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Mind and Life on a Breathing Planet

Mind and Life on a Breathing Planet

by David Abram

— From Mind and Life Europe's Mind Matters Series 2023 on “Caring for Life”:

The Gaia hypothesis offers both a coherent narrative framework and a robust scientific model—and, perhaps most importantly, it offers a way of understanding our predicament from outside of the constraints of the strictly human perspective. “Gaian being denotes planetary solidarity,” Professor Bruce Clarke reminded his audience in a talk delivered in 2022 at the Koldo Mitxelena Cultural Center in Donostia-San Sebastián, Spain. It is this way of being, precisely, that challenges us to go beyond the classical narrative of being separate agents acting on a broken world.

What, then, are the implications of taking a “Gaian” perspective and considering things according to Gaian timescales? What would it mean to be Gaian, not simply as another identity banner in a world of rampant individualism, but as an existential commitment to a mode of being-in-the-world? How has the Gaia hypothesis, and the “more-than-human world” more generally, in David Abram's seminal coinage, extended itself into the imaginations of philosophers and scientists?

Abram's presentation to Mind and Life Europe's Mind Matters series suggests that the atmosphere of this planet may most usefully be understood as a commonwealth of breath. For the air is hardly a bunch of gases that just happen to be drawn down to Earth and held in place by Earth’s gravity. Rather, our planet’s envelope of air is continually born from the ongoing interbreathing among the biota altogether. Indeed, this continually generated, far-from-equilibrium atmosphere would seem to be the very signature of a living planet.

Until climate change forced a new reckoning with this unseen element, the uncanny invisibility of the air had led many modern thinkers and institutions to overlook the massive influence of the atmosphere upon our lives. Yet that same invisibility is what led diverse indigenous, oral cultures to acknowledge the air as the most sacred dimension of the experienced world. In this session, we’ll ponder some possible implications that a renewed awareness of the enveloping atmosphere — as the commonwealth of breath — has for our understanding of mind itself.

Key points

  • We don't live on the Earth but in the Earth, immersed in the air, which is a part of the Earth.
  • The Gaia hypothesis suggests that the Earth's atmosphere is a living organ, generated by all living organisms breathing together.
  • The phrase "out of sight, out of mind" relates to how we often disregard the air's importance, treating it as a void or dumpsite for unwanted byproducts.
  • Consciousness is difficult to define, and there may be a need for a fresh conception of it, given our impact on other species and ecosystems.
  • Consciousness can be likened to the air or atmosphere, a medium in which we are situated and cannot extricate ourselves from.
  • The awareness within us could be continuous with a wider awareness, suggesting that our consciousness is not solely ours but is part of the Earth's.
  • Inuit and Yupik peoples refer to Sila, the windmind, an elemental wonder of the air and a source of all breath, life, and awareness.
  • The Inuit concept of an individual's breath soul, or inua, is part of the wider mind of the wind, Sila. This understanding resolves the philosophical mind-body problem by suggesting the soul returns to its original matrix, the air, at death.