The cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be. Our contemplations of the cosmos stir us. There is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a great height. We know we are approaching the grandest of mysteries. - Carl Sagan
As unfathomable as the vastness of the night sky the origin and diversification of life on Earth undoubtedly represents the most magical and wondrous process in the universe. Perhaps no one captured Carl Sagan's sentiment of contemplating the grandest of mysteries more aptly than the 1900-century naturalist Charles Darwin. In 1859 Darwin published the first edition of On the Origin of Species, a scientific account that went on to change the very fabric of our understanding of what it means to be human and our place in nature. Although Darwin's On the Origin of Species is a scientific text a poetic and deeply contemplative narration shines through Darwin's writing. In the early 1990s, as an graduate students, I first read On the Origin of Species and was deeply moved by the depth of the ideas and poetic description of the process that has given rise to the wondrous diversity and complexity of life; a combination of qualities that is rare in scientific treaties. On the Origin of Species is like no other scientific text I had ever read before or ever since. Many years after my initial encounter with this book I came to the insight that what Darwin so masterfully captures in On the Origin of Species is, what Dawkins refers to as, the magic of reality, i.e. that the real world, as understood through the lens of science, has a magic of its own. This poetic magic has a quality of inspiring beauty because it is real and because we are able to understand how nature works and our place within the cosmos and the web of life. In the subsequent two decades I immersed myself in further studies of Darwin's work and life. Two decades later, after retiring from a career as an evolutionary biologist and Darwin scholar, two artefacts from Darwin's vast work remain timeless snapshots of his poetic and contemplative view of the magic of reality; his first (to our best knowledge) drawing of a phylogenetic tree on page 36 in Notebook B which he wrote during an eight month period starting in the summer of 1837 and the last paragraph in the first edition of On the Origin of Species (audio).
Richard Dawkins reading the last paragraph of On the Origins of Species:
As a scientist and educator my aim with this project was to contemplate by way of mindfulness meditation on the nature of reality with a particular focus on exploring the role of mindfulness in science education. Perhaps because of my scientific background my initial meditations on the nature of reality quickly and invariably lead me to contemplations on the magic of reality. Here I use the word "magic" and "reality" deliberately and with very specific meanings in mind. Dawkins talks about three different types of magic. There is the supernatural magic, such as when a deity creates our world and all its living beings, there is conjuring stage magic like when a magician pulls a rabbit out of a hat, and there is the third form of magic, the magic of reality which is the sort of magic you get when you look up at the stars at night or hold your newborn child for the first time and when the only words that come to your mind are "this is magical". It is that last meaning of the concept of "magic" that I refer to here. It is clearly not a coincidence that throughout history those individuals that have been the most in tune with and dedicated towards a scientific understanding of the cosmos often describe it as magical or enchanted. Scientific giants such as Carl Sagan, Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawkins, Richard Dawkins and Charles Darwin all have in common describing the cosmos as something magical, enchanted, wonderful and bewildering.
There are many different views on what the concept of "reality" signifies. There is the philosophical "reality" of various Eastern traditions such as Buddhism where the goal is to develop an awareness of the natural order of things and there are the "realities" of Western philosophical and scientific traditions. Here, however, I use the concept of "reality" to refer to life itself and the extraordinary process that has created, and still is creating, the astounding biological diversity and complexity on our planet. My reason for placing life itself at the centre of the stage is that the concept of reality only arises in the minds of living organisms (possible only in the humans). Hence reality only has significance when perceived by an organism that can be aware of the nature of reality. More specifically, the concept of reality only exists in the confines of the thought process of the (human) brain. In the absence of a brain capable of perceiving reality it has no intrinsic meaning or purpose and ceases to exist.
As a contemplative witness of the magic of reality I have chosen to explore the tree as a metaphor of mindfulness and symbol of our evolutionary heritage. In the 1854 book Walden by Henry David Thoreau, Thoreau represents mindfulness as walking along a narrow and ever changing ridge with the void of the past on one side, the void of future on the other side and with the fleeting ephemeral present at the intersection of these voids. The goal of mindfulness is thus to be fully in the present by carefully and deliberately moving along the ridge that defines the present, or in Thoreau's own words:
In any weather, at any hour of the day or night, I have been anxious to improve the nick of time, and notch it on my stick too; to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and future, which is precisely the present moment; to toe that line.It follows naturally from Thoreau's metaphor that the line between the two eternities is a series of interconnected ridge where the junctions represent crossroads between different possible contemplative paths.
A colleague of mine once said that
The diversity of life is the most astonishing thing to happen in the universe since the Big Bang, and we need to understand it better if we hope to preserve it.It is only by fostering mindfulness and contemplation of the magic of reality that we can fully embrace a caring and humane approach to nature to whom we owe our very existence, or in the words of Rachel Carson,
The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.
The painting The Tree of Life is an experiment with mixed media. Organic materials, plaster cloth, and thick layers of paint were used to create a three dimensional relief and a complex layered texture. The aim of this experiment was to create a painting that is active, striking, variable and sculptural and that can be explored using visual and tactile senses.
The Tree of Life symbolizes how all living beings share a common ancestry as well as serving as a metaphor for Thoreau's concept of mindfulness as a ridge walk. The juxtaposition between the representations of an evolutionary tree versus the narrow ridge of mindfulness provides a connection between mindfulness and its evolutionary origins.
The flames represent the fragility of life and the dangers of the fickle and unwieldy mind of the novice meditator. The dark sky represents the limitless possibilities of evolution and the unyielding freedom of the tamed mind having become aware of the true nature of reality.A PDF of images
Darwin, C. (1859) On the Origin of Species. Harvard University Press.
Charles Darwin seminal book outlining his theory of evolution to the 1900-century world. Although the book was published more than one and a half century ago it has withstood the test of time and is as relevant today as it was during its own time.
Dawkins, R. (2011) The Magic of Reality: How we know what's really true. Free Press, New York.
This book presents a graphic detective story presenting the reader with a series of thought-provoking questions about nature followed by answers from mythologies and from science. The aim of the book is to illustrate that the real world, when understood through the lens of science, has a magic of its own that does not require us to resort to superstition, mythology or theism.
Hayward, J.W. (1997) Letters to Vanessa - On Love, Science, and Awareness in an Enchanted World. Shambhala Publications, Inc., Boston.
A informal guide for those that are torn between the realities of science and the experience of the sacred of the natural world. This book shows us a path for connecting a scientifically rigorous world view imbued with a sense of the sacred without resorting to mythological, superstitious or theistic arguments.
Hayward, J.W. & Varela, F.J. (1992) Gentle Bridges: Conversations with the Dalai Lama on the Sciences of Mind. Shambhala Publications, Inc., Boston.
This book chronicles the discussions and exchange of ideas that took place during a series of meetings in 1987 and 1989 between Western scientists and the Dalai Lama. The book demonstrates how Eastern philosophical traditions can contribute to Western scientific thought in particular in regards to our understanding of the nature of the human mind and consciousness.
Suzuki, S. (1994) Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind: Informal talks on Zen meditation and practice. Weatherhill, New York.
This book is based on a series of talks and provides a concise, informal and pragmatic treaty of how to practice Zen.
Thoreau, H.D. (1986) Walden and Civil Disobedience. Penguin Classics.
Henry David Thoreau's Walden described his two years living in solitude in a small cabin in the woods by Walden Pond. His account convey a the wonder of the natural world Thoreau observed around him as the seasons changed and a yearning for a deeper spiritual truth and self-reliance.
Thoreau, H.D. (1993) Faith in a Seed. Island Press, Washington, D.C.
Most of Henry David Thoreau's work following Walden has never been published. Faith in a Seed assembles selected writings of Thoreau from a series post-Walden books, e.g. The Dispersion of Seeds. This collection of essays celebrates natures fertility, fecundity and interconnectedness and as such provides an early and poetic account of modern ecology.
Science classrooms are unique learning environments unlike any other classrooms. As a matter of fact, some things only happen in science classrooms. Here is a collection of event that happened in my own science classroom over the last school year. It's a growing list, so check back for updates.
Report from yours truly live-tweeting and navigating the melee at GETCA 2015 (Annual Greater Edmonton Teachers' Conference).
Can a pencil be more than just your average run of the mill pencil? The legendary Palomino Blackwing Pearl can take a student or teacher's writing to new heights. We have taken a batch of the Pearls for a spin and are blown away by how much writing and sketching can be transformed by this unassuming pencil.
Dr. Pineda's Classroom is going YouTube with the release of its first screencast on the exciting topic of calculating percents. Only time will tell if this is the start of something big and shiny or just a passing fad.
After several weeks working on setting up habitats for new classroom animals the big day finally arrived. The newest addition to our classroom include aquatic denizens in our new aquarium and a teenage bearded dragon with lots of attitude and no table manners.