Friday, September 18, 2020

Dual Directions Today: California Fires and Climate Change, Meditation and Science

I’m using today’s blog to produce a literal “essay”—from the French, essayer, “to try”—and so I'm trying out dual topics that have my attention, but neither of which is fully baked. 

They are (1) the connection between the fires I’m experiencing in Northern California and global climate change, and (2) scientific studies that validate the value of Buddhist meditation and what that means for Christian meditation and Christian views of science more generally.

Are we in a “climate apocalypse”?
The consensus of the scientific community—as well as those like me who are convinced by the science—global climate change is real. It is not, “fake news.” (In fact, it’s hard for me to understand why people want to deny this consensus.) 

It’s not a stretch in fact to make the connection then between the fires in California and this emerging global reality. Of course, this is also quite personal—I think the hardest moment for me was last weekend when the AQI—the Air Quality Index—went above 600 in Chico (0-50 is healthy), which is quite literally off the charts and when we had every window shut and the seams taped, and we were smelling smoke inside.
At the same time, I know that’s not all. Consider these two items: we have not managed our forests properly in the past 100 years—and, by the way, we could have learned from Native Americans and their version of “good fires" or prescribed burns—and we have built on lands at the WUI, the Wildlife Urban Interface to our peril.

Spiritually, we have not also given the land a break, a Sabbath or Jubilee, as I learned powerfully in a jazz vespers service last Sunday entitled “Melting.” It’s not only climate change specifically and globally, but more regional practices that are now demonstrating their deleterious effects. We need Sabbath practices that restrain us for our own good, and also for all creation. Sabbath brings renewal and sustainability to us and to nature. Not observing Sabbath has meant that the land will be desolated. The earth, as the Scripture tells us, rises up and responds to our destructive and harmful practices.

Meditation helps me—the science tells me so

It’s no secret to those who study science and religion that Buddhism is hot right now, which is particularly surprising since Buddhists represent around 1% of the U.S. population.

Why? One principle candidate is the relationship of Buddhist meditation—especially mindfulness—and its validation by neuroscience. Consider, for example, what Richard Davidson and his team at University of Wisconsin, Madison found (and now I quote Philip Clayton)
“Those with training and practice in meditation showed greater activity in areas of the brain dedicated to paying attention and making decisions.” Philip Clayton

Let’s take the scientific support for Buddhist meditation, in the aggregate, as decisive and thus as a given. What does that mean for me as a Christian? 

I’ll note two implications (with the hopes of developing these anon): 

  • Mindfulness is an excellent practice for Christians as we seek to “calm and quiet” ourselves (Psalm 131:2). It's also a great prelude to prayer and to acts compassionate.
  • Buddhist meditation has close affinities with the ancient and contemporary Christian practice of contemplative prayer, close enough that neurological studies find similar results between these and Buddhist meditation. And here I’m leaning on the research of Andrew Newberg, who wrote about a study of meditation practices such as focusing on Scripture, “we found increased activity in the frontal lobes (one of the areas in the brain involved with compassion and positive emotions) and there were changes in the thalamus, the part of our brain that helps us interconnect.”

In sum, these scientific studies are certainly strong support for the Buddhist meditation and its contributions to spiritual-psychological well-being. But this is not for Buddhists alone. We in the church can be humble enough to learn from these practices, adapt them, seek parallels in our own spiritual tradition, and thus find all kinds of reasons to take time away, “to let go and let God.” May it be so.

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