The planet’s health is our health

In a piece published by Lion’s Roar on 1st December 2020, we read Thich Nhat Hanh:

We often forget that the planet we are living on has given us all the elements that make up our bodies. The water in our flesh, our bones, and all the microscopic cells inside our bodies all come from the earth and are part of the earth. The earth is not just the environment we live in. We are the earth and we are always carrying her within us.

In “Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson”, Rachel (who was one of the launching-forces of the modern environmental conscience) writes that life’s “living protoplasm is built of the same elements as air, water, and rock.” She goes on: “Our origins are of the earth” — part of “the natural universe”, part of “the whole stream of life.” We are not separate from Nature.

Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, mystic, and scholar of comparative religion, sings in a poem titled “On Sweet Irrational Worship” (published in (“In the Dark Before Dawn: New Selected Poems of Thomas Merton”): “I am earth, earth….”

In a pure-gold OnBeing conversation on 16th September 2010, Joanna Macy, the ecologist and Buddhist scholar, tells Krista Tippett:

We’ve been treating the Earth as if it were a supply house and a sewer. We’ve been grabbing, extracting resources from it for our cars and our hair dryers and our bombs, and we’ve been pouring the waste into it until it’s overflowing.

But our Earth is not a supply house and a sewer. It is our larger body. We breathe it. We taste it. We are it.

Photo by Jacek Dylagon Unsplash

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services’s 2019 Global Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services” points out the main forces that contribute to our assault on Nature are “underpinned by societal values and behaviours that include production and consumption patterns, human population dynamics and trends, trade, technological innovations and….governance.” 

Our very way of life is causing harm, and we appear to have forgotten (or are choosing to ignore) something obvious, yet profound.

The Head of the UN Environment Program, Inger Andersen reminds us  (in a UN First Person report published on 5th April 2020) — “the health of people and the health of planet are one and the same”.

Peace 🙂

The Battle inside

A story that is attributed to many sources (including the Cherokee Native Americans) tells of a man chatting with his grandson. “A fight is going on inside me,” he says to the boy.

““It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continues, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied: “The one you feed.””

In a Nautilus conversation on 14th October 2020, Steve Paulson tells the neuroscientist David Eagleman: “You write about a constant battle going on inside our brains between different sets of neurons, fighting over who gets control of certain parts of the brain.”

David replies:

There is a competition at all levels, all the way down to individual neurons. If you walk through a forest, it looks serene and beautiful. The same thing is happening there. All the trees and shrubs are competing for sunlight, so some shrubs grow low and broad, while others put all their energy into growing up tall and spreading out leaves to catch sunlight. That’s exactly what’s going on with neurons. When you look at neurotransmission, when one neuron spits out chemicals that send a signal to the next neuron, it comes from this aggressive background of neurons fighting against one another. If you take this perspective, it explains a lot.

In “Living with the Devil: A Meditation on Good and Evil”, Stephen Batchelor writes of Mara,  the Devil, which is really the evil wolf in us.

Stephen tell us insightfully that “Mara is Buddha’s devilish twin. Buddha needs to let go of Mara in order to be Buddha. And not just once as an episode in the heroic drama of enlightenment. As long as Buddha lives, he is constantly relinquishing Mara….The two are inseparable…..Mara….is really Gotama’s own conflicted humanity.”

Photo by Sam Syon Unsplash

Juan Mascaro writes of this in the introduction to his translation of the Bhagavad Gita. “We find in the Gita that there is going to be a great battle for the rule of a Kingdom; and how can we doubt that this is the Kingdom of Heaven, the kingdom of the soul? Are we going to allow the forces of light in us or the forces of darkness to win?”

In the introduction to his commentary Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (“Meditation as Spiritual Culmination — Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali”), and explanations on Verse 1.12, Swami Sarvagatananda writes of the person who is always “mindful….in thought,  word and deed” — a person who examines the mind “thoroughly”, and becomes “aware of all….thoughts, tendencies, urges and modifications.” Such a person, Swamiji says, is a “yogi.” She/He is able to “stand up and say: “All the devils are in me — and all the gods are also in me….”

Juan exhorts us to cultivate the Yogi’s spirit. He encourages us to persevere with Faith in the good wolf within. “In the battle of the Bhagavad Gita there is a great symbol of hope: that he who has a good will and strives is never lost, and that in the battle for eternal life there can never be a defeat unless we run away from the battle.”

Peace 🙂

The vastness of it all

A Nautilus piece published on 25th November 2020 titled “A Supermassive Lens on the Constants of Nature” begins by telling us that the 2020 Physics Nobel winners have “established that the center of our own galaxy houses a supermassive black hole with the equivalent of 4 million suns packed into a relatively small space.” 4 million suns….!! 

Michael Strauss, Professor & Chair of the Astrophysics Department at Princeton University makes the “distinction”, in “Welcome to the Universe: An Astrophysical Tour”, “between the universe as a whole, and the observable universe, the part we can see today.” The “boundary of the present-day observable universe”, he writes, is at a distance of “45 billion light-years from us.” And “beyond the edge of the observable universe, there is much more universe out there, indeed, an infinite amount, if we are to believe our current measurements of the geometry of the observable universe and our cosmological models.” 

In “The Power of Myth”, Joseph Campbell narrates a story about Indra. “….it happened….that a great monster had enclosed all the waters of the earth, so there was a terrible drought, and the world was in a very bad condition. It took Indra quite a while to realize that he had a box of thunderbolts and that all he had to do was to drop a thunderbolt on the monster and blow him up. When he did that, the waters flowed, and the world was refreshed, and Indra said, “What a great boy am I.”

Indra then goes on to the top of the the “central mountain of the world” and commissions the “carpenter of the gods” to build him the grandest of palaces – a palace like none anywhere. Each time Indra comes to inspect the progress, he instructs the carpenter with more and more ideas on making the palace bigger and more spectacular. The carpenter, in frustration, approaches Brahma for help – Brahma, in turn, seeks out the “sleeping Vishnu” who “just makes a gesture and says something like, “Listen, fly, something is going to happen.”

“Next morning, at the gate of the palace that is being built there appears a beautiful blue-black boy” who tells Indra “I have been told that you are building a palace as no Indra before you ever built.”

And Indra says, “Indras before me, young man – what are you talking about?”

The boy says, “Indras before you. I have seen them come and go. Just think, Vishnu sleeps in the cosmic ocean and the lotus of the universe grows from his navel. On the lotus sits Brahma, the creator. Brahma opens his eyes, and world comes into being, governed by an Indra. Brahma closes his eyes, and world goes out of being. The life of a Brahma is four hundred and thirty-two thousand years. When he dies, the lotus goes back, and another lotus is formed, and another Brahma.””

The boy’s next words tell us that thousands and thousands of years ago, human beings sensed the vastness they were part of. “Then think of the galaxies beyond galaxies in infinite space, each a lotus, with a Brahma sitting on it, opening his eyes and closing his eyes. And Indras? There may be wise men in your court who would volunteer to count the drops of water in the oceans of the world or the grains of sand on the beaches, but no one would” be able to count the number of  Indras.

As the boy continues to talk, an “army of ants” passes by, and the boy laughs. Indra asks, “Why do you laugh?”

“The boy answers, “Don’t ask unless you are willing to be hurt.”

Indra says, “I ask. Teach….”

And so the boy points to the ants and says, “Former Indras all. Through many lifetimes they rise from the lowest conditions to the highest illumination. And then they drop their thunderbolt on a monster and think, ‘What a good boy am I!’ And down they go again.”

Carl Sagan writes in “Contact”: “For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.”

Peace 🙂

Endless wonder

In “The Sense of Wonder”, Rachel Carson, one of the consciences that kicked off the modern movement to cherish the Earth, writes:

If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life….

Photo by Patrick Foreon Unsplash

In a Rolling Stone conversation on 25th December 1980, Carl Sagan tells us that “we are bathing in mystery and confusion on many subjects.” He goes on to add that he thinks “that will always be our destiny. The universe will always be much richer than our ability to understand.”

Alan Watts illuminates what Rachel and Carl are pointing to in “Wisdom Of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety”:

The greater the scientist, the more he is impressed with his ignorance of reality, and the more he realizes that his laws and labels, descriptions and definitions, are the products of his own thought. They help him to use the world for purposes of his own devising rather than to understand and explain it.

The more he analyzes the universe into infinitesimals, the more things he finds to classify, and the more he perceives the relativity of all classification. What he does not know seems to increase in geometric progression to what he knows. Steadily he approaches the point where what is unknown is not a mere blank space in a web of words but a window in the mind, a window whose name is not ignorance but wonder.

Alice Walker’s Pulitzer winning novel “The Color Purple” has these words: “The more I wonder, he say, the more I love.”

Peace 🙂

The wondrous thing that “questions” are

In “Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and the Art of Living”, Krista Tippett writes: “If I’ve learned nothing else, I’ve learned this: a question is a powerful thing, a mighty use of words.”

In “Big Questions from Little People and Simple Answers from Great Minds”, we see an assembly of over 100 questions from children between the ages of four and twelve, and answers to these from leading scientists, thinkers, artists, and explorers. The questions are astonishing – some profound, some moving, some giving us a glimpse of a mischievous child, and others conveying an innocence that adults have long lost.  We read questions such as:

“Why are the grown-ups in charge?”
“How are dreams made?”
“Do aliens exist?”
“Is the human brain the most powerful thing on earth?”
“What is global warming?”
“Why can’t animals talk like us?”
“Why can’t I tickle myself?”
“Why do people have different coloured skin?”
“Do numbers go on forever?”
“What am I made of?”
“Did Alexander the Great like frogs?”
“What would I look like if I didn’t have a skeleton?”
“If the universe started from nothing, how did it become something?”
“Why do we have money?”
“How does my brain control me?”
“What do you do when you can’t think what to draw or paint?”

The eminent people who answer, treat the questions seriously, and with kindness.

For example, we have the philosopher Julian Baggini commencing his answer to “Who is God?” writing: “It’s a good question and the truth is that everybody seems to have an idea of who he is but nobody really knows.” He ends: “So, there’s no simple answer to the question ‘Who is God?’ You will have to work out which answer makes most sense to you. As you do, my personal advice would be this: if anyone tells you they know for sure who God is, be suspicious.”

Claudia Hammond, the psychologist, answers the question “Why does time go slowly when you want it to go fast?” writing: “The problem with time is that it warps and not always in the way you’d like it to. The clock says one thing, but your mind another….The reason time goes slowly, even though you’re willing it to go fast, lies in the way the brain counts time. No one knows exactly how it’s done….”

The evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins, begins his answer to “Are we all related?” emphatically stating: “Yes, we are all related.” He then elaborates a broad approach to prove this, and ends by writing: “By the same argument, we are distant cousins not only of all human beings but of all animals and plants. You are a cousin of my dog and of the lettuce you had for lunch, and of the next bird you that you see fly past the window. You and I share ancestors with all of them….”

Photo by Ben Whiteon Unsplash

In “Night”, the Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel’s book about being in Nazi concentration camps with his father (who sadly passed on there, along with his mother and sister), we read him write about one of his early Judaic teachers, Moshe –

He explained to me with great insistence that every question possessed a power that did not lie in the answer.

 Elie then goes on to tell us that Moshe was fond of saying – “Man raises himself toward God by the questions he asks Him.”

Peace 🙂

Roger Penrose, Thank you

In a Discover Magazine conversation, Roger Penrose was asked: “Is it true that you were bad at math as a kid?”

He replied:

I was unbelievably slow….When I was 8, sitting in class, we had to do this mental arithmetic very fast, or what seemed to me very fast. I always got lost. And the teacher, who didn’t like me very much, moved me down a class. There was one rather insightful teacher who decided, after I’d done so badly on these tests, that he would have timeless tests. You could just take as long as you’d like. We all had the same test. I was allowed to take the entire next period to continue, which was a play period. Everyone was always out and enjoying themselves, and I was struggling away to do these tests. And even then sometimes it would stretch into the period beyond that. So I was at least twice as slow as anybody else. Eventually I would do very well. You see, if I could do it that way, I would get very high marks.

The “insightful teacher” Roger speaks of, wherever he may be, would be smiling now. Roger Penrose was awarded the Nobel for Physics yesterday. 

In “The Emperor’s New Mind: Concerning Computers, Minds, and the Laws of Physics”, Roger puts forward his view that consciousness is not algorithmic — implying, as i understand him, that even the most advanced AI cannot result in consciousness as an emergent property. He writes that “some of the arguments” he makes “may seem tortuous and complicated. Some are admittedly speculative….Yet, beneath all this technicality is the feeling that that it is indeed ‘obvious’ that the conscious mind cannot work like a computer, even though much of what is actually involved in mental activity might do so.” He goes on to explain that a childlike mind helps to see this “obviousness.

This is the kind of obviousness that a child can see….Children sometimes see things clearly that are indeed obscured in later life. We often forget the wonder we felt as children….Children are not afraid to pose basic questions that may embarrass us, as adults, to ask.

This mind, which sees the world continually afresh, is something that Einstein too, Walter Isaacson tells us, (“Einstein: His Life and Universe”) had all his life. “He never lost his sense of wonder at the magic of nature’s phenomena — magnetic fields, gravity, inertia, acceleration, light beams — which grown-ups find so commonplace…..”People like you and me never grow old,” he wrote a friend later in life. “We never cease to stand like curious children before the great mystery into which we were born.””

Photo by Isaac Davison Unsplash.

Stephen Jay Gould, the Paleontologist who was Professor at Harvard and New York University,  writes in an essay (“Dinosaur in a Haystack: Reflections in Natural History”) that “however bizarre and arcane our world might be, nature remains potentially comprehensible to the human mind.” 

We have this faith, that Nature may be comprehensible, owing to Einstein, Roger Penrose, and others like them — adults who, as Walter Isaacson says, “retain the intuition and the awe of a child”, and have the kindness to tell us what they see.

Benjamin Hoff explains in “The Tao of Pooh” that this child-mind, simple (yet profound), comes about

When you discard arrogance, complexity, and a few other things that get in the way.

People with such minds give us Faith — that the human species still has a chance of being deserving of the Life that the Cosmos gifts us.

Peace 🙂

The Love that rocks the cradle is the Love that lights the stars

Sometime in 1615, Katharina, a 68 year old lady was accused of witchcraft in a town in Germany. About three months after the accusation, one of her sons who lived in Austria received a letter from his sister that their mother was in trouble. 

The son, Johannes Kepler, was then at the height of his life — engaged in work that would make him, along with Copernicus and Galileo, one of the seminal forces of modern astronomy, and science. As soon as he heard about his mother, Johannes moved (with his family) to Germany. He would spend the next six years mounting a defence for her.

This was a particularly devastating time. Ulinka Rublack, the historian and Professor at Cambridge, tells  us (“The Astronomer and the Witch”) that

About 73,000 men and women were tried for witchcraft and 40,000-50,000 executed in Europe between 1500 and 1700….Seventy-five per cent of those accused were female.

Execution often meant being burnt in a stake. In August 1620, Katharina was imprisoned, and spent the next 14 month enchained in a cell.  

Johannes was, by then, an unflinching voice conveying that the Universe was governed by natural laws, not by Divine dicate. Owing to this, he was already engaged in struggles with the Establishment. 

Faced with formidable opposition, and his inner turmoils, Johannes responded with his best. Using all the “intellectual habits” he had cultivated, he indomitably put together “a pioneering defence”. In early October 1621, his mother was “absolved” and freed.

This piece of history has my heart not because it is an episode in the still-ongoing battle between those who seek Truth, and those who traffic in falsehood & deception, but because it is also the story of a son’s love for his mother.  Johannes, Ulinka writes, “put his existence on hold” as he marshalled everything he had to defend his mother, and free her. Indeed, he risked being accused himself.

It is not hard to figure out why he did this. Love — mother’s Love.  

The effect of a mother’s Love is such that even a monk, Swami Vivekananda, was moved to write to Haridas Viharidas Desai, on 29th January 1894 (“The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda”) that “If there is any being I love in the whole world, it is my mother.”

Photo by Annie Spratton Unsplash

In the introduction to his translation of “The Bhagavad Gita”, Juan Mascaro writes:

Love is the power that moves the universe….The radiance of this universe sends us a message of love and says that all creation came from love, that love impels evolution and that at the end of their time love returns all things to Eternity. Even as the rational mind can see that all matter is energy, the spirit can see that all energy is love, and everything in creation can be a mathematical equation for the mind and a song of love for the soul.

We get a glimpse of the Love Juan speaks about, an aperture to the Divine, from our mothers — and from people who love with the love of a mother.

Johannes’ mother passed on a few months after she was released from prison. Her Love gave us the person who was among the first few (in modern times) to fortify us from superstion, dogma, and much of the fraud that is hawked as religion.

Peace 🙂

We are a miracle — everything is….

Though Marcus Cicero, the Roman scholar and orator says (“Pro Plancio”), around 50 BC (?), that gratitude is “the….virtue” that “is not only the greatest, but is also the parent of all the other virtues”, he does not do much to persuade us.

The persuasion, that Cicero was right, was left to our times — to scientists who match philosophers in the love of learning, and match poets in the recognition of the ineffable.

Karel Schrijver (Astrophysicist at the Lockheed Martin Advanced Technology Center) and Iris Schrijver (Professor of Pathology and Pediatrics at the Stanford University School of Medicine) write (“Living with the Stars: How the Human Body is Connected to the Life Cycles of the Earth, the Planets, and the Stars”):

Appropriately enough, we can call the number of stars in the Galaxy — at least a 100 billion (and likely a few times that many) — astronomically large. There are, however, something like 500 times that many cells in the human body: 50 trillion (and maybe twice that many). Each cell, on average, contains very approximately as many atoms as there are cells in the body….we can but be in awe of our bodies, which, most of the time, manage to successfully run an assembly of individual cells that outnumber the human population of the entire planet by a factor of close to 10,000.

Even more than the matter of scale and the variety of the links to the world around us, it was the utterly transient character of our human bodies that struck a chord. We are not just taking in and burning fuel, like a car would, but instead we use our food to rebuild our bodies, over and over again throughout our lives. Very little of our physical bodies lasts for more than a few years, which is completely at odds with our feelings of continuity over a lifetime.

Brian Greene (theoretical Physicist and Professor at Columbia University) adds (“Until the End of Time: Mind, Matter, and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe”) that “our existence” itself “is astonishing. Rerun the Big Bang but slightly shift this particle’s position or that field’s value, and for virtually any fiddling the new cosmic unfolding will not include you or me or the human species or planet earth or anything else we value deeply.”

And we, human beings, Bill Bryson writes (“A Short History of Nearly Everything”)  are “a musty archive of adjustments. adaptations, modifications” of “a single original plan”.

“Providential tinkerings” over “3.8 billion years”, Bill says, have made us what we are today 

Providential tinkerings….!!!

For Existence (all of it), we can only respond (by uttering, what the German mystic Meister Eckhart is quoted as saying is, the highest prayer): Thank you.

 If we truly comprehend this, we will live with love, and reverence for all forms of life — and, for all things.

Peace 🙂