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Not Standing Still: A Solstice-time Reflection from a “Geologian” December 21, 2012

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in contemplative practice, Ecozoic, environmentalism, geologian, meditation, mindfulness practice, science, Thomas Berry.
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This piece appears on the Shambhala SunSpace blog.

Among my favorite cartoons is one my mom gave me by the cartoonist and author of The Soul Support Book, Deb Koffman. Entitled “Sitting with Awareness,” in each of sixteen small square frames Koffman depicts a person sitting in lotus position wearing, what we call in my house “at–homes”– in other words sweatpants. (Click here to visit Koffman’s site — you’ll find the image under “Mindfulness Prints.”) Phrases beneath each frame taken together constitute the following poem. I sure can relate to it, and maybe you can too:

Image

I’m aware of my posture, I’m aware of my knees, I’m aware of my hands, I’m aware of a breeze.
I’m aware of my breath, I’m aware I feel cold, I’ve got a pain in my side, I’m getting old.
The clock is ticking, my eye has a twitch, my stomach is grumbling, my back has an itch.
My foot fell asleep, my pants are too tight, someone is coughing, am I doing this right?

Why do I relate to this poem? Because as I pursue my work as a geoscientist–educator at a liberal arts college — reading, teaching, and striving at the intersections of earth science, gender studies, environmental studies, and history of science — I often wonder, “Am I doing this right?”

In answer to that question, I’m encouraged by news that The University of Virginia received a multimillion dollar gift this year to establish a Contemplative Sciences Center. One purpose of the center will be to promote awareness about the potential benefits of training one’s mind and body. David Germano, a professor of religious studies in the College of Arts and Sciences who will help lead the center commented, ”Hopefully, like drops in the ocean, this training can lead people to greater reflexivity, greater understanding, greater caring, greater efficiency and greater insight.” Huzzah to that.

This means greater validation for the kind of work I try to do as a contemplative educator in my science classes. Not that I doubt the benefits of contemplative practices in higher education. Students continue to write to me post-graduation, amidst real-life struggles about how the contemplative approaches I’ve taught them while they were in college have been among the most sustaining practices they’ve used to deal with everyday living. It’s just that professional scientific societies offer much advice about the fact that geoscientists — as educators and Eaarthlings — must involve ourselves in addressing “critical needs for the 21st century.”

For example, we are urged to prioritize efforts to ensure reliable energy supplies in an increasingly carbon-constrained world; provide sufficient supplies of water; sustain oceans, atmosphere, and space resources; manage waste to maintain a healthy environment; mitigate risk and build resilience from natural and human-made hazards; improve and build needed infrastructure that couples with and uses Earth resources while integrating new technologies; ensure reliable supplies of raw materials; inform the public and train the geosciences workforce to understand Earth processes and address these critical needs. It’s a long and lofty list.

But critically absent from the “critical needs” list are endeavors equally critical to achieving this balance on Earth. For example, for my personal list of critical needs as a science educator, I’ve added the following imperatives:

  • Tell a scientific story of the universe that has a mythic, narrative dimension that elevates the story from a prosaic study of data to an inspiring spiritual vision;
  • Articulate our dream of the future Ecozoic era, defined as that time when humans will be present to the Earth in a mutually enhancing manner;
  • Circumvent the problem of anthropocentrism that is at the center of the devastation we are experiencing;
  • Allow acknowledgment that currently, human beings are a devastating presence on the planet; supposedly acting for our own benefit, truthfully we are ruining the conditions for our health and survival as well as that of other living beings;
  • Promote hope through contemplation of how tragic moments of disintegration over the past centuries were followed by hugely creative moments of regeneration;
  • Recover the capacity for subjective communion with the Earth and identification with the cosmic-Earth-human process as a new mode of interdependence;
  • Nourish awareness for a vision of Earth-human development that will allow a sustainable dynamic of the modern world;
  • Foster development of intimacy with the natural world.

I developed this list as a result of reading the work of Thomas Berry (1914-2009), a leading scholar, cultural historian, and Catholic priest who spent fifty years writing about our relationship with the Earth. “The universe,” he said, “is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.” Berry, had a doctorate in history from The Catholic University of America, studied Chinese language and Chinese culture in China and learned Sanskrit for the study of India and the traditions of religion in India. One of his earliest books was a history of Buddhism.  Having established the History of Religions program at Fordham University Berry published numerous prophetic books including The Dream of the Earth, The Great Work, and his last work The Sacred Universe: Earth, Spirituality, and Religion in the Twenty-First Century. This last writing especially fuels my conviction that science done well is also a spritual discipline. Berry called himself a “geologian” and wrote:

Our new acquaintance with the universe as an irreversible developmental process can be considered the most significant religious, spiritual, and scientific event since the emergence of the more complex civilizations some five thousand years ago…. if interpreted properly, the scientific venture could even be one of the most significant spiritual disciplines of these times. This task is particularly urgent, since our new mode of understanding is so powerful in its consequences for the very structure of the planet Earth. We must respond to its deepest spiritual content or else submit to the devastation that is before us (The Sacred Universe  119-120).

The notion that that my geology may be at once both scientific and spiritual has me also adopting the moniker, “geologian.” And that the University of Virginia is moving forward with its Contemplative Sciences Center fuels my hope that engaging science as a spiritual discipline in order to encourage embodied paths to wisdom and social transformation is in itself a worthwhile practice.

We’ve almost arrived at the winter solstice here in the northern hemisphere.  On the year’s shortest day, the sun appears to halt in its progressive journey across the sky. From Earth it seems that the sun hardly changes its position on this day, hence the name solstice meaning ”sun stands still.” But despite appearances, the sun is changing its position relative to the Earth inasmuch as, speaking scientifically, the Earth circles the sun each year while it rotates on a tilted axis and creates the changing seasons (the hemisphere that faces the sun receives longer and more powerful exposure to sunlight). For half of each year the North Pole is tilted away from the sun and on the winter solstice the tilt makes the sun seem most faraway. This astronomical event announces the onset of winter in the northern hemisphere.

Speaking as a “geologian” I observe that these are indeed the darkest days of the year. But as I pause, as the sun seems to, at this point in my yearly journey around the sun, I note that in the darkness is the promise of the gradual return of more light. As you circle the sun and participate in the turning of the wheel of the year, what do you notice and to what do you bow?

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Citizen-Scientist and Meditator November 16, 2012

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in contemplative practice, meditation, mindfulness practice, science.
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A recent Scientific American article reports on a new study published in Annals of Family Medicine that found that adults who practiced mindful meditation or moderately intense exercise for eight weeks suffered less from seasonal ailments during the following winter than those who did not meditate or exercise.

Participants who had meditated missed 76 percent fewer days of work from September through May than did the control subjects while those who had exercised missed 48 percent fewer days during this period. The severity of respiratory ailments also differed between the two groups. Those who had meditated or exercised suffered for an average of five days while the colds of people in the control group lasted eight. According to Scientific American, lab tests confirmed that the self-reported length of colds correlated with the amounts of antibodies in the body, something considered to be a biomarker for the presence of a virus.

I’m not surprised by this report. But I am taken by the fact that, once again, your average meditating Jo, is supposed to feel validated by the fact that science confirms what she already knows to be true. That we have been forced to wait for scientists to confirm observations that are obvious, such as the fact that water that omits odors is contaminated with toxic chemicals has gotten us human beings into quite  a few predicaments. I need to look no further than the Hudson valley where I live as the U.S. EPA stops for this season it’s dredging of Hudson River sediments long contaminated with PCBs.

 

As a person who sits 30-minutes daily, I know that I am quite aware of what is going on with my body. This is not news to anyone who has a regular sitting practice. Thus, when I read the Scientific American report of the study of meditators and those who exercise regularly, I hardly thought it was news. An intuitive explanation for the fact that those who meditated or exercised suffered for a shorter period of time the colds or flus they contracted is easily explained as follows. A person who meditates is much more likely than one who does not to note the fact that she is feeling unwell; such a person then has the opportunity to choose to take the time for rest and renewal and thus shorten the period of illness. This is common sense.

 

I have no complaint with looking to science for confirmation of reality but I think we need not depend on it to the exclusion of one’s own basic powers of observations, which are of course enhanced by mindfulness practice.

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.

Wanting and Breathing December 16, 2011

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in contemplative practice, Rabbi Sheila Weinberg.
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My teacher, Rabbi Sheila Weinberg of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, tells an amusing story in this podcast about taking her granddaughter Hadassah to buy a birthday present for her little brother Yehudah. Listen to it, be amused, and hear some wisdom that applies during this season of consumption.

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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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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About a Poem: Jill S. Schneiderman on Donald Rothberg’s “Tomato” April 5, 2011

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in contemplative practice, environmental justice, environmentalism, food justice, mindfulness practice.
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From Shambhala Sun | May 2011
You’ll find this article on page 96 of the magazine.

TOMATO

Tomato in my salad bowl
Is all there is.
Big as a watermelon,
big as the earth,
big as my mind.
Glistening, shining, with
time’s still rush,
We’re locked together
for this part of eternity,
Tomato and me.

I feel taken into
the cherry tomato roundness,
orange redness,
its fact of existing.
I’ve never known
a tomato
quite like this.

This could go on a long time,
It’s so compelling.
I’m becoming tomato,
Tomato me.
Who’ll blink first, me or tomato?

It is said that
“Freedom is not needing to know what comes next.”

I eat it.

Then,
I notice a leaf of lettuce.

———————————————————-
Slowly consuming a raisin often serves as an introductory exercise in the practice of mindful eating. But for me, there’s nothing like paying attention to a homegrown tomato. So when tomato season came to a close and I resumed my teaching on environmentalism and social justice, I delighted in this poem by Donald Rothberg, a teacher of socially engaged Buddhism. I thought, “Tomato” could be an anthem for twenty-first-century environmentalists because, as my friend John Elder, a teacher of American nature writing, says, the Slow Food movement will be to twenty-first century environmentalism what wilderness preservation was to its twentieth-century precursor—the nexus of progressive action.

As the Western frontier of the United States disappeared in the late-nineteenth century, naturalists like John Muir worked to preserve areas they deemed “wilderness;” consequently, national parks exist today. But elitism tainted that movement, and women and people of color avoided it. Later, in the twentieth century, a new environmentalism prioritized concern for social justice. In the seventies, feminists revealed connections between the exploitation of nature and the oppression of women and other groups who were considered secondary in society. Building on those ideas, contemporary environmental justice activists have exposed how communities of color and low-income urban dwellers are the primary bearers of environmental ills. Unnatural disasters following Hurricane Katrina and the Port-au-Prince earthquake, for example, have highlighted this.

Today the Slow Food movement excites populations of racially and economically diverse young people largely unencumbered by traditional gender roles. Heightening awareness of the connection between food and environment, the movement has the potential to galvanize others because it unites pleasure with responsibility. “Kill me along with this tree I occupy” or “Taste this tomato!” Which rallying cry do you think will encourage others to embrace environmental awareness? My students are choosing the latter.

What we eat and how we come by it matters to every living being and therefore constitutes a unifying theme for a lasting and socially just environmentalism. With its emphasis on stillness and sufficiency, Buddhism has much to offer this new environmentalism. Slow Food is about paying attention to what we eat and how we produce it—in other words, being mindful about consumption. In my opinion, whether we’re consuming raisins or tomatoes, socially engaged Buddhists can share with others the powerful practice of mindful eating.

Jill Schneiderman is professor of earth science at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, and editor of The Earth Around Us: Maintaining a Livable Planet.


As seen in the May 2011 issue of the Shambhala Sun. Click here to browse the entire issue online.


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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Benefits of Meditation Practice February 2, 2011

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in contemplative practice, meditation.
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Thanks to my friend and former student, Beth Feingold, for calling my attention to this piece from the January 28, 2011 New York Times. I heard Dr. Hölzel speak at a contemplative curriculum conference sponsored by the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society at Smith College in August 2009 and found her research fascinating. I have experienced the benefits from my sitting practice that are described in this Times article.