The Pain of Separation

This week’s reflection, by Bart Everson, explores the illusion of separation and how this can be a source of suffering. This piece was originally published for the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society and includes an expanded walkthrough of the breath holding exercise sparked by ecologist Dan Fiscus and first mentioned in this set of meditative exercises. I encourage you to give it a try!

Go with Gaia,

Erik

We have imagined ourselves separate: from each other, and from the Earth. This delusion has many consequences that are very real indeed, as we have separated ourselves into tribes, races, sects, and nation-states. Especially painful is the exploitation that the delusion has been used to justify. The cruel enslavement of human beings is one sin committed under a doctrine of separateness; the rapacious extraction of resources from the natural world is another.

I’d like to be clear about who “we” are. Not everyone has fallen prey to this delusion. I don’t wish to exacerbate the very divides that I decry, yet some distinctions are necessary. When I use the first person, I’m referring to what is sometimes called the West, or the Global North. I’m referring to a worldview that was hatched in Europe but has spread around the world.

There’s some truth to any delusion, of course, and our most powerful delusions contain powerful kernels of truth. There are indeed many differences across humanity. There are many differences between humanity and other species. Each difference is a learning opportunity to be celebrated. We’ve emphasized and exaggerated them in the drive for differential advantage and exploitation. Great power has obviously derived from that emphasis. Yet all these differences become trivial when viewed from the proper perspective. And the world is crying out for that proper perspective.

The facts make it plain. We have entered an age of multiple interlocking ecological catastrophes, even as we stand again on the brink of nuclear apocalypse, to say nothing of America’s ongoing reckoning with a long-deferred and long-denied quest for racial justice. All of it is predicated on separations that should never have been made in the first place, separations which became wounds, wounds which now fester.

It’s the illusion of separation that sustains our suffering. (Image of The Soyuz TMA-12M rocket launching, 2014, courtesy of NASA)

It has often seemed to me that all pain has its origin in separation. Every painful event in my life has been a separation of one kind or another, from the falling away of my childhood faith to the recent death of my sister. Perhaps you’ve felt the same way. Our private pain can be difficult to bear. Even this notion is predicated on conceptions of separateness: that your pain is separate from mine, that I am separate from you.

There is another way to look at it all, a healing and a unitary vision, a perspective that emphasizes our solidarity and radical interdependence.

There are stores of ancient philosophy and Indigenous wisdom that surely apply here, and we need it now more than ever. What has particularly resonated with me, what I have found needful and necessary as we move through this alienated era, are the teachings of Earth system science and Gaia theory.

I hasten to add that I am not a scientist! I struggle, sometimes, to understand the details of the science in its own right. Nevertheless, as important as that is, there are extrapolations of a general nature that are even more crucial, and which can be taken to heart even by a layperson like myself.

Chief among these lessons is the understanding that there is no separation between humanity and nature. Just as evolutionary biology reveals that there is truly only one race—the human race—so ecological science reveals we are all a part of Gaia. I understand Gaia to be a metaphor for the coevolutionary, interconnected, planetary ecosystem.

As far as I know, virtually every culture of the world has revered and personified the Earth as the source and sustainer of life. The European-style alienation from nature is a fairly recent phenomenon, a mere blip in the historical record, but a blip with great historical consequences. It’s become clear that we need to change our way of living if we are to sustain any kind of life at all. As an intellectual exercise, that’s simple logic, but the emotional reality can be difficult to grasp. In fact, for many, it’s an absolute showstopper. We need practices that foster a unitary vision, that connect our hearts to Mother Earth. The intellectual and political struggles will find their renewal there.

It’s all connected: what we do, how we live, what we eat, all of it. (Visualization of Methane releases from all sources: fossil fuels, agriculture, land use, etc. Image by NASA.)

Breath-Holding Practice

Breathe deeply, drawing richly-oxygenated air into your lungs, feeling the life-giving oxygen entering your bloodstream and flowing through your veins.

When you feel fully oxygenated, after five or six deep breaths, inhale as deeply as ever and then hold your breath.

While holding your breath, repeat to yourself these words: “I am separate from Gaia.”

Try to believe it.

As your need to breathe increases, lean into that assertion of your separateness, your independence, your proud autonomy.

When at last you are forced to draw breath again, admit the falsity of this premise. Acknowledge that you are, in fact, utterly dependent on Gaia.

The atmosphere not only sustains life but is produced by life.

That’s right: the air we breathe is maintained in its current beneficent proportions by the myriad actors and agents that comprise Gaia.

Repeat this process four or five times, then rest in gratitude.

The Thin Blue Line that connects us completely with Gaia. (Image from NASA.)

Bart Everson helped found the Green Party of Louisiana as well as Friends of Lafitte Greenway, the Earth-Based Spirituality Action Team of Citizens’ Climate Lobby, the Earth-Centered Special Interest Group of POD Network, the Greater New Orleans Interfaith Climate Coalition, and the Crescent City Gaian Guild. He is the author of Spinning in Place: A Secular Humanist Embraces the Neo-Pagan Wheel of the Year. He ran for New Orleans City Council At-Large in 2021. More at BartEverson.com.

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