jump to navigation

Once an ocean, now one of the driest, most desolate places on earth May 27, 2013

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in earth system science, geologic time, geology, hydrosphere, Mars, Vassar College.
add a comment

Vassar freshman Aaron Jones probably wasn’t the first visitor to Death Valley to observe it looks a lot like the surface of Mars. But the future earth science major says if he hadn’t seen it for himself, he couldn’t have grasped the power of wind erosion and compared the resulting rock formations to those on the distant planet.


Cherishing Living Beings — Seen and Unseen January 9, 2012

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Antarctica, Buddhist concepts, earth community, earth system science, environmentalism, fracking, hydraulic fracturing, hydrosphere, ocean pollution, oil spill, science, yeti crab.
1 comment so far

This piece is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Share link on Stumbleupon Share link on Facebook Share link on Twitter Share link on Digg Share link on Delicious

Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.

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.
add a comment

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.

Buddhism and Science: Kin by Water July 15, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Barbados, contemplative practice, earth cycles, earth system science, Francisco Varela, hydrologic cycle, hydrosphere, ice cores, meditation, Rabbi Jeff Roth, Rabbi Sheila Weinberg, science.
add a comment

This piece is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See also: