Two weeks of really intensive, high-stress, work have put my meditation superpowers to the test. Apparently I am now able to handle twenty tasks at a time, respond calmly to people who are having mini-meltdowns, and ask for things nicely during a crisis. Also no post-work breakdowns or excessive drinking needed to cope. Meditating daily for the last year has surely been worth the time and effort.
Category Archives: Think
“This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown, or to any man or number of men—go freely with powerful uneducated persons, and with the young, and with the mothers of families—re-examine all you have been told in school or church or in any book, and dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem, and have the richest fluency, not only in its words, but in the silent lines of its lips and face, and between the lashes of your eyes, and in every motion and joint of your body.” ~ Walt Whitman
“An unfortunate one is a rootless ghost,
His walk a mad angel’s gait.
Insolent steps of one thrown from
To toil in red dust,
As if he had not had enough
In a thousand previous lifetimes.
Where is his heart? Where is his soul?
To call this heaven’s will
Is a cheap answer.” - Deng Ming-Dao
What does it mean to attend to the world, to be present? Meditation is one practice of attending to ourselves and to the world around us, but as Ming-Dao observes it seems a “cheap answer” to limit our engagement with the world’s problems our of some notion of predestination.
In class one student observed that the world is perfect just as it is, and our desires and efforts to change it are a byproduct of ego we must let go of. But this contains its own conundrum, for if the world is perfect as it is, then even those who are struggling to reduce poverty, war, racism, ecocide, and the like, are part of that perfection. And taken this way, we could understand that all things have a place in our world, even those which are forceful and sometimes violent.
We have the examples of great spiritual teachers across cultures – Confucius, Socrates, the Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed – all who possessed some level of enlightenment. Not one of them rejected their role in bringing an end to suffering. The Buddha did not attain his awakening, and then keep it to himself. Jesus, upon understanding the conditions of oppression and a path to grace in this life and beyond, did not remain a lowly labourer in Nazareth. Each spiritual elucidation has been accompanied by the responsibility to impart that knowledge in an effort to ease the suffering of humankind.
This is a kind of action, and not one without consequences.
There are no actions without consequences, and more often than not the outcomes contain both the light and dark. We fought for more social housing in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver for decades, creating a ghetto no one can leave because social housing is confined to a single neighbourhood of the city. Quebec students marched against one government’s bad education policies and were successful in bringing them down, only to see another party elected who has now launched attacks on the religious freedoms of non-Catholics. In achieving one thing, we invite unintended outcomes, which was my classmate’s point. We might just be making things worse.
If we do not act against suffering, we are cruel. If we do act to effect social change, we might cause other suffering to occur as a byproduct. Bound by this paradox we might think it’s better to abstain completely, to remove oneself from society and meditate ourselves to enlightenment instead. But then we still must accept that there is no way to be human without being a part of the wheel of suffering, in which case the lesser evil seems to include being active rather than passive in the face of injustice, lack and violence. It seems that assisting others to live in ways that allow them to fulfill their potential has a much better chance of minimizing the world’s sorrows than choosing to remain in hermitage. And it also appears that in so doing, we might also fulfill our own potential for a good life, one in which we nurture measured action and a turn towards those who suffer instead of away from them.
This does not preclude the possibility that some action is taken out of the deepest of delusions and the needs of the individual ego – and there is no doubt that much of what passes for protest-activism at the moment is focused on the “I” and the individual, no matter how much it implies otherwise. The Occupy movement being a case in point, where various Occupy encampments, ostensibly set up for the purpose of bringing justice to the many, became battlegrounds over the selfish and self-centered behaviours of some participants. My own history in protest activism has lead me to reflect on the damage caused by ego-driven behaviours, and the lack of overall effectiveness when we pursue things with force and violence.
But because we live in an world increasingly stratified between the illness of greed at the top and the sickness of poverty at the bottom, it is too easy to cynically turn away convinced that we are above it all, or retreat to the monastery in an attempt to do no harm. Our ability to attend starts with us, our practice and our compassion, but it does not end there.
(From the essay That which moves the spirit)
“Once you find deep solitude and calm, there will be a great gladness in your heart. Here finally is the place where you need neither defense nor offense – the place where you can truly be open.” – Deng Ming-Dao
I have just now returned from an hour of walking meditation at the labyrinth below the retreat centre. The stones are set in a community park, overlooking Snug Cove and the North Shore mountains across Howe Sound. I can’t imagine a more fitting place in which to ponder the depth and grandeur of life. And yet, my walking meditation asks no questions, and I focus only on letting all my thoughts go and experiencing the world moment by moment. I feel the stones uneven each time I raise and lower my foot, the cool air moving around me, my breath in and out at the tip of my nose. I become caught up by the rapid movements of a small bird on a bush beside the path, startle at the deep cry of a raven, and note the sound of cars starting up down the hill and rumbling away. At times I wonder when this walking will end, but then dispel that impulse and slow my movements further to allow each sensation to sink in and travel through me. In a world where there never seems enough time, I am learning there are ways to make each second an eternity.
I arrived at this most recent exploration of meditation via my academic studies. While writing a paper on the modern development of neuroscience in the spring of 2013, I couldn’t help but notice study after study confirming the benefits of meditation, and in particular the effects of meditative practice on the so-called “plastic” brain. It wasn’t my first exposure to the concept of meditation as a positive practice in relieving stress and anxiety – I have unsuccessfully attempted daily practice at other points in my life. But this time around I was piqued by the idea that meditation was good for more than just stress, and very likely could play a role in rewiring the brain to make it more resilient to the effects of aging, aid in the development of intellect, and additionally boost immune system response.
This interest in the science of the brain lead me to a course on spiritual enlightenment, of all possible turns, because I believed it was in that structured learning environment I would find the support for meditative practice and the discipline to approach it daily. In early September 2013 I resolved my main work for this course would be exactly that – a time in each day which would be reserved for some form of meditative practice.
At the outset, I promised myself that meditation would not become one more thing on my to-do list, that I would not approach it as a chore, nor would I set expectations with regard to length or quality of sitting. I wrote in my journal at the time, “I want my desire for meditation to grow naturally rather than imposing upon myself another set of goals.” Though not wanting to put pressure on the situation, I did recognzie that finding the discipline to practice every day was key and I found myself encouraged by these words by Deng Ming-Dao:
“In order to start, we must make a decision. This decision is a commitment to daily self-cultivation. We must make a strong connection to our inner selves. Outside matters are superfluous. Alone and naked, we negotiate all of life’s travails. Therefore, we alone must make something of ourselves, transforming ourselves into the instruments for experiencing the deepest spiritual essence of life.”
And so I have done, meditating almost every day for the past ten weeks. In the beginning, I sat for ten minutes per day, though quickly moved that to fifteen and then twenty. Now I sit for thirty minutes at a time and when I can manage it, twice a day. On this retreat I am in practice for three hours per day between various sitting, lying and walking meditation, plus community worship.
Early on, I was fortunate to discover that a Ch’an Buddhist teacher in my workplace was offering eight weeks of meditation classes on Thursday afternoons. This would seem coincident with my desire to start meditating, except it turns out that she has offered this course for years, and it only came to my attention because I was receptive. The timing was good in any case, and so I found myself learning a very formal style of meditation which includes eight-form moving meditation, sitting meditation, walking and lying down meditations as well as prostration. In the beginning of my practice, I complemented this formal teaching by listening to guided meditations by Jon Kabat-Zinn which included bodyscape, breathscape and lovingkindness instructions. I ended each session at home by reading poetry or spiritual instruction from my personal library. For times when I could not be at home with enough time or energy to meditate, I planned out where I could go downtown to have 20 minutes without interruption. My workplace has an all-purpose room that is not used after work, and SFU Harbour Centre has an inter-cultural space which made it convenient on the days I could not be in my home.
In making meditation a priority for ten weeks, I hoped I would experience some difference in my being, but at the same time was prepared for nothing to happen at all. After all, it’s just sitting. Disciplined sitting, yes, but it is a practice of doing nothing, with no expectations, and no goal! None of this comes naturally to me, and I had to overcome my doubts in order to get started. Especially in the beginning when I could only sit for ten minutes and my thoughts were continually returning to the pettiest arguments and grievances I had with the world. But after only a few days, this annoyance turned out to be my first insight: It wasn’t just in meditation that my mind was running over old wounds, it was every time my mind drifted at all. Interesting. No wonder Jon Kabat-Zinn refers to this process as “dropping in” on oneself.
My hopes for meditation are for an end to the negative voices, the nagging and the doubt inside me. I have always wished for a calmer disposition, a more tranquil mind and way of being in the world. I’m a high-intensity personality, after all, which has advantages in this world but frequently leaves me exhausted by my own actions. While I did not enter this practice in order to change my core being, I am interested in pursuing any practice that introduces a greater sense of ease and grace to this life I am living. I did not expect that a mere ten weeks of meditation would bring me to some fundamentally new place in my existence, nor has it, though I do believe I have seen a glimpse of that calmer and more thoughtful way of living I seek.
I am living the paradox of internal change through my practice, which seems vast and infinitesimal at the same time. There are the small periods of calm which I have introduced to my days by sitting apart from others, alone with the present moment. And then there are the openings to sensation that occur when I bring my attention to bear on some part of me, a sensual awakening that at times seems overwhelming. In general I believe myself to be less emotionally reactive, and I have noticed that I regain my equilibrium faster when my emotions are aroused. I have also noticed that in some instances my emotions come much more freely, as though I am shedding layers between myself and the world. On more than one occasion both in and out of practice I have been suffused with a feeling of wholeness, joy, and connection that is greater than me. In a recent group meditation, I had the experience of a great warmth entering and leaving through my breath, an expansion of my being and a lack of physical constraint that was entirely novel. These are states I have rarely known before, and not with such sustained intensity when they have arisen.
There have been instances of greater visual perception after sustained meditation, such as the labyrinth walk cited earlier. When I left that hour of meditative walking to return to the retreat centre I was suddenly in command of a whole range of visual detail I had not been aware of before. This effect is brief, though I believe that with mindfulness practice it is a state I could more frequently attain in daily life.
And then there is this small change which belies a much larger shift underneath: for the first time in my life I have spontaneously stopped chewing my fingernails and they have grown quite long, so much so that I have to trim them. This was not an intention, nor did I put any attention on this longstanding bad habit (having given up trying to quit long ago). I simply noticed one day after about five weeks of practice that my nails were growing and healthy for the first time ever. Given that this is a neurotic impulse largely attributed to stress, I would deduce from this small clue that my stress levels are at least slightly lower than normal despite being in a very busy period of work and social life.
Ten weeks is such a short period on which to reflect when it comes to a practice as ancient and varied as meditation, and I feel that there is much depth and learning still to come. Whatever else arises from daily meditation, I believe the attitude of building a life with more ease to be worth the challenges – the discomfort, boredom and frustrations – that are a part of any daily practice. I intend to continue daily meditation, without making it a chore or goal, and with an openness to whatever lessons it continues to bring.
Many years ago a friend who is a trauma therapist said to me, “you know, not everyone lives as though the next disaster is just around the corner,” to which I reacted with disbelief. “How on earth,” I responded, “does anyone plan for the future if they aren’t assessing every possibility?” I wasn’t being disingenuous either, at that point in my life I believed that my anxiety and constant worry were totally normal and in fact, admirable. Didn’t it make me a good planner, ready for any disaster, more competent at life as a result? I just couldn’t see how it was harmful to live in that state. Problem was, I also couldn’t see that I was suffering through a debilitating period of depression and social anxiety, as my experience had primed me to inhabit that state so naturally and seamlessly, it had just crept in without my noticing.
I come from a family of worriers. Both my parents are anxious much of the time – my mom on the depressive side, my dad on the neurotic/obsessive – which is not to blame them for my condition, but to say that I come by my anxiety honestly. It’s a bit of a backdrop for everything that happens in my life, really – I get in my car and I visualize what kind of accident I am going to be in, I say good-bye to my husband as he leaves for a work trip and I think how sad he would be if I died in his absence, I send my boss an email and if I don’t hear back in 24 hours I’m sure they are planning my layoff. Pretty much everything triggers a worry. Though I don’t dwell on them very long, they are a persistent, negative visualization of my life.
Fortunately I am not one of those people who believes in The Secret or any other law of attraction nonsense so I’m not anxious (really) that I am sabotaging my life through my thoughts. Unfortunately I am one of those people who believes that unnecessary stress can lead to health problems such as the aforementioned depression, heart problems and so on. Also, being anxious all the time is exhausting and it makes me not much fun to be around. Ultimately anxiety is fuelled by the delusion that life, and the happenings of life, are in our control and the anxious person (me) is engaged in some kind of an arranging event to ensure that everything goes smoothly (and that we don’t die).
Last year I picked up a book by William B. Irvine called A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy where I was introduced to what he calls “negative visualization” but what was actually called praemeditation malorum (pre-meditation on evils) by the Stoics. Oliver Burkeman in The Antidote describes the motivation and practice thus, “For the Stoics… our judgements…. are that we can control, but also all that we need to control in order to be happy; tranquility results from replacing our irrational judgments with rational ones. And dwelling on the worst-case scenario…. is often the best way to achieve this.”
As we started our semester with Hadot and the Stoics, I took this lesson up once again and alongside my meditation practice (which has served to highlight my anxieties), I have been trying at intervals to ask myself of certain worries that arise “What is the worst that can happen in this instance?” in order to release them of some of their power. Investigating worries also has allowed me to recognize how many of them are not in my control at all.
Taking the example of the car accident worry which I have pretty much every time I get in the car, I might first note that whether I get in an accident or not is only partly in my control, but not very much given all the circumstances that can lead to a crash. But then the worst thing that can happen to me? Well, I could die, but I wouldn’t know about it and none of us get to choose our death anyway. I could kill someone else, which might only highlight for me to be mindful when I’m driving, but also if that were to happen I would have to find a way to live with and atone for it. I could end up injured, but again, I would simply have to go through the process of healing and thankfully we have a free medical system. And so on.
For my much more mundane worries like “There will be no one at the retreat centre to meet me” or “They won’t have my reservation for Saturday night” which are only some of the things which occurred to me on my journey to Rivendell, the “What’s the worst that can happen” question reveals how trivial those worries really are, and also that I have no control over them in the first place so worrying about them is utterly pointless.
Practicing with this question for the past two months has allowed me to step back and evaluate those worries as they come to the fore of my attention, and drop them just as quickly so I can move on to other things. What’s also true is that by meditating on the worst case – such as never seeing my husband again due to some misfortune on one of our parts – I can focus on how much I appreciate him in the immediate moments we have together. Moments that I can never be sure will follow the present ones. In the event my worries are grounded in something real and controllable, I might note what action to take in order to forestall inconvenience and alleviate future concerns. For the most part it’s only the thoughts I can take action on, and I’m left with the question of how to further develop my outlook so I can avoid some of the needless worries altogether.
(Part Two : These things which move the spirit)
It is no wonder that the curse God puts upon Eve (and all women) in the Book of Genesis is that of painful childbirth. So fundamental is this trauma to both mother and child, our earliest story-tellers had to find some explanation for this interweave of life and pain which we are all afflicted with from the very beginning.
Whether the birth trauma, or episodes that follow, there is no question that our lives are punctuated by distressing events; violence, loss, physical injury, psychic pain, the death of loved ones, are all part of the average human life. Every person will experience some of these events, and some will seem to get more than their fair share. There is no way to predict who will see more pain in a lifetime, though environment will dictate a higher likelihood of some traumas than others. And despite the fact we will all experience some amount of pain in our lives, many people go out of their way to take more upon themselves, unconsciously and often in the name of a higher ideal, a better lifestyle, or personal power. We don’t see it that way, often rationalizing a period of sacrifice for a future in which we find contentment. All that’s standing between us and our own private utopia is just a few hard years where we work longer hours, or perhaps we pony up our physical freedom in order to make a political point. And in so doing we damage ourselves, lending our bodies needlessly to a future which can never be made real.
I have lived in the delusion of a politics which demanded that I personally witness and experience trauma as part of conscious action. After years of writing letters, protesting, marching and making activist culture, I made a choice in my twenties to engage on the periphery of illegal activity, the kind that frees animals from cages, but also the kind that involves vandalism and arson in order to strike back at companies doing ecological harm. To be around and aware of these kinds of activities requires an immersion in trauma, an identification with the sufferings of animals as well as the forests, the waters and the very soil which is being poisoned by human activities. On top of this is the continual fear of arrest, of police raids and prison, which reinforces an insular culture that wears post-traumatic stress disorder as a badge of pride.
The paradox of course is that in order to create a more stable, more sustainable earth, my activist compatriots made our own personal lives unstable and unsustainable. We called that a worthwhile tradeoff because a future existed in which we would be redeemed, and able to live free. But of course, that’s a delusion, like so much of our suffering – created by our individual and paradoxical needs. I could just have easily made material success my goal and worked myself to an early heart attack instead. The examples of human folly in this regard are endless.
I am fortunate to have escaped physically unscathed from this period of my life, for I was never directly involved in unlawful activity, though I lived with and loved those who were. When the arrests finally did come in 2005, long after we had finished with that bit of rebellion, I spent the next two years supporting friends in US courts and jails. I continue even now to support those still imprisoned and will do so for the next several years.
When I look back from outside that experience I see how easy it was to take the fear of ecological harm – and with some help from my friends, turned that belief into a decade of suffering. The Buddhist aphorism, “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional,” is not lost on me as I sift through these experiences, noting that the pain, fear, and devastation I lived with for many years, was so totally unnecessary and counter-productive.
(Part One : These things which move the spirit)
“Blessed be the longing that brought you here
And quickens your soul with wonder.” – John O’Dohonue
These words open O’Donohue’s poem “For Longing” and were read on my first night at Rivendell Retreat during the five o’clock community worship. Our community host read them with an invitation to reflection at the end of each stanza, a short poem stretched out in moments of breath and contemplation, bringing the beginning of my stay here to a focused question. What am I longing for that brought me to this place? What longing brought me to a course on spiritual enlightenment this year? What triggered my pursuit of formal meditation as part of my academic inquiry?
I’m afraid my longings, the words that floated above that night’s reflection, are somewhat pedestrian: love, belonging, tranquility – an end to the inner voice of doubt, anxiety and self-criticism. These desires unite all people, though we may choose different paths in our quest to fulfill them. I am not someone seeking an answer to all the big questions in life – I do not believe in a god or an afterlife or a grand design and am not disquieted by my lack of belief. But I am endlessly curious about what makes a good life, and in ensuring that I do not accidentally mislive this one chance I am given.
I recognize how much time I have given over to things which do not matter, how often I have tried to force situations in a misguided notion of the greater good, and that I have listened too often to the inner and outer voices of negativity and despair. I see how quests for social change, for personal privilege and social status have disturbed my more fundamental needs for quiet and stability. But I do not want to turn those strivings into another grasping thing which I believe the spiritual path can become. The desire for states such as enlightenment or revelation can be as destructive as other drives when pursued by the goal-oriented ego. And so I reject these concepts from my longing, though I leave a door open for the possibility of any state to arise in practice as in daily life.
Still, it is dishonest to claim I am seeking nothing in my studies and in my retreat, especially as I intend to continue meditation and inner work. My longing is best summed up as a desire for self-love and self-knowledge, neither of which I possess in the measure I would like. My life is rich with material comfort, social community, romantic and familial love – none of which I take for granted – but a constant unease undermines every interaction with others and with myself. Which is to say that I live with a certainty that I am not good enough, deeply flawed, and unlovable despite all evidence which tells me otherwise.
My longing then is simple: I want the negative voices to go quiet so I can hear my own life sing.
Gah! Losing an election is so disheartening, frustrating, disempowering, depressing. No matter how you phrase it, I know a lot of sad people this morning and I too have been catastrophizing since the results were announced last night. But having lived through several governments who I did not vote for (in fact, my party has only ever won a single election where I was eligible to vote) I am also fully aware that this is not the end of anything, just the beginning of another round of struggle. While walking to work this morning I was thinking about exactly this, and exactly what did *not* change last night besides the ruling government:
- I still live in an awesome neighbourhood with great, compassionate people surrounding me. One way in which that manifests is the return of birdsong to our community, which has followed the return of food gardening, boulevard gardens and natural features to our urban neighbourhood. Another manifestation is the return of salmon to Still Creek last year, which followed on the cleaning up and restoration of the waterway by community volunteers. Still another thing I love about my walk to work is the railway overpass at Raymur, a bridge that only exists because mothers in the community banded together in the eighties to fight for it. Point being, Liberals or NDP, we make positive change by our actions and there are reminders of that everywhere.
- Poor people are still destitute, young people still feel disenfranchised, and there are still not enough options for low-income housing in this province. Sadly, the NDP made few promises for change on any of these fronts ($20 per month added to a welfare cheque is an insult not a promise) so it’s not like that was going to change either way.
- If I want social and environmental justice, I must be willing to take to the streets. No government *gives* us rights and benefits. No government willingly gives up privilege. We are still a population who needs to learn our collective interest and our collective power.
- My community still includes love and music and art and parties and great friends and funny nights of drinking and community gardening fun and rad parents and weird kids and so much of the stuff that live is *actually* about. Losing at the polls while winning at life is a balance I can handle.
Perhaps I am somewhat of a Pollyanna – but I want to say – cheer up! It’s not that bad! At least we’ll have some fun at the barricades, right? And that despite the government I love my life and the fact that I have found such purpose in it; win or lose the election.
I am very close to finishing my semester – in fact I should be working on my term paper right now – and already I’m thinking about summer “projects”. Which things to focus on for the next four months that I’m out of school? Is it going to be working on develping a meditation practice, or a greater emphasis on exercise, or time spent thinking about a project on which I can complete my masters degree, or some combination of all the above? Plus, sewing, gardening, reading for fun, taking holidays and cooking as many new and interesting things as possible.
It’s not like I get a ton of time off work suddenly or anything, but the end of the school term brings with it the lifting of a certain mental weight. The “I should be….” that looms over each semester as I fall behind in my reading or look towards writing the end paper with deep foreboding. As much as I love my decision to return to university last year, it does bring with a certain feeling of time pressure that I remember from leaving things to the last minute during my undergrad 15 years ago. Even though I have much better time management skills now, school produces a particular feeling of anxiety because there is always something one should be doing.
With that in mind I am wondering about how to finish my master’s degree over the next two years. My program allows for one of three ways to finish: coursework (2 classes above the 6 required), a project (not necessarily a thesis), or two extended (30-page) essays. Up until now I have been pretty sure that I wanted to finish on the coursework option, though I have been open to the idea of something else if I go so inspired.
And would you believe that last night I got inspired while drinking gin in our backyard hot tub? Don’t ever doubt, that’s where most of my good ideas come from.
Apocalypse has always been an interesting theme, and one of my goals when I entered the program was to perhaps find ways to tackle that theme through my courses. To some degree I have, though not in any focused sense. And I’ve worried that the whole apocalypse topic has been done to death in academia. But from a conversation with Brian and another friend last night I see another angle that might be interesting to explore. Not only that, I would get to do interviews! And read post-apocalypse fiction (my favourite!) And think and write about some kind of fantasizing that I have strongly identified with at different points of my life.
And! As I told Brian this morning – I could then call myself an Eschatologist (which I know, sounds dirty, right?) which means someone who studies the end of the world (origins are in theology but I don’t think the field only applies to religion any longer).
As I struggle with getting fifteen pages on neuroplasticity out on paper, I do wonder if I really have it in me to write 60 pages. I’m pretty sure the answer to that is yes, but then the question is – do I want to?
I have been having the most unproductive work day ever owing to some kind of network update that has all but cut my connection to our web development servers. After two hours of simply trying to log in, I connected only to discover the whole shebang running so slow as to make work impossible. And I’m on a deadline so it’s extra-frustrating because I got shit to do!
But instead I am stuck behind a machine that records each keystroke two seconds after its made….. so I’ve been making do with other work and hoping the problem resolves itself by tomorrow.
Tonight is my class presentation for my course in Science and Human Values and since I haven’t much else to say today I am sharing that presentation here. It’s been awhile since I posted anything academic after all….. this course hasn’t required a ton of writing (beyond the final paper which I have to start working on this weekend). This piece is a seminar introduction with questions to follow that I hope will stimulate some discussion in class. I’m afraid the questions have less to do with the book I was assigned to present on, and are an attempt to broaden the discussion away from the history of the development of geology. But what better place to push discussion than at the discovery of deep time?
Notes on The Map that Changed the World, William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology by Simon Winchester
What struck me as I was reading Winchester’s book, was not really the tale of William Smith – an interesting fellow and certainly a person who opened up a new way of seeing the world – but the nature of discovery itself and how that shapes and changes our conception of our human selves.
I have never stopped to think about the transition from a world in which the bible was taken as a document of literal history to the present day acceptance of deep time – and I realized as I was reading that this shift was no less profound than the ideas of Copernicus when he posited that the earth wasn’t exactly the center of the universe as previously thought. This was what I was set to preface my introduction to Winchester’s work on….. until I opened up (Stephen J Gould’s book) Time’s Arrow and discovered that on the very first page, Gould eloquently sums up the enormity of this transition in saying:
Freud omitted one of the greatest steps from his list, the bridge between spatial limitation of human dominion (the Galilean revolution), and our physical union with all “lover creatures (the Darwinian revolution). He neglected the great temporal limitation imposed by geology upon human importance — the discovery of “deep time.” What could be more comforting, what more convenient for human domination than the traditional concept of a young earth, ruled by human will within days of its origin. How threatening, by contrast, the notion of an almost incomprehensible immensity, with human habitation restricted to a millimicrosecond at the very end!
Not only does the discovery of “deep time” challenge our notions of human importance, it opens up an even deeper theological problem, not to mention species crisis – the fact of extinction. In 1796, the French geologist George Cuvier published a paper establishing extinction of species as fact – which is where William Smith’s work pointed as well, since it was evident to him (and others around him) that the fossil layers he examined contained species that were no longer evident in existence.
This throws a bit of a wrench into the notion of divine intelligence or divine creation, unless you start making up hokey stories about God getting better or more experienced as he went along….. or take a catastrophist approach to the fossil layer and claim that volcanoes, earthquakes and floods are the reason the earth appears as old as it is. Those events mess up the fossil record after all. And those aren’t fossils anyway! As much as we might hope this had died out in Smith’s time, we know from the recent rise of fundamentalist religious movements that these ideas are still very much in play today.
All that aside, since I have the luxury of presenting on one of the last subjects of my course I wanted to bring the discussion around to the more existential problem of science – which is that with each discovery, establishment of a new set of facts, or theories (Higgs-bosun or recent announcements from the field of Astronomy that posit the closeness of habitable planets as examples) – humans seem to become smaller and less central to the drama unfolding around us.
Beginning with the philosopher Epicurus who (around 300 BCE) argued that the Gods controlled very little, but atoms were the physical stuff that made up our world and acted according to certain principles (swerving into one another and so forth) – we have been carried along through discoveries that bring us up to a much larger and more complex universe today. It seems that on the one hand human existence is diminished, but on the other we are enriched by freedom from superstition and the knowledge that to a large degree we are self-determined as opposed to being controlled from above. Or, at least we could be.
Because the other thought that occurred as I was reading Winchester’s book is that although we have some pretty compelling proof of deep time and extinction – William Smith and others laid it out 200 years ago – we are still living in a world in which huge swaths of humanity believe in a literal bible, or other theological teaching that refutes the basic science of our existence. Where many people still pray for divine intervention – whether that be God or the notion of collective consciousness (a la the secret) – to get what they want. No matter that we can clone, cure, travel to other planets, smash particles, and explain the history of the earth — we can not answer the question that most wants answering.
Science can explain the how of existence but not the why. And therein lies the truly incommensurable question, and I believe it’s also where our notion of what is “truth” falters and gives ground to religion and superstition. It’s the space in which nonsense about a mixed-up fossil record and God getting the hang of it slips in.
I think we’re into problematic territory wherein many of the concepts we are dealing with are incomprehensible to the human mind. We can’t understand deep time, nor can we truly envisage a planet without our presence even if we can rationally know it to have once been the case. We can understand that many Europeans have Neanderthal DNA, but it’s difficult to conceptualize a world in which more than one bipedal human-like species existed. Someone can explain how the Higgs-Bosun gives energy matter and why that’s important – but most of us can’t truly grasp the enormity of that information (I can’t – for example) even if we recognize it is an important discovery.
So – we are torn between two poles. On the one hand, we have the desire to imbue our lives with meaning and position ourselves as central to the drama unfolding around us. On the other, it is hard to turn away from the the existential truth of our species – which is that we are a mere blip on the historical record, and just as we emerged as a result of a random chemical reaction, we too will one day disappear from the planet.
Norbert Wiener sums it up thus:
To those of us who are aware of the extremely limited range of physical conditions under which the chemical reactions necessary to life as we know it can take place, it is a foregone conclusion that the lucky accident which permits the continuation of life in any form on this earth, even without restricting life to something like human life, is bound to come to a complete and disastrous end. Yet we may succeed in framing our values so that this temporary accident of living existence, and this much more temporary accident of human existence, may be taken as all-important positive values, notwithstanding their fugitive character.
In a very real sense we are shipwrecked passengers on a doomed planet. Yet even in a shipwreck, human decencies and human values do not necessarily vanish, and we must make the most of them. We shall go down, but let it be in a manner to which we may look forward as worthy of our dignity.
I would now turn to the questions for discussion:
Thomas Kuhn (Structure of Scientific Revolutions) says: ”A scientific theory is usually felt to be better than its predecessors not only in the sense that it is a better instrument for discovering and solving puzzles but also because it is somehow a better representation of what nature is really like. One often hears that successive theories grow ever closer to, or approximate more and more closely to, the truth. Apparently generalizations like that refer not to the puzzle-solutions and the concrete predictions derived from a theory but rather to its ontology, to the match, that is, between the entities with which the theory populates nature and what is “really there.”
Is this the fundamental problem in resolving ourselves away from a superstitious worldview? Is it that as Kuhn would have it – science does not determine truth – and thus requires a kind of faith not unlike religious faith?
Can we imagine a world without us? Does scientific discovery ultimately rob us of a fundamental assurance of our centrality and importance – or does it give us the potential for self-actualization?
Given the advancements in scientific understanding over the past two centuries, one might expect that the world dominated by religion would recede. Have we seen that? Is there a single proof that could alter the world any more than Copernicus or Smith et al?
The human inclination to place oneself at the centre of the universe has been chipped away at repeatedly – the heliocentric model and the discovery of deep time just being two examples: How has society answered this need in recent decades? Religion, superstition, the singularity, new thought? What is the role of science in delivering philosophy along with fact?