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Sample #2 from ‘God-Breathed: How to Root a Meditative Practice in God’s Breath and Name.’

To order ‘God Breathed.’ Click here. For more information on the book and opportunities to engage the practices live, click here.

Chapter 5

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
  1.  Release your responsibilities for this time and find your center.
  2. Take three deep, cleansing breaths.
  3. 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.
  4. As you inhale, breathe in the oxygen which was breathed out by your plant.
  5. As you exhale, realize that this exhalation, which would be poisonous to you, is exactly what this plant needs.
  6.  Repeat steps 4 and 5 for two more breaths.  
  7. Sit in relation to your plant, recognizing your interdependence as you breathe together.
  8. Seek to be fully present to each of your breaths in the moment, as you breathe with your plant for the next three breaths.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.  
  11. 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.
  12. 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.

Sample #1 from ‘God Breathed.’

To order ‘God Breathed’ Click here. To find out about order, preordering, and get an excluisve offer for participating in a zoom-based exploration of the practices from the book, click here.

Chapter 6

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
  1.  Release your concerns and worries for this time.  
  2. Take three deep breaths.
  3. Take a moment to consider where the nearest person to you is.
  4. Imagine that single person, breathing.
  5. With your next inhale, imagine that the two of you are inhaling together.
  6. With your next exhale, imagine that the two of you are exhaling together.  
  7. 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.  
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. 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.
  13. 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.

Enneagram Type 4

Background: Type fours have difficulty separating themselves from their emotions.  They tend to identify with these, conflating the feelings with the self. Contemplative practice can help to overcome this tendency.   As we observe our thoughts and feelings, we discover that we are something like the observer, not the things we are observing; if we were our feelings, we would be unable to take a vantage point “above” our emotions and watch them from a distance.

 

The Practice

 

  •  Place your feet flat on the floor.  
  • Let your breath come.  Observe it, without seeking to change it.
  • Become aware of your thoughts, feelings and observation.  Let your approach to the breath be a sort-of object lesson.  Approach your thoughts and feelings just as you approached your breath.
  • Observe the things you see in your mind and heart with a sense of gentle curiosity.  If you can, do not judge these. If you find yourself judging, release this as best as you can with the breath.  Try and avoid the hamster wheel of judging yourself for judging.
  • Now, became aware of the “I” doing the observing.  Note that this self is not the feelings being watched.
  • Sit with this awareness of the observing self.

 

 

 

Enneagram Type 3

Background:  It has been said that 3’s make a conscious and controlled decision to put their feelings away.  This has been compared to a folder, where feelings to access later are filed away. Sometimes, they might even get around to feeling those feelings.  In many cases, being in the moment probably would have been better for the 3. This is a visualization that encourages 3’s to go back to their feelings and experience them.

 

The Practice:  Take three deep breaths.  Find yourself here, and now.

Close your eyes.  In your mind’s eye, see a file cabinet.  Give the cabinet a color. Look closely to see whether it is new.  How many drawers does this file cabinet have. Reach out to it, Feel the cabinet.  

This cabinet is the home of the folder for feelings to be accessed later.  Find yourself with a key in your hand. Of course, you are the only one with the keys to this particular cabinet.  The hanging folders are dark green and hanging. The folder with the memories to access later is right in front. If you would like, you can spend a moment flipping through the other folders.  It might be interesting to know what is there. It might be worthwhile to come back here later and explore the other folders. I suspect they have names like, “Feelings I will not allow myself to feel at all.”  and “Feelings I have worked my way through.”

Today, take out the folder for feelings to be accessed later.  Hold it carefully. Walk across the room. Find yourself in a comfortable chair, or a hammock even.  Respectfullty, carefully, open up the folder. The feelings you have been saving for later will wash over you.

Perhaps they will come on quickly.  Perhaps it will be a slow transition.  It might be an intense, even overwhelming mix of feelings.  If they become too much, you can close that folder. I do not think you will need to close that folder.

Have an attitude of curioisty about these feelings.  Explore them. You can feel them as deeply as you wish to.  Consider whether you know where and when these feelings are coming from.  Sit them for as long as you need.  

When you are ready, return the folder to the file cabinet.  It is quite likely you over use this folder. You can make a decision today, if you wish, to rely on this folder a little bit less in the future.  You can try and be mindful of those times when you put these feelings away and decide, even as you are tempted to file your feelings away, that you wish to experience them instead.

As you close the file cabinet, I hope that you feel a sense of peace.  These feelings which were waiting for you are no longer locked away, but they have been experienced by you.

 

 

 

Exercise 59: Breathing This Breath With God

This practice originally appeared in our recent Email Exploration, “God Breathed.”  It brings together the concepts in exercise 58 and in exercise 49

Background: There are two important realities to hold on to with today’s practice.  Both of these have been explored in past emails.
The first is that God breathes in us, just as portrayed in the book of Genesis.  This act of breathe-in-us is in fact what makes us human; perhaps it is how we get the image of God in us in the first place.
The second is that each and every breath is wholly unique.  It never was, and never will be.
One of the implications of these two facts considered together is that it is not only each of our own breaths which can be said to be unique.  Each breath from God is a wholly unique experience.

The Practice: 
1.  Release your worries and concerns.  Note your breath.  
2.  Become present to this very breath with your inhale.
3.  Become present to this very breath with your exhale.
4.  Note the feeling of the breath as it comes in.  
5.  Note the feeling of the breath as it goes out.
6.  With the next inhale, note that this experience, this particular breath is different than all the breaths that ever came before.
7.  With the next exhale, note that this experience, this particular breath, is different than all the breaths that will ever come after.
8.  Continue this pattern.  Be present to this breath, here and now.  Note that the specific sensations are different than the last breath or the next one.
9.  Notice that the ‘you’ who is breathing this particular  breath is in some tiny way different than the ‘you’ who breathed that last breath.
10.  Notice that the ‘you’ who is breathing this particular breath is different than the you who will breathe that next breath.  
11.  When you are ready, bring to mind the reality that God is breathing this breath into you. 
12.  Bring to mind the reality that you are breathing this breath into God.   
13.  With your next inhale, receive a breath from God that is different than all the breaths God has ever breathed into anyone.
14.  With your next exhale, breathe a breath into God that is different than all the breaths anyone will ever breathe into God.
15.  With your next inhale, as you receive a breath from God, note that the wholly unique character of this very inhalation is a direct result of the interplay between God’s breath and yours.
16.  With your next exhale, as you breathe out a breath to God, be aware that the wholly unique character of the interplay between you and God.
17.  Continue this pattern until it is time to release it.  Then, spend some time in wordless union.

Exercise 58: God’s Breath, God’s Name

This practice original appeared in our Email Exploration, God Breathed.

Background: Recall that one way of understanding the “name” which is sometimes rendered as Yahweh is to see that these letters were meant to resemble the breath.  That is, God’s name is not a series of sounds like any other name.  God’s name is something quite different; it is the act of breathing itself.  For more information and a practice that focuses only on this idea, click here.
At the same time, God is said to have scooped up a handful of earth.  God breathed into it, and then it was a human being.  We can experience God’s ongoing breath as in us as an act of ongoing creation.  We can live in this reality that with each of our inhalations, God is breathing into us.  With each of our exhalations, God is recieving our breath.  For more information on this practice and a practice which focuses only on this idea, click here.

The Exercise
1.  Take a deep breath in.
2.  Exhale.
3.  Release your expectations and worries as you take 2 more deep breaths in and out.
4.   As you inhale, experience this as the first half of God’s name,
5.  As you exhale, experience this as the second half of God’s name.
6.  Repeat steps four and five for a few minutes.
7.   As you inhale, feel God breathing life into you.
8.  As you exhale, feel your breath going out into God’s lungs.
9.  Repeat steps 7 and 8 for a few minutes.
10.  Now, bring these two practices together: inhale.  Receive that breath from God, even knowing that this is the first half of God’s truest name.
11.  Exhale: breathing out a breath received by God.  This receipt is the second half of God’s name.
12.  Continue steps 10 and 11 for most of the time remaining that you had reserved for this practice.
13.  When you are ready, release your images and experiences.  Sit in a time of wordless union.

If you would like to try a practice which combines this one with an awareness of this present moment being the only one we have, this present breath being the only breath we ever breathe, click here.

Exercise 56: An Advent Visualization

Background:  This advent, I have been filled with wonder at such a simple image: A pregnant woman, far from home.  She is traveling with her new husband because they have to.  There is no room in the human habitations.  She gives birth in the manger.  The child is something magnificent.

Because one of the sources of this image for me this year is an entire book, it is difficult to tie it into this practice.  Before we get into the nuts and bolts of this practice, I would like to quite heartily encourage you to check out the wonderful book of my good friend Jenn by clicking here.

This post contains the ingredients for many spiritual practices.  The description below is broken into three sections.  The first is an invitation to reading a number of different depictions of the entry into Bethlehem.  The second is a visualization walking the reader through the events.  The third is a series of reflections, meditations, and questions on these events.

I would recommend choosing only one element from each section for a session.  If this feels productive, you might return to this exercise and choose a second reading and series of meditations for your next session.  Less is more with spiritual practices.

There is a value in wondering about the historical details.  But not for this practice, today.  If it is easier, it would be just as helpful to imagine this scene occurring in a city today.  Perhaps, instead of a donkey, Mary rides in a sidecar of an old, broken down motorcycle.  Or her feet have swollen with the pregnancy and she is pushed by Joseph in a wheelchair.

The Practice.

Part A: Some Readings to Choose From

  1.  Release your expectations and stress with three deep inhales and exhales.
  2. Consider one (or perhaps two) of the following passages.  You may wish to read it more than once:   

Click here to read Luke 2: 1-20

Or, read this poem about the event:

If
you want
the Virgin will come walking down the road
pregnant with the holy,
and say,
“I need shelter for the night, please take me inside your heart,
my time is so close.”

Then, under the roof of your soul, you will witness the sublime
intimacy, the divine, the Christ
taking birth
forever,

as she grasps your hand for help, for each of us
is the midwife of God, each of us.

Yet there, under the dome of your being does creation
come into existence eternally, through your womb, dear pilgrim—
the sacred womb in your soul,

as God grasps our arms for help; for each of us is
His beloved servant
never far.

If you want, the Virgin will come walking
down the street pregnant
with Light and sing …

–St. John of the Cross, “If You Want” in Daniel Ladinsky Love Poems from God: Twelve Sacred Voices from the East and West (New York: Penguin Group, 2002), 306-307.

Or read this poem

Sometimes I wonder
if Mary breastfed Jesus.
if she cried out when he bit her
or if she sobbed when he would not latch.

and sometimes I wonder
if this is all too vulgar
to ask in a church
full of men
without milk stains on their shirts
or coconut oil on their breasts
preaching from pulpits off limits to the Mother of God.

but then i think of feeding Jesus,
birthing Jesus,
the expulsion of blood
and smell of sweat,
the salt of a mother’s tears
onto the soft head of the Salt of the Earth,
feeling lonely
and tired
hungry
annoyed
overwhelmed
loving

and i think,
if the vulgarity of birth is not
honestly preached
by men who carry power but not burden,
who carry privilege but not labor,
who carry authority but not submission,
then it should not be preached at all.

because the real scandal of the Birth of God
lies in the cracked nipples of a
14 year old
and not in the sermons of ministers
who say women
are too delicate
to lead.

-Kaitlin Hardy Shetler

If you purchased the book suggested above, you might read the passage depicting Jesus’ birth in that book.  Jesus birth happens in chapter 11 of The Favored One.

Part B.  The Visualization

1.  Inhale and exhale 3 times.  

2.  Bring to mind the reading from above.  Sit with the images, thoughts, and feelings that might have come up from you.  When you are ready, imagine the following.  Try and do it from the perspective of one of the characters in the narrative: Pregnant Mary, Concerned Joseph, even The Donkey or a Jesus who has yet to be born.  Experience this scene with your senses.  

They have been traveling all day.  Are they tired and weary?  Is this faitgue tempered with fear or excitement?  What is the temparature, as they enter into a town that is bursting at the seams?  Imagine them coming into the town.  Are there numerous places that are full?  Are the Roman Solidiers standing by, ready to take a census?     Does the concern on Mary and Joseph’s face grow?  Hear the “clop” of the donkeys heels on the hard ground.  Feel the sweat on the scratchy fabric of the shirt.  

There comes a moment when it is clear that there will be no beds for this night, no roof that was made for people.  What are the feelings you experience at this moment?  Enter into the manger.  Imagine the smells that come to you.  What animals are present?  Are they eating or making their animal noises?  Are their flies?  Are their attendants of the animals?  How do they look at you, as you begin to move around the hay to make your shelter for the night?

Take the time you need to imagine the moments it becomes clear that the baby will be born here.  In this place, at this time.  Does the angelic visitation, and the promises made about this child feel close now?  The water breaks.  How do you feel?  How does your partner feel?  Does a midwife come into the picture?  Is their pain?  Medicine?  Joy?  Blood?

Imagine the first time Mary holds the baby.  How did Joseph look when he first held the baby?  When do they cut the cord?  What happens next?

3.  Continue this scene for as long as you would like.  Return to the readings listed in section A.   if you wish.  I would encourage you to return to a passage you read earlier and try out a new reading the next time you engage this spiritual practice.

4.  Sit with this scene and experience.  Let it penetrate you until it is time to release it.  When you have let it go, consider whether you will sit in a time of wordless union or if you will progress to section C.  Here there are some questions and meditations to consider.

Section C: Some Questions and Meditations

  1.  Inhale.  Exhale.  Bring to mind your experience of the readings in section A.
  2. Inhale.  Exhale.  Bring to mind your experience of the visualization in section B.  
  3. Inhale.  Exhale.
  4. Sit with any one of the following.  Your may wish to save a second or third question or meditation for the future.

I.  Return to that image of Jesus and Mary entering into the town.  Sit with it for a moment.  Now, make the town of Bethlehem your mind and heart.  See Joseph and Mary entering into this space.  What thoughts, feelings, or experiences are you having trouble welcoming?  What difficult realities are you struggling to accept?  See that their is a manger within you.  This is a small, forgotten aspect of your own inner self.  But it is all that you need.  Invite this formerly unwelcome aspect of your own self here.  Soon, Jesus will come into the world from this very space.

II.  See Mary’s belly swollen with life about to enter the world.  Christ is being born in you even now at this very moment.  Sit with this experience of Christ being born in you.   Feel it coming from elsewhere and entering into your world.  Don’t rush this birth.  Sit with what it could mean and how it might change you.

III.  Dwell in the stark, perhaps uncomfortable reality of Jesus birth.  It is no less paradoxical and extreme than any other birth.  Filled with pain and possibility, hope and agony.  It is bloody and scary, intimate and clinical.  Take your time to put together what you have known and experienced of human birth and realize that all this applied to Jesus, too.  After you have sat with this, consider what it might mean.  What does it mean about God?  What does it mean about Jesus?  What does it mean about you?  How does it alter your past?  Your present?  Your future?

 

 

 

  

Day 4: Building a Spiritual Practice Through Transitions

We begin this exploration by considering the three words that characterize our focus.  Our first email focused on transition.  Our second was about deconstruction.  Today’s topic is liminal space.
Liminal space is perhaps the most obscure of those three terms.  One source defines the term: “A liminal space is the time between the ‘what was’ and the ‘next.’ It is a place of transition, waiting, and not knowing.”
Rites of passage are traditional ceremonies which mark a person’s entry into a new phase such as adulthood.  In a rite of passage, the participant is identified as being in a liminal space during the ritual itself.  While the rite goes on, the person is no longer a child but not yet an adult.
It’s such a shame that modern western cultures don’t name and identify their rites of passage much.  It is such a powerful thing to notice that a key part of transitioning is the failure to now who we are and how we fit into the world.
One of the gifts of transitions, though, is that they teach us that our identity runs deeper than our context.  Who we are is more fundamental than the things we do.  Sometimes, the only way we can truly experience this is to lose or change the things we do.
Today’s practice is a threshold practice, just as liminal space is a threshold space.  Here, we begin to turn a corner.  We began with practices which importantly identified the dififcult reality we find ourselves in.  With today’s practice, we go deeper than the difficulty.  We look for what the deeper ‘something’ is.
Background:  Before this time of transition, you may have felt like you had much more in the way of answers.   One of the reasons that transitions are necessary is because with out them we accumulate so much of what is simply not necessary.  Just as moving homes requires a difficult process of weeding through our belongings and getting rid of those physical things which we do not need, more spiritual transitions require us to release the things which we do not spiritually need.
We learn, at these times, what is essential.  Sometimes, all we have is the knowledge that we are right here, and that God is right here, and that we are together.
(It is, of course, entirely possible that a person might not even be ready to say that much.  If your transition leaves you in a place where you do not even feel that you can speak of God, this is common and understandable.  It might be necessary to drop those two phrases from this practice, and simply repeat with the inbreath, “Here I am.”)

The Practice:
1.  Take three deep breaths, in through the nose and out through the mouth.
2.  With the next in breath, say or think, “Here I am, God.”
3.  Exhale.
4.  With the next in breath, say or think, “Here you are God.”
5.  Exhale.
6.  With the next in breath, say or think, “Here we are together.”
7.  Inhale.
8.  Exhale.
9.  Repeat steps 2-8 for most of the time you were planning on devoting to this practice.
10.  When you are ready, release these words.  Sit in a time of wordless union.

Building a Spiritual Practice Through a Time of Transition Email 3

Today, we look at the 2nd descriptor of this email exploration: Deconstruction.
‘Deconstruction’ was originally coined by post-modern philosophy.  Given where it comes from, it’s not surprising that this is a complicated term, especially out of context.
Roughly speaking, ‘deconstruction’ means getting at the real essence of a thing.  Part of the process is to get past what we told ourselves ‘X’ meant, and what needs we thought it was fulfilling.   Therefore, a chef might ‘deconstruct’ a dish by considering what is non-negotiable about it.  She might then ditch all the other traditional parts of this dish which are not part of that essence.  They can then serve up something which is simultaneously new and familiar.
This term is attractive to many who are in a spiritual transition.  It implies an interesting in finding the true essence of the faith, and uncovering what hidden needs and wants were being satisfied by practicing the faith in a certain way.  In my own life, for example, I once believed that the hard work I did for a certain church was for God’s glory.  As I have deconstructed these beliefs, I become increasingly clear on the idea that much of this hard work was really for the attention and acclaim of other people.
Transitions in general and deconstruction in particular leave us in a space of wondering who we are and who God is.  Today’s practice owns these questions head-on.
Background: It is said that St. Francis past an entire night asking 2 simple questions: “Who am I, God?”  and “Who are you, God?”  It is not known what his method was; the correlation of the two questions to the two parts of breath is purely speculation on my part.

The Exercise

  1. Sit up as straight as you comfortably can.  Release your worries and obligations for the duration of your spiritual exercises today.
  2. As you inhale, ask the question, “Who are you God?”
  3. With your next inhale, ask the question, “Who am I God?”
  4. Continue this pattern.  When other thoughts or concerns arise, release them by returning to these questions and your breath.
  5. When your time is nearing completion, dismiss the questions.  Enjoy a time of wordless communion.
  6. When you are ready, explore your feelings about the questions and consider whether or not you have anything that looks like answers to these two important questions.
Today’s practice can be considered a breath prayer.  A breath prayer, as I am using the term, is a spiritual practice which puts a special focus on the breath, particular with the intent of connecting specific phrases or words with the inhale, the exhale, or both.  If you are interested in more breath prayers at The Faith-ing Project Website, click here. 
There are several small guides available from The Faith-ing Proejct focused on various aspects of spiritual practice.  One of them is a book devoted to breath prayers like this one.  It is available as an e-book or paperback. For more information, click here.
The Faith-ing Project Main Page
The Faith-ing Project Main Page

Building a Spiritual Practice Through Transitions Email #2

This email exploration is focused on three interconnected ideas: Transitions, Deconstruction, and Liminal Space.  These three ideas grow increasingly specific and increasingly complex.  Over these next three emails we will consider each of them.
Transitions happen every day, of course.  Compared to deconstruction or liminal space, they are fairly straight foreward.  Nonetheless, they are not easy.  The transitions that we are hoping for in life are not the ones we notice much.  Generally speaking, the transitions which cause us stress bring with them a host of unwanted emotions.
This is why we are beginning with 2 different forms of The Welcoming Prayer.   There are many forces which conspire to “teach” us to live in denial of the feelings we carry.  We hope that ignoring these feelings makes them go away.  The reality is that the opposite is true: Naming and owning them can go a long way toward evaporating many of our most intense and unwanted feelings.

  • Create a safe, quiet environment for yourself.  Turn down your phone and consider lighting a candle.
  • Breathe deeply in through the nose and out through the mouth.
  • Take a mental inventory of where you are, right now.  List the feelings you are experiencing.  Do your best to engage this with a nonjudgemental attitude.  Your feelings are neither good nor bad.  They simply are.  
  • Choose the feeling which seems to be the most impactful.  Think, or say “Welcome ___________”  (E.G. ‘Welcome, Fear.  Welcome, sadness.  Welcome, anxiety.  Etc.)
  • Breathe once.
  • Say, or think “I let go of my desire for security and survival.’
  • Breathe again.
  • Say, or think, ‘I let go of my desire for esteem and affection.’
  • Breathe again.
  • Say, or think ‘I let go of my desire for power and control.’
  • Breathe.
  • Say, or think, ‘I let go of my desire to change the situation.’
  • If you wish, you can repeat this process for a second, troubling emotion.
We have recently made our entire audio file library available to everyone.  There are numerous exercises on this page, including an audio file of the welcoming prayer we have been practicing these last couple days.  You can find The Welcoming Prayer and other audio files here.
One of the figures who has been pivotal on my spiritual journey is father Richard Rohr. He has written many amazing books.   The organization he began is The Center for Action and Contemplation.  They feature a powerful daily email, classes, podcasts, and more.  Check out the CAC here.