On Being with Krista Tippett

Arthur Zajonc

Holding Life Consciously

Last Updated

September 12, 2013

Original Air Date

June 24, 2010

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.

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Arthur Zajonc is president of the Mind and Life Institute. He is emeritus professor of physics at Amherst College, where he taught from 1978 to 2012. His books include Meditation as Contemplative Inquiry: When Knowing Becomes Love and The Heart of Higher Education: A Call to Renewal.


November 10, 2011

KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: Steve Jobs’ biographer says of the late Apple founder that his particular genius was in linking “artistry to engineering,” to bridging science and the humanities. This takes me back to a lovely and thought-provoking conversation I had in 2010 with the physicist and contemplative Arthur Zajonc — hearing for example what happens when you bring together physical and poetic understandings of something like color or light. Integrating sciences and the humanities is simply a way of talking, as Arthur Zajonc puts it, about “bringing all of who we are to all that the world is.” And Arthur Zajonc says we can all investigate life as vigorously from the inside as from the outside. From APM, American Public Media, I’m Krista Tippett. Today, On Being: “Holding Life Consciously.”

Arthur Zajonc has been a professor of physics at Amherst College since 1978. He has long drawn on an eclectic range of thinkers alongside his science, such as the 18th-century writer Goethe and the early-20th-century philosopher and educator Rudolph Steiner. Arthur Zajonc grew up reconciling a mix of cultures and ways of being in the world. His father was from a largely illiterate Polish immigrant family, his mother from a cultured world of Southern gentility. After childhood, he rejected the Catholic piety they did share. He sought meaning in science. But clarity, as he tells it, did not come in his first years in college, and that was made harder perhaps by the cultural turmoil of that era of the Vietnam War. Arthur Zajonc was about to flunk out, when he turned a new corner after an unexpected conversation.

ARTHUR ZAJONC: There was one professor of physics who seemed rather interesting, an older gentleman. He opened up about his own spiritual quest, if you will. So here’s this 60-year-old, eminently sensible physicist at the University of Michigan, and after telling me I’d basically gotten a “D” in the course — and I think that was a gift — we began to talk about the larger issues that were behind the “D,” if you will, behind the resolution to fail. And as a consequence of that, a whole set of readings, literature, opened up because he had been a longtime meditator himself.


PROF. ZAJONC: And so had a form of contemplative spirituality that began to make sense in terms of science. And it was a Western contemplative tradition that he was working with, which was also attractive to me because I was in love with Plato at the time.


PROF. ZAJONC: Not so engaged and interested in the Asian traditions.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. Now, was he the person who introduced you to Goethe?

PROF. ZAJONC: He introduced me to another professor, who was a German scholar. And so it was through him that I became especially active and interested in Goethe’s color work. I read all of the stuff that had been translated and gradually made my way into a real sort of love affair with this extraordinary genius. Sometimes controversial in his own way …


PROF. ZAJONC: … but, you know, nonetheless fabulous mind to track. And then that — especially his interest in science, Goethe’s interest in science, which is so different from the conventional science I’d been learning, stimulated me to broaden my conception of science and to start reading the history and philosophy of science and so on.

MS. TIPPETT: So that brought you back around, or kept you in science.

PROF. ZAJONC: Completely reframed everything I was learning. It was like the same classes on quantum mechanics or electromagnetic theory all of a sudden started to make sense. It was as if I was mining each of these courses for a kind of nugget of gold, which probably had always been there, but now I knew what to look for. So I had to situate this striving after a physical understanding of the world around us in a much larger ethical, moral, spiritual context that was part of the human enterprise and no longer just an isolated bit but something integrated in to all of our human concerns. And that was of huge, you know, kind of revolutionary significance for me personally, and it’s something I still hold onto that I think we often decontextualize …


PROF. ZAJONC: … the knowledge that we study or teach to our students. And as a consequence, they don’t see themselves how to connect it to the rest of their lives.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. So, you know, I have to say, this is a bit of a discovery for me. I spent quite a few years in Germany, but I actually did not know that Goethe had this scientific side to him. Right? I mean, he’s best known as a writer, as a poet, novelist, and, you know, so from your writing, which is about science and human life and human spirituality, I find that he had this rich life in science and he dabbled or explored from geology to botany and the nature of color and vision. So I think this will be new to a lot of people. So I’d like to spend a little time on that, on Goethe as a formative person for you and how this way of coming at some of these ideas, as you say, reframed your understanding of science.

PROF. ZAJONC: Yeah. I mean, Goethe’s self-assessment was that his scientific work was of more importance than his literary work.


PROF. ZAJONC: You know, there’s a famous line that at the end of his life he had a secretary named Eckermann, a gentleman, who essentially took down orally whatever Goethe said in the last couple years of his life. And he quotes Goethe as saying something like, “There’ve been better poets than I in the past and shall be better poets in the future but that I in my time am the only one who knows the truth with regards to color. Of that I am not a little proud; I’m conscious of a superiority of many.” So, you know, he had a big, you know — first of all, he had a big ego, but he also felt that this scientific work that he was up to would outlast his work in poetry, his Faust, his novels, all the things of course that we know him for.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. And, I mean, let’s be clear. He was also taking on Newton when he talked about his superior theories.

PROF. ZAJONC: Yes. Right. Newton’s theory was the dominant one. The wave theory was coming in, you could say, by Goethe’s time, so the particle theory of color, which Newton had advanced, now had a competitor. And then Goethe in some ways cuts across at a right angle to both of these theories.


PROF. ZAJONC: He’s not concerned with models of what it is that’s going on as we’re behind the scenes; what he’s concerned with are the phenomena themselves. And he consistently rejects the notion that science’s task is to get in behind the theater of the senses and to look at the pulleys and counterweights as Fontenelle called them.


PROF. ZAJONC: Right, you know, that that’s — that’s not the business of the scientist. The scientist is to look at the phenomena and understand the phenomena from within themselves. And this has been a big source of controversy then because the tradition of science has been a kind of materialistic and mechanistic picture that is taken to be the account that produces the subjective experience of our lives.


PROF. ZAJONC: He’s not actually advocating a spiritual worldview. What he’s arguing for is a worldview which honors the human experience. But what that does is to open the door to all levels of human experiences, the levels of art, the levels of ethical choice, the levels of your very life, which is, of course, lived in this world of experience. It’s not lived in a world of particles and waves; it’s lived in a world of direct human experience, including even your religious and spiritual experiences.

[sound bite of music]

MS. TIPPETT: I also want to clarify something. So when you’re talking about color — we’re talking about Newton analyzing the prism or others analyzing — but as you say, what they’re really talking about is light. And, I mean, just the way Goethe said — this is some lines of his — “Colors are the deeds and sufferings of light.”

PROF. ZAJONC: Yeah, Die Taten und Leiden, the deeds and sufferings of light.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

PROF. ZAJONC: Yeah. And it’s the deeds and sufferings of light with darkness, you could say. So the colors come in to being through the interaction or the conflict or the meeting of light and darkness, these two large polarities that exist within our world within Goethe’s imagination. Yep. When they come together then there arises color. So when you look at the red of the sunset, you’re looking through the kind of darkening agent of the sky, of the atmosphere itself, towards the sun, which is a source of light. And so the light seen through that darkening medium gives us the reds and a complementary account can give you the blues.

MS. TIPPETT: And that perception itself — isn’t he also saying it’s part of that picture of what’s happening, of describing the reality of color and light.

PROF. ZAJONC: Yeah. Every discovery in science — people have a wrong kind of idea of how discoveries happen in science. They think you kind of calculate your way towards the discovery. It never works that way. You know, you may embed yourself in the math. You may study it thoroughly or you may work within the lab context and have data sets that you’re pouring over, but the insight comes in a flash. You know, it’s walking across a bridge in Dublin and inscribing the formula for the quaternions, how they’re going to work, in pure mathematics. Or it’s Newton seeing an apple fall. And when he sees the apple fall, he says, “Well, that’s exactly the same as the moon overhead.” They look totally different, but he sees them as congruent with one another.

Then you get busy with the math and you say could that be? You get busy with the experiment that’s going to confirm or disconfirm what it is you’ve just seen, but you’ve seen it intuitively. You’ve seen it as what Goethe calls an aperçu, a moment of perception, direct perception. And that was for Goethe, that moment of discovery was the key. Everything else that follows on is of less interest to him. His interests are less with the technical sides of science than with its application to human life, to the arts of course, painting among other arts. And so he’s interested in what he calls the sensory-moral, or sinnlich-sittliche, sensory-moral aspects of color.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right. I mean, here’s a sentence that you wrote: “Goethe forcefully holds our attention to the epiphanous moments in science, the poetry that is the heart of science.”

PROF. ZAJONC: Exactly. And the knowledge …

MS. TIPPETT: Explain that to me, “the poetry that is the heart of science.”

PROF. ZAJONC: Knowledge is not an object that you acquire. It’s not a mechanism that somehow you provide to the human mind. It’s actually an epiphanal moment. And I think this is true of the arts, poetry, painting, music, and I would say also to spiritual understanding.

[sound bite of music]

MS. TIPPETT: In our 90-minute unedited conversation, Arthur Zajonc and I also spent some time discussing the fascinating ways in which Goethe’s ideas about subjectivity in science are finding reflection in the fundamentals of relativity theory and quantum physics. Listen for that at onbeing.org.

I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being, conversation about meaning, religion, ethics, and ideas. Today: “Holding Life Consciously.” Arthur Zajonc is a physicist at Amherst College. He’s a leading figure in a national network of academics associated with the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society. They explore the relevance of contemplative traditions for higher education. He’s also a past president of the American branch of the Anthroposophical Society, that was founded in the early 20th century in Switzerland by Rudolph Steiner. And Arthur Zajonc is part of the ongoing Mind & Life Dialogues hosted by the Dalai Lama. He moderated its first-ever public gathering at MIT. Personally, he cultivates what he calls a “cognitively oriented contemplative spirituality.” I asked what he means by that.

PROF. ZAJONC: So it’s cognitively oriented, which means it’s oriented towards knowledge, that it’s possible to have a spirituality which is not simply about faith, as interesting and complex as that is on its own, but actually understands itself as committed to knowing, so cognitively oriented contemplative spirituality. Now, contemplative spirituality, you know, starts when I was 20 and the practice of meditation and contemplation, which has been an important part of my life during all those years, has led me to the conviction that there’s an experiential domain in contemplative spirituality, which can become clarified, which can become in some sense scientific in the sense that it’s a repeatable basis of human experience, one that’s shared over thousands of years and that we can be engaged with today in a way that is congruent with my activity as a scientist.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

PROF. ZAJONC: So it’s cognitively oriented in the sense that also by knowing more about my interior life and about the interior life, you could say, of others in the world around me, I’ve discovered something through, again, the same kind of epiphanous, not a matter of reductionism but a matter of direct experience. But now that direct experience is had at the hand of reflection, contemplation, meditation.

MS. TIPPETT: Tell me when you started to be interested in contemplation, to have a practice meditation.

PROF. ZAJONC: It goes back a long way. I’m 60 now and it goes back to when I was 20. And, you know, I’ve been a more or less faithful practitioner ever since then.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

PROF. ZAJONC: And have learned a great deal from both the Western contemplative traditions and more recently from my Asian and Buddhist friends about meditation as well.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

PROF. ZAJONC: And I thought I was pretty alone until a friend and I started inquiring around. And I teach at Amherst College, and so we’re in the Five College area and discovered that there were 35 courses being taught in the five colleges by some 70 professors that included some meditation in them. And now we have a wide-ranging network of some 2,000 academics who are talking to each other around the possible roles and, indeed, the practical ways in which we can teach and research, making use of the benefits of contemplative practice.

MS. TIPPETT: And is this at one and the same time about bringing awareness and attention as a quality of your humanity into the classroom as well as perhaps integrating contemplative practices?

PROF. ZAJONC: Yeah. I mean, there’s a real motive. It’s not that you’re importing spiritual practices willy-nilly into an academic setting. There’s a rationale. Of course, students have their own either agnostic, atheistic, or religious beliefs. That’s their privilege and responsibility in a certain sense. But the contemplative traditions have been extraordinarily successful it seems to me in cultivating attention, and attention is one of the most precious entities the human mind has to offer the world. If we can attend to something in a sustained way, especially in a learning context, it’s much to our advantage. The other, you know, big gain is if there’s emotional balance, and this is another set of practices which are …


PROF. ZAJONC: … common to the various traditions, that one basically creates a healthy mind. So one has both a healthy mind and an attentive mind that one brings to everything that one does is a great benefit.

MS. TIPPETT: There’s a phrase that I’ve heard Buddhists use, “mental hygiene.” Right?

PROF. ZAJONC: Yeah. Right. You know, and it’s not just six-year-olds that need it. When you’re 20 you probably have more vigor than them.

MS. TIPPETT: You know, when you say it that way it sounds like it belongs alongside academia where the mind is being cultivated and trained.

PROF. ZAJONC: Oh, I think so. And if science is, as I’m saying, you know, born out of these epiphanies, then I think the reflective and contemplative has a lot to offer, not only as a hygiene for student life or as cultivation of attention, but even as a mode of inquiry. Even as a way of knowing, which is, after all, the central project that universities and colleges are engaged in.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. I kept thinking as I was reading you and reading about you, about how intrigued Einstein was with Buddhism. And now it’s hard to pin down exactly what he said about Buddhism, right? Or what he even knew about it, but he does seem to have had a sense that Buddhism might be a religion that could bring together what he saw as the best of science and the best of human spirituality. You know, when I talked about that to people, I often point at the Mind-Life Dialogues that the Dalai Lama has been conducting for years and that you have been part of. Let me just ask you — ask it this way: If Einstein had been part of these Mind-Life Dialogues, I mean, and if he knew what you know about contemplation, what do you think would intrigue him? What would he find resonance with in Buddhism and being a physicist?

PROF. ZAJONC: You know, the early physicists, that is to say, from 1900 to 1925 when all of the great papers were being written on relativity and quantum mechanics, these scientists were also highly cultivated individuals speaking Latin and Greek. They all spoke their own language in the scientific meetings and everybody understood enough languages that they could get by. They played musical instruments. They read Plato in the original. I mean, it’s amazing to me how wonderfully cultivated they were. And that means that when they were just making these discoveries, they’re thinking about their implications.

They’re not just doing the kind of business of computation; they’re actually thinking about the philosophical and religious and spiritual implications of these huge ideas that are being birthed at the dawn of the 20th century. So Einstein was not alone in his interest in, say, non-Western spirituality and Schrödinger was likewise and also interested in ancient philosophy. Heisenberg as a student is reading the Timaeus on the rooftop of his research building in the Greek. You know, I mean, it’s just wonderful to think of that richness. So I think they would be thrilled by these kinds of dialogues. You know, when we did the dialogue at MIT, which I moderated …

MS. TIPPETT: Was that in 2003, 2004?

PROF. ZAJONC: Yes, exactly.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

PROF. ZAJONC: So here are a thousand scientists and scholars.

MS. TIPPETT: And what was it called? Investigating the Mind, right?

PROF. ZAJONC: Investigating the Mind. And you had a sweet, you know, wonderful lineup of the best mind scientists on the planet — at least that we had access to, and on the other side, the best Buddhist scholars and practitioners, in the middle the Dalai Lama acting as a kind of convener of a conversation. And what one had a feeling that was going on was this was long overdue. This meeting between these two great civilizations and aspirational kind of educational and research cultures, and they’re both trying to investigate the mind, one using external means, you could say the means of technical neuroscientific investigation, and the other using meditation and the inquiry of the mind directly through direct experience of cultivating attention and the like.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

PROF. ZAJONC: And they had a tremendous amount to offer one another. And the whole audience, these thousand scholars — and it was webcast throughout the MIT campus — and I know from talking with students there, it was followed with great interest. It was like a celebration. You know, it’s 2,500 years of Buddhist practice, 400 years of Western scientific accomplishment. Why has it taken so long? And to imagine Einstein, Eisenberg, Bohr, Schrödinger up on the stage would be great and not so far-fetched.

[sound bite of music]

MS. TIPPETT: I’d like to hear a little bit also about another influential figure for you, which is Rudolf Steiner. He’s best known now for the Anthroposophical Society and also for the Waldorf schools, which are modeled after his philosophy.

PROF. ZAJONC: Yeah. Yeah. This is a very attractive — was very attractive for me because many spiritual traditions, as interesting as they are in themselves, don’t really have practical application.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

PROF. ZAJONC: But if you maintain that you’re coming to insights through contemplative methods, let’s say, concerning, for example, the growth and development of the child, then that will have educational, pedagogical implications. And indeed in 1919, he was asked and he accepted the task of working with a group of individuals to start a new kind of educational system in the post-war years, post First World War when Germany was in ruins and there was a real sort of revolutionary spirit in the air. He was asked by a factory owner to help teach the children of his factory workers. That was the Waldorf Astoria Cigarette Factory, thus the name Waldorf schools.

MS. TIPPETT: Oh, I didn’t realize that. It’s a great story.

PROF. ZAJONC: Yeah. So now there are over a thousand schools around the world all making use of the pedagogy, which is based on a not only physical or psychological understanding of the growth of the child but a spiritual understanding of the development of the child as well. So that’s one area. Biodynamic farming, which is another, was one of the very first organic farming movements and that was another one he participated in, guiding and lecturing. Medical initiatives, also areas in medicine and he’s done a lot with …

MS. TIPPETT: Well, see, my daughter attended a Waldorf school, which was a fantastic experience, for a couple of years, but I had no idea that his background was in science, that he began as a science …

PROF. ZAJONC: Yeah. He went to the Technical University of Vienna, which would be like MIT.

MS. TIPPETT: Right, the MIT of Austria.

PROF. ZAJONC: The MIT of Austria.

MS. TIPPETT: So, you know, we were talking about light at the beginning of our conversation, which is a great source of scientific deliberation. And so Rudolf Steiner spent a lot of time talking about light’s spiritual qualities, right?


MS. TIPPETT: About, light having moral effect. I mean, you mentioned that about Goethe too and we didn’t go into it, but talk to me about that.

PROF. ZAJONC: It is an interesting phenomenon, right? If you just look at here you are, you and I are both in the studio lit by lights and yet we don’t see the light itself; we see are all the objects that are illuminated. So for Steiner, that was not just a metaphor for something. It wasn’t just a kind of symbol or set of observations but actually pointed to a deep spiritual dimension. And it’s an experience that anyone can have; it’s not a privileged experience, but it’s a set of experiences of not just a sensory world but now what he would call a super-sensible world. And the very first domain that one steps into, and this is often reported in the mystic and contemplative literature, is a domain of light.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

PROF. ZAJONC: That one, if you think — even in Plato’s scene of the cave, that one steps out of the cave and into a world of light. That takes some time to get used to, as Plato describes, so it’s not something you immediately understand where you are, but nonetheless it’s something you can make your way towards through practice.

MS. TIPPETT: But that’s the thing in these spiritual visions — we do think of light itself as being visible, right, that you see the light. Right? I saw the light.


MS. TIPPETT: That’s a phrase.

PROF. ZAJONC: Right. Right.

MS. TIPPETT: But as you point out, that if you don’t have an object for light to fall on, in fact, we only see darkness.

PROF. ZAJONC: Yeah. So the contemplative becomes an avenue not only into a kind of interiority for ourselves, you know, our own moral and, say, lives of purpose and meaning and so forth that we may brood over, which is something different than meditating. But also there’s an objective character to the contemplative inquiry, the kind that Steiner is interested in where one’s oriented towards the other, towards the world around us, towards nature.

And one comes to know — I think of it this way — that one comes to know the interior of the exterior. One comes to know the inside of every outside. It’s not only human beings that have an interior or an inside, but that the world around us as well can be known inwardly. Strike a bell and you can listen to the sound, but you can also move towards the qualities that are more aesthetic and even moral in nature that deal with the sounding bell or the particular color or that painting that’s there or the music that you’re hearing.

So life is dense with those levels of experience, but we need to calm ourselves, get clear, get quiet, direct attention, sustain the attention, open up to what is normally invisible, and certain things begin to show themselves. Maybe gently to begin with, but nonetheless it deepens and enriches our lives. If we are committed to knowledge, then we ought to be committed also to exploring the world with these lenses, with this method in mind and heart.

You know, otherwise we’re kind of doing it halfway. And then when we go to solve the problems of our world, whether they’re educational or environmental, we’re bringing only half of our intelligence to bear; we’ve left the other half idle or relegated it to religious philosophers. But if we’re going to be integral ourselves, you know, have a perspective which is whole, then we need to bring all of our capacities to the issues that we confront, spiritual capacities as well as more conventional sensory-based intellects and the like.

[sound bite of music]

MS. TIPPETT: Arthur Zajonc just spoke of finding the aesthetic and moral qualities in the sound of a bell.

[bell sound]

MS. TIPPETT: We invite you to experience this. On our website, onbeing.org, he guides a 10-minute meditation that tens of thousands of listeners have tried. “So simple,” one person wrote, “And so difficult.” Here’s how it begins:

PROF. ZAJONC: I call this the four-part bell exercise. It will consist first of the sounding of the bell to which we’ll give our full and undivided attention. Then the memory sound of the bell, which will sound inwardly several times, filling ourselves completely with the sound of the bell in memory. Then the third part will be a letting go of the bell sound completely. And the fourth, a letting come — of being present for whatever it is that arises in consciousness as a kind of echo or afterimage of the bell sound…

[sound bite of music]

MS. TIPPETT: Coming up, what contemplation might teach for our lives with technology, and for Arthur Zajonc’s life now with Parkinson’s disease.

I’m Krista Tippett. This program comes to you from APM, American Public Media.

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett. Today, On Being: “Holding Life Consciously.” My guest is Arthur Zajonc. He’s a physicist at Amherst College and a leading figure exploring the relevance of contemplative traditions for higher education. He’s also a longtime meditator himself, most intensively in a tradition modeled by the 20th-century Austrian philosopher and educator Rudolph Steiner. The Steiner practice centers around contemplative exercises, often focusing the mind on an object or image; or on meditative verses that Steiner himself wrote. Arthur Zajonc has been talking about how contemplative practice helps him integrate the intellectual and sensory aspects of science as well as life. This, for him, is not only a critical task of being human; it’s also necessary for engaging the contemporary world in all its complexity.

MS. TIPPETT: You know, one thing you’ve pointed out is that technology as it’s evolving, as it becomes more sophisticated and often more minute and hidden, is separating us all from the sensory — it’s disembodying what science used to be or just at the basic sense of how things work.

PROF. ZAJONC: Yeah. Technology is a wonderful subject. I’ve taught courses on technology and culture and the like and it’s — you know, in the mythic traditions you had the priest who was — or shaman in traditional indigenous cultures — but someone of equal stature in those communities was the blacksmith, the technical person, if you will …


PROF. ZAJONC: … in the cultures. And that stands for something. In other words, there’s a long lineage of technology and craft that has become increasingly dominant and in certain ways overshadowed many of the, I would say, overt spiritual dimensions of our lives. So we live within a world that has become increasingly technical but also increasingly secular, increasingly a technology without recognition of its inherent human and even spiritual possibilities. And so as a consequence, it seems to me that the technologies that are developed are developed in a certain sense blindly, without a real understanding of their full effects, their full power, not only in practical ways like environmental problems and so on that they may cause, but also psychologically in their effects on human consciousness, especially the consciousness of children.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

PROF. ZAJONC: Technologies are kind of brilliant also in their ability to capture, I think, emerging spiritual capacities. Say, for example, when you’re working with meditation, one of the things that arises are images. And in some ways, you work with the imagination inwardly. You are actively engaged with the imagination. And virtual reality, 3-D movies, all the rest, also work with that, but they work with it in a way which leads to a more passive engagement; not an active imagination but one where all the work is being done for you by the technology itself.

MS. TIPPETT: That’s why I love radio, you know, because radio does actually …

PROF. ZAJONC: Exactly.

MS. TIPPETT: … leave it all to your own imagination.

PROF. ZAJONC: Radio leaves it to your imagination.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

PROF. ZAJONC: It’s like reading a good book, you know. You’re engaged at a certain level through the reading but you’re also stimulated to imagine yourself. Now, I hasten to say I’m no Luddite. I grew up underneath a car, you know, fixing things. So, and I continue to tinker and my lab is full of stuff.

MS. TIPPETT: Right, but would you be able to fix the computer in your car now the way you could tinker underneath it then?

PROF. ZAJONC: Well, maybe I might be able to but certainly most people wouldn’t be able to, you know, because I’ve kept up with some of that technological development.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

PROF. ZAJONC: But it’s much harder, much more difficult. Everything is invisible. Everything is down there in the micro world. So the old ways of analysis and taking things apart no longer suit. But I think, you know, that hidden nature of technology that’s everywhere, that’s pervasive but hidden, the inherent complexities of it, have become such barriers that, yes, most people are no longer able to imagine how things work.

So how is it that you, you know, confront those technologies? I mean, I think part of it is realizing this lineage and tradition that I mentioned in the beginning, that everything depends on how you hold what you do and how you hold, therefore, also the technology. You know, if you are unconscious about it then the technology itself will, as it were, create that world for you, will say, OK, here are the values of our world.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

PROF. ZAJONC: We see them on television and we see them displayed in the movies and so forth. You’re being manipulated in a certain direction by the technologies and even by the means — not just the content, but even by the type of technology that’s there. But if one’s self-conscious about one’s engagement with the technology, if one sees it as a part of a human development and a kind of outgrowth of a particular form of human awareness and capacity, and frames it as such, then it becomes more of a servant to us and we know when to make use of it and we know when not to make use of it. We know how to make use of it. It becomes, indeed, more of a tool. You know, the word “technology” stems from the word technae, which means art. It doesn’t mean machine; it means art. So if technology can become much more of an art than a machine that’s deriving a particular purpose, commercial or otherwise, I think we’ll salvage what technology does have to offer for us.

MS. TIPPETT: I mean, I was reading your book Meditation as Contemplative Inquiry, and there’re some lines of Rudolf Steiner and I’m not quite sure why I’m so taken by them, but I am. I’ll read a little bit before this passage that I just want to ask you about. He wrote — this is in 1924 — “I feel my fate; my fate finds me. I feel my star; my star finds me. I feel my aims; my aims find me. My soul and the world are one.” And then, “Life will be clearer around me. Life will be more burdensome for me. Life will be richer for me.” I really like that because I think that is a description of this world we’ve moved into, which can be burdensome and rich at the same time and this idea that perhaps those two things have to go together and that they come with clarity.

PROF. ZAJONC: Yeah. You know, some people, you know, refuse the burdensome part.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

PROF. ZAJONC: And they think, “Oh, no. When I become deep and silent and contemplative in my musings, when I open up to what’s really important in life, then everything will become easy and my life will kind of go on in a continual bliss state,” or something. But actually, the clarity means you see things you hadn’t seen before. The richness of your life means that you begin to carry concerns that you maybe neglected before. And indeed, I think if one’s honest it does lead to greater responsibility. And I don’t think the young people mind that at all. You know, I think they …

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Yeah, I don’t think so either.

PROF. ZAJONC: … embrace that.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

PROF. ZAJONC: So that’s the good news. The first part of that quotation, which had to do with “my fate finds me” and the like, that’s something which, you know, is a perennial question for each of us. How is it we guide our lives and conduct our lives? Where do we find our next step? And especially for students who are forming their lives just on the spot in those four years or eight years. The contemplative as a means of inner guidance, you know, that you really begin to weigh and sort out your values carefully, systematically, gently, and reflectively, can be of huge help. And then to gradually begin to realize this direction, not that; these values, not those; these friends who are on that same journey, not these other wonderful people who are going in a different direction. And so on.

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MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, On Being — conversation about meaning, religion, ethics, and ideas. Today: “Holding Life Consciously,” with physicist and contemplative Arthur Zajonc.

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MS. TIPPETT: You have recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Is that right?

PROF. ZAJONC: Yes, that’s true.

MS. TIPPETT: And I think that’s a pretty recent diagnosis. Is that correct?

PROF. ZAJONC: About a year ago, yes.

MS. TIPPETT: A year ago. So how is this contemplative practice, this capacity you’ve honed to keep asking the question of what guides you, how has that intersecting with this experience of this illness?

PROF. ZAJONC: That’s a great question and one that’s unfolding with time.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

PROF. ZAJONC: First of all, you know, I’m a regular meditator. And so the first thing you notice is the effect of your contemplative life on tremor, for example. I noticed the following: 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.

MS. TIPPETT: Is that when you’re concentrating on a reading or an image?

PROF. ZAJONC: Exactly.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

PROF. ZAJONC: Exactly. 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, um, interesting.

So there’s a kind of, we might say, phenomenology of the body in relation to meditation, which I hadn’t fully appreciated before, but 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.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

PROF. ZAJONC: And then there are, of course, always more the kind of long-term or existential questions because a diagnosis like Parkinson’s is not like you’re going to die in a certain period of time but you have a certain outcome that basically you — you see, my mother had Parkinson’s and her sister had Parkinson’s.


PROF. ZAJONC: So I’ve seen Parkinson’s and its progression, and now that becomes part of my life and my friendships and the work I do and also the practices that I do as a contemplative.

So then you learn to hold your life even more consciously for the fact that you now have a diagnosis of a serious illness. What is it you wish, then, to do with this wild precious life? As Mary Oliver …

MS. TIPPETT: As Mary Oliver said. Yeah.

PROF. ZAJONC: Yeah. And, well, now it’s like you’ve got to really get busy with that question, you know. You’ve got a few good years and then you don’t know quite what’s going to happen and it makes things so much more real.

I’d say the place where it’s the most real of all is through friendships. You know, when I’m on my own, it’s a condition I carry every minute of the day, but when I’m with a friend, that friend sees me as a person they love but also a person who is likely, you know, coming towards the end of a span of creativity in life. And so their relationship to you is intensified in ways that are hard to describe but very precious.

So I’d say that aspect, the aspect of, I’d say, the communal, social aspect of how to — not only I hold the condition that I have but how is it my friends hold it as well — is something of true value, truly precious.

MS. TIPPETT: Is there a learning that you take from that — from that experience and meditation that spacious openness helps and that concentration — is there anything that you apply to the rest of your day through that? Or is that too much of a stretch?

PROF. ZAJONC: No, it’s not too much of a stretch. In fact, here’s how I think about it.


PROF. ZAJONC: You know, when I fall asleep the tremor disappears. That’s the way Parkinson’s works. In other words, there’s a state of awareness that something like sleeping that is called meditation, but it’s like sleeping only in the sense that you’ve crossed the threshold of consciousness but in this case you’re staying awake.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

PROF. ZAJONC: I don’t know if that makes sense. So it’s like being awake in your sleep.


PROF. ZAJONC: So you calm — especially in that open state of awareness — you calm yourself. You feel a shift taking place. You maintain a vivid awareness, and at that same time, everything kind of calms down to the state that you’re familiar with in sleep. So here’s the question I pose to myself, you know?

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

PROF. ZAJONC: 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. So it’s a little bit like bringing the sleeping life into the day life.


PROF. ZAJONC: And I’ll keep you posted …


PROF. ZAJONC: … as to whether that comes out all right or not.

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MS. TIPPETT: This is my final question: As a practitioner of meditation, do you have — and a scientist — do you have a vocabulary of mystery?

PROF. ZAJONC: Yes, um, so here’s my take on that word. Number one, mystery can sometimes be used as a way of deflecting real inquiry. To say, well, we just have to resign ourselves to the mystery.

MS. TIPPETT: It’s a mystery. OK.

PROF. ZAJONC: It’s a mystery. We should leave it be. We should just let it go. Now, the scientist in me says no, that something is not right with that, that interpretation of mystery. It’s too easy. Rather, what I think we need to do is to recognize that no matter how deeply we engage the world, no matter how far we manage to penetrate into the mystery, there will always be more mystery.

It’s always deeper, it’s always bigger, it’s always wider than our possible imagination at any given moment. But it’s always an invitation. Mystery is kind of an invitation in. It’s not a wall before which we have to give up, but rather, a kind of find the door. Where is that little chink that allows you to peer through and then gradually to open up and find resources and capacities in yourself to take a little step or to put the horizon a little further away?

You know, it’s like when you have a horizon around you; it’s given by how high up you are on the earth. I think the contemplative dimensions of life help us do that, to say there are capacities or points of view or places we can put ourselves that allow us to engage the world more broadly, more widely, see further. And it doesn’t take anything away from the world because there’s always another horizon. There’s always a further distance.

MS. TIPPETT: I like that juxtaposition of engaging mystery and engaging the world more actively.


MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

PROF. ZAJONC: Yeah. To stand passively before the world, you know, to allow it its due is one pull. You know, to be receptive, to be open, to be gentle all is of extraordinary value. We learn a great deal through that quality of awareness and attitude. But we don’t need to be reminded very often of the sufferings of the world, of the needs of others, of the responsibility we have to be active and to be active with our full humanity, all capacities — mind, body, spirit — everything. And that each of them requires cultivation. Care of the body, care of the soul, care of the spirit, if you will. And the question is how do we care for each of these so that when we do act, we don’t act with partial information, with only part of who we are, but we bring all of who we are to all that the world is?

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MS. TIPPETT: Arthur Zajonc is professor of physics at Amherst College. He’s also director of the Academic Program of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society. His books include Meditation as Contemplative Inquiry: When Knowing Becomes Love; and, together with Parker Palmer, The Heart of Higher Education: A Call to Renewal.

As we prepared to put this show on the air, we learned from Arthur Zajonc that he’s in discussion with neuroscientists about formally investigating meditation for people living with Parkinson’s disease. In the meantime he writes, “My practice continues to be a source of support for my illness.”

He was introduced to Western contemplative forms before Asian Buddhist forms. Across the years on this program, we’ve experienced other gracious lives formed by a variety of practices. And at onbeing.org, you can find a few guided meditations that have been popular with our listeners. Arthur Zajonc’s guided bell sound meditation is there. There’s also Jewish-Buddhist teacher Sylvia Boorstein, whose eight-minute lovingkindness or metta meditation captivated a live audience when I interviewed her in Detroit. Again, find links to all of that at onbeing.org.

And as always, you can download this show or listen to my unedited interview with Arthur Zajonc. You can also of course “like” us on Facebook — facebook.com/onbeing. And follow us on Twitter; our handle: @Beingtweets.

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This program is produced by Chris Heagle, Nancy Rosenbaum, and Susan Leem. Anne Breckbill is our Web developer.

Trent Gilliss is senior editor. Kate Moos is executive producer. And I’m Krista Tippett.

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MS. TIPPETT: Next time: Paul Brandeis Raushenbush. He is the great-grandson of Walter Raushenbush, a leader of what became known as the “Social Gospel” in early-20th-century America. We explore a hidden but possibly reemerging influence in the DNA of American Christianity. And Paul Raushenbush reflects on this too, as religion editor of The Huffington Post. “Occupying the Gospel.” Please join us.

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