Arthur Zajonc — Holding Life Consciously
September 12, 2013

What happens when you bring together science and poetry on something like color or light? Arthur Zajonc is a physicist and contemplative. And he says we can all investigate life as vigorously from the inside as from the outside.

photo: Taylor Banks

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"Quiet Contemplation"

photo: Taylor Banks

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What I wish to do with this wild, precious life is something I struggle continuely to get a handle on. Staying active and open to presence is also something I really do think more about than actually do, at least during this phase of my life. This week's program captured a handful of sentiments via analogies to light. I'd like to pass along Ralph Waldo Emerson's words, his analogies to light, to illuminate my take on each of these things, because I have to admit, I agree wholeheartedly with him: 'There is no place to anchor, no resting point. "We live amid surfaces, and the true art of life is to skate well on them." There is no answer to this dilemma, no solution, but there is a best course of action. We have nothing but our conviction of the adequacy of the present moment to throw into the uneven balance. "We must set up the strong present tense against all the rumors of wrath, past or to come'.

From Chapter 67 of "Emerson The Mind On Fire" by Robert D. Richardson Jr:

Most of Emerson's books contain one essay on doubt: it is "Circles" in the first volumes of essays, "Montaigne" in Representative Men, and "Experience" here. The Emerson of this essay, like Thoreau on Katahldin, is avid for "contact" with "reality".

...

"Experience" confronts and accepts a world in which "dream delivers us to dream, and there is no end to illusion" without clamoring for redemption or quick deliverance. "Life is a train of moods like a string of beads, and as we pass through them, they prove to be many-colored lenses which paint the world their own hue, and each shows only what lies in its focus." "The secret of the illusoriness," he adds, "in in the necessity of a succession of moods and object." There is no place to anchor, no resting point. "We live amid surfaces, and the true art of life is to skate well on them." There is no answer to this dilemma, no solution, but there is a best course of action. We have nothing but our conviction of the adequacy of the present moment to throw into the uneven balance. "We must set up the strong present tense against all the rumors of wrath, past or to come".

...

We are obliged to live within "the beautiful limits," and we cannot have power simply at will. Emerson now concedes that "power keeps quite another road than the turnpike of choice and will, namely the subterranean and invisible tunnels and channels of life."

"Experience" is not a despairing essay. If Emerson accepts no one vision, no one set of facts, he proposes an entirely new order of fact. "It is not what we believe concerning the immortality of the soul or the like, but the universal impulse to believe [his emphasis], that is the material circumstance and is the principle fact in the history of the globe." The essay builds to a powerful acceptance of subjectivity, which Emerson calls the "Fall of Man." We learn, he says, "that we do not see directly, but mediately, and that we have no means of correcting these colored and distorting lenses which we are, or of computing the amount of their error." This new awareness, this subjective self-awareness, is like a black hole, ravenously threatening to absorb all things. "Nature, art, persons, letters, religions, objects, successively tumble in, and God is but one of its ideas. Nature and literature are subjective phenomena, every evil and every good thing is a shadow which we cast." The same subjectivity that gives authority to us as individuals sentences us to a world of relative truth. "People forget that it is the eye which makes the horizon." As he accepts subjectivity and uncertainty, so he can now accept disunity: "I am a fragment and this [essay ] is a fragment of me."

But Emerson will not settle for Fichtean solipsism or the sophist's shrug. He knows what the Stoic has always known. Real knowledge may be unattainable; the question therefore is not "What can I know?" but "How should I live?" Sartre said of the prison experiences of members of the French Resistance, "It is not what they do to you, it is what you do with what they do to you that matters." Emerson ends with a similar assertion: "I know that the world I converse with in the city and in the farm is not the world I think." The last sentence is his bridge back: "The true romance, which the world exists to realize, will be the transformation of genius into practical power." His own drive for practical power brought him to this" "To finish the moment, to find the journey's end in every step of the road, to live the greatest number of good hours, is wisdom." "Experience" is about the impossibilities, miscarriages, and mortgagings of power. Emerson conceded now for the first time that nature may have been very "sparing of her fire" in making us. But "Experience" is not a flaccid or defeated essay because Emerson's tough articulateness and awareness are also weapons. The arsenal of power is larger than we think, and the fire within may be modest, but it is still sufficient.

Throughout this program, my grandfather's core philosophy rang in my head and was reinforced by the discussions in "Holding Life Consciously." Before heading off to college, he repeated the YMCA mantra of "Mind, Body, and Spirit" to me; emphasizing the importance of maintaining all three aspects of existence no matter what your context. As I move through life, I find different avenues of furthering myself in these three broad categories, and somehow I've found no other template for happiness more successful than the constant pursuit of improving mind, body, and spirit. I stay active physically, constantly pursue knowledge, and explore methods of communicating with, and expressing, my inner-most spiritual entity.

I enjoyed your post. My mantra for happiness has always been "Eat right, exercise, and socialize." Socialize meaning do activities with positive people. I do believe our paths to happiness are very similar. Much peace, love, wisdom, and happiness to you my friend.

I was in my garden two years ago just after my diagnosis of breast cancer. I was contemplating the future--fearing, wondering what the final outcome would be. Asking myself if I had led a "full" life, etc. I looked up and saw a bird floating on the strong wind currents, up and down, floating, soaring---I thought how wonderfully smart that bird is-not worrying about the future, not reflecting on the past--just living in the moment---that beautiful moment.

(This is a resubmit)

Just to say I found Krista's summary of Arthur Zajonc's interview very interesting, particularly his words about how a meditative letting go stance seemed to alleviate the Parkinson's tremor in his hand. And then the article continues to use hand imagery as we use it, one the one hand, & on the other hand.

I wonder IF deep meditative states alleviate tremors and if so, why. I also do know personally that I do live in a meditative state that is hard to describe but this allows for reflection without interfering thought, no doubt similar to that described by yogis and others. This is hard to describe, a state of mind, but it is different and I think it is a kind of emptying which allows for deepening spiritual perception.

Many seek monastic type retreats and the spiritual healing of slowing down and spending contemplative time with Nature.

After listening to the enlightening and brilliant conversation on On Being between Krista Tippet and Arthur Zalonc on how science and humanities can be integrated in the betterment of humanity, I feel compelled to say that I think it is high time the “movers and shakers” of the world such as, conservative political ands religion leaders, stopped playing “hard ball” with issues related to the stifling of stem cell research funding. If stem cell research is fully explored, it can bring about fruitful results in the challenging sectors of medicine such as neuroscience and oncology. Such results that can go a long way in bringing hope of enhanced quality of life to millions people like Arthur Zalonc who have been diagnosed with debilitating dementia –related conditions such Parkinson disease and those diagnosed with the various forms of dreadful cancers. We can not claim to have conquered diseases while such conditions continue to cause suffering to those already diagnosed and others who, due to hereditary issues, continue to live a life full of psychological trauma due to the fear of high odds of being diagnosed in future.
The whole world should pool all its resources into funding stem cell research rather than secretly funding expensive mass destruction war systems and space programs which, I strongly believe, are nothing but futile attempts to conquer the outer space while the “inner space” of our being is seriously wanting and ailing.
I have no doubt that stem cell research can herald a new era in which I can envision plastic surgery being taken a notch higher to a level beyond aesthetic plasticity to, say, neurotic plasticity where brains can be surgically repaired using stem cell technology to the enhancement quality of millions lives.

The complexities of our world today make it difficult for the average person to fully experience all facets of life. Technological advancements have removed feeling and limit the possibilities of our imagination. The interview with Arthur Zajonc, Holding Life Consciously, brought me to the realization that with the proper mindset and effort one can experience an entire spectrum that I hadn’t dreamed was possible.

Zajonc points out that many spiritual traditions do not have practical applications but yet makes a connection between the physical and scientific nature of light. Once we commit to seeking out knowledge and exploration of our surroundings, light begins to transcend many levels of human existence. Light allows us to see what is, without light, invisible; we can see both inside ourselves and the world around us. In order to gain a truer picture of life and a clearer perspective, it requires that we acknowledge all of our spiritual and sensory emotions.

In his commitment to knowledge, Zajonc helps to bring awareness of humanity into science; two areas most don’t often associate with one another. As a professor of physics and contemplative, he successfully connects and intertwines his human experience with his scientific background, finding deeper meaning in both as he encourages us all to “…bring all of who we are to all the world is.”

Thank for sharing this replay.

The complexities of our world today make it difficult for the average person to fully experience all facets of life. Technological advancements have removed feeling and limit the possibilities of our imagination. The interview with Arthur Zajonc, Holding Life Consciously, brought me to the realization that with the proper mindset and effort one can experience an entire spectrum that I hadn’t dreamed was possible.

Zajonc points out that many spiritual traditions do not have practical applications but yet makes a connection between the physical and scientific nature of light. Once we commit to seeking out knowledge and exploration of our surroundings, light begins to transcend many levels of human existence. Light allows us to see what is, without light, invisible; we can see both inside ourselves and the world around us. In order to gain a truer picture of life and a clearer perspective, it requires that we acknowledge all of our spiritual and sensory emotions.

In his commitment to knowledge, Zajonc helps to bring awareness of humanity into science; two areas most don’t often associate with one another. As a professor of physics and contemplative, he successfully connects and intertwines his human experience with his scientific background, finding deeper meaning in both as he encourages us all to “…bring all of who we are to all the world is.”

This podcast was based on a conversation between Arthur Zajonc who is a physicist and Krista Tippet. Zajonc tells the story of how his professor inspired him to become more interested in learning so he sought out information on different philosophers and writers. Previous to this occurrence with his professor, he admits that many things did not seem clear to him and it was his professor that was able to notice that he was having difficulties. Throughout his research of others, he discovers that he believes knowledge is simply an epiphany. It isn’t something that we can pick up like we can pick up an object. It is something that just comes to a person.

The conversation eventually leads in to Zajonc talking about how science was created due to epiphanies instead of processes. The process is what follows the epiphany to determine whether the thesis is true. At this point, Tippet brings up Steve Jobs which to be honest, I was a little surprised by. The fact that Steve Jobs created Apple which we all know as the company who created the Ipods, Iphones and Ipads, changed humanity as we knew it. Jobs’ one creation has influenced technology forever as will science as a whole.

In my opinion, I found this podcast to be one of the more interesting On Beings that we have had to do. In relation to the viewpoints of Jesus and Socrates as teachers, I believe that this showed a perspective of Socrates’ viewpoint. I say this simply because Zajonc believed the knowledge was already within him and that it wasn’t something a teacher could make him learn. However, it was the teacher who brought the problem to his attention just like Socrates helped the students find the knowledge within them.

Holding life consciously 11/13/2011 This was an interesting broadcast. Arthur talks about a German scholar Gerta that believed that scientist should understand phenomena within themselves. Gerta believed that there should be a world view based on human experience. One thing he said that I found intriguing was that "colors are deeds and sufferings of light and darkness". The idea that scientist look at colors based on light and not as colors themselves. I think that we all do that. People look at the big picture (light or darkness) and don’t look at the smaller things in life (the different colors). Arthur goes on to talk about science being created due to epiphanies and not processes. The epiphany happens first and then we do the process to figure out if it is true or can happen after. When the scientists like Einstein were figuring out theories they took the implications of their religion, languages, music, etc. into play to figure out different facts. This intrigues me because that is how a lot of things I write about are done. I don’t care to brain storm ideas or processes to obtain my writing. When it comes to me I write, and I think it makes the work more interesting. The basic understand I got out of the broadcast was that we should use our minds to figure out different aspects of our lives through thinking, experience, and through what we already know. Religion can be done this way as well. We can meditate, think and use our past experiences, and seek knowledge to form our understandings

Goethe also said, (David Schiller, 1994)
" Thinking is more interesting than knowing, but less interesting than looking."

I wonder about the circular nature of Zajonc' logic, starting with the notion that his own path of cognitive meditation starts with a search for knowledge based on Western thinking or a path of active inquiry rather than faith.

I noticed that faith appears more than once in the form of grace as his contemplative practice unfolded in the broadcast.

The anecdotes about scientific enquiry in concert with a practice of Western cognitive meditation seem to stand at odds with the methodical cognitive exercises seeking to unlock the interior nature of exterior objects.

We heard that scientists like Einstein receive inspiration outside of an empirical cognitive process of search and discovery. Does the spiritual scientist use this methodical path when he experiences an answer to his scientific question, or does he/she receive an answer in an unexpected flash of insight/grace/inspiration/intuition/imagination walking in the park or waking up in the morning in the time between dreaming and awakening consciousness?
It seems that western and eastern contemplation both rely on grace to find answers to questions posed by the path of scientific enquiry.

Arthur Koestler of "Darkness at Noon" fame also wrote a little-read book titled "The Act of Creation." I originally bought it years ago because I thought it was about what we think of as "creativity" (art, poetry, sculpture, etc.), but it was all about the act of *scientific* creation. It was fascinating. He delved into Darwin, for example, and talked about the decades Darwin spent in research and travel and thought before having his Eureka moment of natural selection. It's well worth reading, especially in the context of this interview -- looking deeply into the links among our creations and discoveries and how we arrive at them.

The abundance of mystery is indeed a gift -- both a challenge and an invitation to intelligence: How to balance mystery and suffering, receptivity and active lovingkindness? Thank you for rebroadcasting this installment of "On Being"; I will return to it. What jumped out at me this time through is the apparent affinity between meditation and lucid dreaming.

This is so boring and self absorbed. I come back every once in a while to see if you've discovered the boringness in your inability to see the power of your own angst; in your trying not to be full of angst, your circular recursive self-fulfilling process is really really boring! it should be 'On Being Snoozeworthy' because you've mastered that! Try to be proud of that, check the box and move on to something else. Protestantism or Buddhism, its all very very flat.

Too bad that he left the Catholic Church, maybe he can find his way back to the Church.

Most great men from the 1600s to the 1800s were involved in science also. A polymath, of course. Goethe's 'Faust' is very Catholic.

Reportedly at his death Goethe said 'More light!'.

Socrates left science to study man, 'Man is the proper study of man', sounds similar - it's how the physical world is experienced also.

To put scientific reason in a larger context, the unity of truth, one might read Pope Francis' recent encyclical 'The light of faith'.

Contemplation is fine, but where is God?

Buddhism the best of human spirituality? Einstein was also fascinated by the Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist. How about the long term and ongoing dialog on faith and reason under the aegis of the Catholic Church (see Pope Benedict, 'Faith and reason').

One can say that prayer is, as well as contemplation, a way to insight and knowledge (as the Curies). One is in communion with the one who created the physical world.

When they were discussing the number of planets, the number 9 was OK, being 3 squared (God would have made as many as he wanted, of course), but eight is better since it's the number of completion ... and now we see that there are eight planets.

In the 1950s Pope Pius said that we were all the children of two specific people, whom we call Adam and Eve. He was laughed at, but in the 1990s the biologists finished the study of the human genome and found ... that we are all descended from two unique individual persons.

I would suggest, from Catholic theology, that the number of dimensions of the physical world is 12, if you see a string theory which has 12 dimensions, bet on that.

I don't mind meditating on the sound of a bell (no pun intended), but I'd rather meditate on Jesus on the Cross, or on Mary. They have more to teach me. I guess one can learn about bells and sound and perhaps arrive at more correct physical theories.

Having listened to thousands now of scientists interviewed on this program who have expanded their concept of knowledge from the reductionist view of scientific reason, I guess the west is finally crawling away from this reductionist view of reason.

Parkinson's, how sad! I'll pray for him. Perhaps he will decide that knowledge will not help him personally, and that one has to search for more, which is love, love and communion with God.

'Do not build on this world, because even the forms of this world are quickly passing away.' Jesus

Jesus tells us that if we seek him, the Trinity will live within us ... and we will be led to the truth, and will have peace. May he find the fullness of peace.

I was fascinated by the interview of quiet contemplation with Arthur Zajonc, especially with the information about his diagnosis of Parkinson's Disease. My husband has PD and has some experience with meditation; I have considerable experience with meditation and it has helped tremendously with my caregiving. I want to thank Professor Zajonc for the interview. I am most eager to read his writings.

excellent subject matter

Voices on the Radio

is emeritus professor of physics at Amherst College and president of the Dalai Lama's The Mind and Life Institute. His books include Meditation as Contemplative Inquiry: When Knowing Becomes Love and The Heart of Higher Education: A Call to Renewal.

Production Credits

Host/Producer: Krista Tippett

Executive Producer: Kate Moos

Associate Producer: Nancy Rosenbaum

Associate Producer: Susan Leem

Technical Director: Chris Heagle

Senior Editor: Trent Gilliss

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Funding provided in part by the John Templeton Foundation.