Religions succeed by codifying behavior. Routines, rules, prohibitions, and expectations make daily living clearer, simpler, and more meaningful. For example, if one’s religion proclaims don’t eat shellfish, one tends not to eat shellfish. And if I grew up in that tradition, that means I probably never even tried it, and therefore never miss or even crave it. At one time there might have been a good reason for that taboo (e.g. disease), even if no longer. And yet, this restriction remains part of the Jewish faith.
But the secret is that these codes are ultimately contrived. Someone came up with this rule—whether divinely inspired or just inspired. And thus these rules are ultimately somewhat flexible. Many good Mormons still drink caffeine and many good Muslims still eat pork. Of course, they probably wouldn’t order coffee or BBQ ribs with their respective friends. And they might feel a bit conflicted about breaking these rules. But not fully embracing all codes doesn’t nullify one’s self-identification with a religious group or ability to be a good person of faith.
With that said, it’s time to start adding codes to Gaianism, with the recognition that while the goal is to unify practices—so that a community can form—all of the practices are constructed and therefore malleable. That ultimately is how this effort even started. Reading Dana Meadows’ “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System,” along with my studies of anthropology, made it clear that cultural patterns are not set: they can be modified, new ones can be cultivated, and in the process, we can find a better path than the one we’re on. There are even applied anthropologists employed to proactively shift dangerous cultural practices (and unfortunately many more are employed to get people to buy more consumer goods, expand brands and markets, and to in the process further normalize the consumer cultural path—a very dangerous cultural practice, indeed).
Since last week, when exploring which elements of other religions are worth evolving and replicating, I’ve been reading about the Muslim practice of Salah (praying five times each day—one of the five pillars of Islam), and offer this reflection and evolution:
Let’s start with this fantastically concise BBC article. As it points out, salah (which starts as young as seven):
- Sets the rhythm of the day
- Connects Muslims around the world through a shared practice
- Unites the body, soul, and mind* through a series of physical movements (and the corollary to this is that these prayers should be done mindfully or not done at all)
- And finally, is done not for Allah’s benefit but for the adherents’ benefit.
I’d add that such a practice strengthens one’s own commitment as it is daily—unlike a weekly church service or the occasional prayer group or volunteer opportunity. But why five times instead of just a prayer upon rising or before bed? I think the value is that these disrupt the day to a degree—pulling you out of your profane (non-sacred) daily routine; encouraging you to physically move and stretch, reminding you of your faith as you turn to face Mecca, as do the many other ritualized elements of salah (like each of the seven distinct movements one makes) which makes this a much more effective mindfulness practice.
So let’s talk about what a daily Gaian prayer or meditation practice would look like.
First, for simplicity, it would make sense to reduce the number to three: specifically sunrise (or when one first wakes up), solar noon (that is when the sun is at its highest point in its daily journey), and sunset (you can find all three here). This way, we follow and reflect Gaia’s natural daily cycle. Interestingly, in Sunni Islam, adherents are allowed to conflate their five prayers into three sessions, merging the two morning and two evening prayers together. The benefit of this is that this can more easily (but not too easily) be integrated into one’s day. When one wakes, during a lunch break, and when one settles for the evening.**
Second, Gaian meditation should be conducted outside in a natural setting, whether a backyard, park, woods—whatever is accessible using your own body (e.g. no external energy sources) even if that’s just a few potted plants in a concrete courtyard. (Exception: stay inside in dangerous conditions—we’re not talking uncomfortable conditions—go out and get sweaty or rained on if you can. In fact that even more closely aligns you to Gaia’s cycles. But if you are going to get struck by lightning stay safe instead.)
Third, sitting directly on the grass, stone, sand or wherever you are, remove your shoes and socks and connect yourself directly to Gaia. (If you need a piece of cloth to protect work clothes, that’s fine. And if it’s really cold removing footwear is optional.)
Fourth, sit in a meditative position with good posture, and, if so inclined,*** close your eyes (ideally sit in seiza, which in Japanese means “proper sitting,” or cross legged if that’s not possible, or even on the edge of a chair if it is not possible to get to the ground—though if you can, you should work toward that).
Fifth, empty your mind. Do not think about your day. Attend to your surroundings and focus on an aspect of your surroundings: smells, sounds, and even get more specific. Some days just focus on sounds up high or sounds down low. High-frequency sounds, low-frequency sounds, and so on. Use this as a means to focus on the present and not on your thoughts, and to connect with Gaia and the greensong around you, though if this gets distracting simply focus on your breath and on emptying your mind.
There is significant research on the many benefits of meditation, from reducing stress and controlling anxiety to enhancing self-awareness and improving emotional health, to increasing kindness, and improving sleep.
Try to start with a 10 minute meditation, though even 5 minutes is fine (salah generally lasts 3-7 minutes, though with ritual washing beforehand it goes longer). In the beginning, or if time stressed, set an alarm—that way you don’t keep thinking about/looking to see if you’re finished.
For the midday meditation you may want to do an active meditation—a slow walking meditation, yoga, tai chi, or the karate equivalent of jufu (gentle wind), all of which emphasize breathing. Especially if you’ve been sitting in an office all morning, a moving meditation may be ideal (though if you have a physical job, a sitting meditation may be better for you).
Sixth, at the end of your:
Morning Meditation: think about how you will best serve Gaia today—and remind yourself throughout the day of that plan. It’s easy to get off track as we respond to what the day brings, whether emails, cravings, colleagues, or kids.****
Midday Meditation: reflect on how you’ve served Gaia so far today—and how you’ve interacted with others—with kindness? Shortness of temper? Reinforce these if they’re going well, or course-correct, if they have gone off track.
Evening Meditation: In the evening: reflect on the positive things that happened in the day and offer gratitude for them and to Gaia for giving you another day as a conscious part of creation (as opposed to when you return to Gaia and are no longer conscious).
Of course, while sunrise, noon, and sunset are the suggested timing for these meditations, when you do them is flexible (see the beginning of this essay). If it’s easier for you to do a meditation when you first wake up, then go outside and meditate. If it’s easier to do so on your way to work, fine. Lunch break at 2pm? Then do your midday meditation then. I found one article that interviewed a Muslim surgeon who prayed either before or after surgery if surgery times conflicted with salah, explaining, “I don’t care if this goes against what some scholars say, I feel very comfortable with how I approach prayers.” Obviously. All of culture is constructed. But this is a constructed practice that could improve your daily awareness, well-being, connection and commitment to the Earth, and your focus on all the good things that happen in your life. So why not give it a try? (And if you do, after a week or two, post your reflection in the comments below on how it’s working for you, how you’ve changed it, and how it could be improved.)
*Martial arts incorporates this same focus on uniting the body, mind, and spirit—especially through the proper use of breath and movement. It’s a powerful approach.
**And if you work at night then the cycle is simply reversed—starting with sunset, then the midday prayer falling on the inverse of solar noon (not when the moon crosses the meridian as that varies greatly from day to day), and finally sunrise.
***I was asked if closing your eyes is necessary. It’s not. If closing your eyes helps focus your meditation and/or heightens your connection to Gaia through utilizing often underused senses then do it. If keeping your eyes open allows you to watch the fractal patterns of leaves or the ripples on water and heightens the meditative experience then do that.
****Thanks to Dahr Jamail for that important insight: “So each morning, I awake and engage in my morning practice, part of which is pondering what I shall do each day to serve Earth and all her species. When I approach my life from this perspective, no matter how bleak the future appears, I always have work to do and services to perform.”