Not Standing Still: A Solstice-time Reflection from a “Geologian” December 21, 2012Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in contemplative practice, Ecozoic, environmentalism, geologian, meditation, mindfulness practice, science, Thomas Berry.
Tags: environment, liberal arts college, lotus position, science
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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:
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?
Citizen-Scientist and Meditator November 16, 2012Posted 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, 2012Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Buddhist concepts, Buddhist practice, contemplative practice, earth community, geology, mindfulness practice, slow violence.
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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:
Chicken, white leghorn;
Heron, great blue;
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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Published on Wednesday, October 24, 2012 by Common Dreams and October 25 by Truthout.
Taking the Practice Seriously June 19, 2012Posted 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.
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.
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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.
Ecological Buddhism July 3, 2011Posted 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”
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
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
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
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.
Oxygen in My Bones May 22, 2011Posted 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.
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From Shambhala Sun | May 2011
You’ll find this article on page 96 of the magazine.
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,
its fact of existing.
I’ve never known
quite like this.
This could go on a long time,
It’s so compelling.
I’m becoming tomato,
Who’ll blink first, me or tomato?
It is said that
“Freedom is not needing to know what comes next.”
I eat it.
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.