An idea that I have been thinking about recently is that Earth is a living, breathing body. So are we humans living, breathing bodies. What does this suggest about the connection between our bodies and the body of the Earth? What does this suggest about our care for the earth?
I had better explain what I mean by saying that the Earth is a living, breathing body. To say that it is a body is to say that it has a material composition and shape. To say that it is breathing is like saying that Earth is alive, just as our human bodies are alive if we are breathing. The planet Earth generates a lot of oxygen and life.
We think of Earth as an inanimate body—a ball of gases that spun off from a star, our sun, settled into its comfortable orbit around our sun, and cooled down. We speak of terra firma—the firm ground. But Earth is not as stable and solid we might think. It has a fiery center of molten rock that erupts through fissures in the earth’s crust. We experience this as volcanic eruptions. Earth’s crust floats on this hot molten interior and moves around as tectonic plates. We experience the collision of plates as earth quakes. Earth has a vast supply of surface water that, at least away from the polar regions, doesn’t freeze. Some of this water is absorbed into the atmosphere as clouds and we experience it as rain. The air we breath is not nothing; it is a gas. And the movements of Earth, combined with changes in atmospheric pressure and surface contours, causes a stirring of the air that we experience as wind. Here are the four elements that the ancients proposed in their cosmology and reflected on: earth, fire, water, and wind. The ancient Indians added space or ether to their cosmology as a fifth element. Now we know that space is not an emptiness through which objects move, as Newton thought. Rather, it is the gravitational field, as Einstein proposed.
This fluid Earth has all the ingredients of life and it has produced life abundantly—all the life celebrated in the first chapter of Genesis. Theories of evolution have given us a different picture and a longer timetable for the emergence and development of life than the theological statements in Genesis 1. But roughly from single-cells to multi-celled plants and animals, from watery depths to swamps to land, from swimming and crawling to walking, life has sprung forth from Earth. Some of us would affirm that however it evolved it is by the creative word of God and for God’s good pleasure. God pronounced this life-filled world as “very good.” At the apex of this creative process came humankind, created in the image of God (Genesis 1:24)—but from the earth itself (Genesis 2:8). There is nothing in Earth, or in Earth’s star, our sun, that, materially speaking, is not in our bodies. Well do we call our planet “Mother Earth.”
We humans, created by the mind and will of God, are of the same substance as Earth. But precisely because we are created in the image of God, we are each endowed with a soul (psyche, a unique personality) that our parent planet and grandparent star lack. Whether other sentient creatures have a soul is debatable. However, eco-philosopher David Abram, in Becoming Animals : an earthly cosmology (New York: Vintage Books, 2010), proposes that we share “mind” with other animals and perhaps even with Earth. He defines “mind” as awareness of ourselves and our surroundings. Traditional peoples also believed that plants as well as animals, and Earth itself, have awareness.
Ancient peoples lived in a closer relationship with the earth than do we modern Western and Westernized peoples. We made an erroneous theological presumption that subduing Earth and having dominion over it made it ours to exploit for our own, exclusively human, purposes instead of managing it as stewards for God’s purposes . Science, too, took a detached approach toward the study of Earth that goes back to the Cartesian separation of mind from body. The primary dichotomy in Descartes’ philosophy was actually the division between the mind and the whole material world.
Now Gaia theory undoes these age-old presumptions. It holds that organic life is reciprocally entangled with the most inorganic parameters of earthly existence, thus complicating any facile distinction between living and non-living aspects of our world. It shows that Earth’s organisms collectively influence their environment so thoroughly that the planet’s oceans, soils, atmosphere, and surface geology together exhibit behavior more proper to a living physiology. We are all—plants, animals, humans, and Earth itself—part of a single biosphere.
We find ourselves in an unprecedented (at least in human history) environmental crisis with the effects of climate change threatening our way of life. We look for ways big and small to deal with it. Most of us are not in a position to enact major changes in how we live on the earth, and even governments have been slow to deal with these issues. So we find little ways to correct and undo damage we that we have collectively inflicted on Mother Earth. Little projects to clean and protect the environment, undertaken by more and more people as well as by some corporations, could collectively help to restore a great deal of what has been devastated by human disregard for our environment. But I have come to think that the most important thing we can do is reconnect with Mother Earth as her loving children.
Experiencing the Natural World
David Abram suggests that we humans need to develop a sensibility to Earth and its sensual effects on us—for example, the way its features cast shadows—and identify with the other animals and plants and with Earth itself—as traditional people have done.
Icelandic pastor and mountain climber Thorgrimur Danielsson doing crane pose on an Icelandic volcanic mountain.
We need to be experiencing the Earth’s body in our own bodies. We need to get in touch with the Earth’s living, breathing body by getting in touch with our own living, breathing bodies. We need to breathe the air into our lungs, feel the warmth of the sun on our skin, feel the earth under our feet by walking unshod, smell the foliage around us which tickles our nostrils, and hear the chirping of the birds and the rustle of the small mammals in the leaves that sends little vibrations into our ears. As Simon Thakur, teacher of yoga, body movement, and meditation, says:
The current human disconnection from the natural world starts with our disconnection from our own bodies, which we as a culture inherited – to a degree that most of us generally don’t quite acknowledge the extent of our inability to feel our own bodies.”
Yoga is one way of reconnecting with our bodies. Ancient yoga itself had a connection with the natural world that has been passed on to us. Consider all the poses that are named after plants and animals (e.g. lotus, tree, cobra, dolphin, etc.). In his “Ancestral Movement” practices, Simon Thakur notes that humans humans were exploring physical movement in imitation of animals for survival long before recorded history and these movements are part of our collective embodied memory.
We can feel our own bodies better if we are reconnecting with the nature of which we are a part—feeling on our skin the warmth of the fiery sun, the coolness of water, the hardness of the earth that supports us in space, the breezes that evaporate the sweat of our brows and breathe in as life-sustaining oxygen, the spaces we inhabit (the five yoga elements). We need to enjoy being in the natural world and feel ourselves as a part of it We are not likely to exploit and degrade what we enjoy and care about.
Photo of dancer doing yoga pose in a natural setting by Swedish-born, London-based photographer Bertil Nilsson.
Moreover, it turns out that physically touching the earth in our bare skin has health benefits for us. The naturopathic physician Dr. Daniel Chong wrote:
When you touch the earth with your skin or through material that does not insulate you from its energy field (grounding or “Earthing”), you literally absorb electrons from its surface into your body. This process has many powerful effects on you, the details of which we have only recently begun to understand.
It is energizing to walk barefoot through the grass or lie on the beach or find a secluded natural place where we can sit on the naked earth meditating in the presence of the One who created us in a naked state.
We are coming to a new awareness of ourselves as bodily creatures. Indeed, this is the age of the body. The concept of “embodiment” permeates all fields of human endeavor. By embodiment I mean that our connections with the world comes from having a body with sensorimotor capacities that are embedded in biological, psychological, cultural, and historical contexts. This is especially important for Christian meditation with its incarnational theology.
In this connection I have derived much benefit from reading Reginald A. Ray, Touching Enlightenment: Finding Realization in the Body (Boulder: Sounds True, 2008, 2014). A Buddhist teacher of meditation, Ray has developed an earth meditation in which we experience becoming part of the earth in our own bodies. This meditation consists of visualizing ourselves dissolving into the earth beneath us, going down, down, down—5 feet, 10 feet, 20 feet, 50 feet, 100 feet, 1,000 feet, 1 mile, 5 miles etc. Or we could imagine ourselves sinking down through the various geological layers under us. The object of our meditation could be to reflect Earth as our home. From its dirt we were created and to that dirt we shall return. As we sit in lotus position, our perineum—the earthiest part of our bodies—makes contact with Earth itself.
Yoga and the Environmental Movement
Millions and millions of people around the world are practicing yoga. Yoga focuses on the body, and it increasingly recognizes the relationship between the body and the earth. But as Canadian yoga teacher and philosopher Matthew Remski has pointed out, yoga historically has an anti-social heritage, and when modern Western people come to the practice it’s often a retreat from the everyday world in which we feel trapped. Faced with enormous and sometimes intractable challenges in the worlds around us—the worlds of politics and culture as well as nature—, we get on our yoga mats to retreat within, to claim a calm we cannot find in daily life.
Yet the history of yoga also shows instances of counter-cultural activism, involvement in politics (all those naked warrior yogis serving Indian kings), and much collective wisdom about the ways of the world that impact our bodies and minds. The yoga business (for that’s what it has become) has not (yet) developed means of engaging in social activism, but it can at least impact our attitudes about life and the way we relate to our earthly environment.
Earth Day yoga class at Fort Hays State University in Kansas
Before we humans settled into a sedentary life, now sitting for hours in front of a computer screen, and needing to go to the gym to lift weights and work out on cardiovascular machines, we built physical strength the natural way by walking, running, jumping, climbing, lifting, pulling, and doing manual labor outdoors. We tuned our bodies to do what we needed to do to live in the natural world.
So much of our modern life, and what we do with our own bodies, is disconnected from the natural world. We need to put our bodies into motion in nature—hiking, climbing a rock or a tree, digging in the garden, at least mowing the lawn. I think experiencing a connection between our bodies and the natural world is the beginning of developing a sense of stewardship for the creation, which is the task our Lord God gave to us “in the beginning.”
Pastor Frank Senn
Yogi Patrik Bitter of Essen, Germany in Tree pose