Selection 3 from ‘Discovering the Essence: How to Build a Spiritual Practice When Your Religion is Cracking Apart’

If I am to love my enemies, I can begin with
fictional characters. But loving Voldemort is easy.
Loving Umbridge is hard. She is not real but my
fears about myself are. She is not real but the
intensity of my negative emotions are. She is not
real. Except that she is.
There are some things that we realize are not
what we thought they were and we just give up on
them. When I determine that children’s cartoons
are not going to deliver penetrating insight into
the human condition, I would not go on a deeper
journey to discover the true essence of cartoons.
The true essence is fluff and fun. Those cartoons
are what they seem to be.
The essence of a true spirituality is not like

that. There are so many things that have a cer-
tain kind of meaning early in the journey and

they come to mean something quite different
later in the journey. I used to think loving my
enemy meant loving somebody else. The way I see
it now? Loving my enemy is about loving me, the
parts of me that I would want to project out onto
everyone else.
There is a psychological reason to see that we
are all one. All the things we notice, think about,

and respond to—it is our own self that is doing
the responding. We are the common denominator.
Reality is not a set of objective things that simply
occur. Instead, reality is noticed and reported by
people who have limitations, flaws, perspectives,
and strengths. I can’t meaningfully answer the
question, “What happened?” I can only really
answer the question “What happened to me?”

I don’t really have a way of knowing what hap-
pened outside of me.

Even if you tell me about something for which
I was not present, the only reason I know about it
is because you are telling it to me. If that event—
the telling to me—had never occurred, then I
would never know. Perhaps more important, if I
recall your story, if I am able to repeat it back
later, it is because things happened in that story
that I have decided are worthwhile. If a person
we don’t care about shares a list of things that
strike us as quite ordinary, we would quickly put
this out of our mind. On some very important
levels, we can never get out of our own way. We
are the gatekeeper of our own lived reality. The
work we do is fundamentally about us even when
it does not appear to be.
This is wrapped up in the importance of love,

gratitude, hope, and forgiveness. It’s not primar-
ily about unleashing these on the world outside

of us. These are characteristics we need for our
internal landscape. Have you ever thought it was
foggy and discovered it was just condensation
on the inside of the windshield? Then you know
about this: sometimes we think something is on
the outside and really it is within.

But there’s more going on than simple projec-
tion. I can only experience my own reality—but

there is nevertheless a real reality beyond myself.
Thinkers such as Ken Wilber have observed that
it is somewhat arbitrary, the ways that we put
importance on a single individual. We are made

of millions of cells. The cells are arranged in tis-
sues, the tissues are arranged in organs. The

organs are arranged in organ systems. The organ

systems are arranged in organisms. The organ-
isms are arranged in communities. The commu-
nities are arranged in ecosystems. All the ecosys-
tems, when taken together, form the biosphere.

Everything is interconnected.

We have consciousness of ourselves as indi-
viduals, of course. But this seems like a small

reason to put so much of our attention on one

middle level of this arrangement. There is some-
thing to be said for the idea that the conscious-
ness we think is running the show is in fact just

giving us a report of the things that are already
happening. I grow increasingly convinced that

weirdness is baked into reality itself. Love itself
might be the force that renders all the boundaries
between everything meaningless.

The best way I know to experience this real-
ity, to really live the strange permeability of the

boundaries between us, is through spiritual prac-
tice. Sometimes this sensation pops up quite sur-
prisingly in the midst of almost any practice. The

practice that follows is a good one for specifically
targeting these experiences.

Find a comfortable position. Release
your worries and expectations.
• Breathe in, through the nose if you
can.
• Breathe out, through the mouth.
• Try to breathe in more deeply. Place
your hand on your abdomen and feel
it move.
• Exhale again.
• Take one last inhale, your deepest,
before we move on to the next step.
• Fully exhale.
• Spend a moment considering a plant
or tree, in your mind or near you.
Behold and love it. Consider the
individuality of this one specific plant.
See its leaves and branches. Imagine
its roots. Allow your thoughts or eyes
to linger on this friend.
• With your next inhale, recognize that
some of the very air you breathed
might have been made through

through that
plant.
• With your next exhale, breathe the air
out knowing this is what the plant
will need. It will inhale the carbon
dioxide of your breath.

• Take two more deep breaths, connect-
ing with the plant in this relationship

of oxygen and carbon dioxide.
• When you are ready, try to erase the
boundaries between yourself and the
plant. Can you imagine a level upon
which you and the plant are not two
separate individuals but one common
entity? Experience a sense of oneness
with the tree or plant. It is giving you
what you need. You are giving it what
it needs.
• Linger on this experience for as long
as you need or want to.
• Widen this circle in your mind. See
yourself and this tree as a part of
all plant-animals within your area.
(Perhaps this area is about the size of
a city block.) First, sit with the idea
that they are in a perfect, reciprocal
cycle of oxygen and carbon dioxide.

• The gasses, in a way, are just a meta-
phor for so much more. Sit in your

place in this system. Make it larger, in
your mind, if you wish. First, broaden
the meaning of relationship, knowing
(but don’t bother listing) that we get
more than just oxygen. Then, broaden
the size of the network.
• When you have made this network
as broad and deep as your mind will

286 Discovering the Essence
allow, sit with it. In some important
sense, all the living creatures in your
mind, all the plants and the animals,
are one.
• If you would like, consider whether
God is present within the animals
or plants in this relationship. Is God
above them? Or the movement of the
matter and energy between them?
Both? Neither?
• Hold this web of connection—you,
other animals, plants, trees, God—in
your mind. Take as long as you would
like to sit as one part of this network
of relationships.
• When you are ready, return in your
mind to just you and the plant you
began with. Consider the differences
between yourself and the plant. Try to
hold to the idea that you are still one.
But the plant has specialties. So do
you. Whatever is formed between the
two of you is greater than the sum of
the parts. Think about the ways that
you and the plant are such a good pair.
• When you are ready to dismiss this
practice, thank the plant and move
into your day, knowing that you can
bring your mind back to your place in
this tremendous network of beings.