“Instead of being overwhelmed by the universe, I think that perhaps one of the deepest experiences a scientist can have, almost approaching a religious awakening, is to realize that we are children of the stars, and that our minds are capable of understanding the universal laws that they obey. The atoms in our bodies were forged on the anvil of nucleo-synthesis within an exploding star aeons before the birth of the solar system. Our atoms are older than the mountains. We are literally made of star-dust. Now these atoms, in turn, have coalesced into intelligent beings capable of understanding the universal laws governing that event.” (333)
- Michio Kaku
Ever since turning to science in the late 90’s as the primary resource and touchstone for a lived spirituality, I’ve sought new meditative foci to orient me to the objective dimensions of reality. As I moved out of mythology and ancient mystical ideals into an experience of reality infused and informed by the revelations of the modern sciences, I became inspired to meditate on the Periodic Table as a way of reflecting on Nature at a fundamental level; i.e., as a naturalistic form of lectio divina (i.e., the monastic habit of devout reading) – and through it come to a deeper communion with the Earth & Cosmos and ourselves as an expression of the universe. The “Table of the Elements” has come to replace the “Ancient Four” elements on which I had meditated for 30 years prior to my ‘conversion’ to science from various religious quests.
As I understand and practice it, meditation centers the self in the self and creates a quiet place out of which our actions may then more genuinely flow. It is useful in meditation to ‘go’ to an ‘internal place’ – an imagined ‘nemeton’ (such as “The Dolmen on the Hearth” or “The Cave of the Heart”) – where we may discover the self we are at our best and which then nurtures our becoming that self over the arc of a lifetime. I’ve always thought it interesting that I learned this from both Pagan and Christian mentors. Though my ‘internal nemeton’ has been imagined under several guises over the last 40 years, I’ve always set the nemeton within a ‘sacred’ circle, imaginatively ‘cast’ around me. Around the outer circumference of that circle I ‘mark’ the four cardinal directions: North – East – South – West—each time I sit down to meditate. This action orients me in the Earth wherever I am, whether at home or out journeying, here and there, questing and adventuring.
Many things are associated with these ‘cardinal’ points in mystical systems, including trees and flowers, birds, and a variety of mythological creatures and characters. The primary underlying association, however, is always with the Four Elements. In the Celtic tradition, North is associated with Earth; East with Air, South with Fire and West with Water. Though I still refer to these ‘poetic’ or ‘experiential’ elements in meditation, my understanding of ‘the Elements’ has now been deepened through naturalistic revelations of the basic constituents of the universe; bringing me to the place where I now am—where I can see the Periodic Table as a set of naturalistic ‘runes’ through which to understand and ‘commune’ with Nature.
The old ‘Four Elements’ arose out of ancient philosophy and mysticism. It may well have been the pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles (5th century BCE) who first discussed these ‘Elements,’ which were thought to be fundamental to all of reality; i.e., they were thought to be irreducible to other ‘substances.’ Thus, the Four Elements can be seen as an early ‘rational’ or even ‘scientific’ hypothesis, as they were intended to describe ‘objective’ reality; they were the best theory going at the time. The idea of the Four Elements as fundamental to the Cosmos persisted through the Middle Ages and on into the Modern Period, until elements much more fundamental than the Ancient Four began to be discovered. The empirical exploration of the material world led to the supplanting of the ancient schema of ‘Four Elements’ with numerous fundamental ‘substances’ that were eventually arranged – by Dmitri Mendeleev (1834 – 1907) – into a ‘table’ based on their atomic weights. Mendeleev’s ‘table’ then became a ‘touchstone’ for the discovery of further elements.
I started meditating on some of the natural elements after watching “Stephen Hawking’s Universe” in 1999; it was the episode dealing with the origins of modern chemistry and the consequent demise of alchemy that really got me interested in this exercise in natural devotion! It was not until reading Cathy Cobb and Monty Fetterolf’s The Joy of Chemistry (2005), however, that I actually put together a set of descriptions of the elements that could be read in meditation; a lectionis natura (“naturalistic readings”) that would facilitate reflection on these most basic constituents of our physical reality; the fundamentals of Earth & Cosmos. Once I started down this path, it became anachronistic to meditate on the Four Elements as anything other than a poetic expression; a description of reality referencing four prominent ‘phenomena’ what we experience in our day to day lives. While that poetic description is still valid as metaphor and symbolically, the Periodic Table has become a much more fascinating way of leaning about and communing with the objective level of reality.
What surprises me is that even these elements have an experiential dimension to them; like Earth—Air—Fire—Water – and they have a ‘hidden’ component. The ‘elements’ of modern chemistry are defined at the atomic level. These atoms are made up of smaller ‘particles’ called electrons, protons and neutrons, which are in turn made up of quarks, etc., according to the Standard Model. While defined at the atomic level, these natural elements also exist in aggregates that we can experience, either in pure form or in compounds. We are able to experience them with the use of tools, such as microscopes or by lighting up a sample of them with an electric current, and they come together to create all of the different compounds that go into making up everything in our environments, both organic and inorganic. We can hold samples of sulfur, iron, and aluminum in our hands, we can fill flasks with gases and distill many other elements from solution and thus experience them. This is something worth meditating upon; a ‘fact’ of Nature and our own being that has supplied me with more than one epiphany along the way and that I hope is contributing my ‘wisening’ in the world.
This Spring I found Theodore Gray's "The Photographic Card Deck of The Elements" (Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers; Crds edition; October 27, 2010) and have been using it in meditation. Every day or so I take a new element. I began with Hydrogen and I just reached Iron – Element 26 – the other morning. I take the card in hand, look at the image presented on it, read the statistics (atomic weight, percentage in the universe, in our planet, in the oceans and in us, etc.), and then finish with the little ‘summary’ on the back of the card. I then sit and reflect on the image on the card and think of it in ways inspired by the description on the card. This exercise is very much like the meditative exercises I used to do when I was still religious; e.g., the meditations of St Ignatius of Loyola – one source through which I learned this particular form of meditation and became aware of the benefits of imagistic praxis coupled with readings!
Many of the elements are fairly innocuous, and I wonder at them – how and when they were formed in the origin and expansion of the universe. I can imagine that many of these elements – some of which have few or no practical uses that our species has yet found – just came into being as one possibility in the universe we inhabit, forming according to its laws and physical properties as the expanding universe cooled down. Others have startling characteristics. A pure sample of Sodium (11), for instance, apparently turns white in seconds when exposed to air and when “exposed to water … generate(s) hydrogen gas and explode(s) in flaming balls of molten sodium” (!). Some of the gases can only be seen with the naked eye when an electric current is passed through them; which causes them to glow a characteristic color. Some of the lighter elements I’ve meditated on are essential for life as we know it; carbon is the basis of all organic molecules and oxygen is the gas that our lungs turn into energy for our cells.
I just got to the element Iron the other day, and was reminded of something that I either read or saw in a science program; that all of the elements from Helium up to and including Iron were first formed in the furnaces of the earliest stars in our expanding universe. As Michio Kaku suggests in the header quote, we would not be here were it not for this stellar process of ‘burning’ which produced these lighter elements. I went looking for quotes in my notebooks that describe this further, especially how stars burn Hydrogen, Helium and create the heavier elements until they reach Iron, and then come to their end—but couldn’t find one. However, I did find two other excellent quotes for lectionis natura on this subject. John Gribbin once said, in The Birth of Time: How Astronomers Measured the Age of the Universe (1999), that:
“[T]he Sun cannot be the oldest star in the Universe. The Solar System contains heavy elements which cannot possibly have been made in a star like the Sun, but must have been made in stars that were around before the Sun was born. The Sun and Solar System were made out of the debris of at least one generation of preceding stars, which ran through their life cycles relatively quickly and exploded, scattering the raw materials from which we are made out into space.” (50)
I next found this quote – which I’ve meditated upon frequently over the years – by Marcus Chown, from The Magic Furnace: The Search for the Origins of Atoms (2001), who noted that:
“Every breath you take contains atoms forged in the blistering furnaces deep inside stars. Every flower you pick contains atoms blasted into space by stellar explosions that blazed brighter than a billion suns. Every book you read contains atoms blown across unimaginable gulfs of space and time by the wind between stars.” (1)
When I first read these passages, the perspective was new to me, and I experienced a naturalistic revelation (revelatione natura)! I was lifted a little further out of the darkness of mundane existence and inherited presuppositions, and there glimpsed something of the enigmatic beauty of the Earth & Cosmos. Now, as I meditate upon each element in turn, and move beyond Iron (Fe 26) to Cobalt, Nickel, Copper, Zinc and beyond, I hope to find myself just a little better articulated with the natural world at every element than I was before taking up this form of “naturalistic devotion.” The study of Nature holds revelations in store for us, and this is one of the draws of science; the sense that we are on a great journey of revelation, opening at every turn to the Earth & Cosmos through investigation, observation, experiment and the collation of data.
Meditation on the elements has nuanced the depth of my ongoing experience in the world and also connected me to the entire cosmos in a way that stirs me toward what I cam only call ‘cosmic communion;’ a sense of being One with the All. Every time I reflect on the fact that distant stars and nebula are made of some of the same material elements as the air I breathe, the rocks I touch, the water I drink, as well as my own flesh and blood, I become enlivened with an earthen wonder that inspires and energizes me. When I reflect on the fact of our having arisen from the ‘stuff’ made in early stars, I find myself both humbled and ennobled. For me, this is what all genuine religions and spiritualities have sought to do; they show us our proper place in the scheme of things (i.e., they humble us), and then they inspire us to live life – the real life that we have to live – to the fullest. For me, meditation on the Periodic Table has become a genuine ‘spiritual’ experience in this sense.
“Not unlike music and literature, chemistry is described in terms of its elements and has a theory based on fundamental principles. And, as with music and literature, there is much in chemistry that is art as well.” (41)
- Cathy Cobb and Monty Fetterolf’s
The Joy of Chemistry (2005)
The Joy of Chemistry (2005)