On How Gaians are Embodied to their Core

This past weekend I had the great pleasure of joining a conference on “Myth, Ritual and Practice for the Age of Ecological Catastrophe” in Potsdam, Germany. While I tend to second-guess my attendance of conferences (mainly because of carbon considerations), this was one that will influence me in the years to come.

This is not the essay where I discuss all the cool ideas and initiatives I learned about (stay tuned for that!), but one where I focus on a specific thread that ran throughout the conference and helped better clarify some of my own practices, understandings, and intentions with the Gaian Way: namely, that we are embodied beings.

In most religions, and even in most secular views of the world, there is a continuing understanding that there is a separation between mind and body (how else can so many areligious folk believe in an afterlife, ghosts, or reincarnation?). This is not the place to go through that history, or its Cartesian legacy, but its discussion at the conference (both directly and indirectly) helped me better recognize this ongoing tension, and realize the unique perspective Gaianism offers.1

We are embodied beings, to our very cores. (Image via Pixabay)

But first, some meditative insights

At the conference there were several experienced meditators present. One I chatted with had meditated for over 30 years and pointed out that in his community, dawn and dusk are seen as an auspicious time to meditate—both because of the shifts in light (and the natural cycles these bring) as well as this is when we start up and wind down our day’s activities). That alone felt like a good sign that the Gaian way of meditating at morning, noon, and evening was a good path to be following.

Another, whose work is to actually draw connection between individuals’ inner transformative practices (such as yoga or meditation) and their system-transformative practices (activism, governance, etc.) made some particularly interesting points. In a panel presentation, she noted that “contemplative practices help us disconnect from unconscious patterns that replicate the problems and patterns we’re locked into.” She also raised the question of how do we translate the presence/quality/awareness of the ‘moment after meditation’ into normal daily life? A key question—and one that reinforces the deep value of meditation (and one that I imagine becomes increasingly answerable rather than aspirational the more years one meditates!).

But where I realized there was a divergence is when she led a morning meditation and told us that we are beings of light. Perhaps that’s true in a quantum reality—where even space may be illusory—but for me, it didn’t resonate. Indeed, it rang out like the bell that a meditation teacher once intentionally dropped on the floor while the class meditated. An intentional cacophonous event that taught a deeper lesson: in this case that we are embodied to our core.

We are embodied beings

For me, it seems obvious (and uncontroversial) that we are our bodies. Not just our brains, but the interactions between multiple human and non-human systems that guide us through the day. Of course that includes our brains (often at speeds beyond conscious thought—consciousness, after all, may often just be the rationalization of unconscious action). But it also means the other locales of action: our physical bodies (seen often in “muscle memory” and proprioception); our autonomic nervous system; our microbiomes, which may guide us far more than we recognize; and similarly our other clusters of neurons, like our ‘gut-brain.’2 It is not difficult to see how these are suppressed and the thinking agent in our heads allowed to dominate/narrate as mind or spirit (and even overrule wiser loci of action). However, that separation can (and I argue does) cause problems in understanding. And to reunify these is a great opportunity (and perhaps a realm of Gaian philosophy).

But first what many will see as a downside of embodiment: the end of life at the end of life. Being corporeal means we return to Earth and make up the life of the next generation (without consciousness). That is frightening for many as I’ve discussed before, but can be deeply liberating and joyful as well.3

Once we break out of the myth that our minds are separate from our bodies, it becomes apparent that we are the same as all other living beings. We are not special, and therefore do not warrant having mastery over other species or over ‘creation.’ In fact, there have been an increasing number of articles recently deepening the understanding of animal and plant consciousness, and even decoding whale language (revealing very clearly humans are not special). We may be on the cusp of a point where we can no longer honestly say we’re unique, except in our ability to ‘other’ other beings and dominate them.

Most tangibly/practically, when we orient ourselves as bodily beings, we can benefit from drawing from the many centers of wisdom in our bodies. Not overly inhabit our heads, but reside in our microbiomes, our bodies, our gut instincts, and so on. Perhaps another reason I value karate so much—as it cultivates bodily awareness and acting/reacting instinctively. Now, I admit, I reside mostly in my head, but this is an invitation to value and develop other forms of knowing and learning (as embodied forms of learning do).4

Knowing you’re embodied can mean drawing the most potential out of our bodies/ourselves. (Image from Mohamed_Hassan via Pixabay)

Joint Presence

Another talk, this one by a cognitive psychologist, explored, from a psychological and physiological perspective, “joint action” (that is to say, actions taken in synergy with other humans, whether sports, dancing, or moving furniture).5 As the speaker noted, much of this coordination is happening non-consciously, in the cerebellum, in the peripheral motor system, etc. But then she went further, exploring joint speech (prayer recital, political or sports chants, even singing the Happy Birthday song) and even “joint presence” where one can simply be jointly present with others, such as walking along a pilgrimage route, which endows it with a deeper meaning than simply hiking.

I can’t do justice to the depth of all this but it reminds us that embodiment makes it all possible. As the speaker noted, young children are instinctively embodied. It’s only after years of training them to be in their heads that they start to reside there. She concluded with a further step: that this joint presence doesn’t come just with other humans, but with non-humans as well. Again, this certainly wouldn’t be a new idea to those in deep relationships with non-human beings in their lands (such as listening to bird calls to know what is happening around them or seeing tracks, scat, or scratches on trees to know who’s nearby), but to recognize that we are jointly present on the land with other species opens us even more to realize that our embodiment extends beyond ourselves. That by attending to the environment around us, we extend our bodies to the larger bodies we’re part of, that of the landscape, and Earth, itself.

Joint action, along with joint presence, in this clifftop yoga class. (Image by janeb13 via Pixabay)

On Being Outside

Being jointly present with the ecoregion one is part of and nested in is a key reason why Gaian meditation should be outside. One won’t develop a relationship and thus won’t develop joint presence with non-humans and Gaia if one meditates inside.

That’s probably where I should conclude, but truthfully, there was so much rich material, that I’ll make one more connection. An urban forestry expert talked about the spiritual values of urban forests. He talked about the many mental and physical health benefits of having accessible green space (not new) and coined a nice rule that could serve as a powerful policy tool for urban planners: 3/30/300. Everyone should be able to see 3 big trees from their home; 30% of their neighborhood should be tree canopy; and they should be within 300 meters of a public green space. While not a big tree, I thought of my friend the river birch, who I meditate with when on my back step. But I can also think immediately of more than three big trees in my field of vision from my home. No doubt these improve my wellbeing while also providing the opportunity for me to be in relationship with other species (serving as habitat as they do) and cultivate joint presence. Being in a completely paved over landscape would make hearing that greensong (perhaps a synonym for joint presence) so much harder.

So, no conclusion needed: but if you really want one: embrace your embodied self, and take it outside and meditate so you can connect with your bigger embodied self, made up of so many other living bodies and the biggest body of all, Gaia.

Nature is your larger body that you can attune to as well. (Image from Valiphotos via Pixabay)


1) One caveat: some readers will find themselves disagreeing with my conclusion. There is much diversity of thought within the Gaian community, and that is good. From diversity comes strength and resilience after all. Gaian Reflections are here to help explore Gaian understandings of the world, and all Gaians are invited to write their perspectives.

2) Some of these may overlap, or I may be neglecting systems altogether—breath for instance. Is this a separate system or guided by the autonomic nervous system. A deeper analysis of the many loci of embodiment could be worthwhile.

3) Just a reminder: the exit from the karmic cycle of rebirth and dissolution of self is the actual goal of Hinduism!

4) This chapter by Melissa Nelson in EarthEd: Rethinking Education on a Changing Planet first exposed me to that term.

5) Here’s the speaker’s definition of Joint Action: “When two or more people coordinate in time to bring about a change in the environment.”

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