The Antidote for our Violence: Touching the Earth

I remember well a lovely spring day in my early 20s.
I was on the campus of Wellesley College
with at least a thousand other people.
All of them had come to meet and hear hear Thich Naht Hahn,
the venerable and beloved Vietnamese Buddhist monk and teacher.
Thay, as his students call him,
was touring the United States with a group of monks and nuns
from Plum Village, his monastery in France.

Now, Thay is a very small and very peaceful man.
But when he teaches,
there is an intensity about him,
a strong desire to communicate across the barriers
of culture and language and religious tradition.
He knows that there is a better way to be human,
and he wants to share it.
He wants it…for everyone.

Now, all of us came to Wellesley for a dharma teaching:
for a lecture on Buddhist principles and practices.
We were ready to learn,
ready to absorb.
People had notebooks
…and expectations of enlightenment.

But at some point in his talk,
far too soon for my liking or the liking of many around me,
Thay announced that we were going to go on a walk around campus.
All of us.
Slowly and intentionally.
Noticing everything around us.
Planting our feet intentionally on the ground…
…step after step after step
Touching the Earth.
Ever so gently…just touching the Earth.

I remember that it felt so contrived, even silly, at first.
Over a thousand people walking so very slowly,
trying to be so mindful,
touching the Earth with an almost forced reverence.
I couldn’t quite get into it.
I wanted to fast-walk away from the group,
wanted to escape the deliberate slowness,
didn’t feel much like communing with the Earth.
But, never liking to make too much of a scene,
I stayed.
I kept walking.
Dragging my feet…in spite of myself.

At some point,
we were invited to sit or lay down on the ground,
to touch the Earth
with even more of our body’s surface area.
To make full and real contact.
We were told that in Plum Village,
this act often took the form of a full frontal prostration.
Bowing and then laying fully upon the ground:
cheek to cheek, as it were.

Of course, I couldn’t bear to take that posture.
It felt far too vulnerable.
And I thought, at first, that the vulnerability arose
because of all the people around me.
I really don’t like laying down in public.
Even at a park or on the beach.
I feel sort of exposed.
But now, in retrospect,
I wonder if the awkwardness
was more due to the profundity of the idea…
the idea that I could really touch the Earth,
that I could really make contact in an intimate way.
Maybe I was more afraid of intimacy than of exposure.

You see…to me, the Earth feels largely inanimate, most of the time.
I know this is not the case,
but especially living in a city,
most of my earthly contact is made with cement.
The soil is largely paved over.
Vegetation is sparse.
Living things appear in cracks and crevices, of course,
but they’re not often the main event.
Steel and glass and brick and wood take up most of the space.
I sometimes feel that I occupy a deadened world of artifice:
with magic and microorganisms both in short supply.

So the notion that the Earth is something alive:
something with which I could relate…intimately,
is simultaneously both appealing and off-putting.
Because if the Earth is alive,
and if I am connected to the Earth,
then perhaps I am somehow responsible for the Earth.
And being responsible for yet one more thing
just feels too overwhelming,
too much to bear.
Sometimes I can hardly seem to take care of myself.

So, I wonder: is there really any benefit
to being more connected with the Earth?
Is it really worth bothering to care about one more thing?
Can my care really make any difference at all?

Thich Nhat Hahn has this to say…

To express our reverence for the Earth is not to deify her or believe she is any more sacred than ourselves. It is to love her, to take care of her and to take refuge in her. When we suffer, the Earth embraces us, accepts us, and restores our energy, making us strong and stable again. The relief that we seek is right under our feet and all around us. Much of our suffering can be healed if we realize this. If we understand our deep connection and relationship with the Earth, we will have enough love, strength, and awakening to look after ourselves and the Earth so that we both can thrive.1

This sounds really lovely, doesn’t it?
But is it really possible?
Is this kind of connection with Earth
really available to us?
Or is it just pie-in-the-sky, New Agey wishfulness?
Does bowing down to touch the Earth
really change anything?

Indeed, I think touching the Earth
truly does have transformative potential.
Why?
Because touching the Earth is a fundamentally gentle act.
It both demands our gentleness
and is gentle to us.

The practice of gentleness reminds me
of a beautiful prayer-poem by Ted Loder.
It goes like this:

Gentle me,
Holy One, into an unclenched moment,
a deep breath,
a letting go
of heavy experiences,
of shriveling anxieties,
of dead certainties,
that, softened by the silence,
surrounded by the light,
and open to the mystery,
I may be found by wholeness,
upheld by the unfathomable,
entranced by the simple,
and filled with the joy
that is you.2

Touching the Earth
can fill us with just this kind of joy.
Can fill us with God.
Can fill us with ourselves.
Can fill us with everything.

And yet, we Christians have often been reticent
to get too involved in theologizing about the Earth,
for fear of being accused of pantheism.
Yet, in our effort to avoid pantheism,
Christians have also largely lost the capacity
to experience devotion toward and love for the Earth.
Many of us can’t quite take seriously
the practice of gently and reverently touching the Earth
that Thich Nhat Hahn advocates.
We can’t quite bring ourselves to relate to the Earth
in this intimate and tender way.

––––––-

In Thich Nhat Hahn’s Buddhist lineage,
a body of texts have been developed
that are meant to accompany the practice
of bowing down and touching the Earth in full prostration.

I’d like to share excerpts of one of these texts
and invite you to hear it with an open heart
in spite of differences in religious vocabulary and cosmology.

Dear Mother Earth,
I BOW MY HEAD before you as I look deeply and recognize that you are present in me and that I am a part of you. It is from you that I have been born, and you who are always present, offering me everything I need for my nourishment and growth. My mother, my father, and all my ancestors are also your children. It is your fresh air that we breathe, your clear water that we drink, your nourishing food that we eat. […]

You have all the qualities of a mother. You are nothing less than the Mother of all Beings. I call you by the human name Mother, and yet I know your mothering nature is more vast and ancient than humankind. We are just one young species of your many children. All the millions of other species who live–or have lived–on Earth are also your children. You are not a person, but I know you are not less than a person either. You are a Great Being, not in the form of a human, but in the form of a planet–a living, breathing being.

Dear Mother, wherever there is soil, water, rock or air, you are there, nourishing me and giving me life. You are present in every cell of my body. My physical body is your physical body, and just as the Sun and stars are present in you, they are also present in me. You are not outside of me and I am not outside of you. You are more than just my environment. You are nothing less than myself.

I promise to keep the awareness alive that you are always in me, and I am always in you. I promise to be aware that your health and wellbeing is my own health and wellbeing. I know I need to keep this awareness alive in me for us both to be peaceful, happy, healthy, and strong.

But sometimes I forget. Lost in the confusions and worries of daily life, I forget that my body is your body, and sometimes even forget that I have a body at all. Unaware of the presence of my body and the beautiful planet around me and within me, I am unable to cherish and celebrate the precious gift of life you have given me. Dear Mother, it is my deep wish to wake up to the miracle of life. […]

I wish you could hear these words in Thay’s own voice.
His voice is so gentle, and yet so insistent.
He embodies such a pure sense of wonder:
a deep wonderment that I also hear in the words of Psalm 8:

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?

Indeed: wonder is the only appropriate response to Creation.
The primary response.
Wonder is the beginning and the end of learning to care…to love.

Yet, in our demythologized universe,
wonder must be actively cultivated.
It is not inherent or automatic or easy.

And I think wonder can perhaps best be aroused
through the intentional practice of gentleness.
Through learning to touch the Earth
with kindness and care…
…with a desire to be re-rooted,
re-connected to our source.

And isn’t more gentleness what we most need
in our world right now?
Isn’t a lack of gentleness –
toward ourselves, toward others, and toward the Earth –
at the root of so much of the evil
that is so very present in our world
every time we turn on the news?

Of course, gentleness isn’t a panacea.
But gentleness IS a beginning.
A prelude to a new way of relating.

You see: gentleness IS a counter-cultural stance toward life.
Gentleness requires trust:
trust that we are worthy of care,
and that others are worthy of care, too.
…Trust that life will indeed go on:
even if we choose to pause,
to rest,
and to engage in acts of care for self and other.
…Trust that we do not have to make life happen,
but that life always and everywhere flourishes on its own,
sometimes even in spite of us.

Even more: if gentleness requires trust,
then gentleness cannot easily co-exist with worry.
The very kind of worry from which Jesus is trying to dissuade us
in today’s Gospel text
often dissolves when gazed upon with gentleness.
Worry usually changes nothing.
Gentleness can quite easily change everything.

So, I invite you, as we embark upon this season of Creation,
to conduct an experiment
in gentleness.
Where do you need to be a little gentler toward yourself?
Who in your life might benefit from your gentleness?
And how might the Earth help to recharge your store of gentleness?

Maybe…
maybe you must touch it,
even lay upon it
to learn where to begin.

Amen.

[1] https://plumvillage.org/key-practice-texts/touching-the-earth-to-mother-earth/

[2] https://heartsteps.org/2016/open-mystery/

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