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I was given a small, almost silly gift. It was a small magenta and orange porcelain possum with an opening in his back for a tiny plant. Though I love nature I had never been responsible for a plant before.
For those first couple days the plant felt like any other little trinket that might clutter my desk. But then I noticed that its little leaves were a little browner, a little more brittle than they had been when I received the plant. For a moment, my ambivalence turned to annoyance. I would have to water it. I didn’t have to water my stapler, or the mug which held my pencils. This wasn’t just any little dust collector; this was going to take some work.
Then I got worried. I found myself wondering just how much water I was supposed to give it. And how often. And what would happen if I got it wrong. I am usually a pretty relaxed human being. Suddenly I was tense. People who were supposed to know about these things were frustratingly vague. I followed their vague instructions as precisely as I could. Have you ever tried to be precise about vagueness? It doesn’t really work.
But it seemed like things went ok. I don’t think I was imagining it when it seemed so much greener the next day. That was around the time I name my plant. Frank, it turns out, is the plant’s name. Yes, I know that is silly. No, I am not kidding though. My plant’s name is Frank.
People talk a lot about the idea that you should never name something you’d like to be rid of. That’s worth noting here. It’s part of the testament of the power of a name. If God’s name is the inhale and the exhale then in the act of identifying this is so, we grow closer to God. Just like you don’t want to name that stray if you wish to not be heart broken if he leaves, so too we grow bonded to God as we realize that we have been saying God’s name all along. So too, did I grow bonded to Frank once I realized that was the plant’s name.
Previously, we explored the idea that God identified Godself to Noah with some words that are sometimes rendered as ‘I am.’ The strangeness of the answer implies an almost-rebuke; God, it seems, is not the sort of being who has a normal name. Later in the bible one of the interesting dynamics to follow, as Jesus faces off with demons is the importance of names. Jesus often asks demons their names. They sometimes seem to think the fact that Jesus doesn’t know those names means he has no power over them. They sometimes mock and taunt Jesus with the fact that they know Jesus’ name.
Names are important things. Perhaps there is something about particularity in all this. A related Buddhist concept is sometimes translated as thisness and thusness. If I think of it as ‘plant.’ It is just the same as thousands of other plants sitting in a tacky little planter. When I give it the specific name ‘Frank.’ now I notice the ways that Frank is different from all those other plants; he has four leaves clumped together here; she has a tendril circling around a portion of the ceramic there. There is a yellow-ish spot at that place.
It might seem like this doesn’t quite apply to God. After all, most of us don’t believe that there is a whole bunch of Gods to choose from. It doesn’t seem like giving God the name ‘Yahweh’ separates God from a bunch of others.
However, it’s a little more complicated than that.
I have lots of ideas of Gods in my head. I’m not like an ancient Greek, really. It’s not the case that I think a bunch of Gods exist, and this one is in charge of this thing, and that God is in charge of that thing. But…. there is still a pantheon in my mind.
There is the idea of an angry bearded fellow in my brain. He has been smiting folks left and right. There is the idea of a primal force at the start of the universe who watches impassively. He is wearing a white robe. There is nebulous shadow figure, beyond all my words and descriptions, transcendent of everything.
The one I name YWVH has some things in common with each of those. But not everything. This God is as close as my breath; moreover, this God’s name is my breath itself. The very nature of the action tells me some things about this God; this God is necessary for my life. This God is mysterious but intimate with me. This God’s name is unsayable, and yet it is always said.
Have you ever breathed with somebody? Really breathed with them?
Sometimes, when I am having trouble sleeping, I tune into the rhythm of my wife’s breath. I will try and time it just so, matching her inhales and her exhales. When I do this, sometimes I can drift right off to sleep.
Have you ever had someone talk you through a meditation? When someone says ‘inhale…. Exhale’ it is hard for to resist. And so frustrating when their guidance isn’t at a pace that we find natural. There is something so soothing about coordinating the timing of our breaths with others.
This next practice invites the practitioner to first breathe with those around us. We then find ourselves breathing in relation to plants. Gradually, the practitioner widens the scope of their mind’s eye, picturing the self in a larger and larger web of interactions.
I find that something happens to me as I picture scenes like this. There’s a sort of parallel with watching a certain type of shot in the film. It’s almost a visual cliche; usually the last shot in the movie. It might start as a close-up shot, but then it pulls back, further and further, and with distance we lose the details on the things that were just a moment ago so clear. We lose the specifics of the individuals and see the whole neighborhood, pull up through the clouds, see the outlines of the continent, and eventually even pan back and away from the planet itself.
Because we are finite and limited, as we see the full outlines of the big picture, we lose the particular details we were able to entertain. When we see the curves of planet Earth, we no longer witness the particular details of the tableau where we began. We can’t see the specific people or scene where the shot began.
We can take a wider view of nearly anything. It doesn’t even have to be visual. I can start by focusing on the work day of a particular person. While I’m focused on this, I might want to know about this person’s schedule, job description, and performance. But I could take a wider look. I could focus on how this person’s job interfaces with the organization he works for. I could wonder about how the organization fits into the wider community where it is head quartered. I could wonder about how the community functions within the wider society, and how the various societies interact with each other.
It’s easy to see the individual as the most relevant level of organization. I can understand why most of the shots in a movie or designed to follow along specific people. I suspect that this is because where we naturally identify with our consciousness, and therefore our sense of control. I am composed of cells, and the cells make up tissues, and the tissues make up organs, and the organs make up organ systems. The organ systems make up my individual self. And my self is a part of a family. And my family is part of a community. And my community is part of a nation. And the nation is part of a planet, and the planet is part of a solar system.
This description could continue onward, in either direction. But I suppose you are taking my point. The individual is just one level of description. Because my consciousness is more or less in control of my own individual self it’s easy to see this as the natural level of importance.
A camera, or a visualization which lands somewhere else is an important reminder that there are elements which make up the individual that I identify with. They are important reminders that this individual is a constituent of wider systems. This is an important thing to focus on, a reminder. In our practice below, we reinforce our experience of our connections with all the living things.
In the description below, I have tried to take on particular scenario of where a person might be, in relation to others. It so happens that I live on the second floor of a 3-floor apartment building. If you live in a substantially different area, it might make sense to alter the ways in which you are widening your awareness. The main thing is that we begin by picturing ourselves and gradually widen our perspective to include an increasing number of people.
Before the prior practice, we explored the idea that even if the visualization is not literally specifically true, there is still value to it. As we explored our interconnections with the plant, we overlooked the fact that plant’s don’t literally exhale constantly.
For today’s practice we’ll engage in a similar act of symbolic visualization. Of course, at any given time a person might be inhaling or exhaling. At this exact moment, probably half the people you know are doing one. Perhaps half the people you know are doing the other. As stated previously, sometimes a person might coordinate the timing of their breaths with someone they are with.
In the practice today, we’ll imagine that we are exhaling and inhaling with other people. Literally, of course, this is probably not true. But on a symbolic level, it helps us to remember.
Practice 6) Breathing With Other People
- Release your concerns and worries for this time.
- Take three deep breaths.
- Take a moment to consider where the nearest person to you is.
- Imagine that single person, breathing.
- With your next inhale, imagine that the two of you are inhaling together.
- With your next exhale, imagine that the two of you are exhaling together.
- Repeat steps 5 and 6 for as long as you would like. Try to experience this breath that you are breathing together; don’t settle for the abstraction of breathing together in general. Dwell inside this breath, right now, with them. It is a unique thing.
- In your mind’s eye, widen your perspective. Come to picture the entire floor that you are occupying Consider first all the other people animals present. Breathe at least three full breaths with them.
- Now, think about the plant life within this area. Imagine the ways that the plants breathe opposite the animals, each supplying the other with what they need. Breathe at least three full breaths.
- Widen the picture in your mind, again. Perhaps now, you will consider the living things within the building you occupy. Breathe three breaths with all the animals and plants.
- Imagine the block you are living on: All the people and animals and plants in the buildings, all the people and animals and plants in between the buildings.
- Widen the range of your imagination this one last time. Take in as a wide a vantage as you can, holding in your mind all the living things in this part of your town or city. Love this interconnected web of beings as best as you can.
- Now, quickly! Bring your mind back to just your own self, your body sitting in meditation. See yourself. But still connected. Still part of that web.
To read a second passage from this book, click here.