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I am a teacher. One of my favorite things to teach is the respiration process of animals and plants. It is something beautiful, the efficiency and interdependence. As we shall see, it’s possible to infer implications of startling complexity. Yet, at its root, it is quite simple: we breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide. Plants do the opposite.
We each need the other. The world would quickly run out of available oxygen without our green friends. The world would soon run out of available carbon dioxide without us animals.
It’s such a beautiful system. We’ve got no use for CO2. Plants have no use for O2. We each depend on this thing that the other no longer needs. On a theological level, there is something very interesting going on here. Let’s begin with the mere observation that the whole system is so exquisitely coordinated. Evolution has designed an object lesson in interdependence.
But from there, move on to the idea that our breathing is a way of saying God’s name. Is it possible that the plant’s breathing is, too? If we assign to our breath-parts the sounds “Yah” as we inhale oxygen and “weh.” as we exhale carbon dioxide, then plants are saying that name in reverse: “Weh” as they inhale carbon dioxide, “Yah.” as they exhale oxygen.
In a profound and important manner, as I say one half of God’s name, and the plant says the other half of God’s name, the plant and I are saying God’s name together. As I say “Yah” the plant says “Weh.” As the plant says “Yah” I say “weh.” This strange bond, this connection, has an element, or two, which remove it even further from the sorts of names that are normally said. This strange name is said simultaneously, both syllables at once.
It ought to be acknowledged that there are some ways in which these observations oversimplify. For one thing, unlike animals, plants don’t “breathe” constantly. They “create” oxygen while photosynthesizing, and not at other times. Secondly, though we will sometimes focus on a single plant, bush, shurb, etc. and for simplicity and convenience, we’ll visualize the balance between ourselves and that single plant. It’s unlikely, in reality, that our oxygen needs will be exactly met by that plant; it’s similarly unlikely that the plant’s carbon dioxide needs will be exactly met by the carbon dioxide we produce. It’s still a helpful image, though. It’s a stand-in for the numerous plants we depend on, for the numerous animals the plant needs.
it’s worth simplifying in our minds. The basic principle that we are in a reciprocal relationship with plants still holds up. Visualizations follow the logic of dreams. It’s a logic that is difficult to express in words, but a logic nonetheless.
Today’s practice is an opportunity to connect with our photosynthesizing siblings. It would work by simply picturing plants in general, by objectively knowing that there are living creatures who breathe opposite us. But a first, wise step is to imagine a specific plant. Perhaps a favorite tree. If you can do this meditation in the presence of a houseplant or sitting at the trunk of an actual tree, that is so much better.
Practice #5) Breathing with a Plant
- Release your responsibilities for this time and find your center.
- Take three deep, cleansing breaths.
- Now, bring your plant friend to mind. Study it either with your physical eyes or in your mind’s eye. Love this plant if you can.
- As you inhale, breathe in the oxygen which was breathed out by your plant.
- As you exhale, realize that this exhalation, which would be poisonous to you, is exactly what this plant needs.
- Repeat steps 4 and 5 for two more breaths.
- Sit in relation to your plant, recognizing your interdependence as you breathe together.
- Seek to be fully present to each of your breaths in the moment, as you breathe with your plant for the next three breaths.
- Consider with this next inhalation that you and the plant are saying God’s name together, two almost-syllables said simultaneously. The oxygen from the plant and to you, God’s two-part name said all at once.
- With that exhalation see that you and the plant are once again saying God’s name together, this time switching which part of God’s name each of you is responsible for.
- For the remainder of the time you have left for this practice, breathe with the plant in whatever manner feels best: focusing on the interdependence, this breath, or saying God’s name together.
- When you are nearly done, release this practice and sit in a time of wordless union.
Fifth Reading Practice
Isaiah 55 says that the hills will break out into singing. The tendency is to receive verses like this as being merely symbolic. But notice how much power you are ceding to others, when you allow them to dictate the terms of what should be taken literally and what should be taken metaphorically. There’s a way in which debates about the meaning of the bible are quite fascinating to watch. It seems to me that there is a certain group of people who act as though their badge of honor is the ability to take every story in the bible in a literal, naive, face value sort of way. When a closer look is taken, though, it becomes clear that this group, (who wanted to take the seven days of creation or the story of Noah quite literally) are quite willing to take other statements much more symbolically. My experience is that those who are most ready to see the bible’s narratives as always literal will resist taking literally phrases like ‘God is love.’
Of course, most of us agree that the phrase ‘the mountains and hills will burst into song’ does not mean that a set of lips will appear in the dirt and that these lips will suddenly begin to make musical noises. However, there are many sorts of things this phrase can mean. If the most literal are not easy to take seriously, this does not mean that we ought to instantly default to the most symbolic. Many of these highly symbolically ways of receiving these words diminish the potency.
It seems to me, the question is rarely, ‘Who is taking scripture literally and who is not?’ More often, the real question is, ‘What portions of the bible is this group taking literally? What portions of the bible is that group taking literally?’
Today, we will focus on a holy imagining approach to this chapter. Sometimes, this sort of practice is better for more narrative selections from the bible. In this particular case, the practice works well, though. This is because even though Isaiah 55 doesn’t tell a story, it is filled with sensory imagery. Our procedures will be to read the entire passage through once. Then, we will reread a handful of verses at a time, pausing at each step to engage our imagination and experience these descriptions through our senses.
As you find your center for this practice, take a few deep breaths. Read through the passage once in its entirety. Now, after taking a few breaths, bring to mind times you have been thirsty. Don’t just think about being thirsty. Feel what it was like on your tongue and throat. Consider how it took over your attention. Think about the moments right before you got that refreshing ice water, popsicle, or blender drink. Then, think about what it’s like to be hungry. If it’s not too painful, think about a time you haven’t been able to get to food even though it was around. Now, let your thirst and hunger be satisfied in your memory. Bring to mind the feelings in your body when you get the things you were so desperately craving. Don’t rush through this. Let yourself dwell on it. Live inside of it. Recall multiple examples if you’d like.
Now, read verses 1-7. Take a few deep breaths.
Bring to mind the night sky. See the swirling of the milky way, as if you are watching from somewhere far from city lights. A crisp wind brings in clouds, and rain begins to fall. Feel it dampen your clothes. It is cold, bracing, and slowly, the dropping temperature turns the rain to snow. Find yourself dressed appropriately for this weather; you are ready for it. See it fall; feel it land on your cheek. Take your time imagining this. Sit with the image. Relish it. Enjoy it.
Now, see the rain falling again and landing to nourish a field of grain. In your mind’s eye, see the grain harvested and pounded into flour. Now the flour is mixed with other ingredients to make bread; it’s being cooked. See this being eaten, warm. Imagine the feel of the texture of the bread on the tongue. Let this be a true occurrence of holy imagining. Don’t rush through this critical step of truly imagining. Feel it in your body.
Read verses 8-11.
Read it again if you need to. Let it connect to that last sequence of images. Do it slowly.
See the mountains and hills. See the trees and the bushes. If you’ve been somewhere like this recently, imagine this specific place. See the breeze gently moving the plant life. Breathe a deep breath in the forest in your mind. And listen. Really listen. Deeply listen. There is a song. Where does it come from? What does it sound like?
Read the remainder of the chapter.
Replay some of these images in your mind. Breathe deeply, and carefully progress through all of them: The thirst and the quenching of that thirst. The rain, the snow, the fields, the bread. The mountains and trees and most of all the song, the beautiful song. Don’t let the brevity of this summary imply that your mental replay ought to be short. Take the time that you ought to take.
If you’d like, read through the chapter one more time. Luxuriate in the sensory images in it.
Some Reflections on How This Practice Went For Me
One of the things that came to me intensely was the importance of self care. I spent many years of my life trying to get by on the bare minimum. We didn’t have many resources, then, and scrimping and saving within limits is a good thing. In my case, though, what began as a healthy attempt to be productive and reasonable ended with a constant desire in my own self to try and get by on less and less. I operated in a world that was dominated by need and want, back then. I saw the universe as a stingy place.
I found the opening lines to be an invitation to enjoy myself, to take my pleasure as something important. The line about ‘labor.’ Also stuck with me quite a lot. I know that some people in the world have to work soul-crushing jobs just to survive. But others choose soul-crushing in order to make a few dollars more. It doesn’t seem like God wants that.
As I look at these verses, I realize I tend to experience God as very… dour. And faintly disapproving. Especially when God starts in on the ways he has reached out to his people. I tend to get this feeling of, ‘The grown up is talking now. My enjoyment is not a very important thing.’ But I found it so refreshing in this verse. The way I received God’s words were that God’s location in history, the ways he spoke to the ancient Israelites, this is not more or less important than my own experiences of joy. God isn’t just calling out people like Moses (or me) to do things we don’t want to do. God’s way isn’t just a list of fun things I am not allowed to do. God, in fact, endowed me with splendor. I don’t know exactly what those words mean but they sound like an invitation to more joy and fun than I would usually credit God for.
There’s some pretty famous verses in the middle of this chapter. They are about the ways that God’s thoughts are not my thoughts. I continued to see them as partially meaning the sorts of things I always had. One thing they are saying is that my little brain can’t comprehend the fullness of God. And I’m good with that. But reading it in context, and trying to experience this all deeply, I got more than just this out of those words.
Given the invitation early in the chapter to come, buy, and eat, and given the explanation that comes next, about how even the rain falling from the sky nourishes before the water returns to the clouds, I received a real message that the parts of God I don’t understand are not things to be afraid of.
Generally, when people quote those words about God’s ways not being my ways, I have a thought. I think it’s generally intended. That thought is ‘Watch out! Be careful. If God is beyond your understanding, there’s no telling what you might accidentally do that won’t end well!’
But it’s so clear, here, that God is trying to make the point that while the universe is more complex than we can imagine, this complexity is for us. We benefit. God figured out a way to make the water cycle nourish and care for us. Random drops falling down the sky bring life to us. If there can be such wonderful, luxuriant, efficiency that increases our pleasure even in something as simple as rain falling from the sky, surely God has hard wired the universe in other ways for us.