Earth Dharma: “First, Exhale and Rest”

Jill Schneiderman shares the following reminder for us to cultivate calm clarity so that we may work to create a just planet for all beings.

Jill S. Schneiderman2 October 2010

Thanks to the coming together of her worldviews, self-described “jubugeoscientist” Jill S. Schneiderman is able to share the following reminder for us to cultivate calm clarity so that we may work to create a just planet for all beings.

Everything begins with stillness. For me, that is the message of Bereshit, the first weekly Torah portion (parashah) in the annual cycle of Torah reading. As such, it provides a powerful instruction for living mindfully for those who work towards tikkun olam (repairing the world).

My copy of the Torah from the Jewish Publication Society (5760 – 1999) starts, “When God began to create heaven and earth—the earth being unformed and void…” It continues to detail the formation in six stages of the earth out of nothingness by Adonai. Each phase of creation culminates with the description “And there was evening and there was morning.” This couplet implies more than lightness following darkness. It tells us that the prerequisite for regenerative endeavors is the resting state. It proffers the idea that stillness swaddles restoration.  As we read in the liturgy, first we lie down and then we rise up. In keeping with this notion, the sentence construction “When God began to create,” suggests an antecedent, preparatory state. What’s more, the description of earth as unformed and void entails a degree of initial restful isotropy.*

Embedded in this parashah is the centrality of rest to the process of renewal. According to my translation “On the seventh day God finished the work He had been doing, and He ceased on the seventh day from all the work that He had done.” On the one hand the seventh day Sabbath is the culmination of the first six-fold creation but at the same time we can view it as the necessary precursor to the second creation that ends with the formation of the first humans. Indeed, the Sabbath begins the second verse of Bereshit, which is a re-creation. M.C. Escher would have had a good time, I think, depicting the relation between stillness and creation; they are so intimately intertwined.

One of the historical Buddha’s first teachings states: “the Earth expounds Dharma” (Avatamsaka Sutra). As a scientist—a self-identified jubugeoscientist (Jewish-Buddhist geoscientist)—I find this to be true. For example, species evolve by a mechanism called punctuated equilibrium. That is, organisms mostly stay the same but when they do change, it happens relatively quickly and in bursts of protracted geological time. So evolution—a natural phenomenon commonly misrepresented as improvement or progress that means, quite simply, change—is accomplished mostly by a process of statis, meaning no change; in other words, rest interspersed with pulses of reinvention. The history of life on this planet seems to suggest a fundamental truth—stillness gives birth to inventive regeneration.

This section of the Torah then teaches a fundamental truth that is also expressed in the Shema. We must sit before we walk, lie down before we rise up. The poem “Shema” by scientist-poet-Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi reminds us that we must meet the challenge of tikkun olam and that we will need to summon great strength to do so:

You who live secure

In your warm houses
Who return at evening to find
Hot food and friendly faces:
Consider whether this is a man,
Who labors in the mud
Who knows no peace
Who fights for a crust of bread
Who dies at a yes or a no.
Consider whether this is a woman,
Without hair or name
With no more strength to remember
Eyes empty and womb cold
As a frog in winter.
Consider that this has been:
I commend these words to you.
Engrave them on your hearts
When you are in your house, when you walk on your way,
When you go to bed, when you rise.
Repeat them to your children.
Or may your house crumble,
Disease render you powerless,
Your offspring avert their faces from you.

May we who strive to repair the world remember first to exhale, to rest, and to cultivate calm clarity. In this way, may we summon our greatest creativity and strength as we work to create a just planet for all beings.

Suggestions for Practice Inspired by Bereshit

Choose a set of three words that characterize your aspirations for tikkun olam. For example, I have chosen the verbs: “innovate”, “rectify”, and “minister.” Use your formal meditation time to contemplate these words along with the word “rest.” Start with an intention that “rest” will correspond to one exhalation while the other three words together will occupy one inhalation. Starting with the exhalation, allow yourself to repeat these couplets—exhalation/“rest” and inhalation/“innovate-rectify-minster” (or your own aspirational word set)—again and again in the mind. Without focusing on analysis, open your mind/body to insights that arise from the implications of that mind/body pairing.

* Isotropy is a term used in optical mineralogy to describe a state in which light refracts equally in all directions.

Jill S. Schneiderman

Jill S. Schneiderman

Jill S. Schneiderman is a professor of Earth Science at Vassar College and a 2009 recipient of a Contemplative Practice Fellowship from the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society.