Where’s Gaia? Meditation on a Modern Kōan

The Earth is never still, nor any place on it. The conception in some Hindu and Buddhist teachings that the world is maya, illusion, has never resonated with me except in this one sense: “Up” and “down,” the “rising” of the Sun, the “unmoving” ground on which we perch – all these are indeed illusions.

It’s almost as if Gaia is a jealous god, so constructing our consciousness that we never feel the Earth’s diurnal rotation and so experience it as an infinitely flat expanse, the stable ground below, the dome of sky above—in short, our entire world. Today we know rationally that there’s a universe “out there,” through which our solar system and galaxy weave and dance. But we still feel day to day that this Earth, dependably stationary, is all there really is.

Where’s Gaia? Can you find the blue marble in this image? (Image from DALL-E with modifications by Erik Assadourian)

We can’t experience the rotation of the Earth with our five senses. While we and everything around us are racing at hundreds of miles an hour due east along a curved path, there’s nothing to compare our speed to. Constant speed means no sense of acceleration or deceleration. It all seems so . . . still.

Yet, as many Hindus and Buddhists know, there are other senses beyond the five. Might there be one that helps us experience at least one quotidian category of the Earth’s movement, its daily rotation? Are there senses that could allow us to experience or least to picture where we really live, on the surface of a round ball wobbling through a cosmos whose expanse and lifespan humans are only beginning to fathom?

I’m sure I’m not alone these days in finding solace in the heavens. Beyond the atmosphere there’s no global warming. While humans have probed nearby planets and littered the Moon and the near-Earth orbits with space junk, we can hardly do much to most of the planets and nothing at all to the stars and galaxies. And given that sentience can arise in the Universe—as demonstrated by our own planet’s precious cargo—we can be sure that there is, has been, and long will be an unimaginable diversity of sentient life among the uncountable quadrillions of stars beyond our sky. The clocklike regularity of lunar phases, eclipses, and the dance of the planets will long survive our lives and indeed human existence. Pondering this can combat despair about what humanity is doing today to itself and the rest of Gaia.

There’s Earth! (Image from NASA et al. taken from the surface of Mars in 2014)

Meditating on Our Place in the Universe

Trying to divine, hold, and appreciate all this movement in one’s mind can form a worthy focus for mindfulness. This thought may have first occurred to me some years ago around the time of a summer solstice. Meditating outside at midday, I found myself stuck on the puzzle that the Earth’s axis was pointing north away from my back while the Sun was in the south, shining in my face. And yet the Earth’s north pole is said to be pointed toward the Sun at the northern-hemisphere summer solstice.

“Where is the North Pole pointing when the Sun is in the southern sky?” became a kind of Zen kōan that occupied me for some time. Trying to picture the physical three-dimensional reality (with time as a fourth dimension) of what a solstice or equinox actually is, how the tilted planet moves in relation to its home star at these times, I found myself bringing my long-time fascination with the sky into my meditations.

This synthesis of thought and non-thought has taken several forms over the years. For many months when I was advised to elevate an injured knee I often meditated lying outside on my back. I would attend to my breath while my eyes tried to find and hold the sky’s zenith, the very top of the dome. How many times the speed of light, I often wondered, is this point moving if extended to the edge of the known universe as the Earth rotates? More unanswerable kōans.

With my knee long since returned to health, I still often return to what I call the “zenith gaze.” Now, however, it offers more of a quick aid to serenity (and a helpful antidote to bad screen-bound posture) than a focus of meditation. What has evolved in its place is something I call the “rolling Earth meditation”: a conscious effort to convince myself I can “feel” the ongoing eastward movement of my body in place on Earth. This can be purely imaginative, but there is also a specific technique, unfortunately only available outdoors under clear skies.

Rolling Earth Meditation

During the day, I find a shadow cast by the Sun and fix half-lidded eyes on it as it slowly shifts over a half hour or so. Even more powerful is to meditate in the evening and catch the Moon or a bright planet or star near the bough of a tree. It’s comparable to watching the minute hand on an analog clock trying to catch its movement. But it can work—with an assist, perhaps, from the imagination. The celestial object will appear to have moved a surprising distance relative to the bough in a half hour. It is the spinning Earth that is causing this apparent movement, and at times I can almost sense the actual change in position—my own, along with the planet’s—as it occurs.

Seeing the moon through the trees—and perhaps feeling how we’re moving. (Image from Jules Amé via Pexels)

The broader kōan has become, in effect, “Where’s Gaia?” Helped by a range of tools—compass, star maps and apps, solar eclipse glasses, and conversations with local astronomers—I am working to gain a sense of how the Earth is moving through space in relation to the Sun and to our companion planets. Why is Venus always in less than a full phase when we see it? Why has Jupiter been so bright and high in the sky the last couple years? Why does the Moon “set” in the west daily but move eastward in its monthly round, while the stars in their constellations shift steadily to the west as the seasons progress? I’m striving to visualize the answers to questions like these as I look outward, day or night. But as with all good kōans, the answer to Gaia’s location is ultimately wordless, arrived at (if at all) in a sudden flash of insight.

And what does any of this have to do with Gaia, here “below,” with its desperate need for healing? Briefly, holding the image of a spinning, living sphere moving through a mysterious cosmos around a steadfast life-enabling Sun helps me fends off despair about Gaia’s and humanity’s current predicament. It does this in part by helping me accept the reality of impermanence—my own, humanity’s, the Earth’s, and the Universe’s. At the same time it fortifies my will to make the brief Gaian emanation that is my life helpful and worthwhile.

Robert Engelman is the former president of the Worldwatch Institute, a writer and fiddler.

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3 Responses

  1. ken ingham

    Thanks, Robert, for sharing your interesting attempts to feel the earth’s motion. I can’t wait for the next opportunity to meditate on the moon’s movement through the trees, and translating it into my own movement on the surface of the spinning earth.

    As a child I would sometimes lay down in the back seat of a moving car and watch the trees move by. I also enjoyed laying on the grass and watching the clouds move by and wonder if it was the clouds that were moving or the earth. Occasionally, while waiting for the train I was on to leave the metro station, I have had the sensation that I was moving, when in fact it was the train next to me that was moving in the opposite direction.

    A comment on there being “an unimaginable diversity of sentient life among the uncountable quadrillions of stars.” It’s easy enough to be sure of something that could never be disproved, but the same is true for the existence of God. That’s why I would never claim to be an atheist.

    On the other hand, believing in Gaia is a no brainer. She surrounds me. Whether there are other Gaias, I’m not sure.

    Robert, I loved your characterization of your life as a “brief Gaian emanation.”


  2. Robert Engelman

    Thanks for reading and for your kind comments, Ken. I think we share a view on atheism. I have trouble believing any human understands what’s brought about the existence of anything, let alone our individual consciousnesses. I can’t imagine being certain it’s all just mindless happenstance. It seems a kind of hubris to think our minds could comprehend enough to be sure of such a thing. There seems to be a wisdom in nature that’s hard to believe just stumbled into being, though I can’t be certain that it didn’t. I think we can claim proudly the banner of agnosticism — literally “not knowing,” being content to live with the mystery. The meditations I described help me with acceptance and approciation of the mystery, sometimes leaving me with a sense that it’s likely that all is well, if not actually kind at least not cruel or completely mindless. There’s a nice song by Buddy and Julie Miller that begins “Before the start of all / What brought us to exist? / The mystery of time / From stardust in a kiss.” That captures a sense of it, with a nice melody and harmony, too.

  3. Bart Everson

    Excellent. We’ll do this meditation at our next regular meeting of the Crescent City Gaian Guild. I’ve noticed before that the shadows shift appreciably during the time we sit together, but we’ve never made that the explicit focus of our meditative practice. I’m looking forward to it.

    PS: Perhaps Ken stumbled on that single word, “sure” — being “sure” there’s life elsewhere. Indeed, Robert, in your reply to Ken, you seem to note that you can’t be certain either way. I have to agree. We don’t know for sure. For my part, I’m inclined to think of Gaia as a solitary anomaly in this universe, until proven otherwise. But, of course, I don’t know for certain. That’s one thing of which I am sure! And ultimately, while it’s fascinating to speculate, I don’t think our differing inclinations change much in terms of our relation to Gaia and each other, or in terms of the lives we lead and the actions we take on a daily basis, or even the reverence we feel when gazing upon a green leaf or the starry sky.

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