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?
Science Fiction and Science Fact November 14, 2012Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in beach erosion, climate change, Ecozoic, Hurricane Sandy, Orrin Pilkey.
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Long before teenagers were imbibing dystopian fiction with unquenchable gusto, my teenage cohort was captivated by Planet of the Apes, the 1968 sci-fi film in which a crew of astronauts crash-lands on an unknown planet in the distant future. More recently, a photograph of a person walking by the remains of a roller coaster in Seaside Heights, New Jersey, demolished by Hurricane Sandy reminded me of the final scene of the film; two human beings along the shore in the “Forbidden Zone”—a region outside of “Ape City” that has remained quarantined for centuries subject to an ancient taboo—stumble upon the charred and buried remains of the Statue of Liberty. Thus they realize that the “alien” planet that was once supposedly the home of other humans is in fact the post-apocalyptic Earth.
David Gard / Associated Press
Still from closing scene of Planet of the Apes.
Now I don’t mean to be overly dramatic. But if scientists can’t convince the powers that be that our manner of inhabiting this planet is unskillful, perhaps artists can help conjur some sense of forboding.
It’s the beginnng of week three of post-Sandy life here in the New York/New Jersey metro region and plenty of people unfortunately are still suffering the effects. News coverage has focused national attention on the role of climate change in worsening the effects of the hurricane. But there’s another important lesson we shouldn’t miss: beaches are the most dynamic geomorphic feature on the surface of the Earth and we build fixed structures there at our peril.
My hero, Orrin Pilkey, professor emeritus of geology and of earth and ocean sciences at Duke University says that part of the problem is that “we scientists tend to be dullards when it comes to selling our case.” Nonetheless, we have a responsibility to try to do so. As a coastal geologist who has long advocated for retreat as a strategic response to beach erosion, Orrin has definitely done his part. Coining the term “New Jerseyization” to describe the results of unimpeded development and expensive attempts to stabilize beaches with sandbags, groins, jetties, seawalls or “renourish” them with pumped sand, Orrin has been as relentless as the sea in trying to make the point. Check out his warning in the October 1983 issue of Popular Science: “We have two mutually exclusive choices: beaches or buildings. We can’t have both.” And if you want even more on this subject, in The Corps and the Shore (1996) Pilkey and colleague Katharine Dixon examine comprehensively the impact of coastal processes on developed shorelines.
But the fundamental scientific fact is this: beaches move. Look at the image below to see the substantial westward migration of Breezy Point spit, Rockaway, Queens, New York in less than 150 years.NPS display at Fort Tilden NPS Visitors Center, Rockaway, Queens, NY
Like it or not, do not doubt that the future will provide photo-ops for Planet of the Ape-like shoreline scenes if we persist in arming beaches with sea walls, groins or jetties and continue to dump more sand on beaches from which we refuse to relocate. Will an artist please render that scientific fact?
Listen! The Earth Breathes! November 8, 2012Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Anthropocene, climate change, earth system science, Ecozoic, environmentalism, global warming, Hurricane Sandy, hydrologic cycle, science, sea-level rise, Teilhard de Chardin.
This piece appears in Shambhala SunSpace.
Like many millions of people around the world, I was captivated by President Barack Obama’s election night victory speech. And my heart cheered when I heard the President say, “we want our children to live in an America that…. isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.” Maybe the Earth has now, finally, made itself heard on the issue of the disastrous implications of global warming for all beings that live on this planet.
I’ve always favored scientist James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis that organisms interact with their inorganic surroundings on Earth to form a self-regulating complex system that contributes to maintaining conditions for life on the planet. And I’ve also been a big fan of Vice-President Gore’s book, An Inconvenient Truth, especially because he makes so clear that the Earth actually breathes. “It’s as if the entire Earth takes a big breath in and out once each year,” he wrote in referring to the Keeling Curve, the diagram by scientist Charles David Keeling that shows not only the overall increase in CO2 in the atmosphere starting in the late 1950s based on measurements of atmospheric CO2 at Mauna Loa, Hawaii but also the annual cycle of increase and decrease of CO2 in the atmosphere that results from the growth and decay of vegetation.
And now at the risk of committing the sin of anthropomorphism (attributing human motivation to an inanimate subject), I’ll suggest that Earth itself cast a vote in this election.
Some pundits say that “Superstorm Sandy” helped the President win the election partly because of his compassionate and competent response to the crisis. I’m no poll, so I don’t know. I hope only that this election marks our movement into a new geologic Era thatJesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) once proposed: the Ecozoic, a new era of mutually enhancing human-earth relations.
In The Long Road Turns to Joy, Thich Nhat Hanh wrote:
You will be like the tree of life.
Your leaves, trunk, branches,
And the blossoms of your soul
Will be fresh and beautiful,
Once you enter the practice of
May the re-election of Barack Obama usher in the Ecozoic Era, a period in which we listen attentively to what the Earth tells us and live the understanding that we breathing humans are the breathing Earth.