Gaia In Our Hearts
Free of birth or destruction, of time or space, of form or condition, is the Void. From the eternal Void, Gaia danced forth and rolled Herself into a spinning ball. She molded mountains along Her spine, valleys in the hollows of Her flesh.A rhythm of hills and stretching plains followed Her contours. From Her warm moisture She bore a flow of gentle rain that fed Her surface and brought life. Wriggling creatures spawned in tidal pools, while tiny green shoots pushed upward through Her pores. She filled oceans and ponds and set rivers flowing through deep furrows. Gaia watched Her plants and animals grow. In time she brought forth from her womb six women and six men… — Charlene Spretnak, Lost Goddesses of Early Greece: A Collection of Pre-Hellenic Myths
As far back as Paleolithic times ancient peoples fashioned clay and stone images of the Great Mother, images with voluptuous breasts and thighs and the protruding belly of a woman who has given birth many times. Her face is often featureless and her head tiny, but her body is full and soft, the essence of fertility and nurturance. Over the course of time the Great Mother was honored and worshipped by virtually every culture.
As human beings became more sophisticated, the Great Mother Goddess became more complex. She was innocent maiden, loving mother, and wise crone. She was raging warrior and powerful destroyer. She inspired both love and fear. She was a source of comfort and solace, retribution and destruction. Her different aspects (or qualities) were given many names in many places: Isis, Demeter, Ishtar, Lilith, Hecate, Astarte, Freya, Shakti, Morrigan, Kali, Oya, Kerridwin, Hestia, Spider Woman. Gaia is the name the ancient Greeks gave to the Mother Goddess who gave birth to all creation. A temple in Athens adjoining the Parthenon, the Erechtheion, was dedicated to her. Today Gaia, the Earth aspect of the Great Goddess, is reemerging in human consciousness. Whether we believe that the Earth IS the body of the Goddess or simply think of Gaia as a metaphor, an ancient myth with modern implications, isn't important. What is important is the impact of Gaian consciousness on how we see and feel the world.
In the 1960s and 1970s, James Lovelock was researching the possibility of life on Mars for NASA. At the time, the assumption was that the requirements for life on Mars would be the same as for life on Earth so experiments were designed to test Martian soils "for chemicals whose presence would indicate life at work.." After a while, Lovelock questioned his basic assumption. "How can we be sure that the Martian way of life, if any, will reveal itself to tests based on Earth's life style?" he asked. To say nothing of more difficult questions like, What is life, and how should it be recognized?
"I expected to discover somewhere in the scientific literature a comprehensive definition of life as a physical process, on which one could base the design of life-detection experiments," he recalled, ". but in the whole vast encyclopedia of facts the crux of the matter — life itself — was almost totally ignored."
Designing a universal "life-detection experiment" was a lot more complicated than Lovelock thought it would be. Different branches of science described life differently, rather like those blind men describing an elephant after touching only one part of the animal. Eventually he became intrigued by a colleague's notion of "life detection by atmospheric analysis" and they began working together.
"Our results convinced us that the only feasible explanation of the Earth's highly improbable atmosphere was that it was being manipulated on a day-to-day basis.and the manipulator was life itself."
Evolution of the Gaian Hypothesis
Lovelock then made the leap, which is still considered controversial among many scientists, that because the Earth acts like a living organism then it must in fact be a living organism. "The entire range of living matter on Earth, from whales to viruses, and from oaks to algae," he explained, "could be regarded as constituting a single living entity, capable of manipulating the Earth's atmosphere to suit its overall needs and endowed with the faculties and powers far beyond those if its constituent parts." Lovelock's contemporary, the novelist William Golding, suggested that he call the living Earth "Gaia" and with the help of colleagues, especially Lynn Margulis, Lovelock's inquiry evolved into the Gaia Hypothesis. (Quotes from Gaia: A new look at life on Earth, Oxford University Press, 1979)
Lovelock wasn't the first person to see the Earth as a living organism. In the mid-1700s, James Hutton, a Scottish physician, farmer, and philosopher often referred to the Earth as "a living world." Austrian geologist and natural philosopher, Edward Suess, coined the term "biosphere" in 1875 in his book, The Face of the Earth. Vladimir Vernadsky, a Russian scientist born in 1863, is considered the creator of biogeochemistry and the founding father of the contemporary concept of the Biosphere, which he referred to as "the living organism." His vision of the biosphere was one of wholeness, effecting all fields of both the natural and social sciences.
In the early days, Lovelock didn't think of the Gaia Hypothesis as a spiritual concept, but readers of his book thought otherwise: "Although I thought the [Gaia Hypothesis] was mainly science.two-thirds of the letters [I've received] are about the meaning of Gaia in the context of religious faith." He discusses religion in a later book, The Ages of Gaia.
"When I first saw Gaia in my mind," he explains, "I felt as an astronaut must have felt as he stood on the Moon, gazing back at our home, the Earth.Thinking of the Earth as alive makes it seem, on happy days, in the right places, as if the whole planet were celebrating a sacred ceremony." Lovelock also makes a connection between Gaia, the Earth Goddess of the ancients, and the Virgin Mary of modern Christians.
"What if Mary is another name for Gaia?" he wonders. "Then her capacity for virgin birth is not a miracle or parthenogenetic aberration, it is the role of Gaia since life began.She is of this Universe and, conceivably, a part of God. On Earth she is the source of life everlasting and is alive now; she gave birth to humankind and we are a part of her. That is why, for me, Gaia is a religious as well as a scientific concept, and in both spheres it is manageable."
My personal introduction to the Gaia Hypothesis was in November 1985. It was my second visit to the Chinook Learning Center, an intentional community and educational center on Whidbey Island in Washington State founded by former residents of Findhorn. My first visit a year earlier had been absolutely magical and I had high expectations. Catalyst, the journal I published until the early 1990s, was in its second year. Its focus was "investing in social change" and "creating an economy for the living Earth" and it looked at small-scale, community based alternatives to business-as-usual. I was participating in Chinook's conference, "For the Life of the Earth," to learn about new projects and to share ideas.
I arrived a bit late for the first gathering on Friday evening and Thomas Berry, author, priest, and cultural historian, had just started speaking. His eyes twinkled with good humor and he was full of energy and passion as he spoke of the importance of integrating ecology and spirit into politics, economics.and everything else. His wasn't simply an intellectual understanding of the topic. I could tell he felt the magic of the Earth in every cell of his body. It wasn't just what he said, it was how he said it. I was entranced.
One of the topics he discussed was the Gaia Hypothesis. My heart immediately embraced the idea. As Thomas spoke, the pieces fell into place. He put words on what I'd known intuitively all my life. Tears came to my eyes, hope grew in my heart, and my mind reeled with the implications. I thought about the role love plays in the healing process, how it works miracles, speeding recovery from illness and nourishing the spirits of people and animals alike. "Healing the Earth" was a common phrase, but it seemed so arrogant. How could we possibly heal the Earth? But, if the Earth is alive then love is an important part of the healing process. And if love is part of the healing process then we can make a difference. What we do and how we do it matters. We may be David acting against a powerful Goliath, but we have Gaia, a living being, on our side! Nothing has been the same for me since.
How the Earth Works
The science of ecology tells us that everything is connected and yet the destruction of the environment and the exploitation of scarce resources continues unabated. We say we are a logical, practical people but we seem incapable of making the connection between what we are doing to the Earth on a daily basis and the increasingly uncertain future of humanity. As a scientific framework the Gaia Hypothesis opens new doors to understanding how the Earth "works." The question begs, however: Can this new understanding of Gaia, of Earth, lead to a more compassionate, respectful, holistic way of living? I believe it can.
There is more to life than is apparent to our physical senses. We know for instance, that what appear to be solid objects are in fact composed of impossibly tiny particles of energy that are always in motion. We live in a complex, multi-dimensional world and the more we learn the more amazing and magical it seems. I like the way William Bloom (interviewed in Spirit of Change, Nov/Dec 2001) puts it: "The more that science unveils, the more fantastic and exquisite the mysteries of life become. The perfect harmonics of Newtonian physics, the mystical qualities of sub-atomic particles, and the galactic stretches of the imagination required to grasp modern astronomy – all these demonstrate that the discoveries of contemporary science can also be understood, and perhaps best be understood, as an unfolding revelation of Spirit.Everything which we know tangibly and physically to be in existence is, in fact, the manifestation of a more subtle and invisible energy which vibrates at a higher frequency energy level."
To put it another way, spirit manifests as life through form. Gaia is the life force that flows through all of us, that connects us to and makes us one with trees, rivers, mountains, bees, ants, moose – everything. Gaia is the process of creation and manifestation and we are participants whether we are aware of it or not.
There are many ways to open to Gaia, but two stand out for me. One is the quest for meaning in our lives, a quest that has inspired human beings for thousands of years. Indeed, the crude images of the Great Mother shaped by ancient peoples thousands of years ago are a timeless reminder that seeking the meaning and purpose of life is integral to human nature. The other path involves what environmental educator Mitchell Thomashow calls "ecological identity work." Expanding our identity beyond the human to the place we live (and the plants, animals, and landscapes that share it with us) and beyond that to include the Earth as a whole, changes everything. To paraphrase Thomashow, it provides the language and context that connects our life choices with our ecological worldview. It serves as a guide that coordinates meaning and it helps us make the transition into a new way of seeing ourselves in the world. It provides a moral anchor and a map for the difficult decisions that lie ahead, a way to reiterate what's important, and a means for interpreting the experiences of nature.
There are many books available designed to help us reconnect with nature and our human nature as well. Some are intellectual and theoretical, others are experiential, and still others read more like stories. While I know it takes more than a book to change someone, I also know that a good book read at the right time can touch us and make a difference. Sometimes the right words – like Thomas Berry describing the Gaia Hypothesis all those years ago – help us articulate a feeling or confirm an intuition.
Falling In Love with Gaia
But our minds and intellects can take us only so far. To understand Gaia, to let her into our lives, we must fall in love with the Earth. It's that simple. We must love the Earth with the same passion and concern and fierceness that we love our children, our parents, our lovers, our mates. As anyone who has ever fallen in love knows, logic and reason have little to do with it. Sometimes we resist, but it happens anyway. Sometimes the object of our love seems totally wrong to others, but it doesn't matter. We love regardless. And the love we feel for our children – it is totally unconditional. This is the way we must love the Earth because this is the kind of love that changes everything.
When we love someone we want the best for them. We make mistakes, yes, but once we realize what we've done, we try to do better next time. When we love someone, we don't deliberately set out to destroy or undermine them or jeopardize their chances at life. When they are hurt we yearn to hold and comfort them, and we know that our love makes a difference. Sometimes love is all there is, and it's enough.
The best way to fall in love with the Earth is to experience her. There's nothing like the magic of nature to generate love in our hearts. Regardless of where you live, go outside and find nature. It's there even in the city – a park, a tree, a vacant lot, the sky, the wind, snow or rain on your face. Breathe deeply and think about the life force in nature and the life force in you. Breathe it in and imagine it filling every cell of your body. Exhale completely. Repeat several times. Imagine your heart opening to the elements, to the air, the wind, the soil, the clouds. If you're fortunate enough to be in a beautiful place, open your eyes and breathe in the beauty. If not, close your eyes and imagine a beautiful place you've been and breathe it in. Take a walk in a natural setting. Pay attention to the little things: stones, fallen leaves, twigs, a bird looking for winter berries, the breeze blowing the clouds overhead, the play of light and shadow. Notice how perfect everything is, how things fit together, how they relate. Don't do anything, just be. You could think of it as a walking awareness meditation.
Every day, find things that connect you to the Earth and bring them into your awareness. Then take a moment to allow the life energy to fill you. What might these things be? On a basic level, of course, every breath we take connects us to the Earth. So does the food we eat, the water we drink and bathe in (and flush down the toilet). The leather in our shoes, the cotton or wool or silk of our clothes, the paper we take notes on, etc. The point is to increase our awareness, to remind ourselves often of how we depend on the Earth, how we couldn't survive without her. Remember – we live IN Gaia. We eat, sleep, read, take the bus, drive our cars, and dispose of our trash IN Gaia.
The implications of the Gaian Hypothesis are immense and touch every aspect of human behavior, from science to politics to commerce to social services. Nothing is exempt. We're coming full circle. In the beginning, gods and goddesses reigned and myth and stories explained the meaning of life and guided human behavior. As our knowledge of nature and the human body expanded, life was reduced to its material parts and the magic, the undefinable essence of being alive, was discounted and even feared. Science became the new god and the goddess was banished. Gaia helps us integrate the stories of the ancients with the stories of modern science into a cohesive whole and restores wonder and magic and mystery to our lives. The path to the Gaia Hypothesis may have been scientific inquiry, but the path to Gaia is through the heart.
Susan Meeker-Lowry is frequent contributor to Spirit of Change. She is currently working on a book on the healing power of Gaia for individuals and the Earth and welcomes your stories. She can be contacted at email@example.com.
- Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth by James Lovelock, Oxford University Press, 1979
- The Ages of Gaia: A Biography of Our Living Earth by James Lovelock, Bantam Books, 1990
- Gaia, the Thesis, the Mechanisms and the Implications edited by Peter Bunyard & Edward Goldsmith, Wadebridge Ecological Center, 1988
- The Great Cosmic Mother: Rediscovering the Religion of the Earth by Monica Sjoo & Barbara Mor, HarperSanFrancisco, 1987
- The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World by David Abram, Pantheon Books, 1996
- Ecological Identity: Becoming a Reflective Environmentalist by Mitchell Thomashow, MIT Press, 1995
- The Dream of the Earth by Thomas Berry, Sierra Club Books, 1988