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Earth, Mars, and Meteorites Inter-Are October 1, 2012

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Buddhist concepts, earth community, geology, Iron Man/Space Buddha, Mars, meteorites, Norman Fischer, science, Thich Nhat Hanh.
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This piece is cross-posted on Shambhala SunSpace.

Credit: Dr. Elmar Buchner

While discussing the five skandhas (aspects) that constitute a human being during a dharma talk on The Heart Sutra—a core Buddhist text—renowned Zen teacher Norman Fischer commented that although we don’t need science to confirm the veracity of what we think to be true, it’s nice when it happens that way.

Recently some extraterrestrial data sources corroborated for me what my beginner’s mind thinks The Heart Sutra teaches—that all phenomena are expressions of emptiness. Fischer says this teaching on emptiness is really a teaching about connection. Emptiness, he says, refers to the emptiness of any separation and therefore to the radical connection or interdependence of all things.

Thich Nhat Hanh coined the term “interbeing” to express this idea that no thing arises independently. As he described in The Heart of Understanding, there is only the constant arising of the universe (which etymologically means “turned into one”)—each so-called thing enables every other so-called thing. News of the past weeks from both Mars and the asteroid belt confirm such connection between Earth and our neighbors in the solar system.

Ever since it landed in Mars’ Gale Crater in early August I’ve been following the discoveries of NASA’s Curiosity rover (a car-sized, six-wheeled robot), the $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory whose mission is to see if the red planet ever could have supported small life forms called microbes. The photos the rover sends back are mesmerizing and the discoveries tremendously exciting for they show that the material substance and processes of Mars are the material substance and processes of Earth.

Curiosity’s discoveries in the past months repeatedly reveal rocks and rock formations that are similar maybe even the same, as what we see on Earth. For example, the first rock analyzed chemically by Curiosity, just for the sake of target practice and dubbed “Coronation,” turns out to be basalt. This is no more spiritually surprising than it is scientifically surprising: this type of volcanic rock is common on Earth and Earth’s moon as well as known from previous missions to Mars to be abundant there.

In at least three sites, visual observations by Curiosity’s high-resolution imager reveal sedimentary conglomerate—a rock composed of compacted and rounded gravels naturally cemented together. We know from geological observations on Earth that water transport is the only process capable of producing the rounded shape of rock fragments this size. Curiosity has found evidence of an ancient Martian streambed!

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS and PSI

Listen to Rebecca Williams of the Planetary Space Institute describe these findings. Williams is able to offer her lucid explanation because Curiosity is seeing on Mars the same materials and processes we are accustomed to seeing on Earth.

And as if I were not already convinced of the truth of The Heart Sutra, word arrived that a one thousand year old Buddhist statue taken during a Nazi expedition in 1938 turned up five years ago and was analyzed by planetary scientists in Germany.

Guess what the monument is carved from: iron meteorite, a piece of a meteor from the asteroid belt. Okay, so this piece of iron meteorite has an unusual composition. It’s an especially nickel- and cobalt-rich variety and so is easily traced to the Chinga meteorite that 15,000 years ago smashed into the border area between Mongolia and Siberia. Nonetheless, this “Iron Man” was carved from a piece of space rock whose major elements, iron and nickel, are the very same elements that make up the core of Earth.

Not that we need science to confirm that what we think is true. We’ve also got the wisdom of the ancients. Earth, Mars, and meteorites, for example, inter-are.

This entry was created by Jill S. Schneiderman, posted on October 1, 2012 at 10:28 am and tagged. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.
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After Earth Day, Active Hope April 30, 2012

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in "Eaarth", book review, Buddhist concepts, climate change, earth community, earth system science, environmentalism, geologic time, Joanna Macy, mineral resources, science.
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This piece is cross-posted on Shambhala Sunspace and truthout.org


With its numbered teachings, Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in Without Going Crazy (2012)a new book by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone, pays tribute to its Buddhist roots. However, instead of the four noble truths, the noble eightfold path, the five hindrances, and the four brahmaviharas, readers of Active Hope get three stories of our time, five signs of the great unraveling, four stations of the work that reconnects, and three dimensions of the great turning. In their book, Macy and Johnstone update the repertoire of teachings that will enhance our abilities to acknowledge disturbing ecological truths and respond with creativity and resilience.

According to Macy and Johnstone, Active Hope is a practice—we do it rather than have it—with three key steps: obtaining a clear view of reality, identifying the values and directions we hope for, and taking steps to move our situation along that path. In their view, since it requires no optimism, but simply intention, we can apply it even in seemingly hopeless arenas.

Good thing. Macy and Johnstone name resource depletion, mass extinction of species, climate change, economic decline, and social division and war as five signs of the great unraveling, but the signs also bear striking resemblance to the Book of Revelation’s four horsemen of the apocalypse: Famine, Death, Pestilence, and War. I don’t mean to be alarmist, but Macy and Johnstone say it themselves:

“We can no longer take it for granted that the resources we’re dependent on—food, fuel, and drinkable water—will be available. We can no longer take it for granted even that our civilization will survive or that conditions on our planet will remain hospitable for complex forms of life.”

Scientists’ take on Earth’s vital signs suggest such an imminent reality.

The author of numerous books, Joanna Macy is a scholar of Buddhism, general systems theory, and deep ecology. Hers is a deservedly respected voice for peace, justice and the environment, honed over fifty years of activism. In this clear and practical book, physician Chris Johnstone joins her to articulate her approach to activism and empowerment, which she calls The Work That Reconnects.

I first learned of Macy in 2007 when I googled “deep time” and “Buddhism” in a search for a meditation teacher who might help me integrate my preoccupation with contemplative practice and geologic time.  Reading Active Hope gave me a window into Macy’s Work that Reconnects and fueled my inclination towards it. Here’s why.

Other recent books on global change focus on dire, dispiriting problems and offer sweeping seeming-solutions. Macy and Johnstone’s manual strives to equip us with a “transformational mindset.” Conceptualized as a journey, the book takes readers along a stream of thinking that, in the authors’ words, flows toward a way of life that enriches rather than depletes the Earth. Chapters in the book guided me through the four stages of the spiral of the Work that Reconnects: Coming from Gratitude, Honoring our Pain for the World, Seeing with New Eyes, and Going Forth. I could tell you more but I’d rather you read the book.

What I will say is that this book offers poetically scientific and accurate renderings of feedback loops and geologic time that will, I think, be helpful as we work little by little toward radically reconfiguring life on Earth. I love that Macy and Johnstone devote a chapter to helping readers develop that critical “larger view of time.” I think the book will refresh environmentally-minded Buddhists who suffer from what I’ve come unfortunately to think of as environmental change fatigue. In Active Hope, Macy and Johnstone teach us how to focus on our intention and strengthen our ability to respond happily to the vexing global crisis in which we live.

This entry was created by Jill S. Schneiderman, posted on April 30, 2012 at 10:19 pm and tagged. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

Falling in Love with “Other” Earth February 27, 2012

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Buddhist concepts, Buddhist practice, environmentalism, mineral resources, science, Thich Nhat Hanh.
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This piece is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace.

Photo by Don Farber

In his recent interview with Guardian editor Jo Confino, Zen master Thich Nhat Hanhsuggested that a spiritual revolution is needed so that we might avoid living in a future world torn asunder by societal stresses related to climate change. He characterized such a spiritual revolution as one in which we fall back in love with the planet and see the connection between the Earth and ourselves. In doing so, he says, we will heal the planet.

I had just heard Christian Parenti, contributing editor at The Nation and author of Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence (2011) speak about the “catastrophic convergence” of climate change and increased social and political violence, and as a result felt convinced that Thich Nhat Hanh’s radical prescription for repair is precisely what we need. But how does one fall back in love with the Earth?

For me, learning about this remarkable planet is an important means to that end. And though I’ve studied the earth for three decades, I continue to understand it in new ways that inspire my devotion. For example, currently I am enamored of a new and unusual framework within which to think about the Earth’s minerals.

In 2008, geoscientist Robert Hazen with collaborating colleagues proposed a radical revision to the way we think about minerals. In the past, mineralogy was considered an ahistorical subject, one in which formation of minerals was viewed as unlinked to the twists and turns of history. In this view, the quartz of today is the quartz of yesteryear, relatively unaffected by the moment in time when the mineral grew.

But Hazen and his colleagues suggested that minerals have evolved over time along with the Earth. Why? As we know from studying meteorites, only about 60 different minerals existed in the materials that came together to form planets and asteroids in Earth’s solar system. Hazen’s group pointed out that today we count more than four thousand minerals on Earth. Through processes such as the formation of oceanic and continental crust, melting, and volcanism, mineral diversity has increased over geological time.

At first, the notion that minerals have evolved in concert with life seems surprising. Since nearly one hundred elements make up the periodic table you might think that an almost infinite number of crystalline compounds might form from the get-go. But different minerals develop only under very particular conditions of pressure, temperature, and concentrations of specific elements.

After initial accretion, the numerically small array of Earth’s minerals were affected by rapidly changing internal temperatures and pressures and external fluctuations in the chemistry of surface waters and atmospheric gases. Thus, according to these researchers, the first minerals combined to birth new mineral species.

Then when life originated on the planet, even more possibilities arose for the evolution of new mineral species because even the simplest organisms– colonies of microbes– metabolized minerals. As life evolved, organisms directly made minerals that served good purposes like shells, bones and teeth. And by the time that photosynthesizing plants caused the atmosphere to have an overabundance of oxygen, indirectly they were responsible for the formation of a multitude of new oxide minerals at the surface of the Earth.

If Hazen and others are right, then minerals evolve along a linear arrow of time; there is no going back to bygone Eons of a limited number of mineral types.  Minerals diversify in irreversible manner just as organisms do and I’m excited to think in this new way about these mostly inorganic substances!

What’s more, although reports from the Kepler mission to survey near realms of the Milky Way galaxy and find Earth-size planets around other stars have inspired dreams of finding an Earth-like planet, it seems unlikely that any such planets would look like our blue-green home.

As reported in a recent issue of Nature Geoscience, an array of research contends that ostensibly original environmental features of the Earth in fact appeared late in the planet’s history and were brought about by evolution in the three domains of life with unpredictable contingencies.

These recent developments in the way we think about both minerals and life have caused me to fall in love again with this planet, as Thich Nhat Hanh has urged.

But though I agree with this beloved teacher that we must develop that “insight of inter-being” which concedes the connection between the Earth and ourselves, I differ with this teacher whom I respect and admire, when he refers to our planet as “Mother Earth.”

I believe that harm may come from referring to our planet as “Mother Earth.” Instead, I think it is critical to acknowledge that well into the 21st century we have rendered the planet Other Earth, a system separate and apart from ourselves. In academic parlance, we have “Othered” the Earth–made it into an object rather than a beloved subject. Such acknowledgement is part of the “real awakening, enlightenment, to change our way of thinking and seeing things” which Thich Nhat Hanh advises.

We have distanced ourselves from the Earth. But as Thich Nhat Hanh says, we are the Earth. And,

When we recognize the virtues, the talent, the beauty of (M)other Earth, something is born in us, some kind of connection, love is born. We want to be connected. That is the meaning of love, to be at one. When you love someone you want to say I need you, I take refuge in you. You do anything for the benefit of the Earth and the Earth will do anything for your wellbeing.

The complex interactions between minerals, life, and landscapes of our host planet have enabled our wellbeing. It is up to us to love it in return.

Open Science: Why I Blog January 20, 2012

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in science.
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On a recent airplane trip I watched Contagion, director Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 thriller in which traveler Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) contracts a deadly virus in Hong Kong and transports it home to the U.S. while other people spread the infection to China, the U.K., and Japan. I couldn’t resist; I was flying and the movie cried out, “Watch Me!” I thought I was called to it as a disaster flick centered on public health and scientific responses to pandemic. But what really grabbed me was the back-story about bloggers.

In the film, Jude Law plays Alan Krumwiede, a freelance Internet journalist or “semi-crackpot blogger” who disparages print journalism and blogs about the pandemic from its inception. Early in the film, Krumwiede is dismissed by Professor Ian Sussman (Elliot Gould) a research scientist working to provide a cell line that might facilitate development of an effective vaccine. Sussman quips “Blogging isn’t writing, it’s graffiti with punctuation.” Though Krumwiede turns out to be a villain in the film, as a blogger I was sympathetic to his plight.

Of course I’m a college professor–a geoscientist–whose job is ostensibly to educate students about earth processes and to publish original research that adds to our understanding about the planet.  Also, at the liberal arts college where I’m a professor, interdisciplinary scholarship is valued so I teach and write about gender, history of science, and “the environment.” If tenure and promotion are any guide (and I’m open to debate on that score), I’ve done well over the 25 years I’ve endeavored in this realm. But I’ve encountered the limits of educational liberalism as I’ve grown into a blogger over the last couple of years.

In a regular blog for Shambhala SunSpace I address topics at the intersections of earth science, dharma (teachings of the Buddha), and mindfulness practice. Sometimes the blog takes me into political realms, at other times I reflect on historical and current events, and occasionally I write a book review–all of it infused with a geological gaze. Although my institution’s response to this robust engagement with the blogosphere has been tepid, my enthusiasm for this public arena continues unabated. Here’s why.

To me, blogging is a practice that facilitates my aspiration to be present in the moment. When I blog, I engage with thoughts on the front burners of my brain, if you will. Very often these ideas relate to contemporary environmental issues, problems that affect all beings and require mindful awareness and attentive exchanges. Blogging supports my intention to stay grounded in wisdom and inclined towards benevolence. The Academy may feed my head but the blogosphere also nourishes my heart. Posts have put me in dialogue with some of the most progressive thinkers of our day. I’ve been honored to have had opportunities to think together with artists from Marfa, Texas and musicians in Minnesota, as well as acclaimed journalist and author Naomi Klein and Heinz Award winner Sandra Steingraber–chances that never would have presented themselves had I not put my ideas out into the world in real-time. And my site stats for my personal website, EarthDharma.org, keep me going.

In contrast, though I’m always passionate about fresh topics, devotion wanes as the present becomes the past. In 2010 I researched, wrote and had accepted for publication a peer-reviewed paper on the somewhat forgotten literary naturalist John Burroughs. And although I’ve had the pleasure of discussing the life and work of Burroughs–early champion of Walt Whitman, travel companion of President Teddy Roosevelt, and close friend of historical giants including John Muir and Henry Ford–with a few dozen scholars at conferences, my paper languishes in the queue for print publication.  When the paper does eventually appear (promised now for 2012), the handful of people who read “Journeys, Contemplation, and Home: Reflections on John Burroughs in the Caribbean” in peer-reviewed journal that has accepted it, will be a narrow audience out of sync with my intellectual passion and I’ll be well onto other subjects. Does being in sync with my intellectual passion matters to anyone but me? Perhaps.

As reported in the New York Times yesterday, other scientists are drawn to “open science” and the fast communication of ideas that it offers. I’ll be following with interest the sixth annual ScienceOnline conference that begins tomorrow at North Carolina State University. Sessions such as “Networking Beyond the Academy” or “Undergraduate Education: Collaborating to Create the Next Generation of Open Scientists” might put me in touch with other interdisciplinary scientist-educators attracted to post-disciplinary open science.

After blogging for two years, I’m working on turning my posts into a book that examines the dharma as taught by Earth. I know this makes me sound marginal. But that’s okay. According to the theory of punctuated equilibrium, evolution by natural selection occurs when vast periods of stasis are punctuated by the innovations of isolates along the periphery of ecosystems. The disciplinarily-bound Academy has operated the same way for centuries and in our troubled times innovation such as open science operating at the margins of the educational system may be among the changes needed to assure survival of 21st century species.

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.
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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.

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What would the Dalai Lama say about fracking? September 16, 2011

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Dalai Lama, fracking, natural gas, science, shale.
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This piece is cross-posted on Shambhala SunSpace.

In his book For the Benefit of All Beings: A Commentary on the Way of the Bodhisattva, His Holiness the Dalai Lama writes, “The actions of each of us, human or nonhuman, have contributed to the world in which we live. We all have a common responsibility for our world and are connected with everything in it.”

That is of course, a statement that applies to people of all kinds; not just Buddhists. As an earth system scientist, I feel the truth of that statement in my bones, every day. So, yesterday when I heard the news that ecologist, bladder cancer survivor, parent and activist Sandra Steingraber had been recognized this year with a Heinz award, I felt a surge of hope. Dr. Steingraber has written numerous books about the perils of a contaminated planet that are simultaneously scientific and personal.

Currently, she is working to prevent the unnatural disaster that will ensue if New York State proceeds with high-volume slick water hydrofracturing of shale gas — fracking — in the state. Steingraber puts it powerfully and renders the earth system science right when she avers, “we are shattering the very bedrock of our nation to get at the petrified bubbles of methane trapped inside.”

Sandra and I have had some supportive communication with one another over the years and so I dashed off a quick e-note of congratulations when I heard about the honor that carries with it a $100,000 unrestricted cash prize. Despite a very busy life, she got back to me quickly to share her statement subtitled “The Heinz Award and What I Plan to Do With It.”

In it, Dr. Steingraber acknowledged the connectedness of earth and all life, writing that “…the bodies of my children are the rearranged molecules of the air, water, and food streaming through them.” She announced her intent to devote her Heinz Award to the fight against hydrofracking in upstate New York where she lives with her family. And she implored others to join her in the struggle to fight fossil fuel addiction. In her opinion, dependency on these nonrenewable resources causes us to act irrationally — removing mountains, felling forests, drilling deeply — and to use these fossil fuels as raw materials for pesticides, solvents, and other toxic substances that insinuate themselves into the tissues of all living beings.

It seems to me that Dr. Steingraber’s thoughts and motives are as much informed by a sense of responsibility — one like the Dalai Lama wrote about – as they are by science. And that, as I say, makes me hopeful.

What about you?

Connected Across a Billion Years August 4, 2011

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Eden Village Camp, environmentalism, geology, Hudson Valley, Jewish spirituality, metamorphism, science.
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This piece is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace.

For the past month my family and I lived at Eden Village Camp in Putnam Valley, New York. Rooted in the Jewish vision of creating a more environmentally sustainable, socially just, and spiritually connected world, the campers at Eden Village were empowered to promote a vibrant future for themselves, their communities and the planet. While my partner and I worked as science “specialists”—focusing especially on earth science—and our children participated as campers, we lived a collaborative effort to create an earth-based, safe, and kind community.

As a result, I came to think of Eden Village as a Jewish version of the Buddhist sangha.

My job at the camp was to connect campers scientifically with the ground we walked. In fact, this was a remarkable opportunity not only scientifically, but spiritually because the bedrock of Eden Village camp is ancient, perhaps as much as one billion years old (Proterozoic age). Named by previous geologists the Reservoir gneiss, most of the rock unit consists of interlocked grains of globular quartz and feldspar separated into bands by phyllodough-like layers of thin grains of mica (dark colored mica is named biotite, light colored is muscovite).

 

I find in this geological fact a metaphor for the way in which individuals, whether they are inorganic mineral grains or organic living beings, coexist.

The reservoir gneiss is a polymetamorphic rock; that means it has been changed from one solid form into another more than once in its history. These rocks have “lived” a long time and tell multiple tales most especially about chemical and physical responses to dramatic changes in their immediate environment. But they can be read metaphorically as well.

Plates of mica have formed layers in the gneiss by aligning themselves so as to present their maximum surface area to the directional forces encountered during mountain building events. (In the image below—a photograph taken of a thin slice of gneiss—the white, black and gray grains are feldspar and quartz whereas the blue, strand-like grains are micas viewed edge-on, as if looking at the sheets of paper in a closed book).

At Eden Village, during the early formation of the Appalachian Mountains, the micas shared the intense pressure of deformation by rotating as a cohesive group so that the plates of mica were stacked and strong.

What’s more, by looking closely at these rocks we can read other lessons. Rocks, like people, can break or bend in response to intense pressure. Metamorphic petrologists, geologists who study metamorphic rocks, talk of brittle and ductile deformation of rocks; abrupt change, as in shifts of the earth’s crust, causes rocks to rupture, whereas time for adjustment to substantial change results in flexible bending seen as folds—as in the image below—in seemingly hard material.

At Eden Village camp we strove to bring innovative earth-based teaching to a community that would be Jewishly connected and inspired to endure the massive environmental changes occurring on Earth. Neither Buddha nor Torah, the Earth also teaches lessons that can guide us as we aspire to a sustainable path in community with others.

Ecological Buddhism July 3, 2011

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

 

Earth Dharma: “Awake in the Anthropocene”

The Indus and the Karakoram highway in N. Pakistan

By Jill S. Schneiderman

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turtle Liberation in the Anthropocene June 13, 2011

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

Earth Dharma: Turtle Liberation!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Oxygen in My Bones May 22, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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