The first eclipse of 2014 is a good one for observers throughout the Western Hemisphere and especially for the Americas.

On Tuesday, April 15, there will be a total lunar eclipse that will turn the moon a coppery red, according to NASA. It’s called a blood moon, and it’s one of four total eclipses that will take place in North America within the next 18 months.  Within a year and a half, North America will be able to see a blood moon a total of four times. The moon takes on this color during the eclipse as it passes through the Earth’s shadow, which is the color of a desert sunset.  The four blood moons will occur in roughly six-month intervals on the following dates: April 15, 2014; October 8, 2014; April 4, 2015, and September 28, 2015.

During totality, the spring constellations are well placed for viewing so a number of bright stars can be used for magnitude comparisons. The entire event is visible from both North and South America. Observers in the western Pacific miss the first half of the eclipse because it occurs before moonrise. Likewise most of Europe and Africa experience moonset just as the eclipse begins. None of the eclipse is visible from north/east Europe, eastern Africa, the Middle East or Central Asia.

Lunar eclipses can be penumbral, partial or umbral but don’t occur with any regular schedule like many other astronomical events.  Getting four umbral eclipses in a row is rare and is known as a tetrad. We are lucky in the U.S. that this 2014-2015 tetrad will be visible for all or parts of the country.

In the 21st century, there will be many tetrads, but look back a few centuries, and you’ll find the opposite phenomenon. We had gone through a 300-year period when there were none.  That means that Sir Isaac Newton, Mozart, George Washington, Napoleon, Abraham Lincoln nor their contemporaries ever had a chance to see one.

So, get out there and take a look.  You’ll need to be up at 2 a.m. ET Tuesday to see the moon starts to enter the Earth’s shadow. The “”blood moon” coppery red should occur about an hour later and stay that way for over an hour.

This particular blood moon comes right at the Jewish festival of Passover, which commemorates the ancient Israelites’ exodus from slavery in Egypt. According to the Bible, God cast 10 plagues upon the Egyptians, the final plague being the death of the firstborn. Not that this eclipse has anything to do with the Biblical story, but it is an interesting coincidence that the Israelites painted lamb’s blood on their doorways so that this plague would pass over their homes.

The times of the major eclipse phases:

Penumbral Eclipse Begins: 04:53:37 UT
Partial Eclipse Begins: 05:58:19 UT
Total Eclipse Begins: 07:06:47 UT
Greatest Eclipse: 07:45:40 UT
Total Eclipse Ends: 08:24:35 UT
Partial Eclipse Ends: 09:33:04 UT
Penumbral Eclipse Ends: 10:37:37 UT

 

Pebble meditation is a technique to introduce children to the calming practice of meditation. It was developed by Zen master, best selling author, and peace Nobel Prize nominee Thich Nhat Hanh. In A Handful of Quiet: Happiness in Four Pebbles and A Pebble for Your Pocket, he offers illustrated guides for children and parents.

It can be practiced alone or with a group or family, Pebble meditation can help relieve stress, increase concentration, nourish gratitude, and can help children deal with difficult emotions.

A participant places four pebbles on the ground next to him or her. You invite three sounds of the bell and then each person picks up the first pebble and says, “Breathing in, I see myself as a flower. Breathing out, I feel fresh. Flower, fresh” – breathe together quietly for three in and out breaths.

The next pebble is for “Breathing in I see myself as a mountain, breathing out, I feel solid. Mountain, solid.

Pebble 3: “Breathing in I see myself as still, clear water, breathing out, I reflect things as they really are. Clear water, reflecting.

And the fourth pebble has us saying “Breathing in I see myself as space, breathing out, I feel free. Space, free.

We end with three sounds of the bell.

This technique is not only for children. I would compare my own use of a grief stone to this practice. In some workshops, participants may find pebbles that can represent people in their lives and use that pebble when they breathe in and out and feel connection to that person.

There are pebble meditations using the six paramitas. The six paramitas, or six perfected realizations, are elements that help us cross from suffering to liberation. They are generosity, diligence, mindfulness trainings, inclusiveness, meditation and understanding.

Another pebble mediation uses the three jewels (Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha) or on the Four Immeasurables (loving kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity).

Some people write words on the stones and use them on a regular basis.

What is there about the physicality of the pebble that helps one connect to the connected idea?

 

Here, Thich Nhat Hanh’s meditation is presented by Plum Village brother Thay Phap Huu.
(From the DVD, “Mindful Living Every Day,” an orientation to the Plum Village practice of mindful living, available at Parallax Press

William Blake's  “Ancient of Days”

William Blake’s “Ancient of Days”

Poet Billy Collins has quipped that majoring in English means majoring in death. It is the big theme in literature. I was an English major.

None of us likes death and we don’t like to think about it, but we can’t help but think about it.

I had a course in the Bible as literature in college. The course didn’t convince me that the Bible is literature or convince me about anything religious. I found the book poorly written. It did not hold my interest.

The Bible has a lot about death.  Our beliefs about the dead will have an impact on how we live and how we approach death – with fear or peace.

Type in death and Bible and you’ll get plenty of hits and references to passages from the Bible, views on death and what happens in the end-times.

As a child, I was very curious about what happens when a person dies.

“Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.” Ecclesiastes 12:7.

The body turns to the “dust” it was in the beginning, and the spirit goes back to God. The spirit of every person who dies – righteous or wicked – returns to God at death.

And our body?   “The body without the spirit is dead.” James 2:26.

I was curiously fearful of ghosts and spirits as a child.  I was pretty sure that sometimes that spirit sometimes doesn’t return to God at death – or at least not right away.  The Bible has no mention of that “spirit” having any life, wisdom, or feeling after a person dies.  It doesn’t wander around the Earth.

“And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” Genesis 2:7.

A soul?   A combination of two things: body plus breath. If the body and breath are not combined, no soul.

Can that soul die?   “The soul that sinneth, it shall die.” Ezekiel 18:20.  We are souls, and souls die. Man is mortal.

I wanted to believe that good people go to heaven when they die.  Then, some nun or priest told me that we don’t go to heaven or hell when we die.  “All that are in the graves shall hear his voice, And shall come forth.” John 5:28, 29. We go to graves to await the resurrection day. That made me frightened. And sad.

There would be no purpose in a resurrection if people were taken to heaven at death.

I was also afraid that the dead were watching me. I imagined my grandparents were up there watching me – especially when I was doing something wrong. More fear.

My mother claimed at times in her life to have heard voices of those who had died. But the Bible says that the dead know nothing and they cannot communicate with the living.

“The living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten. Also their love, and their hatred, and their envy, is now perished; neither have they any more a portion for ever in any thing that is done under the sun.” “There is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.” Ecclesiastes 9:5, 6, 10.

So much sadness, so much longing, so much death.

 

 

I know a few people who have tried getting off the Internet for a day or weekend or abandoning technology to purge their minds, bodies and souls of the pollution of information. We are on the overload setting and the idea of being purified does seem tempting.

I have also been reading about sensory deprivation – a topic that I haven’t heard much about in many years.

Of course, it has a new avant garde, this-is-the-coolest-thing spin to it. Apparently “float houses” are opening that allow you to go psychonaut and float into the benefits of depriving your senses of just about everything for a while.

Benefits? Relaxation, heightened senses, pain management and deautomatization.

Skeptical? You probably should be. But what is behind the “science” of this?

Sensory deprivation has some history as a way to brainwash prisoners of war (Korean War) kept in solitary confinement. A kind of psychological torture.

Researchers in the 1950s at McGill University in Canada did not exactly find it to be a blissful weekend getaway. They reported slower cognitive processing, hallucinations, mood swings and anxiety attacks that seemed a pathway to psychosis.

But others say that these deliberately abusive uses have nothing in common with the controlled and positive use of sensory deprivation. (Sensory overload is still a torture and break-the-spirit technique used by many military groups.)

More recent research shows deprivation to be deeply relaxing. There is even a rebranding of the technique. Dr. Roderick Borrie has come to calling it REST – Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy.

At the floathouses, you can REST on a bed in a dark, soundproof room, or float in buoyant liquid in a lightproof and soundproof tank.

Users report visual and auditory hallucinations, but nice ones. Some report a surge of creative thinking. Other studies that have nothing to do with REST report that a resting brain is better set for synthesizing information and doing problem solving.

You probably have had similar experiences while only partially deprived of stimuli – on a walk in the woods, driving alone on the highway and in the shower.

These states – not sleep or meditation – are referred to as “twilight” states. Claims ate that this twilight is easier to achieve without training via flotation REST than with mindfulness training or other techniques. And you know, we do love the easier path…

Researchers are now looking at what effect this might have on patients with stress-related disorders like hypertension, headaches, insomnia, rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia.

There are no floathouses near me that I know of, but there are places in my home and in nature that I can escape to if need be. I know that after a few hours in the woods away from everyday sounds, something changes in me. I know because when I return to the real world I find the sounds to be amplified worse than before. The deprivation works, but the effect is short-lived.

What about you?

Lucretius

illustration from Stephen Greenblatt’s piece in The New Yorker about Lucretius

I finished reading Stephen Greenblatt’s book, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, this week.  It inspired this morning’s poem on my daily poem project, Writing the Day.

Reading Lucretius

this twenty-first century morning makes me

a Roman meditating a thousand years ago

On the Nature of Things, a universe

without gods, made from very small particles,

eternal motion colliding, swerving in new directions.

And Lucretius inspires this weekend entry because, like Greenblatt, encountering the story of Lucretius and his writing did make me marvel at the modernity of thought from this man of the first century.

De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things) is his long poem in which he tried to explain Epicurean philosophy to his Roman audience.

lucretiusLucretius was a Roman poet and philosopher (c. 99 BC – c. 55 BC) and the poem is written in the “heroic hexameter” used in both Greek and Latin, including Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid. It is divided into six untitled books.

What is marvelous to me is that it is really what we would call today a book on physics. It covers atomism, the mind and soul, sensation and thought and celestial and terrestrial phenomena.  And it’s a poem!

What was shocking for his time is that his universe operates according to physical principles (he calls them fortuna) and not the divine intervention of any gods – whether they be Roman or Greek deities or any other variation.

You can read Lucretius’ book online  and you can get many versions of the book.  But I would never have found his work at all if I had not heard Stephen Greenblatt interviewed and bought his retelling of Lucretius in The Swerve.  I did get a copy of the poem from the library and read portions of the original, but I preferred the more modern path into the poem. After all, that was what Lucretius was also trying to accomplish with his book.

Titus Lucretius Carus wrote On the Nature of Things sometime around 60 B.C.E  This was not a philosophy of his own invention. He was repackaging the tenets of Greek Epicureanism, which dates back to 300 B.C.E., to his Roman audience.

He sets himself the task of explaining the nature of everything. It seems an impossible task. And yet, many have tried since, including Albert Einstein and others wanting to find a unified theory that would “explain it all.”

He didn’t get all of the “science” correct, which one would expect. But the ideas that are there, are quite amazing for his time.

He considers the atomic nature of matter – that everything is made from very tiny particles that we cannot see that operate under rules that are beyond man or gods. This philosophy questions that there are gods and considers that religion may be more harmful than good. Consider how just those two ideas are still charged with controversy today.

He considers astronomy and life on other planets, conception and death,  heredity and even a kind of evolution and speciation. He gets into areas we would call psychology, such as the senses and perception, sleep and dreams.

Nor to pursue the atoms one by one,
To see the law whereby each thing goes on.
But some men, ignorant of matter, think,
Opposing this, that not without the gods,
In such adjustment to our human ways,
Can nature change the seasons of the years,
And bring to birth the grains and all of else
To which divine Delight, the guide of life,
Persuades mortality and leads it on

The importance of his writing was not its originality, but its presentation. You could go back four centuries earlier to Parmenides (520-450 BCE), a Greek philosopher who described all things as being singularly composed of a fiery aether. He said that matter could not be created or destroyed.

And there was  Pythagoras’ numerical formulations to describe the nature of things.

Empedocles (490-430 BCE) had four basic elements to compose the universe: earth, water, fire and air. He  perceived attractive and repulsive forces between the elements (see gravity, van der Waal, and electromagnetism) which he referred to (charmingly, I think) as Love and Strife.

Anaxagoras (500-428 BCE) believed that every substance has an elemental form that is composed of some small fraction of every type of element.

Democritus (460-370 BCE)  arrived at an atomic model that survived for 2000 years. with little alteration. Plato and Aristotle were not fans of his philosophy, but Epicurus and Lucretius believed it and passed it on.

Lucretius writes that he will “explain by what forces nature steers the courses of the Sun and the journeyings of the Moon, so that we shall not suppose that they run their yearly races between heaven and earth of their own free will (remember that the planets were gods themselves) or that they are rolled round in furtherance of some divine plan.”  That kind of thinking could get you into a lot of trouble  – then and today.

And the swerve? Determinism doesn’t live harmoniously with the idea of free will.  Lucretius wants free will in his physicalistic universe. He suggests that there is an indeterministic tendency for atoms to swerve randomly. This indeterminacy allows for the “free will which livings things throughout the world have.” That indeterminacy is what caused Einstein to say that “God does not play dice with the universe.”  Einstein was uncomfortable with some of the philosophical implications of quantum mechanics.  Of course, Einstein was using “God” in a non-religious sense.

And it looks like “god” does play dice with the universe at the quantum level. Lucretius would be pleased to know this.

 

cherry blossom ani

Cherry blossoms are a staple of the haiku poets as a sign of spring.

3 poems by Basho

Leafless cherry,
old as a toothless woman,
blooms – mindful of its youth

A lovely spring night
suddenly vanished while we
viewed cherry blossoms

Kannon’s tiled temple roof
floats far away -
clouds of cherry blossoms

(Kannon is the Bodhisattva of Compassion)

3 poems by Issa

cherry blossoms scatter -
snap! the buck’s antlers
come off

cherry blossoms
under every tree
a Buddha on display

on the paper amulet
cherry blossoms
scatter

(inmons are paper charms or amulets sold at Buddhist temples)

 

Branch Brook Park in bloom with the Cathedral in the distance

Branch Brook Park in bloom with the Cathedral in the distance

Washington D.C is famous for the thousands of cherry trees sent there as a gift from Japan more than a hundred years ago. In my home state of New Jersey, we have the cherry trees of Branch Brook Park in Newark which actually has more cherry trees than D.C.  Every spring, residents and visitors can see the largest cherry blossom collection in the United States there.

Branch Brook Park has more than 2,700 Japanese cherry blossom trees that burst into full bloom during the annual Cherry Blossom Festival that features various events for visitors of all ages.

The park itself is historically unique for being the first county park in the United States opened to the public. It was designed by the famed landscape architectural firm of Olmsted Brothers, a successor to Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of Central Park in New York City.

The neighborhood on the east side of the park, Forest Hill, is Newark’s most affluent and is the setting for the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart Basilica, the fifth-largest cathedral in North America.

From April 5-13, the park hosts its spring festival under pink petals. (see essexcherryblossom.com)

Jane Goodall turns 80 today.

I met her once. More on that later. I have admired her for many years.

Back in 1960, at the age of 26, Jane left England to what is today Tanzania to enter the world of wild chimpanzees. She had a notebook and a pair of binoculars and not much more.

With great patience and observation she gained the trust of these initially shy creatures and came to understand their lives.

Nowadays, Jane Goodall is on the road more than 300 days per year. I was invited to a conference ten years ago in New York City for educators. I got into a line there for a hot drink and the woman in front of me was surprised and embarrassed to discover that you had to pay $3 for your coffee or tea. “Oh, my,” she said “I don’t have any money with me.” I offered to pay and only when she turned did I realize she was Jane Goodall.

She accepted my offer and then suggested we sit together with our drinks. I was starstruck. I knew she was the featured speaker that day. She was going to talk about her Roots and Shoots program. The Roots & Shoots program is about making positive change for people, animals and for the environment.  It involves tens of thousands of young people in more than 120 countries. Young people identify problems in their communities and take action. Jane truly believes that young people, when informed and empowered to realize that what they do truly makes a difference, can indeed change the world.

We drank out tea. I never said anything about her or her work. I didn’t ask for an autograph. She did all the questioning. She was interested in where I taught, what I taught and why I taught. She was very interested in my volunteer work for endangered species in my home state of New Jersey.  She thought that any work I was doing in my own local area was most valuable.

Her institute encourages lots of small local actions, including creating a sustainable home garden and building a habitat for local native wildlife.

Today, Jane’s work has gone beyond the chimpanzees and includes endangered species (that does include chimpanzees) and encouraging others to do their part. The Jane Goodall Institute works to protect the famous chimpanzees of Gombe National Park in Tanzania, but recognizes this can’t be accomplished without a comprehensive approach that addresses the needs of local people who are critical to chimpanzee survival.

Dr. Jane is high on my list of the good people who live on our planet.

Today at 2 p.m. ET / 11 a.m. PT you can join Dr. Jane Goodall for a live-on-YouTube Google+ Hangout birthday party. The program will feature will feature projects from Jane Goodall’s Roots & Shoots groups completed in Dr. Jane’s honor, birthday wishes from around the globe and a special message from Dr. Jane herself.  A YouTube box will appear at the top of the page and all you will have to do is click play to tune in. You can join the hangout by posting questions on Google+, Facebook or Twitter using the hashtag #80yearsofJane.

This Google+ Hangout on Air is hosted in conjunction with Google Earth Outreach and Connected Classrooms.

 

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