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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.

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The Earth trembles Down Under February 24, 2011

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Buddhist concepts, disasters, earthquakes, geology, science, Sylvia Boorstein.
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This piece  is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace.

When asked in an interview for Third Age, what is mindfulness, Sylvia Boorstein answered, “The practice of mindfulness is the practice of paying attention in every moment of one’s day. It’s the balanced recognition of the truth of the moment.” I find this comment especially relevant in the aftermath of the magnitude 6.3 earthquake on the South Island of New Zealand that has caused havoc in Christchurch since it occurred on February 21.

The images of crumbled buildings, the injured and dead, remind me to pay attention to the truth of the moment: human tenancy on Earth is tenuous. The latest news reports state that at least 76 people died in this event — a small number when compared to the thousands hurt and killed after the January 2010 Haitian quake or the April 2010Yushu quake in Southern Qinghai. Nonetheless, this devastating aftershock of the magnitude 7.1 earthquake in New Zealand on September 3 reminds me that the earth behaves consistently and, as in words attributed to historian Will Durant, “civilization exists by geological consent subject to change without notice.”

As I have written previously for this blog, earthquakes occur at lithospheric plate boundaries, the relatively flexible seams that connect pieces of essentially inflexible crustal material that constitutes the Earth’s surface. New Zealand seismicity is associated with deformation as the Pacific and Australia plates interact. When the Earth’s rigid crust moves, energy stored in crustal rocks is released and the rocks rupture. But the Earth’srigid crust always moves.

Rates of lithospheric spreading and convergence — science-speak for the pace at which continents and ocean basins get torn apart or crash together — on the order of centimeters per year are perhaps so slow that human beings don’t notice the relentless motion or the associated smaller magnitude releases of energy. Other living things, however, are more sensitive than we. In southern Guangxi province of China, the director of the earthquake bureau reports that as they pursue the elusive goal of earthquake forecasting scientists monitor the behavior of snakes.

In the first half of this month, Earth has experienced at least 8 (February 2) and as many as 26 (February 4) earthquakes each day! Usually only the bigger ones involving human casualties and economic losses get reported. By paying attention to what the Earth tells us daily in myriad ways via varied processes, seismic and otherwise, human beings can, in Sylvia’s words, recognize the truth of the moment — all life on this planet is fragile.

This entry was created by Jill S. Schneiderman, posted on February 24, 2011 at 8:32 am and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.     

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Letting Go of Mental Formations — Images from Geophysical Fluid Dynamics December 27, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Buddhist concepts, Buddhist practice, fluid flow, meditation, Sylvia Boorstein.
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This piece is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace.

For some people, this time of year offers especially good opportunities to practice the Buddhist art of letting go of mental formations—our conditioned responses to the objects of experience. Whether waiting in line at an airport, inching along in a traffic jam, sharing a festive meal, or sitting quietly alone, one’s mind lunges towards distractions on familiar themes.

The challenge is, of course, to awaken to the moment, release that pattern of thought, and return to the present. I’d like to suggest the visualization of a geophysical process that may help in this endeavor.

The thought came to me in that semi-conscious, pre-awake state, just before the early morning bell at a recent silent retreat; a picture of fluid flow manifested in my consciousness. Later in the day on the cushion, I put it to use. I pictured the transition from laminar to turbulent flow in a fluid medium. Allow me to explain.

Laminar flow, also known as streamline flow, occurs when a liquid or gaseous fluid flows in parallel layers with no disruption between them. It’s the opposite of turbulent flow which is a fluid regime characterized by chaotic particle motion. In the simplest terms, laminar flow is smooth while turbulent flow is rough. In turbulent flow, eddies and wakes make the flow unpredictable. You can see it in the cascade of water over rocks…

….or in the upward flow of a plume of smoke.

We sedimentologists ponder “flow regimes,” from laminar through transitional (a mixture of laminar and turbulent flow) to turbulent, because they affect the erosion, transport, and deposition of rock particles, large and small, from one environment to another. They bear on the magnitude of devastation associated with floodwaters and debris flows like those brought on by recent rainstorms in California.

Turbulent fluid flow with its high velocity moves material in apparently random, haphazard motion. Upwelling, swirling eddies entrain sediment and keep it moving not only along the fluid but also up and down within it. Most natural fluid flow is turbulent like the motion of broad, deep, fast moving rivers. Only very slowly moving fluids—think maple syrup or asphalt–exhibit laminar flow. Although laminar flow can help transport material down current it moves material less effectively than turbulent flow because it lacks the ability to keep particles of sediment lifted up in the moving current.

And here’s where the business of letting go of mental formations enters the picture. On the mat, “by and by” as Buddhist teacher Sylvia Boorstein likes to say, my mind drifts away from the breath to a thought, and the thought begins to lead me far away from my cushion and my focused attention on the breath. But I’m more able to let go of those mental formations when I picture them flowing away. They are my streams of thought, literally. And I feel them move away from my body, first in laminar fashion and ultimately dispersing into the turbulent flow regime where they scatter in eddies and swirls.

Jill S. Schneiderman is Professor of Earth Science at Vassar College and the editor of and contributor to For the Rock Record: Geologists on Intelligent Design (University of California Press, 2009) and The Earth Around Us: Maintaining a Livable Planet (Westview Press, 2003).

For more “Earth Dharma” from Jill S. Schneiderman, click here.

See also our Shambhala Sun Spotlight on Buddhism and Green Living.