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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.


Holding Life Consciously: The Artistry of Bridging the Sciences and Humanities Through Focused Attention and Open Awareness

by Krista Tippett, host

Dual nature of light as particle and waveConsidering light as both particle and wave. (photo Wylie Conlon/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)

I’m not sure I’d seen the words “physicist” and “contemplative” in the same sentence many times, much less found them together as descriptors of the same person, before I spoke with Arthur Zajonc on "Holding Life Consciously." (His name reflects his father’s Polish origins, by the way, and rhymes with “science.”) As a professor of physics at Amherst College, his research interests have ranged from the theoretical foundations of quantum physics and the polarity of atoms to the relationship between the sciences and the humanities. He also has a long-time contemplative practice and is a leading figure among academics exploring the relevance of contemplative traditions for higher education. And even when he is discussing elemental questions of science, he is likely to invoke ideas of the 18th-century literary figure Goethe, or the 20th-century scientist/philosopher/educational innovator Rudolph Steiner.

Writing that, I realize how erudite and perhaps abstract it might sound. In fact, being in Arthur Zajonc’s presence is as calming and grounding as it is intellectually intriguing. He has acquired an amazing range of tools across an adventurous 40-year career that explores human knowledge and human being in all their wholeness. Yet his tools and ideas are remarkably accessible — “sensible,” in fact, a word he uses often. He paints a manageable picture of how human life itself — lived fully and held consciously — compels us to integrate qualities of thought and mind that our culture often holds apart. We ourselves and everything around us have an interior as well as an exterior — and we can explore both with due vigor. Life as well as science has both an experiential, intuitive context and an objective, factual basis — and surely we must take all of this seriously if what we are really after is truth that matters and knowledge that serves.

Arthur Zajonc finds a favorite example of this layered nature of reality in the elemental substance of light. As we’ve explored a number of times here at On Being, the scientific debate over whether light is a particle or a wave was resolved in the 20th century with the unexpected conclusion that it is both. I’ve always pointed to this as an intriguing example of how contradictory explanations of reality can simultaneously be true — a lesson straight from life that the answers we arrive at depend on the questions we are asking.

But Arthur Zajonc takes this debate and its implications to yet another level. Whether light is a particle or a wave, he points out, is still not the whole story of light; those of us who live in a world of light and darkness live in our experience of it, not in a perception of particles and waves. Goethe defined color, evocatively, as “the deeds and sufferings of light” and insisted that light and color have sensory and moral effect as well as physical properties. And surely it is not insignificant, and also worthy of investigation, that light is a primary spiritual metaphor across the centuries and across traditions.

Rudolf Steiner explored this idea, beginning from a scientific perspective, in the late 19th and early 20th century and has been a formative thinker for Arthur Zajonc. Here again, he is drawn to the integrated approach — and the experiential application of ideas — of Steiner, who founded the Anthroposophical Society in Switzerland, which continues to flourish across the world. Waldorf Schools are probably the best-known fruit of his philosophy. These schools intentionally cultivate the wholeness of the humanity of a child: intellectual, practical, ecological, musical, and spiritual.

Zajonc’s own life experience has been recently reshaped by a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. He has seen the progression of this illness in other members of his family, and so has some understanding of what is ahead. This is at one and the same time a source of grief and a continuation of the adventure Arthur Zajonc has long been on — to explore what holding life consciously means, now with a progressively debilitating condition. He tells me:

"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.

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. Interesting…

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. … So here’s the question I pose to myself. 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. … And I’ll keep you posted as to whether that comes out all right or not.”