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

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

DeathValleyFT13AaronDeathValley

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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.

White Flags for Earth Day April 22, 2011

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in 'Eaarth' Day, earth community, earth cycles, earth system science, environmentalism, geologic time, Vassar College, White Flags.
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As I’ve said before, I am somewhat cynical about Earth Day because it seems to me a travesty to focus on the Earth’s well-being just one day out of every year. It makes it seem as if Earth is some kind of static entity that we must pay tribute to whereas we know it to be a system of overlapping spheres (hydrosphere, atmosphere, rock sphere, and biosphere) whose interactions over extended time have made possible life on this planet. This is a fact that, in my opinion, we all should pause to appreciate every day.

So this Earth Day I’d like to call attention to “White Flags”–a project of Vassar’s 2010/2011 artist in residence, Aaron Fein. “White Flags”–all 192 flags of United Nations member states hand-made in white and installed on the College’s Chapel lawn–showcases the power of a physical environment that changes over time to illumine the transcendent connectedness of all living beings on this planet.

I’ve seen the flags and have been privileged to participate a bit in the project which is at the confluence of art and science. If you’re in the area, come see it between April 24 and April 29 at the College.  It should be a magnificent sight.

Convenient Conviction December 31, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in discrimination, education, liberal arts college, Vassar College.
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I’m having a tough time at my academic institution at the moment. It’s Open Enrollment period at Vassar College where I’ve been a tenured faculty member since 1994.

During “Open Enrollment” employees may review current benefits and select new benefit coverage. This week I handed in my form to change my health plan and I’m still smarting because of the tax penalty I’m forced to endure despite Vassar’s nondiscrimination policy that includes sexual orientation.

Since my domestic partner of nearly 18 years—the person with whom I’m been ‘civilly united’ for ten years, the very same woman who I’ve been married to for five years, and the co-parent of our two cherished children—was laid off from a position that provided medical benefits, I opted for the “Family” rate in order to cover myself and my three family members. To the College’s credit, after we LGBTQ faculty argued for it in the late 1990s, Vassar opened up medical insurance to unmarried domestic partners, both heterosexual and same-sex couples.

So, today unmarried couples employed by the College can insure domestic partners. But the benefit comes with the proviso that “paycheck deductions are monthly and pre-tax, except for domestic partner deductions which are after-tax.” This may seem like no big deal but over the course of a lifetime of employment, the dollars of tax penalty add up to a substantial sum. And then of course there is the principle.

I contacted our benefits administrator to make sure that the category “Family” would be applied in my situation, rather than the two separate categories of “Parent-Children” and “Domestic Partner.” I was told that indeed the College considered us a family but that my partner’s portion of the benefit was taxable. I was to be mollified by the fact that the taxation would be applied in the most limited possible way to my deductions and the tax hit would be roughly just $125 per month. I was to be assuaged by the statement that no one in the benefits office agrees with the Internal Revenue Service on the taxability policy but that they don’t have the option to disobey it. I wish I could feel more grateful but in fact this reality stinks.

I’m feeling stung by the national discourse about tax cuts that are occurring simultaneously with the continued Congressional dickering over Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. How will we LGBTQ people ever get equal rights in this country? One answer is that we must agitate vociferously against capitulation to discrimination that leverages the feeble excuse of compliance with laws that flout professions of commitment to equality.

Vassar College’s non-discrimination policy prohibits discrimination or harassment by members of the College community against members of the college community based on the following: race, color, religious belief, sex, marital status, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, national or ethnic origin, veteran status or age. In my opinion, Vassar can demonstrate a true commitment to nondiscrimination on the basis of marital status, sexual orientation, and gender identity by compensating same-sex faculty members for the tax penalty of having our partners on our medical insurance.

Syracuse University opted to do just that early in 2010 placing that institution, as far as Inside Higher Ed is concerned, “on the cutting edge of promoting equity.” When I brought the Syracuse policy to the attention of our benefits office early last year, my inquiry was treated with silence. I raised the issue again this year, appropriately during Open Enrollment, and was told that numerous unmarried heterosexual couples were also impacted by such tax policy. But let’s remember that unmarried heterosexual couples have the choice of whether or not to enter into a marriage that is recognized by the U.S. government whereas my “wife” and I, despite our best efforts, do not.

I was proud that in celebrating the life of our president emerita, Virginia B. Smith who passed away this year at the age of 87, Vassar touted her accomplishment of a life partnership of 57 years with Dr. Florence Oaks. I wish I could be proud of a robust nondiscrimination policy as well. But at the current moment I must characterize Vassar’s nondiscrimination policy as merely a conviction of convenience.

‘Eaarth’ Gay on ‘Eaarth’ Day 2010 April 22, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in 'Eaarth' Day, Buddhist concepts, climate change, contemplative practice, earth community, environmental justice, LGBT concerns, Vassar College.
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Sometimes I feel blasé about Earth Day because I grow tired of talk without action. As a bujugeoscientist (that’s a Buddhist, Jewish, geoscientist) I’m inclined towards Right Speech and Right Action among the steps of the eightfold-path. As a result, I am unmoved by the verbiage of Earth Day.

Founded with good intentions by Senator Gaylord Nelson forty years ago today, it was designed as an environmental “teach-in” to inspire awareness and appreciation for the Earth’s environment. But I think it’s time for the speechifying (and partying that sometimes goes with it) to be supplanted by serious (right) action.

So, I’m pleased to share my delight today at having stumbled upon a new organization, OUT for Sustainability that aims to engage and mobilize the LGBT community around progressive environmental thinking. In my opinion, environmentalists like those running Earth Day events can learn plenty from LGBT activists who have had to mobilize swiftly to fight life-threatening illness and counter gross civil rights injustices.

The current state of Eaarth should move Eaarthlings as the AIDS-crisis moved LGBT activists. Started in 2009, OUT for Sustainability seems to me to represent the type of alliances this planet and its living beings need now. My queer Vassar College students get this connection; for example, they are OUT working on advanced degrees in epidemiology and environmental science; serving as educators about climate change; directing films about the effects of Hurricane Katrina; and promoting organizations that focus on issues of environmental justice, including food justice and health.

Thank you students! Thank you OUT for Sustainability. On Eaarth Day 2010, this Eaarth Gay feels inspired.