Down and Dirty


By Barbara Gates  |  

Despite the drizzle, our aging dog, Cleo, refused to budge from her favorite resting spot—in the raw garden dirt. “I’m afraid Cleo might be getting a bit ditzy in her dotage,” observed our dog-loving downstairs tenant. Perhaps she is. But as I think about it now, Cleo may be heeding the pull of a deeper intelligence. It’s one I follow as well (albeit on drier days) when I descend into the backyard of our home in Berkeley, California, and stretch my 58-year-old body on the ground.

On a rough day like today, I take myself by the scruff of the neck and just about fling myself down onto the grass in the backyard. My mind is jammed with worries, especially about my family back in New York: my stepfather’s failing health, my mother’s anxiety, my conflicts with my sister and my self-reproach about those exchanges. It feels like this earth nap is my last recourse. I’ve got to settle myself somewhere. It’s either the grass or the trash!

What a relief it is to sink into a bed of clover and dandelions. Contact with the ground arouses my senses. I feel the sharpness of my hipbones, the tenderness of my breasts, the movement of breath in my belly. And as I attend to sensations, the congested thoughts that have so consumed my attention begin to clear. I start to hear other neighborhood noises: the trill and stutter of house finches, city buses, freeway traffic, a train hoot resonating through me and disappearing into the distance.

My body molded to the earth, I relax into the far reaches of the continent. Giving play to my imagination, I picture the jigsaw segments of the earth’s rind shifting. I feel through layers of rock to the molten depths in the earth’s mantle. As my mind becomes wide like the earth, my worries and angry thoughts seem to leach into the soil. I think of the story of the Buddha counseling his son Rahula: “Develop a state of mind like the earth, Rahula. For on the earth, people throw clean and unclean things, dung and urine…and the earth is not troubled.”

Next to me lies Cleo, her splayed limbs waving in a swoon of sunshine ecstasy. I remember her stretched on the wet dirt seeming to abandon herself to the rain. Just as my own aging animal body loves to lie on the earth, I wonder how it might feel for Cleo, her coat soaked through, her body cleaving to the ground. Is there some settling beyond all rationality, some yearning to return to the earth’s sacramental cycles?

Receiving my body, the ground is cool, still damp from the recent rains. At different times in geologic history, this land was under water. Beneath the grass are alternate layers: sediments carried down from the Berkeley hills by the creeks, then San Francisco Bay muds carried from the drainage of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers, layer upon layer dating back thousands of years. When the continental glaciers melted, the bay flooded the coastal lowlands, sometimes rising as far as this yard and beyond. Lying here on the earth, I am taken with this vast sense of change. In this moment, I sense the futility of living in opposition to other things. There’s just the invitation to rest in what’s here—a continuous coming and going, arising and dissolving.


Across the continent, my mother, sister, and stepfather are on this same evolving planet. As I lie here, I sense our underlying connection. I try to imagine all of them taking an earth nap in their own yards or nearby parks, as I am doing here. In some unaccountable way, I find this comforting.

Barbara Gates is coeditor of the Buddhist journal Inquiring Mind and author of Already Home: A Topography of Spirit and Place, from which this essay is adapted. Her Web site is www.barbaragates.com.