Happy bEARTHday: Celebrate with “A Body Scan Through Geologic Time”

Jill S. Schneiderman proposes a meditative “Body Scan Through Geologic Time” practice to celebrate Earth Day.

Jill S. Schneiderman
23 October 2010

Jill S. Schneiderman proposes a meditative “Body Scan Through Geologic Time” practice to celebrate Earth Day.

I propose an antipodal celebration of Earth Day (April 22): “bEARTHday.”* It’s to be celebrated about six months later (October 23), and with much less hoopla—a body awareness meditation, geologic in nature, completed in silence.

Why October 23? Well, geologists like to have some innocent fun around this time of year by recalling Archbishop James Ussher, a 17th century head of the Anglo-Irish church, known for his attempt to fix the time of Earth’s creation: October 23, 4004 B.C. at midday. Usually, Ussher is ridiculed. But as geologist and historian of science Stephen Jay Gould pointed out, Ussher was engaged in a major intellectual endeavor of the 17th century—establishing a full chronology for all of human history.

Be that as it may, scientific investigation currently puts the Earth’s age at 4.6 billion years. That’s really old. So rather than bicker about fractional billions, I’d prefer to help cultivate humility in the face of one particular fact: that human beings occupy only a microsecond of geologic time.

Perhaps that’s what Mark Twain tried to do in “Was the World Made for Man?”, his essay in Letters from the Earth that concludes:

Man has been here 32,000 years. That it took a hundred million years to prepare the world for him is proof that that is what it was done for. I suppose it is. I dunno. If the Eifel Tower were now representing the world’s age, the skin of paint on the pinnacle knob at its summit would represent man’s share of that age; and anybody would perceive that the skin was what the tower was built for. I reckon they would, I dunno.

I think Twain might have appreciated the following analysis.

Using a calendar year as a metaphor for the 4.6 billion years of Earth history and taking January 1, New Year’s Day, as the Earth’s birthday, I calculated the position of October 23 in the Earth Year and detailed what was happening paleontologically at that moment in Earth history.

October 23 is day 296 out of 365 in this metaphorical year. With approximately three fourths of a calendar year having elapsed, one might think that at this point in the Earth Year some familiar organisms might have roamed the planet. Not so! In geologic time, October 23 represents 870 million years ago, the late Proterozoic. Many of the most important events in Earth history took place during this Eon—formation of an oxygen-rich atmosphere and evolution of eukaryotic cells, for example. Still, at 870 million years—the moment in geologic time just prior to the evolution of sponges, corals, and trilobites—as far as we know, the only living beings were ocean-dwelling, soft-bodied organisms.

Inspired by these metaphors, I offer up the following bEARTHday gift: a meditational body-scan.

A Body Scan Through Geologic Time: A Distance-for-Time Metaphor

Keeping in mind that proportions of the human body are affected by age, sex, and race, the average adult human figure is proportioned predictably and is roughly 7.5 heads tall. Therefore, we can take distances along the length of the body to symbolize major events in earth history.

For this body scan, begin by assuming a comfortable position and acknowledging an intention to cultivate a feeling in the body — rather than an understanding in the mind – for the vastness of geologic time.

Now, feel the bottoms of your feet and take them to symbolize the earliest moment in the formation of Earth. Next, bring your attention to the ankles and then up the calves. At a point midway up the calves picture the dynamic early solar system, when meteorites bombarded the planets. Move from the calves up the legs, pausing at the knee joint, which stands for the oldest rocks that survive today. The joint’s synovial fluid signifies the water vapor that condensed at this time to form the Earth’s early global ocean.

Bringing the attention upward in the body, the thighs represent the evolution of the earliest life on Earth—simple (no internal organelles) single-celled organisms.

In this distance-for-time metaphor, approximately half-way up the length of the body, the pelvic bones mark the establishment of an oxygen-rich atmosphere. Continuing to proceed upward along the length of the body, the navel marks where the first eukaryotic cells (single-celled life that was complex by virtue of containing distinct organelles) evolved.

At the height of the chest is the spot that corresponds to the flourishing of finally, soft-bodied multicellular life. At the neck one can envision the first appearance of animals with hard parts – trilobites and invertebrates that populated the seas. However, along the length of only one head, from the mouth to the eyes to the forehead and the scalp, we traverse the more familiar stages in Earth history–the ages of fishes then reptiles and finally mammals.

A skullcap of ice represents the last glacial age.

Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh has called attention to the fact that the Lotus Sutra refers to the name of a special bodhisattva—Dharanimdhara, or Earth Holder—as someone who preserves and protects the Earth. He does so, as Melvin McLeod editor of Shambhala Sun magazine comments, in the context of making a persuasive argument that humanity’s response to our environmental woes must ultimately be spiritual if we are to succeed. May this body scan through geologic time awaken us to the Earth Holder so that we can pursue right action in the face of our humbling reality.

* Thanks to my friend Melanie K. Dana for suggesting this homophonic spelling.

Jill S. Schneiderman

Jill S. Schneiderman

Jill S. Schneiderman is a professor of Earth Science at Vassar College and a 2009 recipient of a Contemplative Practice Fellowship from the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society.