, more ice than moraine, was healthy and frozen so that we could walk across portions of it in search of outcrops that would give us clues to the history and rate of uplift of the Karakorams.. Twenty years later, I drove from Lhasa to Shigatse, just north of the crumpled zone where the Indian subcontinent smashes into Asian lithospheric plate and saw the glaciers of the Himalaya once again.  I dared not approach the Kharola glacier. Feeble in extent, this shrunken and dripping remainder of a once sturdy sheet of ice and rock manifested the slow violence exacted by human beings on the planet. We need no further data to confirm what is visibly evident. We must awaken to it.

With the greatest concentration of glaciers outside the poles, and rising at geologically rapid rates (near ten millimeters per year) to the highest elevations on Earth, geologists call the meeting of mountain ranges of the Karakoram, Pamir, Hindu Kush and Himalayas the Earth’s Third Pole. Its height affects atmospheric circulation, the breath in and breath out of our planet. How shall we, with head and heart, regard the melting glacial reservoirs of fresh water for the great rivers of the world?

A skillful approach to our environmental woes can emerge from combining scientific knowledge with compassionate ethical conduct. The first decade of the 21st century gave us record-breaking temperatures and huge breakaways from continental ice sheets. Yet the Copenhagen climate conference produced no signed agreement—the distance between the expectations of developing and developed countries was purportedly too great. That nations are so far from one another when it comes to the ethical conduct of right speech, right action, and right livelihood is itself a manifestation of slow, structural, and cultural violence.

In geological terms, we are living in the Holocene epoch which began with the ending of the last (Pleistocene) ice age. Some have suggested that we have moved into another epoch called the Anthropocene, after the dominance of human effects on this planet. The Hindu concept of Kali Yuga suggests that we live in the fourth and last of a complete set of cosmic cycles of periodic creations and destructions of the Universe, in which humans and society reach the extreme point of disintegration. The 21st century already provides us with many examples of disintegrative power: Hurricane Katrina, the Indian Ocean and Japanese tsunami, the Haiti earthquake, and the disastrous “technological accidents” of Deepwater Horizon and Fukushima-Daiichi. If we are to counter slow violence with skill, courage and creativity, we will need to combine the discipline of “beginner’s mind” with wisdom learned from modeling the Earth system and with heartfelt ethical conduct.

Originally posted at — and published here with thanks to — Ecological Buddhism.

Turtle Liberation in the Anthropocene June 13, 2011

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Anthropocene, Buddhist practice, earth community, Evolution, geologic time, Hudson Valley, science, Turtles.
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This piece is cross-posted on Shambhala SunSpace.

Earth Dharma: Turtle Liberation!

In some Buddhist traditions, liberating captive animals is an act of compassion, a way to “make merit” for long life. Releasing turtles, in particular—symbols of patience and resilience—is considered an auspicious act.

This morning I woke up and let our household dog Molly outside in the backyard. She ran down the path towards the pond and stopped abruptly to sniff at something dark at the corner of our garden. I’d gone out with her to prop up the tomatoes that have been growing well, protected by the scents of bee balm, borage, sage and mint, as well as a delicate mesh netting I’d wrapped around four posts to exclude grazing deer and woodchucks.

What at first I thought might be a dark muskrat shocked into stillness turned out to be a snapping turtle, Chelydra serpentinaNew York’s state reptile. During the night, it must have crept out of the muddy, shallow pond behind our house, crawled up the brushy bank, and asserted itself beneath the netting into the garden.

Now although the so-called common snapper is not listed as an endangered or threatened species—the species is a prominent member of many North American ecosystems—this particular individual was struggling against the mesh that entangled her.

Having spent nights observing nesting sea turtles in the southern Caribbean and tracing the tracks they leave in the sand after laying eggs, I was able to make out the path this snapping turtle had taken through our garden.

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She had buried her eggs in one of our raised beds but the netting that I’d used to protect the plants barred her return to the water.

The opportunity to engage in the Buddhist practice of releasing this trapped turtle felt not so much like an opportunity to make merit as it seemed a privilege to encounter this remarkable being of ancient lineage. But most importantly the experience provided a vivid reminder of the tenuous position of some living beings at the juncture between the deep geological past and the uncertain future of the Anthropocene.

Nature essayist Bil Gilbert vividly described snapping turtles as “creatures who are entitled to regard the brontosaur and mastodon as brief zoological fads.” From the look of the one in the garden, I could see why: with sharply clawed feet; hard, pointed beak; dark and dented carapace; sharp, bony-plated jaws; and thick, spiky tail she certainly looked related to the dinosaurs—yet they’re gone and her branch on the tree of life still thrives.

Chelydra serpentina has barely changed in the 210 million years since the first appearance in the fossil record of Proganochelys, the most primitive turtle we know. The most substantial difference between Proganochelys and our garden snapper is that she could pull her head and legs into her protective shell—clearly a helpful innovation as snapping turtles are the ancestors of about 80% of all turtles alive today.

Whether or not the motivation to release trapped endemic animals is the desire to make merit, the traditional act can serve positive ecological purposes. For example, in some rural communities as seasonal bodies of water shrink during the dry season, aquatic creatures trapped in isolated water bodies make easy prey. By returning some of these critters to larger year-round bodies of water villagers help individuals and species to survive. Although compassionate acts, such releases also help to protect the food supply into the future.

I brought Molly back to the house and called up to my partner and ten year old to come down to the garden. Together with our neighbor and her young child we gingerly and respectfully separated the turtle from the netting then silently marveled at the size and apparent age of this being.

After a short while, we went up to the house to get a ruler intending to measure the length of her shell; but when we returned she had gone leaving us to admire her swift stealth—that, and her family’s ability to survive asteroid impacts and ice ages. We wished her good fortune in the Anthropocene and hoped that the merit that had accrued from her release would benefit all living beings.

This entry was created by Jill S. Schneiderman, posted on June 13, 2011 at 11:42 am and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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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.

Radioactivity, science, and spirit March 31, 2011

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in book review, Buddhist practice, contemplative practice, disasters, earth community, Japan, meditation, radioactivity, science, Tsunamis.
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This piece is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace and at Being.

Radioactivity. Life. Death. These are front-and-center in my thoughts these days as I contemplate the fallout from the nuclear plant meltdown generated by power outages, triggered by a tsunami, set off by an earthquake in Japan. Amidst these events, I turned my attention to reading Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss.

Currently, the book is on exhibit at the New York Public Library. The author, an artist, teaches documentary, drawing, graphic novels, and printmaking at the Parsons School of Design, so one might be excused from not immediately recognizing the logic of her having written a book on the Curies (who shared with Henri Becquerel the1903 Nobel Prize in physics for their research on radiation.) But there’s little that is logical about the way this story reveals itself and that’s what makes it beautiful and such a pleasure to read. The book is a piece of art composed of images and words. Although told in roughly chronological fashion, mostly the story has long tendrils of other tales. In this regard as well as others, I suspect it will be of interest to people fascinated by the intersections of science and mind.

Here’s what I liked about it. To me, the format ofRadioactive mimics the way a mind—mine at least–works. All of us dedicated to a regular sitting practice know that just a few breaths into a sit, the mind is likely to take an excursion, follow an idea. After some time we wake up to the fact of our distraction and come back to focusing on the breath. It is in this manner that the story of the Curies, their colleagues, friends, enemies, lovers, and offspring unfolds. Unlike histories of science or biographies of scientists that are so often linear and wordy, this one provides multiple pursuable pathways.

Even if they know little else, most people know that Marie Skłodowska Curie was the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize. They may also know that her first Nobel in physics was followed by a second in 1911 in chemistry for the discovery of the elements radium and polonium. But the story of Marie and Pierre Curie is much more interesting than that plain fact. It involves a stimulating partnership of spouses engaged by the same scientific questions; infatuation with the invisible; Marie’s scandalous love affair after her husband’s accidental death by horse-drawn carriage; an ongoing commitment to scientific and medical investigations that ultimately killed her, and offspring—both biological and scientific—who have carried on their work.  And in Radioactive, entwined images and prose create a fabric that relates the stories of the Curies to more modern-day concerns: Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and two World Wars. Redniss indulges her readers with haunting cyanotype and archival images offered up in nonlinear fashion; this is a boon for right-brainers such as I whose minds tend toward wandering.

A most fascinating facet of the book tells of the Curie’s explorations in Spiritualism—a movement that suggested the possibility of contact with the divine. As Redniss tells it:

Electricity, radio, the telegraph, the X-ray, and now, radioactivity—at the turn of the twentieth century a series of invisible forces were radically transforming daily life. These advances were dazzling and disorienting: for some, they blurred the boundary between science and magic….Spiritualists claimed that clairvoyants possessed “X-gazes,” and that photographic plates placed on the forehead could record vital forces of the brain, or “V-rays.”

The Curies and their circle—including leading artists, writers, and scientists such as Edvard Munch, Arthur Conan Doyle, Henri Poincare, Alexander Graham Bell—participated in the Spiritualist séances of Italian medium Eusapia Palladino and considered it possible to find in spiritualism the origin of unknown energy that might relate to radioactivity. In fact, as Susan Quinn recounts in Marie Curie: A Life, just prior to his death Pierre Curie wrote to physicist Louis Georges Gouy about his last séance with Palladino “There is here, in my opinion, a whole domain of entirely new facts and physical states in space of which we have no conception.”

Both scientists and spiritualists believed that there was much that exists in the world that cannot be seen by the naked eyes of humans.

Radioactive is a story of mystery and magic as well as a history of science and invention. It shows how science, so often thought of as motivated by passionate rationality, is equally about marvelous ambiguity. The Curies, perhaps influenced by their encounters with spiritualism, devoted their lives to the search for evidence of phenomena they could not see but that they believed existed. The implications of what they found—the good and the bad, medical innovation and nuclear proliferation—they couldn’t fully anticipate.

A recent New York Times article about nuclear energy, “Preparing for Everything, Except the Unknown,” states the obvious: experts say it is impossible to prepare for everything. As a mindfulness practitioner I’d like to offer a corollary to that statement: when we sit seemingly doing nothing, plenty happens—we don’t see it, but we sense it. Redniss’s history of the lives of Marie and Pierre Curie inspires me as a scientist to continue to pursue my mindfulness practice.

This entry was created by Jill S. Schneiderman, posted on March 31, 2011 at 1:25 pm and tagged. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post

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