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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Militaries, Mammals and Spiritual Science October 14, 2012

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Anthropocene, earth community, earth system science, environmentalism, science, slow violence, Thomas Berry.
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This piece is cross-posted at Truthout.orgThough not as closely related as they are to hippos, whales have much in common with elephants. Speaking scientifically, they belong to different taxonomic orders–whales to the taxonomic order Cetacea and elephants to the order Proboscidea, but they come from a common ancestor with hoofs and are therefore distinct from other orders of mammals such as primates or rodents. Of course, they both are large, intelligent, social mammals and they share a precarious existence.

Therefore, I was glad to read a New York Times op-ed this morning that condemned the plan of the U.S. Navy to carry out tests and exercises using explosives and sonar devices in the Earth’s major oceans during the five-year period 2014-2019. The Navy estimates that this military activity will negatively affect 33 million marine mammals. Reading this caused my mind to wander back to the stories I read in the Times last month about the widespread slaughter of elephants by members of African militias who remove the ivory tusks and sell them to purchase weapons. Though the butchery of elephants by African militaries is bloodier business than effects such as temporary hearing loss and ruptured eardrums of marine mammals that the U.S. Navy deems “negligible,” I can’t help but think that Earth is in the dire shape it is today because of this type of behavior.

Listen to Krista Tippett’s interview with Dr. Katy Payne, an acoustic biologist attributed with discovering that humpback whales compose ever-changing songs to communicate, and understanding that elephants communicate with one another across long distances by infrasound. One can’t help but be heartbroken at the suffering experienced by these sophisticated beings as a result of such unjustifiable military activities–legal and illegal, in the sea or on land, by developed or developing nations. Dr. Payne comments:

“My sense is that community responsibility, when it’s managed well, results in peace. And peace benefits everyone. That taking care of someone or something to which you are not immediately genetically related pays you back in other dimensions, and the payback is part of your well-being. Compassion is useful and beneficial for all.”

In my opinion, human societies must grow a generation of spiritual scientists who, like Katy Payne, respond emotionally to their scientific work and can try to help change the path down which this planet is headed.

I don’t know if he knew her but I bet Thomas Berry (1914-2009) would have loved Katy Payne. Berry, a leading scholar, cultural historian, and Catholic priest who called himself a “geologian”, spent fifty years writing about our relationship with the Earth and urging humanity to save the natural world in order to save itself. In his last book, The Sacred Universe, he wrote that we must respond to its [the Earth’s] deepest spiritual content or else submit to the devastation that is before us. He dreamed of a new geological Era, the Ecozoic, in which “humans will be present to the Earth in a mutually enhancing manner.”

When it comes to other beings on planet Earth, scientists must do more than articulate their observations of other organisms as if with objectivity. Elephants and whales, along with other marine mammals, are more than “stocks” of resources, as some governments would have us believe. They are living beings with systems of communications and social relations to whom we are connected. Recognition of such connection puts us in touch with the fact that, in Berry’s words, “the universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.” Can someone please tell the Navy?

Taking the Practice Seriously June 19, 2012

Posted 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.
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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.