Holding Life ConsciouslyI’m not sure I’d seen the words “physicist” and “contemplative” in the same sentence many times, much less found them together as descriptors of the same person, before I met Arthur Zajonc. (His name reflects his father’s Polish origins, by the way, and rhymes with “science.”) As a professor of Physics at Amherst College, his research interests have ranged from the theoretical foundations of quantum physics and the polarity of atoms to the relationship between the sciences and the humanities. He also has a long-time contemplative practice and is a leading figure among academics exploring the relevance of contemplative traditions for higher education. And even when he is discussing elemental questions of science, he is likely to invoke ideas of the 18th-century literary figure Goethe, or the 20th-century scientist/philosopher/educational innovator Rudolph Steiner.

Writing that, I realize how erudite and perhaps abstract it might sound. In fact, being in Arthur Zajonc’s presence is as calming and grounding as it is intellectually intriguing. He has acquired an amazing range of tools across an adventurous 40-year career that explores human knowledge and human being in all their wholeness. Yet his tools and ideas are remarkably accessible — “sensible,” in fact, a word he uses often. He paints a manageable picture of how human life itself — lived fully and held consciously — compels us to integrate qualities of thought and mind that our culture often holds apart. We ourselves and everything around us have an interior as well as an exterior — and we can explore both with due vigor. Life as well as science has both an experiential, intuitive context and an objective, factual basis — and surely we must take all of this seriously if what we are really after is truth that matters and knowledge that serves.

Arthur Zajonc finds a favorite example of this layered nature of reality in the elemental substance of light. As we’ve explored a number of times on Speaking of Faith, the scientific debate over whether light is a particle or a wave was resolved in the 20th century with the unexpected conclusion that it is both. I’ve always pointed to this as an intriguing example of how contradictory explanations of reality can simultaneously be true — a lesson straight from life that the answers we arrive at depend on the questions we are asking.

But Arthur Zajonc takes this debate and its implications to yet another level. Whether light is a particle or a wave, he points out, is still not the whole story of light; those of us who live in a world of light and darkness live in our experience of it, not in a perception of particles and waves. Goethe defined color, evocatively, as “the deeds and sufferings of light” and insisted that light and color have sensory and moral effect as well as physical properties. And surely it is not insignificant, and also worthy of investigation, that light is a primary spiritual metaphor across the centuries and across traditions.

Rudolf Steiner explored this idea, beginning from a scientific perspective, in the late 19th and early 20th century and has been a formative thinker for Arthur Zajonc. Here again, he is drawn to the integrated approach — and the experiential application of ideas — of Steiner, who founded the Anthroposophical Society in Switzerland, which continues to flourish across the world. Waldorf Schools are probably the best-known fruit of his philosophy. These schools intentionally cultivate the wholeness of the humanity of a child: intellectual, practical, ecological, musical, and spiritual.

Zajonc’s own life experience has been recently reshaped by a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. He has seen the progression of this illness in other members of his family, and so has some understanding of what is ahead. This is at one and the same time a source of grief and a continuation of the adventure Arthur Zajonc has long been on — to explore what holding life consciously means, now with a progressively debilitating condition. He tells me:

“There are two main types of meditation and both of them are part of my life, which one is a concentration and the other is what I call open awareness. It’s a very open presence.

In the concentration phase, tremors actually worsened.

You have a line of poetry or from scripture or an image and you bring your full undivided single-pointed attention to that content. But as we’re straining mentally to do that, the hand begins to tremor more. And then when you release the image and become very still and quiet and open yourself wide, the hand slowly calms to the point where indeed your whole body feels at ease and the tremor disappears. Interesting…

I can see that the mind and the body are so delicately attuned to one another that these practices affect the Parkinson’s state itself. … So here’s the question I pose to myself. Is it possible to be alive, active in the world, and yet have such calm, such kind of inner openness and presence that one can lead a life, at least in part, that is an expression of that quality of meditative quiescence that’s on the one hand quite alert and on the other hand, completely at ease, completely at rest. … And I’ll keep you posted as to whether that comes out all right or not.”

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I have been critically ill for a number of years. Pain, the unknown from day to day, are ever present. Prior to this illness I had an incredible spiritual journey. One in which I discovered that happiness has nothing to do with joy and peace. Through meditation and gratefulness, I have discovered that no matter what the day may bring, I am thoroughly at peace, my mind open to infinite possibilities and this has brought me a joy I never had when whole. Christine Huff, Midwest

Your discussion revolving round Gothe, light, and the experience of light, especially the spirtual aspect of light, made me think yet again of another old blog post I once made, in particular with respect to an excerpt from a PBS program about Ansel Adams.

I've always been attracted to paintings or photos that play with light: light in mist, light pouring from moon or sun, light from fireplaces, light from lanterns, light dancing or sparkling on water, light refracted or reflected through glass or gems or windows. When I was a kid I used to go to the library and flip through pages of paintings and photos and linger over stuff like that for hours, just heartened by whatever they did with light. I'd often leave feeling much better about things than when I initially came in.

Last summer PBS broadcast a special "American Experience" episode on Ansel Adams. The narrator was talking about one event that had a big impact on Adams, with respect to light, that sent chills up my spine when I heard it. What Ansel said was so incredibly right. I just had to do a google search to find it, because I remember reading the lines afterward on the website for the program:

Narrator: Each summer, he ventured farther and farther up into the rugged high country beyond Yosemite Valley -- sometimes on his own, and sometimes with members of the Sierra Club, the wilderness group John Muir had founded thirty years before -- long days of climbing and hiking that began before dawn and often ended well after dark -- making pictures when he could, and wandering, he wrote, in "translucent unity with the world and sky."

Late one morning in the summer of 1923, wandering amidst the harsh and bleakly beautiful high country east of the valley, he came as close as he ever would to capturing in words the soaring emotions that sometimes came over him in the high mountains.

Ansel Adams: I was climbing the long ridge west of Mount Clark. It was one of those mornings where the sunlight is burnished with a keen wind and long feathers of cloud move in a lofty sky. The silver light turned every blade of grass and every particle of sand into a luminous metallic splendor; there was nothing, however small, that did not clash in the bright wind, that did not send arrows of light through the glassy air. I was suddenly arrested in the long crunching path up the ridge by an exceedingly pointed awareness of the light. The moment I paused, the full impact of the mood was upon me; I saw more clearly than I have ever seen before or since the minute detail of the grasses ...the small flotsam of the forest, the motion of the high clouds streaming above the peaks... I dreamed that for a moment time stood quietly, and the vision became but the shadow of an infinitely greater world -- and I had within the grasp of consciousness a transcendental experience.

Narrator: He would spend the rest of his life trying to capture on film the quicksilver light he saw that morning -- and the sense it conveyed of a deeper truth and meaning.

I love those words of his about that morning of light. I know exactly what he means, and I can easily understand why he'd do what he did as a result, for the rest of his life. There's just nothing in the world like a day burnished in that way, burnished so intensely, burnished by a bright quicksilver light.

Ms. Tippett's interviews with scientists are generally excellent. This one, with Arthur Zajonc, was no exception. Where she tends to err (and did so 'big time' with Mario Livio, to his audible discomfort) is presing these folks to come up with a definition for the word "god".

Since there is no actual delineation between the "physical world" and "consciousness" (the latter merely an identified and named energy accretion), Ms. T. would fare better by simply bouncing Nishida Kitaro's wonderful definition off them: "We call the foundation of the universe God." (from A Study of the Good)

Nishida Kitaro's name is popping up in all sorts of places lately. I've watched him over at Big Think and will look into him more.

1) I think "focusing" in the correct way, brings on awareness. But to be most effective it should a focusing on "nothing" or a Mantra which has no meaning, in order to rid yourself of random thoughts and in fact, "any thoughts at all". This then brings on awareness through this repeated meditation technique. If you focus on a specific image or poem, you are exercising thoughts continuously in the "focusing process" and although this may be a help in some ways, it is not a good method to become more aware of your existence. To do that you must eliminate all thought. 2) "Light" as used in this blog seems to be constrained to "visible light". When used in esoteric/religious terms "Light" means Energy in general, not limited to only a portion of the spectrum, i.e.: visible light. The Universe is made of energy -- matter is only an illusion, and so "light" is a very real component of obtaining complete awareness (enlightenment), but in the sense of "energy", not just visible light. But certainly some peak experiences can come from your brain interpreting a particular pattern of visible light as in the Ansel Adams experience.

Meditation can lead to true realization and the awareness that we belong to the whole. Then there is a need to put that awareness into action for our greater benefit.