This morning I was thinking about some of the issues I wrote about in an essay published a few years back. For today's post, here's a selection from that piece.
I have practiced yoga in some beautiful, almost immaculate studio spaces over the past several years. And I’ve often felt gratitude for the care that’s put in to the upkeep of these places. The same thing can be said of Clouds in Water Zen Center, with its pristine meditation halls and gathering spaces. At the same time, however, it’s become increasingly clear to me how such practice environments reflect the ways in which so many of us are split off from the very earth we are made of. The nearly pristine floors. The rationally ordered props and altars. The air conditioning in the summer. The centralized heating in the winter. The severe lack of wildness.
Throughout most of its history, yoga has been practice either outdoors, or within the simplest of structures, designed mostly to protect people from the extremes. And whereas Zen has been long practiced in monastic buildings, monks and nuns traditionally spent much of their day outdoors, gathering materials for cooking, traversing the villages, and even meditating along the roads and in the fields. Something of the depth of wisdom is lost, or difficult to locate anyway, when the practices are cloistered off in today’s tamed environments. It’s really easy to forget, for example, that the Buddha became enlightened while sitting at the foot of a tree. Or that many of the postures we practice in yoga were directly taken from observations of animals, plants, and elements of the Earth.
Simply put, humans have become too alienated from our own planet. It’s notable that yogic practices developed around the time this alienation seemed to be forming. Buddhism came later, with Zen forming as an offshoot some 1500-1600 years ago. For all the benefits we have received from agriculture, as well as the development of cities and societies, much has also been lost. The litany of abuse people have unleashed upon the earth, especially in recent centuries, is clearly a sign of deep disconnections, so deep that for some that they might destroy the entire planet in the long term, if it meant big material profits in the short term.
Probably from the beginning, this disconnection has been tied to the oppression of women. Ecofeminist Susan Griffin suggests that we have been living in a “bifurcated system” where the natural world has been turned into something in need of “mastery and domination.” In this system, emotions, vulnerability and tenderness have become “forms of submission.” In the process, women have been socialized “to be more connected with the body than are men, for whom this connection represents a threat.” Even the very ways in which we conceptualize and relate to the Earth have been greatly distorted, and used “to justify the social construction of gender.”
Perhaps those early yogis and Buddhists intuitively felt some of this separation occurring. Maybe they were offering a way for people to re-pattern themselves amidst the unhealthy current around them. Given that yoga, and to a somewhat lesser degree Buddhism, remained primarily the domain of men of elite social status until recent centuries, however it’s obvious that some of that separation had already penetrated quite deeply.
*Photo of Thistles by author.