The Earth Challenge & the Spiritual Practice of Earth Breathing

The Earth Challenge & the Spiritual Practice of Earth Breathing April 29, 2017

(This post continue my reflection from yesterday on #ClimateMarch: Balancing People, Planet, & Profit.)

In reflecting on climate change, I don’t want to exaggerate the costs of valuing the triple-bottom line of  “people, planet, and profit” over profit alone. Australia and Germany are already prime examples of how nations can lead in both economic growth and environmental responsibility. What we truly cannot afford is to continue allowing companies to rake in short-term profit from fossil fuels without mandating their accountability for the long-term negative impacts of their actions upon people and planet (70-71).

We also need to incentivize the transition to an environmentally-responsible green economy. Looking to the future, solar and wind will be a part of the equation: “One reason that wind and solar are disruptive is that their fuel is cost-free. Once the initial investment is made and the maintenance is paid for, they continue to run with minimal cost” (124). Responsibly-used nuclear power may also be part of how we fuel the future, although we have not yet solved the problem of nuclear waste, which “remains highly radioactive for several thousand years” (118). Along these lines of innovating a new way forward, I was interested to see the headline a few weeks ago that the electric-car maker Tesla Passes Ford in Market Value.” That’s a remarkable shift that could not have been anticipated a few decades ago.

Some techno-utopians hope that innovations in geo-engineering will allow us to either remove carbon from our atmosphere or reduce its effect. One popular idea involves injecting sulfur into the atmosphere to reflect more of the sun’s rays, but there could be serious unintended consequences from this and other related approaches (140-144). Another fascinating idea is “Covering 9 percent of the world’s oceans with seaweed farms” to absorb Carbon Dioxide (165-166). If you are interested in learning more about the various ideas for geo-engineering our way out of our climate crisis, Google Virgin Earth Challenge.”  In 2007, an entrepreneur offered a $25 million prize for anyone who could submit “a commercially viable design which achieves or appears capable of achieving the net removal of significant volumes of anthropogenic, atmospheric greenhouse gases each year for at least 10 years.” So far, eleven promising finalists have been selected, but none are yet sufficiently viable to meet all the criteria required to win (152-154).

AfterNaturePSo there are some real reasons for hope, even as other signs look bleak. In researching this post, I was particularly struck by a passage from the 2015 book After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene (Harvard University Press) from a law professor named Jedediah Purdy:

I feel a little thrill of reverence whenever I see an image of the earth from space. Then I recall some of what the globe contains: acidifying seas, climate refugees, resource wars, and, alongside these human harms, hundreds of reminders that nature does not love us or want us to be happy: Lyme disease, birth defects, and the everyday theater of wild suffering, from the house cats hunting birds in the backyard to coyotes bringing down a terrified deer, to the thousands of ticks that can immiserate and exhaust an unlucky moose in the Rocky Mountain summer. There is no harmony waiting for us in that globe, at least none on a scale that fits our lives, our pleasures and pains and passions. But the blue marble on the infinite black background is still the only possible home of everything we can love. (10)

So, through all the evolutionary contingencies of 13.8 billion years, we find ourselves here on the third rock from the sun—on the edge of one spiral galaxy among more than two trillion others galaxies. And we know too much about our peripheral place in the universe and about the six previous mass extinctions that have already happened on this planet to pretend that we can do whatever we want to this planet and it’s all going to be okay. The projected potentially-dire possibilities are all urgently plausible, and both the beauty of this planet and the promise of what we can accomplish as a species at our best are together more than enough to motivate me to continue the struggle for social, economic, and environmental justice.

I really mean that. If you are feeling overwhelmed, it’s okay to assume the fetal position for a while, but then I encourage you to go outside—to get out into the beauty of the world. Refresh yourself in nature, but also remind yourself of how devastatingly beautiful this world is. And how much it is worth fighting to preserve.

And part of why we thousands are gathering for protests like the #ClimateMarch is that we do not have to figure out the way forward alone. In the words of Kathleen Moore, whom I quoted earlier about the warning labels needed on gas tanks and other agents of fossil fuels, “What can one person do? Stop being one person (292). Together we can accomplish far more than any of us can alone.

But I don’t want to end there. Rather, I want to offer you a practice to take with you that can help ground our ongoing work for justice. It is a practice called “Earth Breathing” adapted from the Buddhist teacher Reggie Ray. The goal is to cultivate a felt experience of what the UU Seventh Principle calls “the interdependent web of all existence”:

If you are comfortable doing so, I invite you to assume a seated meditation posture with your feet flat on the floor, sitting up straight with your shoulders down—relaxed, but alert. Rest your hands comfortably on your thighs. Let your tongue relax in your mouth or touch your upper palate lightly. And take a deep breath: in through your nose . . . and out. In . . . and out.

Continue to allow your breath to slow and deepen. Notice how your chair is supporting you, grounding you. If you feel any tightness in your stomach or abdominal muscles, allow those to relax. Open yourself to the arising and passing of each new present moment and of your embodied nature within it.

I invite you now to gently shift your attention to a foot or two underneath you. Then, visualize your attention descending, down into the Earth, into the foundation of this building and then lower into the Earth itself. And on the in-breath, bring the energy of the Earth up into your body. And on the out-breath, let it go. (Some of you may understand this practice more metaphorically. Others of you may experience this practice as quite literal. Both ways are fine.)

As you breath, keeping your attention below you in the Earth, feel the massiveness of the Earth beneath you. Breath in that vastness—up into your heart, up into your whole torso. Continue to take a few more deep breaths. Feel the peace of the Earth and breathe in that peace, letting it permeate your body.

You can practice Earth breathing almost anywhere, carrying that felt sense of connection with the Earth into your everyday life.

The Rev. Dr. Carl Gregg is a certified spiritual director, a D.Min. graduate of San Francisco Theological Seminary, and the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick, Maryland. Follow him on Facebook ( and Twitter (@carlgregg).

Learn more about Unitarian Universalism:

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!