Intimacies of Air: Love & Consciousness in the Time of PlagueCIR2020-06-11T14:45:33-04:00
‘This breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.’
Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks 
Most days through this time of plague I’ve been fortunate to get to the woods, enjoying air fragrant with Springtime in South-West England, where the pungent scent of Bear’s Garlic  is most noticeable. It grows abundantly here, and by mid April reaches full bloom – six-petalled starbursts nodding on the cool breeze, shimmering in dappled sunlight like fresh snow clustered over undulating green. Amongst other wild herbs, I’ve been eating it regularly to strengthen my immune system against the Covid-19 virus. Often as I pick its silky leaves I imagine it being used by my ancestors back in time. Allium ursinum, so-called not simply because it gives our bodies a powerful tonic at the end of Winter, but, I like to imagine, because before we hunted Brown Bear to extinction here, they might have crawled sluggishly out of hibernation and devoured it in great pawfuls, its fiery potency awakening their bodies for the new mating season.
This daily exercise – sanctioned by the British government now that we, like so many simultaneously around the world, are in lock-down, as ministers and medics attempt to slow the spread of the pandemic – is a source of nourishment in other ways, including my mental health. Today I was accompanied by Maggie, whose home I’m thankful to be staying in. As we followed the snaking mud path through the lush growth, counting our blessings that we’re local to these woods at a time when free movement is checked and millions are shut in cramped city flats with limited access to green spaces, or are working long hours as key workers, often risking their health, I asked her to pick which of the four elements she thought we humans have most intimacy with. Through our conversation, we considered each in turn.
Water seemed the most obvious at first – our bodies being composed of around 70% water. A precious resource for those who live in areas of drought or desert, water is essential for Life on Earth, and an element we intimately share with all beings as it moves through the Great Hydrological Cycle, passing in and out of our bodies through a variety of fluids, including our tears. Earth jostled as a likely second – we depend substantially on the soil for our food, and, dust-to-dust, physically return to it. But then fire struck us as just as essential, being a source of light, energy and heat for warming us and cooking our food. We also saw fire representing our metabolism and body heat, our passion and drive to take action in the world.
However it is with air, we concluded, that humans experience the greatest intimacy. Partly because it penetrates deep into our lungs through the act of respiration, reaching the minute balloon-shaped air sacs that could be leaves at the end of the respiratory tree’s branches, the function of which is to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide molecules to and from the bloodstream. Able to survive the least amount of time without it, we share the air, as we do water, with all human and other-than-human beings. Some we may dislike or even fear, and yet here we are inescapably experiencing this miraculous existence together inside a delicate pocket – Earth’s atmosphere, a phenomenon I explore in this section of my poem, ‘The Pocket’s Circumference’ :
‘If Earth were a fist balled up and thrust in a pocket, the atmosphere would be as thin as that cotton fabric. Our lungs know this. Drawing 20,000 breaths per day, these twin inflatable pockets point towards the element on which they depend.
Oxygen dances in from wherever the wind has blown it. Moments ago these atoms stepped out of a leaf. The air we breathe is shared by Doves, Pigs, Cheetahs. Arms dealers, corporate lobbyists & government ministers.’
Air also carries sound waves, although not uniquely (think of the clicks, squeaks and booms made by Cetaceans, which are transmitted through water). But like most terrestrial animals, human communications occur predominantly through the element of air. Weather too is a phenomenon of air – the world’s weather perpetually shifting, changing as it’s pushed and shaped by currents in the atmosphere. How we experience it in our corner of the Earth may significantly affect our mood, even our wellbeing and safety, as extreme weather events such as flash floods, hurricanes or bushfires increasingly impact our lives.
‘This breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you,’ Rumi teases, reminding us of what I believe could be the most essential aspect of our intimacy with air. As anyone who meditates will know, our breath governs our consciousness. And it was this word, ‘consciousness’, which sprang from Maggie’s lips, reaching my brain through the complexity of my auditory system as we walked through the woods, and developing my train of thought. When we slow our breath and focus our attention on it, we can clear our minds of unwanted thoughts, and come into connection with the present moment, the eternal now, which is really all there is. In this state we may open ourselves to deeper connection with the heart and with other beings. This conscious breath is also the gateway to connection with Spirit, the Divine intelligence within ourselves and our Universe. Conversely, when we’re not in control of our breath, we’re more likely to experience states of anxiety and stress; to become susceptible to panic attacks and other forms of psycho-emotional disturbance, all of which are often characterised by shallow and erratic breathing, including hyperventilation. I know because I was once hospitalised with such symptoms; yet when doctors had examined my heart and lungs, I was discharged – there was nothing physically wrong, they told me, nothing more they could do. In fact it took years to understand I was experiencing unprocessed trauma, to which my body was signalling me to attend.
Air is generally invisible to the naked eye, until it contains water vapour, or when it carries smoke or the smog of a polluted city. The greenhouse gases that the industrialised world copiously pours into the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels also go largely undetected by our senses – even the stench of car exhausts is something we’ve become accustomed to as the majority of us inhabit urban environments, although escalating rates of asthma ought to make us more alarmed. And yet it seems that Covid-19 is serving to draw our awareness to the element of air, primarily through the need for collective acts of attention to avoid infection. Suddenly we must be mindful of social distancing designed to prevent viral transmission through air-borne particles when we cough, sneeze or speak. At a symbolic level it’s striking too that Covid-19 affects the respiratory system. And whilst it’s terrible to see it hastening the deaths of people with underlying health conditions, and perhaps most tragically those sustaining heavy viral loads while working long hours with inadequate personal protection within under-resourced healthcare systems, all at once this new plague is awakening us to the element we’ve rather ignored, and yet which is so essential to our wellbeing.
Understandably many of us have experienced anxiety as our initial and ongoing response to these unforeseen circumstances. Lock-down has meant that unless we’re essential workers involved in healthcare, food production and distribution, our employment has stopped, or we must work from home, often while caring for and home-schooling children; and if we’re not in the fortunate position of being furloughed, those of us who are freelancers or on zero hours contracts are suddenly left with negligible sources of income, yet are still required to find money for rent, food, bills. Often this abrupt onset of plague has compounded challenges we were already facing. In the UK at least four million people were already reliant on food-banks , and across most wealthy industrialised countries, ‘consumers’ had been encouraged to take on high levels of debt, while many were stranded on the verge of destitution or already homeless; and in less wealthy parts of the world, millions of people live and work in cramped conditions where social distancing is impossible. Personally I’d only recently returned to Britain with few material resources and no immediate family support, after an extremely difficult year as a migrant without working rights on the other side of the world. Having been offered a place to stay by my friend Maggie, I’d only just begun to find my feet and grieve my disintegrating marriage when plague struck, bringing everything to a halt.
Being conscious of the climate crisis and the precipice on which we’re collectively standing, and with the relative privilege of my class, education, racial background and the support I’ve so far been able to access (including a grant for poets in hardship), I’ve been able to adjust, and even welcome this halt. Ten years ago I wrote a poem that envisioned the breathing space which all beings, including future generations, required. It arose out of sitting in meditation for Earth Hour. 
For Earth Hour
Sitting quietly as if no one were at home,
in candlelight our faces morph, shadows fly,
we breathe in the silence and our pulses slow,
unplug, disengaging from the charge that throws
the box, the red-eyed Cyclops off stand-by.
You and I are quiet, as if we were alone –
no phone, no gadgets, no kinetic motion
humming, whirring all the time –
and breathe in the silence till our pulses slow
the treadmill, at a standstill the revolving doors
so nothing moves, shut down all production lines.
We sit quietly, the ending unknown,
while across the land steely rows of scaffolds
no longer hold the buzz that plies our wires;
breathing in the silence our pulses slow,
the lights go out across the globe
as all the Earth respires.
We wait quietly, now very much at home;
breathing in the silence, our faces glow.
With reports already indicating how some other-than-human beings are benefiting from reduced pollution and decreased human activity , this planet-wide breathing space is – as many commentators are suggesting – also a chance for some of us to reassess how we orientate our lives. The pandemic, as deep ecologist Dr. Stephan Harding explains, has come about as a result of our ‘‘‘over-connectedness”… We depend too much on food and products from far away. We travel far too much in vast numbers and go to places that are far too distant. We are seeing right now how in an over-connected web a localised disturbance such as the appearance of a fatal virus can spread and amplify very quickly throughout the system, reducing its resilience and making it more likely to collapse.’  Other scientists cite the emergence of the virus as an aspect of global ecological breakdown, with humans increasingly encroaching into wildlife habitats , and this ‘zoonotic’ virus believed to have transferred into the human food-chain through the consumption of ‘bushmeat’.  As well as making us think more carefully about what ‘food’ we consume, this virus is offering us the opportunity to consider the systems into which our lives are woven – the ecosystems we inhabit, and the human systems now destabilising them through globalised industrial activity based on an economic system pursuing infinite growth within a planet of finite resources, where we should instead be focussing on the renewable elements of water, wind, sun and soil.
Infinite possibilities do nevertheless exist in the realm of consciousness – and working together humans have an extraordinary capacity to design alternative ways of living, which are more in harmony with the Earth. Diverse human cultures around the world have already been living this way for millennia, and here in the West we’ve much to learn from indigenous peoples who have survived colonisation and genocide, and yet retain traditional knowledge of how to live with respect for the sacredness of all Life. For those of us enmeshed in the systems of Western society, it can seem hard to see a way out. We’re so conditioned by notions of business as usual, programmed to believe that we require economic growth in order for our societies to flourish. And with air esoterically linked to the realm of the mind and ideas, it seems no accident that this plague also strikes us at a time when the term ‘post-truth era’ was gaining currency, when we were floundering around in oceans of information and disinformation, trying to distinguish ‘fake news’ from truth.
This is why it’s essential that we allow ourselves to orientate our thoughts and actions by the compass of love. Together in our separation, and experiencing this plague in vastly different ways, we’ve been witnessing numerous acts of loving kindness. The rapid establishment of community networks based on mutual aid. An old telephone box becoming a repository of free food in Highland Scotland. People setting up sewing-bees to manufacture masks for nurses and doctors. Local councils offering emergency accommodation for homeless people. Herbalists making immune-supporting tonics and remedies for free distribution to refugees. There are countless examples of kindness spreading worldwide. However, this is only the beginning of what we must do and continue beyond the pandemic.
‘Don’t go back to sleep,’ Rumi tells us, reminding us that collectively we’ve been sleep-walking into this crisis, addicted to hedonism and materialism, to booze and box-sets, video-games and porn, always looking toward the next opportunity to jet off for another short break in the sun. Through these and numerous other addictive behaviours, we’ve generally anaesthetised ourselves to feeling the pain of our suffering planet, or to feeling compassion for those who manufacture our cheap trinkets in faraway places. Amidst this current pandemic, numerous other public health epidemics, while not directly contagious, nevertheless co-exist on an often vaster scale, including the ‘opioid epidemics’ widely reported in the US, UK and Australia until news of Covid-19 eclipsed everything. A review by Public Health England in 2019 found that almost 12 million adults are prescribed sedatives, anti-depressants and opioid pain medications on which they may become dependent. And in December 2019 The Irish Examiner reported Health Minister Simon Harris describing addiction as ‘a public health epidemic’ in Ireland.
In 1966 American movie-theatres screened ‘The Endless Summer’, featuring two surfers chasing summer around the world, and this film has been credited with having contributed to the growth of surf culture and the travel industry. The characters’ motivation for leaving their native California in search of better weather is that cold ocean currents make local beaches inhospitable during Winter; and while I believe surfing to be a wonderful sport, for me the film illustrates how tragically we’ve come to reject our world of different seasons, with their rhythms of growth, abundance and decay. We fear decay, just as much as we fear death, darkness and ageing, and this is why we’ve made such a cult of youth – a feature of this culture glorifying growth. Yet infinite growth is cancer’s metastasis – and this is reflected in the spike in rates of cancer and other chronic disease in Westernised societies, attributable in large part to our unhealthy diets and the pollution of the ecosystems we inhabit. 
In traditional Chinese medicine, conditions affecting the lungs are associated with unexpressed grief. And again on a symbolic level, this plague is teaching us that our hearts need to break open as we allow ourselves to grieve our personal and collective losses. Societally we must acknowledge and mourn that we’re living through a period of Mass Extinction, the sixth time this appears to have occurred in the miraculous evolutionary journey of our planet. However, unlike previous extinction events, this one is being caused by industrialised human societies, by our pollution, deforestation, destruction of wild habitats and greenhouse gas emissions – an example being the estimated 800 million creatures incinerated in recent bushfires in Australia, where I was living until recently.  Thanks to the efforts of eco-activists putting themselves on the frontline, risking their liberty, livelihoods and even their lives to halt this ‘ecocide’ , as well as the often painstaking work of ecologists documenting it, this ongoing holocaust has been creeping into our awareness over decades now. Another of my poems marks one of my own attempts to witness this :
Climbing Out of a Dog Eat Dog World
‘There is nothing in the world, I would venture to say, that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one’s life.’ – Viktor Frankl
There’s this fear in growing up that your parents’ genes
will one day kick in. And perhaps they already have.
I’m a human body, a personality, and also a soul. As such
I tell myself I’ve chosen this pain. Why else would I be here
as the Planet’s heating up, if not to speak of the Holocaust
we’ve unleashed on this universal jewel –
Earth-Life unique with its Goldilocks conditions?
So many creatures lighting out – Yuman Box Turtle,
Caspian Tiger, Paradise Parrot, Golden Toad –
I cradle your dark spaces as rainforests dwindle,
and painted Kayapo people march for living rivers, trees –
these natural riches they steward for their children;
men, women, so proud and strong, yet almost naked
in the midst of the rushing, wasted city.
What can a poet do? Bear witness; be a conscience, perhaps?
Sometimes I feel such agony to see what ignorance and greed
are snuffing out. Yet somehow I find the inner rungs to climb
from despair. Hand over hand, there’s always something
to learn. Love is my meaning – through it I’m sure of nothing
but a personal evolution. Darwinists may reject this notion;
but in this life-time I know I’m evolving – as I have in others
before. Maybe I’ll manage more than my parents ever could.
Now I notice when my heart has closed. Only the heart breaks
patterns of fear. Together we can make a Being Love Being world.
The Dog Eat Dog world and the Being Love Being world could be the two worlds that Rumi alludes to: ‘People are going back and forth across the doorsill/where the two worlds touch./The door is round and open.’ His image of the doorsill might also be the threshold on which humanity is currently standing, while the round, open doorway suggests to me the windpipe through which air passes in and out of our bodies. In this time of huge uncertainty, we must stop on this threshold between the worlds and breathe. For many of us a great deal of what we hold dear has been stripped away, and in this state of vulnerability it may be possible for us to begin to see the old patterns that have held us back – some of these patterns even being ancestral, chaining us down the generations to modes of behaviour that no longer serve us. At this time, if we do have the opportunity to stop and reflect, we can allow our hearts to break open like seeds beginning to grow, a process that involves a kind of destruction. Only when the outer shell is cracked can the inner essence emerge in its transformed state and move through the soil’s darkness towards the sunlight.
In traditional initiation rites, people are supported by tribal elders through personal transformation in service of the collective. These rites tend to occur in three stages, of which the ‘threshold’ stage is the central one. The process begins with separation or severance, then moves into transition or threshold, and concludes with incorporation or return. In The Fruitful Darkness, Reconnecting with the Body of the Earth , in which Joan Halifax brilliantly weaves elements of her extraordinary life-story through her explorations of the wisdom of indigenous peoples, from Native American elders to Tibetan Buddhist meditators, she describes this initiation process as a ‘sacred catastrophe’, ‘a holy failure that actually extinguishes our alienation, our loneliness, and reveals our true nature, love.’ Of the threshold stage she writes:
‘At the Threshold, the gate to the unconscious, the unknown, once closed, is now open. As it opens, there appears a landscape inhabited by ancestral patterns. And in this interstice between self and other, the gods appear as forms of energy emanating from external and internal landscapes. When we are in this liminal state, we find the place where the worlds connect and flow together, where form and space, figure and ground are one.
In the Threshold we experience ourselves as a multiplex. We are both mortal and god, human and creature, wild and cultured, male and female, old and dying, and fresh and newborn. We are rough and unmade, not held together. The Threshold is where grain and chaff, beater and beaten are mixed.’
Clearly intense mystery surrounds this phase, and inevitably there is a longing to grasp for interpretations – which is why conspiracy theories currently abound. We must of course stay vigilant through this period of darkness, remain alert for those who would take advantage of us, whether through petty criminal scams to exploit our vulnerability, or the supra-state machinations of giant corporations advocating for increased levels of control of our lives, in order to enrich themselves yet further. But at the same time it’s important to come back to the ground of love – the ultimate truth behind every faith tradition – and what exists for us in the eternal moment when we’re connected with our breath and thought falls away.
In this threshold place we can hold ourselves in all our complexity, which includes our being ‘humanimal’, a synthesis that the dominant Western culture has helped us forget. As Nature, we’re standing here, somewhat helpless in the face of this new plague, although it may serve to remember that our ancestors have faced such circumstances before us. In his seminal book, The Dream of the Earth,  Thomas Berry, the American cultural historian and eco-theologian (or ‘geologian’, as he preferred), reminds us of what he defines as a watershed moment in the evolution of Western ‘civilisation’, which occurred through the fourteenth century European plague known as the Black Death. This ‘central traumatic moment in Western history’ – estimated to have killed off a third of Europe’s population within the two year period 1347-1349 – Berry believes to have generated two directions of development. One ‘toward a religious redemption out of the tragic world’; the other toward ‘greater control of the physical world to escape its pain and to increase its utility to human society.’
These may seem understandable, even laudable pathways, especially as they provide some of the fundamental narratives underlying contemporary Western culture; however, as Berry demonstrates, they have actually contributed to the development of the contemporary industrialised world in which we’re now being required to confront economic collapse, climate breakdown, the wholesale devastation of our planetary ecosystems and our own demise, not simply as individuals, but also as a species. Berry, who was ordained as a Catholic priest, felt that the Christian narrative of religious redemption through a personal saviour relationship negates our sense of the world as ‘a continuing process of emergence in which there is an inner organic bond of descent of each reality from an earlier reality’, while the scientific narrative emphasises a struggle for survival, such as that espoused through the Darwinian principle of natural selection, and offers no notion of underlying meaning or purpose. Combined with secular ideas of the Universe as ‘a random sequence of physical and biological interactions with no inherent meaning’, Thomas Berry sees this worldview as having created societies lacking in adequate spiritual and moral values, and suggests that the antagonisms between religious and scientific paradigms prevents us from holding a unifying story – a prerequisite, he says, for a community’s sustainable and flourishing existence.
Fortunately this far-seeing geologian points the way out of our impasse: ‘The remedy for this is to establish a deeper understanding of the spiritual dynamics of the universe as revealed through our own empirical insight into the mysteries of its functioning…. Empirical inquiry into the universe reveals that from its beginning in the galactic system to its earthly expression in human consciousness the universe carries within itself a psychic-spiritual as well as a physical-material dimension. Otherwise human consciousness emerges out of nowhere.’ And for Thomas Berry human consciousness is ultimately the capacity of the universe itself ‘to reflect on and celebrate itself in conscious self-awareness.’ This integration of the spiritual and the scientific aspects of Western culture offers us a new and powerful way of perceiving what it is to be human. Ultimately it leads us to a deeper understanding of the sacredness of all human and other-than-human life, a position which aligns us with indigenous cultures, where such awareness has survived. Berry believes this provides humanity with a new story, and it underpins his vision of a future Ecozoic Era ‘where we live in harmony with the Earth as our community’ – an era which ‘we must will into being’.
This can sound somewhat abstract, and I often find myself contemplating the issue that we appear to face in making the collective change towards a life-sustaining society, no longer dependent on fossil fuels and endless exploitation of low-paid workers and Earth’s resources – the lack of unified political will. And yet the world-wide shut-down of so much of contemporary life, including the closing of national borders and the grounding of aeroplanes, which as the environmental campaigner and author George Monbiot recently commented would have seemed impossible just a couple of months ago, is already pointing to the fact that governments can mobilise solutions to global problems when the will to do so exists.  However, there are inherent risks in allowing governments to take these kinds of actions, including our loss of civil liberties. And so I feel it’s important that we acknowledge not only having lost sight of ourselves as the consciousness of the Universe reflecting back on itself, and of our deep interdependence with all beings, but also that we’ve deferred responsibility for ourselves and our world to politicians who rarely hold these deep ecological and spiritual perspectives, and who are themselves caught up in political systems that reinforce polarisation and the entrenchment of power.
There is, I think, therefore an urgent need to reclaim political will by making it our own. This we can begin by unifying our love and will to act, a unification explored in depth by existential psychologist Rollo May in his influential, though at times flawed book, Love and Will, published in 1969 . May also saw humanity existing in transitional times, characterised by anxiety and what he perceived as being the opposite of love – not hate, but apathy. Apathy he defines as feelings of being empty, powerless and the wish to remain unconscious, unwilling to examine personal and collective issues – ultimately the state of being asleep. This, Rollo May believes, has pervaded our society because we’ve come to assume that ‘the ultimate goal of existence is the satisfaction of impulses’. But in this mode of expecting the instant gratification of our desires, we’ve lost connection with Eros, ‘our capacity to participate in a constant dialogue with our environment.’
Apathy also equates to the absence of will, because as May shows, love and will are interconnected, with both terms describing ‘a person in the process of reaching out, moving toward the world, seeking to affect others… molding, forming, relating to the world or requiring that it relate to him.’ Will – as distinct from Victorian notions of willpower, which May describes as having been based on an absence of self-awareness and the repression of unconscious urges, motivations and fears – requires us to become actively engaged in integrating our shadow aspects, so that we can act as consciously as possible. This notion of ‘will’ is grounded in our intentionality, and is, he says, ‘at the heart of consciousness’.
Intentionality connects with love and care through the root word ‘tend’. What then are we tending through the darkness of this threshold time, and where are we placing our attention? What intentions do we hold for ourselves and for our world to emerge out of our diverse experiences of this contemporary plague? And what new consciousness, insights, habits of thought or practices will we incorporate into our lives when we return to the world after this initiation process? As Rumi tells us, ‘You must ask for what you really want’.
From The Essential Rumi, trans by Coleman Barks with John Moyne, Harper Collins, 1995
Names of animals, birds, plants etc are capitalised as part of my long-standing ecopoetic practice, raising their status from the margins to which Western culture has relegated them.
From ECOZOA, Helen Moore, Permanent Publications, 2015
From Hedge Fund, And Other Living Margins, Helen Moore, Shearsman Books, 2012
Fewer animals are being killed by cars, including breeding Turtles in Ontario. Greenhouse gas emissions have dropped and on 8/4/20 The Independent reported that the Himalayas can be seen from parts of India for the first time in 30 years. In India an estimated 1.5 million people died from the effects of air pollution in 2012.
World Health Organisation statistics indicate that global levels of obesity have nearly tripled since 1975. Heart disease is the number one cause of death worldwide, with cancer second, and new cancer cases expected to rise by 70% over the next 20 years.
From Hedge Fund, And Other Living Margins, Helen Moore, Shearsman Books, 2012
The Fruitful Darkness, Reconnecting with the Body of the Earth, Joan Halifax, Harper Collins, 1994
The Dream of the Earth, Thomas Berry, Sierra Club Books, 1988
George Monbiot on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Inside Science’, 16/4/20
Love and Will, Rollo May, W.W.Norton & Co, 1969
Helen Moore is an award-winning British ecopoet and socially engaged artist based in SW England. She has published three poetry collections, Hedge Fund, And Other Living Margins (Shearsman Books, 2012), ECOZOA (Permanent Publications, 2015), acclaimed as ‘a milestone in the journey of ecopoetics’, and The Mother Country (Awen Publications, 2019) exploring British colonial history and dispossession in a range of forms. Helen offers an online mentoring programme, Wild Ways to Writing, which provides a unique creative writing journey into deeper Nature connection, and has recently been awarded a substantial grant by the Royal Literary Fund to support her work. www.helenmoorepoet.com