You might wonder: what is Earth Day all about? But I have a question: is our planet earth “a thing” we can celebrate? If “our” earth got lost and we had to track it down in another galaxy, how would we know we had found it?
Perhaps you would need to visit your old neighborhood to see if your house or apartment was still there. But your neighborhood is something that sits on the earth, right?
Earth Day Facts
Maybe you would have to visit a bit of geography that you remember, say Harvey’s Lake where I live here in Vermont. A stream flows into the lake. There is a dam that controls water levels, and depending upon the rain, shorelines are always shifting. How would I decide that this was indeed Harvey’s Lake? In the winter the lake is frozen, but with global warming the ice can be much thinner than it used to be. Is the frozen lake the same lake as the summertime lake, with its deep greens and blues?
Still, you might say, “Michael, don’t worry, I will recognize something, I would know.” But what would you know? That you had a memory and that the place you are visiting was once in it? How would you separate the place from how you feel about it? What if your old neighborhood was full of strangers, and your old house was gone, replaced by an abandoned playground? Would you still feel a connection with that patch of “earth” now under a rusting swing set?
Our Earth, Our Body
Questions about the earth are similar to those we have about our own body and senses. We may spend our whole life looking to protect and feed and perhaps beautify our body. Or, we may push our body like a mule, depriving it of sleep, decent food and even perhaps care and affection.
But in what sense is this body “ours?” It is always aging, changing. I’m almost 60 now, but when I think of my body, I find a younger version. Which is my real body? The one I have now, the one I used to have, or the one I hope to have once I finally submit to a regime of diet and exercise? It’s hard to separate our body from how we feel about it. When we say “I feel tired” – is that physical, mental or both?
Sakyong Mipham likes to point out that our ‘disconnect’ from the planet begins with a disconnect with our senses, our body. If we can’t appreciate the taste of an apple, we have separated ourselves from the apple, the orchard, the earth and farmer who grew it and the itinerate workers who harvested the fruit.
Celebrating Earth Day
To celebrate Earth Day, we have to be able to celebrate our own life and the world of our senses. The earth sustains us, but a relationship with the earth is organic. It begins with appreciation for the bit of form and substance that this earth sustains—the magical ecosystem that is the body. By appreciating the moment, the practice of meditation can bring us into a simple but powerful relationship with this living, breathing body.
A few years back I visited a meditation retreat center in Nova Scotia called Windhorse Farm. The center is located in an old-growth forest. This forest has been sustainably managed by a succession of families for hundreds of years. Before that, the tribe called Mi’kMaq was the caretaker. If there was possession — between the owners and the land — it was a mutual embrace.
At Windhorse, there is a deep sense of connection and communication with the earth. Just by being on the land, I felt cared for, healed. The health of the land was pointing me in the direction of my own health, both mental and physical. Relaxing into my body, at some point, in complete wonder, I realized the living nature of my connection with the planet.
It dawned on me that the environment wasn’t mine to save. The relationship with the earth was not one of possession, but of discovery, connection and respect. Like a spring breeze that hits your cheek, it’s a matter of feeling, relationship. When we care for the earth, I realized, the earth cares for us. It’s that simple.
This is what Earth Day is all about for me.