“You don’t see something until you have the right metaphor to let you perceive it.” Robert Shaw

“Before Lovelock used the name Gaia, people could not really grasp his ideas at all. His friend, the novelist William Golding, suggested the name of the ancient Greek mother-goddess, Gaia. And when Lovelock tried that name, people began to understand him.” Mary Midgley

One of the problems with Gaia is that she’s very difficult to see. Of course I can see the Earth, it’s unavoidable, but when I say Gaia I mean the self-sustaining living system; a planetary ecosystem or even superorganism. I can’t directly see the all of the processes that go into the whole planetary system and certainly not in just my short human lifetime. It is too large and complex and even today’s science suffers from that limit, itself being quite a young human experience.

If you try to know Gaia by isolating one part, like the atmosphere, a forest or an ocean surface, you lose sense of the “big picture.” To get a sense of what Gaia is its best not to get too carried away with the details because you might lose the context. And here is where we replace the reductionist and atomistic way of seeing things for something holistic or “top-down,” that uses physiology as a model and metaphor for understanding the Earth’s living systems. This requires some intuitive or peripheral viewing to begin to work with, that can be adjusted and refined as our understanding of its workings become clearer.

I say peripheral because it’s one of those things that catches your attention out of the corner of your eye but seems to disappear when directly looked at. Put another way, it’s like when you like too closely at the details of a painting and you lose sense of what the pictures is because all you can see are colours and brushstrokes. Looking at the details of a painting, or of the Earth’s living systems, is a useful and necessary way of learning how the whole has come together, but to get a good view of it all we really have to “fly with the eagles,” get a view of the whole landscape as a working body.

Maybe it is an imaginative metaphor or poetic license. Maybe it is simply a lens through which we can view the Earth and our place on it. The fact is humans have been living with these lenses for a long time, and even science has to use metaphors as it struggles to create language for concepts that are beyond our immediate experience and accessible only through the imagination. By such lenses we are inspired and guided by a vision that has a bearing on our sense of meaning and morality.

Now I want to suggest an exercise, to “connect” with Gaia without intellectual analysis. If you have access to natural surroundings, go there and sense Gaia around you. You can visualize it in your mind, and you can feel it in your heart but also you can connect the experience with your body, letting it resonate through your being. Take any or all examples and see how it feels.

Feel that the Earth is a body, something that can be healthy or unhealthy, that evolves and changes depending on the forces acting upon it and within it.

Feel that Gaia is something to have a relationship with, or as a web of relationships between sky, land, sea, Sun and all organisms that has been evolving since life first appeared on Earth and to which humans are just newcomers.

Feel that life was just a passenger on a volatile rock but that grew and became a very influential force on the planet, where all organisms evolved together to keep the Earth alive.

Feel that water is the lifeblood of Gaia, that it also pumps through you.

Feel that photosynthetic life absorbs the energy of the Sun and then finds ways of sharing that with other organisms, along with nutrients.

Feel that the air you breathe and the food you eat are a source of communion with all other living things.

Feel humanity as an intelligent parasite living off of Gaia like an energy-hungry and resource-greedy disease.

Feel the outcome if humanity carries on like this.

Feel that humanity, like any disease, is killed off by its host in order to be healthy.

Feel that humanity chooses a different fate and works towards a healthy symbiosis with Gaia, directing our intelligence to work in harmony and collaboration with her.

In feeling Gaia this way we embrace a worldview that guides our attitudes and actions to a very different relationship with the Earth than we have now. Personifying the Earth has little to with defying science and more to do with engaging those aspects of the human psyche that cannot be convinced by intellectual analysis alone and creating an empathy with the very system that supports our existence. Harmonious planetary relationships require that we can feel with Gaia, not only think with Gaia.