What is Green and What is Gaian?

I’m excited to share this week’s reflection by Krista Hiser, professor and convener of the Gaian Guild of Hawai’i. This was sparked by a Gaian Conversation about a year ago in which we briefly explored what a green action is vs. what a Gaian action is. Krista, in her reflection, goes far deeper, conveying some differences while also noting that these aren’t necessarily at odds but can work in parallel or support each other. A really important insight! And I’m very grateful to Krista for exploring this topic.

Go with Gaia,

Erik

Back in 2019, I had to boycott the campus planning committee for Earth Day. It would have been my 15th consecutive year of Earth Month event planning, and I just couldn’t do it again. First I said, sardonically, “every day is Earth Day!” and then I said, seriously, “we should be mourning, not celebrating. There is nothing to celebrate about the failure of environmentalism.” I proselytized the need to recognize the fear, grief, anger, and shame that college age students report.1 

As a faculty member at a public institution of higher learning, academic freedom protects the moral duty I feel to tell students as much of the truth about climate collapse as I can understand, and to use what whatever skills I might have to prepare them for it. We have to talk about this; where better than a college campus?

In my rant to the committee, I vowed that I would attend Earth Day festivities in funereal black. I said I would walk mournfully around the great lawn as clusters of students enjoyed imported fruit smoothies in compostable cups that will never be composted. One colleague agreed with me. She said, “Yes. We should do that for the whole month – Shadow Earth Month!” And thus, our movement of two was born. But 30 days is a lot of black when you live in Hawaiʻi where aloha prints are more the look.

Krista in funereal black in front of a poster of the Sustainable Development Goals in 2019

When people asked us “who died?” we delivered our statement about Shadow Earth Month:

Nobody died, but the Earth is dying. We are wearing black every day in April to raise awareness of environmental grief and climate anxiety. It is a Shadow Earth Month, recognizing the emotions of fear, anger, sadness, and shame. These emotions can be addressed through thoughtful and real conversations about climate change. You are welcome to join us, wear black in April, or just take some time every day to talk to someone about their feelings about climate change.

When 2020 rolled around, of course, we didn’t have the heart for it and then Earth Month moved to Zoom (which, I remind myself frequently, is very far from carbon neutral). Since that month of black I’ve really processed a lot – disappointment and terror, mostly – and learned a lot more about the scope of the predicament (which is the word we use to mean, something that cannot be solved). I have realized that what’s missing from sustainability is simple: spirit.

I went all the way with campus sustainability, and I still appreciate many “green” practices. Sustainability put me on a path toward Gaianism. Gaianism is not a religion, although it fulfills some aspects of a church. Gaianism is an Earth-grounded spiritual philosophy. Gaianism is something you are, and something you do. Gaianism allows the marriage of science and spirituality, something philosophers have discussed for a long time.

In fact, the first transformative environmental book I read was Sex, Ecology, and Spirituality by Ken Wilber, which blew my mind and flipped the switch where first I saw that humans were not “above” nature, but below it and inside it, holonically2 speaking. And in fact, there is no IT!

Wilber’s holons showed me how humans are both included and transcended by nature. Not the other way around. This concept, “include and transcend”, has been a critical scaffold for my thinking about Earth, spirituality, and the state of our world.

We are both included and absolutely transcended by nature. (Image by Mrexentric via Pixabay)

My spiritual path to Gaianism

I was raised by an Athiest and a Baptist who compromised by sleeping in on Sundays, sending me for Saturday night sleepovers and Sunday school with whatever friend would take me. My favorite churches were the Unitarians, who had a zip line, and the Nazarenians, who taught me more geography than I learned at school. I took a Buddhist Philosophy course in college, and have a minor in philosophy. (The only course I ever failed was Kant. I just could not get through Critique of Pure Reason. Maybe this was a good thing.)

Twenty-eight years later, I hosted a cohort of the Ecosattva training from One Earth Sangha.  There were ten of us who followed the curriculum, meditated together, and engaged in discussions. Just as the pandemic was starting, we took the Ecosattva Vows.

The Ecosattva Vows. (From Oneearthsangha.org, cited with permission)

These vows are sacred to me as an “everyday bodhisattva.” Ecosattvas are committed to climate action and consideration of the ethics, justice, morality associated with the accelerating and unevenly distributed impacts of climate change. At the same time, in this training we were learning practical climate coping skills like breathing, sitting still, and listening.

That group became the Gaian Guild of Hawaiʻi, and we continue to meet on the first Saturday of every month. In Gaianism, I found the missing aspects of sustainability, and a community of smart and thoughtful people. Last year, in one of the Gaian discussions, I asked the question: “What is Green, and What is Gaian?” and this essay is the result of my pondering that for a year. I invite you now to ponder with me as you do whatever you do (or don’t do) for Earth Month – and you’re invited to Do Nothing for Gaia on May 12, when Gaians celebrate by giving the planet a day off from resource depletion. Yep, just do nothing: read a book, take a walk, sleep. (It’s much more fun than Shadow Earth Day was.)

So, What is Green, and What is Gaian? 

Notice that I didn’t say “Green vs. Gaian”. Fundamental to the inquiry is the elimination of binary thinking. It’s not a competition, because Gaianism includes and transcends sustainability. Or as Michael Dowd quite awesomely says in one of his Post Doom presentations, “Includes and Dissolves” it.

Gaianism might involve just a small tweak to something you already do. It’s not that you are “adding a spiritual component”. It’s that you’ve woken up to the awareness of who YOU are, and that you have a direct relationship to Gaia. That “you” are included and dissolved in Gaia.

Here are a few ideas that I came up with, with some input from my Gaian friends. You may find yourself connecting with both columns, or with neither. I invite you participate in this inquiry for yourself, by simply noticing your sustainability or eco-minded actions and decisions this month, and ask yourself, “What is Green, and What is Gaian?”

Green Gaian
Celebrates secular western holidays, with an emphasis on reducing waste, and giving meaningful, ecologically sound gifts. Celebrates Earth-based holidays: winter solstice, vernal equinox, summer solstice, equinox, Also known as Keeping the Wheel.
Meditates regularly on a cushion, often with an interior focus, such as a mantra. Meditates for stress reduction and increased mental capacity. Meditates at their sit spot, a nearby place in nature that is visited daily, or as frequently as possible. This meditation also allows for phenological observation: what’s dry? What’s sprouting early? And for marveling with wonder that we are actually part of the Earth. 
Seeks diversity and takes actions to support climate justice.Engages in allyship with Indigenous peoples, while seeking their own ancestral heritage, in order to heal its fracture from earth-based practices. Everybody was once indigenous to some place.   
Drives a Prius while saving up for a Tesla. Uses an electric bike for short trips!    While Gaians may still drive traditional vehicles, they will regularly observe a “sabbath”. This can include a technology sabbath, or a driving sabbath, or both, among other practices of “choosing not to.”
Reduces air travel, or purchases carbon offsets when flying.May naturally reduce air travel out of a sense of place. Gaians may develop a preference to stay near one’s home and community.
Seeks employment with a “green” company or B-corp to align values with energy.Works less, in general.
Invests in green companies.Invests in relationships (social capital).
Eats meals of organic locally sourced vegetables to fuel one’s body in a healthy way.Takes a moment to bless any meal, eating with gratitude.
Eliminates processed foods and eats less.Experiments with periodic fasting with the moon cycle.
Feels tension about conceiving a child, and may decide not to have children.Decides to have just one child or to adopt children.
Has a dog, cat, or other cherished pet.Spends time watching birds, tracking animals. May even hunt, or fish. 
Sees the Earth as resources.Sees Earth as relatives.

I take actions from both columns, every day, and like anyone I also lapse into unconsciousness. (How is it possible that I stay inside staring at this screen and forget that a miracle is occurring on the other side of the wall?) I’m so, so far from eco-perfection (we all are) but just being able to meta-cognate this helps me to touch another way of knowing and being. In addition, I am fortunate to live in Hawaii where Aloha ‘Aina (love of the land)3 is practiced sincerely as a worldview and where I have mentors and models to help me observe my mind and behaviors.

Gaianism arrives as a gasp of insight that comes with the rainbow, or the wind. Or the rain. Or an animal or tree being. Who has not experienced this? What we call “nature” is the core reality that is inside us. Michael Dowd refers to nature as G🌎D.

Holonically, we are inside Earth, which includes and transcends, includes and dissolves. We are part of Gaia, and “going Green”, for me, was the first step to “going Gaian”.

Endnotes

1) See Worry & Hope: What Do College Students Know, Think, Feel and Do about Climate Change.

2) Wikipedia defines a holon as “something that is simultaneously a whole in and of itself, as well as a part of a larger whole.”

3) As Wikipedia defines Aloha ‘Aina: “Its ecological and cultural orientations are founded upon a sense of being connected to all living things. This mutuality between all things exists on many levels: spiritual, social, and the scientific.”

Krista Hiser is the convener of the Gaian Guild of Hawaiʻi. She is a professor at Kapi’olani Community College in Honolulu, Hawaiʻi where she teaches writing, rhetoric, and a course on climate literature. Her favorite Gaian practices are working less, meditating at her sit spot at Waiakeakua, and reading.

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9 Responses

  1. Liz Connor

    I became a Gaian in the late 1990s after first reading ‘EarthDance’ (by Elisabet Sahtouris). That’s where I was introduced to holons, and to so much more. At the time I was studying online for a Masters Degree in Applied Science: Social Ecology, from the University of Western Sydney.

    At our first residential session, a few other students and I prepared a presentation to the group based on our grief at the decreasing biodiversity all around us, largely inspired by Joanna Macy’s earth-shattering poem (for me at least), ‘The Bestiary’ (first published in 1991, in ‘World as Lover, World as Self’). But we were shocked to discover that most of our fellow students were unmoved, or rather moved to scorn, by our expressed grief! It was then that I began to realise the difference between being ‘green’ and being a Gaian.

    NB I have also just discovered another earth-shattering Bestiary, ‘The Book of Barely Imagined Beings: A 21st Century Bestiary’ by Caspar Henderson, & Golbanou Moghaddas (Illustrator), conceived by Henderson after reading ‘The Book of Imaginary Beings’ by Luis Borges, and suddenly thinking that many real animals are stranger than imaginary ones, and perhaps it was time to record them before they became extinct from our thoughtless global culture.

    It’s a weighty tome and I’ve only scratched the surface – but that’s enough for me to have identified Henderson as a fellow Gaian. Our scarcity makes it all the more important to recognise each other once we make contact, (even when it’s a one-way contact in this case).

    • Erik Assadourian

      Thank you Liz! An excellent point about the importance of recognizing and reaching out to other Gaians–a Gaian practice in itself no doubt! I just looked up The Book of Barely Imagined Beings–I will see if my local library has it! And rereading Macy’s The Bestiary just now reminds me of the importance of Lost Species Day, which I think feels like a natural Gaian holiday (a somber one).

      Best,

      Erik

  2. Brannon

    Krista, fantastic reflection, particularly the Green and Gaian list – I’ll be using that in some of my classes. Your students are lucky to have you. Do you incorporation this type of material in your courses? I’ve started doing it and the response has actually been positive, particularly in the sustainability science courses. I used Erik’s idea for forest breathing and then incorporated some Gaianism in two courses and students indicated it was the best way to get them to deeply reflect on the concept of human sustainability.

    • Krista

      Thank you Brannon. No, I have never (yet?) shared Gaianism, nor Ecosattva practices in a classroom. In fact this is my first public sharing of a spiritual nature. The list was fun to create and really made me think and stimulated some great conversations with friends I consulted — I think students would enjoy the inquiry.

  3. Catherine Folio

    A innermost reflection. Krista. Thank you for sharing it with us, Erik.

    Erik asks, just under the Ecosattva Vows, How do you live sacredly with Earth everyday?

    I first peek out my blinds every morning to see if Gaia is “up” yet? Then, no matter her mood, I go outside, face the east, smile, throw out my arms and say “Good morning, Gaia! To you and all your species!” Then I stand, reveling in the cool breeze (or wind, these days!), the dawn colors, the smells of water and greenery, and the songs of the birds, feeling I am one with it all once more. These moments, at dawn, and throughout the day, into the evening and the night, remind me of where and who I really am in the cosmos, on and in the planet of my birth. And I greatly honor that with every acknowledgement of Gaia in and around me. These moments remind me to dedicate another day to my personal stewardship of the planet in any way I possibly can. The moments remind me to share the care of Gaia with as many people as I can during the day, especially my environmental students. They need to learn how to assist Gaia in all her many forms, to honor and to steward her life forces. And to show others by their actions how to care in the ways the planet appreciates it. It only takes a moment, every time I step outside, to stop and breathe deeply, to look and hear, to smell and touch, and remind myself how to do things as best I can for this beautiful planet which sustains me.

    I was brought up believing that actions speak louder than words. Would that we should all stop speaking hominid and start speaking Gaian.

    • Healing Hawk

      Is the ecological concept of a niche where we assist “Gaia in all her many forms?” I think it’s where we learn to do no harm with unconscious behavior in Gaia’s system.

      Right now, Gaia needs help, and the best thing we can do now is to learn how to help Gaia and teach others how to do it, too. I think being a teacher now is like standing in the crucible from which ecologically literate humans emerge. I see why teachers are long-time targets of fascist oppression financed by the very rich. My two best teachers in a “separate but equal” White high school in the Old South got me through Vietnam, resisting the war – in the war zone – all the way. They taught me higher principles than the Navy did, and they said, “Aim high.” so I did, and still do. I didn’t ever think, “maybe I ought not do this.” I organized a base camp against the war. They sent me home with an honorable discharge. I did what the brass thought was impossible. It was. I just happened to organize the right people first, without knowing it. Gaia? The US military ruined Vietnam’s ecology with bombs and Agent Orange. Now they’re spending billions of dollars off the books a month to fix it.

      What I’m doing now is convincing people that this beautiful planet has already stopped sustaining life in many, too many, places. There are millions of climate refugees, some of them at US borders – fascist borders, not “our” borders, but thousands have already died escaping Africa, with shocked, starving people leaving the places their people had lived for thousands of years in leaky boats crossing the Mediterranean Sea, standing up all the way. After the water and food are gone, choice runs away.

      We need to teach others, but we should organize groups and work in Gaia’s behalf, too, to teach people to grow food and keep it secure and thrive in the famine the guy who taught me about global warming in 1996, in Houston (he was a physics professor at UH) said we’d have in the US as part of global warming. Everything he said would happen either has or is. It turned out that “global warming” was too easy to understand (a 5th grader could log it and do the math), so Republican market researcher Frank Luntz got all Republicans talking about climate change instead because few people know about it, let alone understand it.

      In Vietnam, the Viet Cong were school teachers during the days and VC fighters at night, and they and the NVA, (North Vietnam Army) kicked the US military out of Vietnam. In guerrilla war operations, you don’t have to stay out all night every night, as long as “the enemy” thinks you do.

      But are we going to save something we can’t celebrate? Gaia’s a fit object to celebrate and worship, I think.

  4. Erik Assadourian

    What a wonderful practice, Cathy. Thanks for sharing it!

  5. Healing Hawk

    This piece of work, and the commentary, are, in my opinion, very good, and I have no objection to any of it. I found it all interesting and astute and I was immediately glad I’d read it. My exact truth wasn’t apparent, but I think it’s there in the will to know Gaia. I celebrate that will.

    In Alcohol Counselor Training, about 1988, one of the teachers in a class called Relapse Prevention said, “We’re not an “I,” we’re a “we.” We, to me, is like Simard’s micorrhizae, holding things together by serving needs unlikely to be met otherwise, especially the communication factor of it. The “I” remains inscrutable to me, but the “we” is around me all the time in what Fritjof Capra called the web of life, I think, that holds life together. Significant work. That’s Gaia, to me, making homeostasis as best she can at this stage of her history gone bad.

    My practice of core shamanism takes place in Gaia’s web, in the connections that are what spirituality is about, to me. AA said to stay sober – happily sober, they said in ACT – we had to find our own Higher Power and learn all we could about it, and we had to learn to love ourselves unconditionally.

    In America, mental illness is a character defect, so loving myself unconditionally was/is a tough process. It’s still one of my most fragile places. The best thing is to go to the river down the hill about 2 or 3 hundred yards, the forest where we used to live, or just pick a deer path and walk into Heartwood Habitat, where Gaia has not been too much diluted, and bring connections with her to consciousness, and feel renewed, ready to engage again.

    A large part of staying engaged is not taking personally behavior toward me that comes from a judgement of a flaw in my character. I need to love myself, and not take on someone else’s judgement. Discernment is about judging, so I do it a lot, too, just principles instead of personalities. When I’m having trouble – like Sandy, my sweet wife, dying March 20 – my behavior doesn’t satisfy me, and I want to withdraw and stay home where everyone loves me unconditionally. None of them are human, now that Sandy’s gone.

    Sandy woke up that Sunday when the hospice nurse came in, said, “I’m going to heaven now,” and died. I woke up, the nurse called me, and she told me how Sandy died. I cried big-time, but I was glad she was out of that body that had failed her, too. Her 17 year old cat isn’t at acceptance. He’s having a hard time, and he knows I know he is, so he wants to be in my lap all the time. So he’s on my lap or sleeping on Sandy’s pillow in bed. We miss her together and bond in the process, and somehow we know it.

    In my novel in progress, every living thing has a soul, and every soul who beholds another soul and wills communication can communicate, if the other is an alligator or a butterfly or a micorrhizae. It’s not verbal, not sounds. It’s thoughts somehow expressed. I think Sandy and I could communicate like that when we couldn’t, any other way. We didn’t talk. We touched each other and held eye contact and all the stuff that had come between us went away. She’s the only person that’s happened with. If she’s not an angel now, there aren’t any.

    I think Gaia is in the will to communicate, to connect.

    So I don’t know yet if I’m a Gaian, but what it’s said to be on the website is what I want.

    And, soon, I’ll organize a chapter in Wimberley, TX. Some training needs to happen, then I’ll get to work, the first social endeavor I’ve taken on since hep C took me down so the VA could fix me and I could let go of what Baptist doctors from Baylor laid on me: people with PTSD were gaming the system for a pension. There’s intense stuff between dying people and their healers. And then there are those who remain in the darkness of belief in hatred. I find it in everyone who helps me there. I make a spiritual, Gaian connection almost every time I go down there. I think I have a rich life, but I don’t have much money. That pension is Republican government sized. The web of life remains sacred.

    • Erik Assadourian

      Thanks Tommy. A beautiful point on how all in this sacred web of life connect and want to draw out your powerful point:
      “I think Gaia is in the will to communicate, to connect.” Wow.

      Looking forward to the day when there’s a Gaian Guild in Wimberly!

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