Our Life as Gaia

Issue: 
Image credit: 
National Space Science Centre, NASA

Come back with me into a story we all share, a story whose rhythm beats in us still. The story  belongs to each of us and to all of us, like the beat of this drum, like the heartbeat of our living universe.

There is science now to construct the story of the journey we have made on this earth, the story that connects us with all beings. There is also great yearning and great need to own that story – to break out of our isolation as persons and as a species and recover through that story our larger identity. The challenge to do that now and burst out of the separate prison cells of our
contrivings, is perhaps the most wonderful aspect of our being alive today.

Right now on our planet we need to remember that story – to harvest it and taste it. For we are in a hard time, a fearful time. And it is the knowledge of the bigger story that is going to carry us through. It can give us the courage, it can give us the strength, it can give us the hilarity to dance our people into a world of sanity. Let us remember it together.

With heartbeat of the drum, we hear the rhythm that underlies all our days and doings. Throughout our sleeping and rising, through all our working and loving, our heart has been beating steady, steady. That steady sturdy inner sound has accompanied us all the way. And so it can take us back now, back through our lives, back through our childhood, back through our birth. In our mother's womb, there was that same sound, that same beat, as we floated there in the fluid right under her heart.

Let that beat take us back farther still. Let's go back, back far beyond our conception in this body, back to the first splitting and spinning of the stars. As scientists measure now, it is fifteen billion years ago we manifested – in what they call the Big Bang.

There we were, careening out through space and time, creating space and time. Slowly, with the speed of light, in vast curls of flame and darkness, we reached for form. We were then great swirls of clouds, gas and dancing particles – can you imagine you remember? And the particles
as they circled in the dance, desired each other and formed atoms. It is the same desire for form that beats now in this drum and in our hearts.

Ten billion years later, one of the more beautiful swirls of that swirling mass split off from its blazing sun – the sun we feel now on our faces – and became the form we know best. And our lifetime as Gaia began.

Touch our Earth, touch Gaia.
Touch Gaia again by touching your face,
that is Gaia too.
Touch Gaia again by touching your sister
or brother. That is Gaia too

In the immediate planet-time of ours, Gaia is becoming aware of herself, she is finding out who she is. How rich she is in the multitudinous and exquisite forms she takes.

Let us imagine that her life – our life as our planet – could be condensed into twenty-four hours, beginning at midnight. Until five o'clock the following afternoon all her adventures are geological. All was volcanic flamings and steaming rains washing over the shifting bones of the
continents into shifting seas – only at five o'clock comes organic life.

To the heartbeat of life in you and this drum, you too, right now, can shift a bit – shift free from identifying solely with your latest human form. The fire of those early volcanoes, the strength of those tectonic plates, is in us still. And it may well be, if things continue the way they are going, that we will all return for a spell to nonorganic life. We'd be radioactive for quite a while, but we are built to endure.

For now and in these very bodies of ours, we carry traces of Gaia's story as organic life. We were aquatic first, as we remember in our mother's womb, growing vestigial gills and fins. The salt from those early seas flows still in our sweat and tears. And the age of the dinosaurs we
carry with us, too, in our reptilian brain, situated so conveniently at the end of our spinal column. Complex organic life was learning to protect itself and it is all right there in our neurological system, in the rush of instinct to flee or fight.

And when did we appear as mammals? In those twenty-four hours of Gaia's life, it was at 11.30 P.M.! And when did we become human? One second to midnight. Now let us take that second to midnight that is our story as humans and reckon that, in turn, as twenty-four hours. Let's
look back through the twenty-four hours that we have been human.

Beginning at midnight and until two o'clock in the afternoon, we live in small groups in Africa. Can you imagine you remember? We feel pretty vulnerable; we haven't the speed of the other creatures, or their claws or fangs or natural armour. But we have remarkable hands, opposable
thumbs to help shape tools and weapons. And we have in our throats and frontal lobes the capacity for speech. Grunts and shouts turn into language as we collaborate in strategies and rituals. Those days and nights on the verge of forests, as we weave baskets and stories around fires, represent the biggest hunk of our human experience.

Then in small bands we begin branching out. We move across the face of Gaia; we learn to face the cold and hunt the mammoth and name the trees of the northern forests, the flowers and seasons of the tundra. We know it is Gaia by whom we live and we carve her in awe and fear
and gratitude, giving her our breasts and hips. When we settle into agriculture, when we begin domesticating animals and fencing off our croplands and deciding that they could be owned as private property, when we build great cities with granaries and temples and observatories to chart the stars, the time is eleven fifty-eight. Two minutes to midnight.

At eleven fifty-nine comes a time of quickening change: we want to chart the stars within as well as those we see in the skies; we want to seek the authority of inner experience. To free the questing mind we set it apart from Gaia. We make conjectures and rules and heroes to help us
chart our freedoms to think and act. The great religions of our planet-time arise. At six seconds to midnight comes a man called Buddha and shortly after another called Jesus of Nazareth.

What now shapes our world – our industrial society with its bombs and bulldozers – has taken place in the last few microseconds of the day we have known as humans.

Yet those few microseconds bring us right to the brink of time. And each of us knows that. Each of us, at some level of our awareness, knows that we are doing ourselves in – that Gaia herself, our self, is in danger. And at some level of your consciousness that is why you are here. Oh yes, you may think you are here to heal yourselves on the personal level and find your power in terms of your individual lives. True enough. But we are also here because we know our planet is in danger and all life on it could go – like that! And we fear that this knowledge might drive us insane if we let it in.

Much of the time, it is hard to believe that we have come to this – to such an apocalyptic moment. Even those of us who work hard to stop nuclear weapons have trouble really believing that they exist. After the millions of years of life on earth, after the millenia of our civilizations, after Ishtar and Shakespeare and Gandhi and Dorothy Day, we find it hard to credit the fact that we are deliberately manufacturing and deploying these weapons, targeting them at great populations, poising them on hair-trigger alert, leaving them liable to go off on a computer malfunction...

So we are now at a point unlike any other in our story. I suspect that we have, in some way, chosen to be here at this culminating chapter or turning point. We have opted to be alive when the stakes are high, to test everything we have ever learned about interconnectedness, about
courage – to test it now when Gaia is ailing and her children are ill. We are alive right now when it could be curtains for conscious life on this beautiful water planet hanging there like a jewel in space. Our foremothers and forefathers faced nothing quite like this, because every generation before us took it for granted that life would continue. Each lived with that tacit assumption. Personal death, wars, plagues were ever encompassed in that larger assurance that life would continue. That assurance is lost now and we are alive at the time of that great loss. It is not the loss of the future. It is the loss of the certainty that there will be a future. It affects everyone, whether they work in the Pentagon or the peace movement.And the toll it takes has barely begun to be measured.

In so-called primitive societies, rites of passage are held for adolescents, because it is in adolescence that the fact of personal death or mortality is integrated into the personality. The individual goes through the prescribed ordeal of the initiation rite in order to integrate that knowledge, so that he or she can assume the rights and responsibilities of adulthood. That is what we are doing right now on the collective level, in this planet-time. We are confronting and integrating into our awareness our collective mortality as a species. We must do that so that we can wake up and assume the rights and responsibilities of planetary adulthood – so that we can grow up! That is, in a sense, what we are doing here.

When you go out from here, please keep listening to the drumbeat. You will hear it in your heart. And as you hear it, remember that it is the heartbeat of the universe as well, and of Gaia your planet and your larger Self.

When you return to your communities to organize, saying no to the machinery of death and yes to life, remember your true identity. Remember your story, our story. Clothe yourself in your true authority. You speak not only as yourself or for yourself. You were not born yesterday. You have
been through many dyings and know in your heartbeat and bones the precarious, exquisite balance of life. Out of that true knowledge you can speak and act. You will speak and act with the courage and endurance that has been through the long, beautiful aeons of your life story as Gaia.

Excerpted with permission from ‘Thinking Like A Mountain’, New Society Publishers, 2007.

Eco-philosopher Joanna Macy is a scholar of Buddhism, general systems theory, and deep ecology. A respected voice in movements for peace, justice, and ecology, she interweaves her scholarship with four decades of activism. She has created a ground-breaking theoretical framework for personal and social change, as well as a powerful workshop methodology for its application. Please visit her website http://www.joannamacy.net/.