We are in the World and of the Earth;
children of the Universe;
descended of stars
long-ago gone supernova.
Earthen Rann # 1
[Recited in Morning Meditation]
When I go a-walking, sauntering out either to places known or to a destination I have never yet visited, I oft come into a deeper awareness of my surroundings_ and of my own being-in-becoming_ than I had before tripping out the door and footing it to a path. This ongoing deepening of awareness is fostered and facilitated by my having been engaged in ambling, sauntering and sojourning for decades; it is an ever-evolving praxis. Practiced at it, when I am waeccan in my situ; that is, when I am awake to my situation; being in the World and of the Earth—I realize that I am at-home in Earth & Cosmos and that I am an animal. A spiritual and a creative animal, for sure; but an animal nonetheless.
I understand this as a touchstone of self-awareness and of ongoing awakening in the World. I am embodied. I am a physical creature; in scientific terms: a vertebrate, a mammal, a primate and one particular instance of our own species, Homo sapiens. This awareness has come to me over time; not all at once—I have come to accept my being an animal via a decades-long spiritual and poetic adventuring, accompanied by philosophical explorations and heightened experiences in Nature; out in the Woods on the hoof!
I didn’t always think of myself this way. Over the decades I have imagined that I was many things; a crewman on the submarine Seaview (when I was 7 – 10 years old), a Witch, a Born Again Friend of Jesus, an Atheist, a Pagan, a Monk, a Celtic Mystic, and now a Poetic Naturalist—all of this naming indicating that I have been an Imaginer and a Dreamer all my life. _And I still am! By the art of devout walking, I have come to consciousness – over and over again – of the fact that while I can imagine being & becoming all kinds of things, yet I am first and foremost a biological entity, breathing and eating and sweating and experiencing everything that I have ever experienced, imagining everything I have ever imagined as an embodied being; suspended between birth & death, regardless of what – if anything – may lie beyond that final ‘doorway’ at the end of my embodied journey. I am an animal.
It is this realization—
That I am a biological creature;
An animal in the evolutionary sense;
A physical entity subject to the laws of physics;
– which grounds what I have come to call “earthen humility.”
The word “humility” is connected to an older word: humus, which meant ‘earth’ or ‘soil,’ and as I reflect on this, the first sensation that comes to mind is of being ‘down in the dirt’ in a positive sense; playfully, as when gardening and even when out on the hoof. “Out to the Woods” is the cry I love to heed!
A natural humility arises out of the awareness that we are of the Earth and attends on the fact of being awake (“waeccan”) – awakened by our experience and what we have learned of ourselves – to the fact that we are dwellers in the Earth. We are of-Nature; not poised ‘above it’ or existing merely as a ‘consumer’ of the abundance of the Earth—but a living part of the life-web that covers and suffuses this planet! And once we wake up to our true earthen nature; our physicality – we realize that we are mortal. We are here for but a short time and then we are each gone.
The fact that we are animals like other animals is always a source of amazement and wonderment to me! Why does this surprise so many people? _And so upset others? Yet, like it or not, science can find no ontological ‘divide’ between us and ‘the other animals’ in their being, as if we were ‘something else.’ In any case, what would we be? “Strangers here” – or perhaps ‘unearthly’ beings ‘passing through this mortal coil?’ There is (yet) no evidence of such an extraterrestrial origin, and at the same time seemingly incontrovertible evidence that we are at-home on this planet; we evolved here—our genetic code proves it as much as the paleontological record.
When I affirm this, I experience a kind of naturalistic ‘piety.’ It awes me to contemplate our common ancestry with all living things on this planet. There is no deeper meditation on our humanity than to reflect upon the history of life on this planet and our place in it. I meditate upon this on my knees! I am humbled before the vastness of the cosmos and the deep time in which we exist.
I find it interesting to reflect on how I have come to this understanding of our animal nature. Having long practiced what can be called ‘spiritual disciplines’ – from a variety of traditions and perspectives, as you could well guess from the list of ‘imagined selves’ I cited above – what I now experience as earthen humility was nurtured earlier in my life by myths that I lived by, by spiritual teachers and later by my study of philosophy and poetry, storytelling and aesthetics. I found the seeds and touchstones of earthen humility along the way in many sources, Pagan, Christian and Secular. I remember Christians who spoke of our being “in Nature” and Nature being God’s Creation – and therefore not to be despised or evaded – back when I was religious. I remember these touchstones of a now naturalistic faith fondly! Evelyn Underhill, for instance, said in Practical Mysticism (1943), that:
“To elude nature, to refuse her friendship, and attempt to leap the River of Life in the hope of finding God on the other side, is the common error of a perverted mysticality. So you are to begin with that first form of meditation which the old mystics sometimes called the ‘Discovery of God in His Creatures.’“ (15)
St. Bonaventure in the 13th century said, in The Journey of the Mind to God, that:
“In our present condition, the created universe is itself a ladder leading us toward God. Some created things are His traces; others, His image; some of them are material, others spiritual; some temporal, others everlasting; thus some are outside us and some within us.”
Etienne Gilson, a 20th century Catholic theologian, said in The Spirit of Mediaeval Philosophy (1940) that:
“Just as it is not Christian to run away from the body, so neither is it Christian to despise Nature. How can we possibly belittle these heavens and this earth that so wonderfully proclaim the glory of their Creator, so evidently bear on them the marks of his infinite wisdom and goodness?” (89)
Agnes Sanford, a woman known for her healing ministry in the 20th century, said in The Healing Gifts of the Spirit (1966):
“The simplest and oldest way in which God manifests Himself is through and in the Earth itself. And He still speaks to us through the earth and the sea, the birds of the air and the little living creatures upon the Earth, if we can but quiet ourselves to listen.” (51)[i]
Through such sources I was wakened to being in and of the Earth, not simply “on” it—eventually becoming ‘at home in the Earth.’ As I grew up, oft frequenting woods and fields and there experiencing Nature at first hand was deepened and made ‘mystical’ by devout study.
My adventures in religion also taught me that, being human animals, we are also spiritual animals; that is—we seek for better ways of living life, desiring to live it to the fullest. An earthen spirituality is a praxis for living this life in which we find ourselves – once we wake up (i.e., become waeccan). A spiritual praxis brings us to wholeness; it aids in our becoming the best version of ourselves that we can be—and this quest is simply an extension of the kind of cultural tools and physical inheritance that we have as the particular kind of animal that we are. We are unique in certain ways (one, of course, being our capacity-for and use-of language & technology, which is how I am communicating with you)—even while having more in common with other animals than we have differences.
Spirituality deepens out of an awareness of our mortality. Religious spiritualities taught me this, and I find it no less true as a naturalist[ii] and a physicalist.[iii] An earthen humility acknowledges our ‘mortal coil’ and nurtures an awareness of our limits. We need not be surprised at our being mortal nor at our frailty and being vulnerable (to infections, disease and other afflictions). Our experience of Nature should reveal this, if we are paying attention to its cycles of birth, life, death and rebirth. An earthen humility frees one of the delusion that just because I am a believer in x, I will always be healthy and free of tragic fates. A religious humility also understands this as a delusion.[iv] Embracing earthen humility empowers you to be the particular animal that you are, with all your gifts, limitations, brokenness and aspirations toward wholeness and self-realization.
“We are at home in the Earth.
We are of the Earth.
We are Here.”
Earthen Rann # 2
[Recited during the day
when re-centering is needed]
What happens to the Earth happens to us, in one way or another.
How much better to live in the World and realize that you are of the Earth. By the World I mean the humanly constructed ‘World;’ the social and cultural systems that we human animals have created to help us survive and, more importantly, live our lives as fully as possible, given our individual gifts and abilities balanced against our mortal constraints. We are in the World, but we are of the Earth. You can alter your cultural allegiances, your beliefs, your way of life and your social connections, status and function, yet you are still, and always were, a manifestation of this planet-home we call Earth. We are of the Earth.
The art of walking[v] opens a person to the Earth as experienced. A devout scientific and aesthetic study of the Earth and its ecosystems deepens our experience of being-here and brings us to a rational as well as emotional understanding of our connection to the planet and reveals runes of our place in the Cosmos. Why ‘devout?’ Because the Earth and its history are in some sense our ‘ultimate concern.’ Without the Earth, we would not be here. If life on Earth dies, so do we. There is nowhere else in the local cosmos where we might yet live; not without what science fiction writers call ‘terraforming’ a planet—that is, turning it into a likeness of Earth. We cannot just leave the Earth behind; we must take it with us if we are going to survive elsewhere. We are of the Earth, and in the Earth. To study the Earth and its c. 4.5 billion-year history; to explore the evolution of life in all its diversity—is to study who we are and come to know where we have come from.
Ultimately, the result of such devout study is a realization that everything is connected. Though this idea became a cultural meme and almost a cliché at one point, it is grounded in a scientific understanding of the evolution of the cosmos. As Michio Kaku said in Hyperspace (1994), speaking as a scientist:
“Instead of being overwhelmed by the universe, I think that perhaps one of the deepest experiences a scientist can have, almost approaching a religious awakening, is to realize that we are children of the stars, and that our minds are capable of understanding the universal laws that they obey. The atoms in our bodies were forged in the anvil of nucleo-synthesis within an exploding star aeons before the birth of the solar system. Our atoms are older than the mountains. We are literally made of stardust. Now these atoms, in turn, have coalesced into intelligent beings capable of understanding the universal laws governing that event.” (333)
We are “children of the Universe; descended of stars long ago gone supernova.” To meditate upon this is to deepen into earthen humility. This is another aspect of the consciousness I understand as earthen humility.
Meditating on our evolution out of Nature’s ever unfolding and spiraling web, we come to appreciate that we are also a manifestation of naturally occurring elements at the chemical level. DNA – a complex hydro-carbon molecule – is the engine of life. The DNA which codes for my being-in-becoming is the same genetic code that is in you; whoever you are.[vi] We are each – all of the billions of us now on the planet and everyone who has come before and those who will come after – a variation on a wondrous chemical theme called deoxyribonucleic acid. Our diversity and individuality are linked to all of the wondrous possibilities carried within that double helix; even our nature as cultural animals with the ability to build social worlds and manipulate Nature through technologies is rooted there.
That each individual human being is a manifestation of their DNA means that we are all related. Every single human being you meet on this planet is a human being; an individual arising out of the species code—not a ‘foreigner’ and therefore not an ‘enemy’ until we make them such by prejudicial choice and/or narrow-minded action. It is the arrogance of social and cultural traditions that allows – even encourages – us to demonize other human beings, rather than embracing them first and before any other consideration, as ‘brothers and sisters.’ We are – as far as science has shown – a single species. And as such, by social analogy, a single ‘family;’ the ultimate family—one to which we all belong.
Once we deepen into a consciousness of earthen humility, it becomes apparent that this sense of ‘family’ can be extended to include all of life, as every life-form on the planet, so far as we have found, has its own DNA or uses DNA to its own purposes—and has its own evolutionary history. We are not ‘alone,’ here. We live in the company of an unimaginably vast extended family that includes everything from microorganisms to elephants and whales and everything in between. While there is no room for sentimentalism about the life forms on this blue-green ball – many of them are dangerous and can undermine our individual existence, even being capable of wiping out great numbers of us in a short time (think of the Black Plague in Europe in the Middle Ages) – our existence subsists within the Web of Life in the state in which it has subsisted over the last few millions of years. This is the ‘environment’ in which our species came to be. A strong-minded love of Nature, therefore – the acceptance that our existence is intertwined with that of our biosphere – is a vital ingredient in the kind of consciousness I call earthen humility. _I do not therefore find it poetically incorrect to refer to Nature metaphorically as “Our Mother.”
Earthen humility fosters an awareness of who, what and where we are, as individuals, as a species and then as one particular life-community on the planet. If a ‘god’ created us, we now know that in some way the process of that creation was evolution, and that biological evolution is a manifestation of the vast and expanding universe in which our home is situated and by which it is sustained. We may as yet have an ‘adolescent’ understanding of the Cosmos as a whole, yet – in spiritual as well as empirical terms – our present understanding is a giant leap beyond the pre-critical fairy tales on which we nurtured ourselves over the last few thousand years (e.g., religious creation stories), even if those stories were ‘divinely inspired’ aids to get us through our spiritual childhood as a species![vii]
We are growing up, spiritually, and our understanding of Earth & Cosmos may yet undergo as-yet unimagined revolutions as Science and the Arts that interpret it advance. Yet we are here_ guided by the understanding that we now have. And so_ here is where we must be waeccan (i.e., “awake), living out this journey toward self-realization: in the World and of the Earth, awake to being children of the universe, descended of stars long-ago gone supernova!
This is my runing of earthen humility.
[i] While I learned the basic attitude of Earthen Humility through these religious writers, I am always saddened to be reminded how many people in those religious traditions are not embracing Nature in the ways advocated by the great spiritual teachers of these traditions.
[ii] I use this word to imply that there is nothing “supernatural” in Earth & Cosmos.
[iii] I use this term to imply that matter and energy – including Dark Matter and Dark Energy; regardless of what these turn out to be – make up the universe.
[iv] I believe it was Bonaventure who defined humility as thinking neither more nor less of yourself than you ought.
[v] On the Art of Walking, see my blogs: “Autumn Walking” (24 September 2013), “The Art of Walking” (2 November 2014), “Winter Walking” (2 February 2015)
[vi] Unless you are actually an alien from another planet! _A possibility I don’t deny outright, though there would be a quick and easy test of the claim someone would make that they are an alien. A DNA test!
[vii] Like the nursery rhymes and fairy tales we still tell our children, religion’s ‘creation stories’ were meant to help awaken us, in particular, creations stories attempt to explicate our relationship to the Divine and the Nature.