Category Archives: God Breathed

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

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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.’

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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.

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.