Thursday, August 25, 2011

Naturalist Meditations (Focusing Exercises)

“I’ve found that you can come to know the universe not only by resolving its mysteries, but also by immersing yourself in them.” (21)

-    Brian Greene  The Fabric of the Cosmos (2004)

This afternoon, having gotten off early from work, I went for a walk in a local wood.  The days are getting shorter, and I was out on the cusps of eventide.  All around me, there were subtle signs of Autumn’s approach: I saw green acorns fallen on the ground and, as I was coming down off the ridge, a single red leaf on the ground.  I picked up an acorn and the leaf and brought them home to use as foci in meditation this evening.
Focusing is a crucial part of a mature meditative praxis.  It is what gives depth to our meditation and fleshes it out.  To focus is to ‘meditate on’ some thing; some object or idea or phrase or quote—it is to allow oneself to dwell ‘with’ the object or idea; to ‘participate’ in it, sensually and intellectually—and thereby to allow its potential meanings to infuse us.  Thus it is very important to pick your foci well; it is difficult to undo the intimacy you will accrue as you ‘meditate on’ an object or idea that fascinates you over a period of time.
The practice of focusing involves memory and remembrance.  It may begin as a series of memorizations, but on a deeper, intuitive and experiential level than mere mental memorization.   I often use mental memorization to ‘fix’ the object or idea that I am going to focus on in my mind, bringing it before my attention.  Then, I go deeper into it over a period days, weeks or months, returning to the idea or object and allowing reflection and devout study to enhance my experience of what I initially just ‘memorized.’  Once you have used something as a focus in meditation, you usually need only bring it to memory to re-experience the meaning of it or the benefit you have derived from focusing upon it in earlier meditations.  Focusing may be said to be a way of placing meaningful objects or ideas in our memory’s treasure case.
Religious traditions utilize sacred texts, sacred words, prayers and icons in their focusing exercises.  As a Naturalist, I have developed a retinue of foci that I use to situate myself in Nature; in the Earth & Cosmos – ‘placing’ in my memory truths about reality that science has revealed to us.  It is truths about Nature and our place in it that I want to situate in my soul; in which I want to situate my-self.  It is the revelations of modern science that I first want to call up in remembrance when I ruminate on the meaning of life.  These truths reflect the objective dimension of reality; they concern things which cannot just be changed by thinking about them differently. Once grounded in the objective truths, it is then possible to move on to the more subtle and changeable truths; the intersubjective and subjective truths that enrich our lives in various ways.
Though naturalistic meditation of this sort can be sufficient unto itself, it can also ground religious meditation in the objective world; i.e., the Earth & Cosmos.  No religion that denies the truths revealed by science can be a true religion; it can only be a superstition and an illusion.  If you have to deny the fact of evolution or the laws of physics in order to believe what you believe, your belief system has become occult; it is out of alignment with what is known, and is therefore a self-deceptive system.  By grounding religious belief in what is actually known about the Earth & Cosmos – i.e., The Creation – through science, a believer runs less risk of self-deception and of losing touch with reality.  If God exists and acts in the world, it is the world as revealed by science that God is acting in; no other world is real in the objective sense.

As I said in the last blog, meditation begins with the practice of “breathing well.”  It then enters into the second phase of “centering,” in which we detach ourselves from distraction and from the ebb & flow of our lives; coming to peace in a personal ‘nemeton’ – allowing ourselves to come to a place of silence & solitude.  Rest restores the self.  Focusing then allows the self to be immersed in something – and object or idea – that can deepen its experience of reality.  For the Naturalist, focusing deepens one’s understanding of the Earth & Cosmos.
There are a series of naturalistic foci that one can use in meditation.  The first ones are simple and usually derive from one’s local environment.  Then, as a person becomes familiar with what is immediately around them, he or she should move on to foci with a wider scope or import.  Ultimately, it is possible to meditate upon the Universe as a whole, as we now understand it to be.  The wider one’s scope, the more background research one should do to try and understand the object of one’s meditation.  Here, focusing and devout study go hand in hand.  In the early steps of focusing, experience and our aesthetic response to external stimuli in Nature is sufficient.  Later, it is necessary to educate ourselves about the world in order to go deeper and experience self-transformation.
I will here describe a series of naturalistic foci that I have used, beginning with found objects and ending with the Milky Way.  There are other foci at various levels that can be used, and where you live will determine what foci you may be led to use, especially with regard to found objects.  These have all worked for me, and so I recommend them as a kind of ascending ladder of scope and inclusiveness, beginning with personal foci, and ending with our place in the universe.

1. Found Objects – I have always urged students to begin focusing with “found objects,” things that one discovers along the way while walking or sojourning in natural places.  Leaves, rocks, twigs, pine cones, seeds, flowers, and many other objects attract us while out hiking in natural places.  When you see something that fascinates you, stop and look at it more carefully.  I always carry a camera with me so I can photograph found objects; it is impractical – not to mention undesirable – to always be carrying things away from the woods back to one’s room! 
The point here is to find something that speaks to you and experience it in enough detail and with sufficient attention to be able to call it to mind later, either from memory or via a photograph.  I have taken pictures of leaves, butterflies, spider webs, and rock formations that, when downloaded and displayed on my computer screen, provided sufficient detail for several days to weeks of productive meditative focusing.  Occasionally, I do bring small objects away from the woods – like the acorn and leaf today – and put them on my meditation table.  These are often symbols of the seasons, and function in a unique way in my meditations, in that they can be held in the hand; seen and smelt and – if not toxic – tasted as well as seen.  The other senses add a unique quality to meditation on these objects that you cannot get from photos.
For a Naturalist, meditative focusing is deeply tied to walking, which immerses us in the weather and in the seasons.  We go through the changes in the seasons in our pathing here and there; we walk at different times of the day and night (walks at dawn and dusk are especially fecund of memorable experiences) and in different weathers.  The aim is to come to an understanding of ourselves as creatures of the Earth, beings in the Cosmos and always part and parcel of it.  We are Nature having become aware of itself.  We are Earth, and to the Earth we will return.  A Naturalist’s meditations facilitate a growing awareness of our earthiness; which is what it means to be humble—to be aware that we are “of the Earth,” and thus know our place in Nature.

            Once you have meditated on found objects for a time, it is good to move on to meditative foci with more scope.  These will take you beyond your local environment; they will take you deeper in time and into the basic physical realities of the stuff of Nature – rocks and air, water and light – that is all around you.  Whereas with Found Objects you will have a different set of foci, depending on where you live, as you get into foci with more scope, you will approach knowledge of things that are common to all human beings living on the Earth.  No matter where you live, the following five exercises will deepen your experience and understanding of Earth & Cosmos and your place in Nature.

2. The Periodic Table of the Elements – This is the chart that most of us remember from our grade school or high school years, and may not have seen since, unless we are somehow involved in science.  The chart depicts all of the elemental constituents of the physical universe at the atomic level.  Beginning with Hydrogen and climaxing in the elements beyond Uranium that exist only momentarily during collisions of particles in super colliders or else exist only under extreme conditions not normally found anywhere our local universe, this table is a great key to the nature of Nature.  Taking each element on its own and learning something about it will reveal your surroundings in a unique and profound way.  From the food we drink to the clothes we wear, from the plants and animals that live all around us to our own bodies – everything is constituted of combinations of the elements on the Periodic Table.  They come together in compounds and can be rearranged and recombined through various forces.  Life is based on the Carbon atom in various combinations with other elements.  To learn this chart is to learn the basic ingredients of reality as we now understand it.

“If the atoms that make up the world around us could tell their stories, each and every one of them would sing a tale to dwarf the great epics of literature.” (1)

-          Marcus Chown The Magic Furnace (2001)

3. The Geological Column – As biologists & paleontologists have uncovered the 3.8 billion year history of life on our planet, a depiction showing the major periods of life has been put together.  You can usually only find this image of the history of life in textbooks or on websites devoted to the study of life, as it is not really a well-known cultural icon.  I have copied very detailed ones from geology textbooks and I have also used smaller, summary images of the Geologic Column.  The one I am using in my earthen meditation these days comes from the Burke Museum in Seattle WA.  It was sent to me advertizing one of their programs on evolution in 2010, and it briefly but artistically sums up the history of life.  I use it to meditate on the various ‘eons’ and ‘ages’ of life on our planet.
The Geologic Column is broken down into five ages.  Listed from youngest to oldest, they are:

Cenozoic (65.5 billion years ago – the present)
Mesozoic (252.2 – 65.5 billion years ago)
Paleozoic (542 – 252.2 billion years ago)
Proterozoic (2.5 billion – 542 million years ago)
Archean (4.5 – 2.5 billion years ago)

Each of these ages is broken down into more specific periods.  It is good to familiarize yourself with when various life-forms first emerged; when they first appear in the fossil record.  I have collected images of various life forms, from Stomatolites to Trilobites to Dinosaurs to early mammals and then artists’ reconstructions of our ancestors – from Australopithecus to Homo Erectus and early modern Homo Sapiens.  I like to focus on the transitions in the fossil record – from fish to amphibians, or from Dinosaurs to birds, for instance, having collected information on the transitional forms we now know of, and use these to reflect on the processes of evolution.  [I hope to do an entire blog on this focusing exercise at some point.]

4. Once you have meditated on the Earth’s history and the chemical constituents of the physical universe, I would suggest moving up another level and find yourself an Image of the Earth that appeals to you.  Ever since we left the Earth and travelled to the Moon, images of the Earth from space have fascinated and astounded people all over our planet.  I remember seeing the series of pictures of “Earthrise” taken by the astronauts on Apollo 11 for the 1st time, and the unusual effect it had on me.  No longer an artist’s conception of what our home planet might look like from a distance away, we now have actual photographs.  I have another picture of the Earth with the Moonscape in the foreground hanging on my bedroom wall.  It is something inspiring to wake up to; I look at it each morning, just to remind myself – in a spiritual way – of where I am.
One aspect of the Earth that I also find valuable to meditate on is what is called “the Thin Blue Line,” an image of our atmosphere as seen from the edge of space with the light of the sun shining behind it.  It impresses me just how slim and fragile this layer of gases is, and possibly how vulnerable it might be as well.  In the pictures I’ve seen of it, it almost glows as the sun rises or sets behind it.  Recently I saw it dealt in the BBC series called “Wonders of the Solar System,” in which Professor Brian Cox went up in a jet to a very high altitude in order to see the “Thin Blue Line” for himself.  Watching the program was like taking an imagined pilgrimage.  Seeing the Thin Blue Line filmed from the cockpit of the jet was more dynamic than just seeing it in a still photograph, as I usually do.  It was like ‘being there,’ and it had a deep effect on me.
Another startling image of our planet is what has come to be known as “The Pale Blue Dot,” a photograph of our planet taken by Voyager 2 when it was out beyond the orbit of Neptune.  I first saw this image in Carl Sagan’s The Pale Blue Dot (1994).  The photograph shows our planet as a small blue speck against a black background of space, subtly illuminated by a sunbeam.  In a passage that I have often used in meditation, Sagan says:

“The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena.  Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.  Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely indistinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.  Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.  Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping dark.  In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

With regard to this photo, Sagan concluded:
“There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.  To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

To use this photograph in meditation is an exercise in earthen humility.  It shows us our place from a vantage point where all our striving and violence seems petty.  If enough people meditated upon this picture as an icon, might we someday be able to overcome our arrogance and be at home together in the Earth & Cosmos?

5. An Image of the Solar System would be the next logical step after meditating on an image of the Earth.  Granted, we have no photograph of the Solar System, as not even the Voyagers are far enough out, nor are they at the right angle to ‘take a picture’ – and even if they were flying away from the Solar System more or less perpendicular to the general plane of the planets, I doubt a photograph would show much beyond a small fuzzy light (the sun) and possibly some slight reflections (made by the planets).  But we have a good idea of how the Solar System is structured, and there are good artist renditions around; in books and on the Web.
I use an image of the Sun and planets that shows them according to scale with each other, but not in scale with regard to their orbits in space and how far apart they are.  The Sun in this image is a bright yellow arc along the left hand side of the page.  It is too big in comparison to the planets to be depicted at this scale – a 8 ½ x 11 piece of cardstock – in relation to the planets.  Jupiter takes up much of the center of the page, with Saturn, Neptune and Uranus to its right.  To the left, between the Giants of the Solar System and the Sun are the three inner planets, Mercury, Venus and Earth; very small and diminutive.
            One way of adding depth to meditations on the Solar System, is to find images of the planets and meditate on them individually.  This exercise should be enhanced and deepened by devout study.  Collect data on the Sun and the planets and even their Moons, if you want to go into that much detail.  As with the Periodic Table, you might want to find cards depicting astronomical objects – or else make them yourself – and use them as a lectio – a devout reading – during meditation.  When I was doing this, I would take a planet’s card and read some stats about it – its size, its general make-up, its distance from the Sun, its distance from us, how long it takes to rotate on its axis, how long it takes to go around the sun, etc. – and then gaze at the image of the planet while reflecting on the stats.  After a while, you develop a familiarity with these celestial objects that is emotional and aesthetic as well as mental.  They become part of your experience and contribute to wisdom (knowledge about the way things are that enhances or deepens our ability to live life well), and as such they contribute to the education of your soul.
            Though we do not yet have a photograph of the Solar System, it is possible to see most of the planets in the night sky.  Thus you can augment your meditation with observation as well as devout study.  Our Moon is easily observable with the naked eye, but is greatly enhanced by a pair of binoculars.  Venus appears as the Morning and Evening Star.  A small amateur telescope will enable you to see most of the other planets, except Mercury, which I think is only observable in a solar transit with the right equipment (never look at the sun directly!).  Jupiter and Saturn are especially wondrous seen through a telescope.  I have always liked seeing Saturn’s moons and rings, and imaging the thrill Galileo had when he first discovered them.  In general, observations of the night sky will greatly enhance your experience of your place in the Cosmos at this level of naturalistic meditations.

6. At the highest level of inclusiveness and scope, using an Image of the Milky Way takes you well beyond our Solar System, situating our planet in a broader cosmic organization.  As with the Solar System, all we have are artists’ depictions of the Milky Way; no photographs yet.  Find an image that is both as scientifically accurate and aesthetically appealing as possible.  I find it edifying to use one that depicts our galaxy “edge on” as well as one that shows it as if “from above.”  As with the other foci, gather basic data on our galaxy and use it for lectio in your meditations at this level.
You can augment your meditation on the Milky Way by going outside at night, venturing out to some vantage point where you are away from the lights of town, and looking for it above you in the night sky.  It appears as a white, ‘milky’ band across the dark night sky and I always find it stops me in my tracks when I see it.  I can get a crick in my neck from staring up at it, if I’m not careful!  On very clear nights, I have once or twice lain down in the grass of a field and meditated while looking up at the hazy band of light that is the glow of billions of stars reaching us after x number of light years.  As with the planets, this outdoor meditation complements meditation on artists’ images of the Milky Way and reveals our place in the local universe. 

This is as far as I have gone in this kind of naturalistic meditation, though I hope to one day find a way of meditating on the Universe as a whole.  There are no doubt other naturalistic foci you can use profitably in your meditations.  I would like to close by urging that you not let the scope of the universe, the galaxy or even the Solar System make you feel ‘unimportant’ or that your life has no meaning.  This is the reverse of what I experience as I ascend from found objects up to the Milky Way, meditating on physical reality; experiencing it through images and data at each level.  While the universe is not ‘made for us,’ and while we are not the ‘center’ of the universe, we are here, and thus have the chance to live our lives as fully as possible.  It is rather remarkable that we are here at all; and so being here, we have a chance to live life as fully as possible.  I will end with a quote from Michio Kaku from his book Hyperspace (1994) that sums up my own feeling in this regard:

 “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)

In meditating on Nature and the universe we find ourselves at home; even if the Universe doesn’t ‘care’ for us.  Through naturalistic meditation comes the advent of wonder and awe at the way things are.  This threshold is, in turn, the gateway to genuine earthen wisdom.  _But this must be the subject for some future blog.

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