Our Own Life and the Life of the Universe Are One

In many posts on this blog, I have been exploring the concept of God. I hope to help us to move past old rigid images of the big man in the sky with a beard and white robe, the judge, the king, these all too human inventions that people have created in the quest for understanding, or often, in the quest for power.

The mystics of almost every tradition tell us that our images cannot come close to what divinity might be all about. But the mystics also speak to us of something, or no-thing, that is not a being, but more like a process, more like an energy that permeates all beings, an energy of which we are a part, and of which we can come to greater awareness.

“We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness.” Zen Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh invites people to do an exercise, to begin to grasp with our minds the symphony of the larger whole. He invites us to think about an object—it could be any object. He talked about a table, but I like to reflect on a piece of bread. Find a piece of bread and hold it in your hand. Then, let yourself imagine what has conspired in order for this bread to be here in your hand.  

First of all, think of the wheat. In order for it to grow, it needed topsoil, with its fungal and bacterial components, its minerals and small worms. It needed the decomposition of the plants of many years, decades, and even centuries to create this fertile soil. You can continue to let yourself follow in this line of imagination, or if you want to follow my imaginings, go to this link to an earlier post.

One could keep talking all day to follow all the threads of connection linked to just one piece of bread. Paraphrasing what Thich Nhat Hanh would say:

If you grasp the bread’s reality then you see that in the bread itself are present all those things which we normally think of as the non-bread world. If you took away any of those non-bread elements and returned them to their sources…[the honey to the bees, the metal to the mines, or the farmers to their parents], the bread would no longer exist. A person who looks at the bread and can see the universe, is a person who can see the way.

As long as we think of God as “up there” somewhere, like a father or a king or some other kind of person, we imagine that we are separate from God, we imagine that we can think or not think about, believe or not believe in, pray or not pray to that God. But in a spirituality of connection, the gaze shifts to understand that there are no truly separate things, that there is no separate self or separate God—that our “own life and the life of the universe are one.” Maple in Spring MJ DSC03502

The Mullein Plant

Mullein Plant

Photo by Forest & Kim Starr, Creative Commons License

As a young adult I became intrigued with herbal healing. I read books that identified particular herbs that could heal different ailments of the body. I learned, for example, that mullein tea was helpful for a sore throat. Then one day, someone showed me a mullein plant growing wild by the side of the road. I suddenly felt the connection: human beings and plants belong together! That mullein plant can actually heal my human sore throat. We are related to each other in some deep essential way.

Spirituality is about experiencing our connection to the earth, to each other, and to all that exists. According to Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist teacher, “We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness.” Seeing that mullein plant beside the road brought me a moment of awakening. For that moment, I knew deep in my being, that I was not separate from any of the plants or animals or people on the earth. I realized that, in reality, we all are one.

But time passed, and the illusion of separateness took over again. We are all one, and yet we are also divided from one another. Mother Teresa said, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” Certainly, for most of us, we go through our days forgetting this essential truth. How often do we feel isolated from, or even in competition with, the people around us? In fact, every day we are encouraged to see ourselves as separate and individual, we are encouraged to watch out for “number one.”

A whole series of television commercials come to my mind: a grandmother telling her grandchild to “Get your own bag of chips,” or a man guarding his chicken fingers from his co-workers, or a family getting individual pizzas so everyone can have their own topping… it just goes on and on. There are messages all around us that promote the illusion of separation.

In much more devastating ways, the political idea of a common good is being taken apart in favor of privatization. Programs like Social Security and Medicare are under fire, under the guise of some kind of freedom of choice, with the argument that people can do better on their own, that individuals can maximize their retirement options through private investing.

I am pretty sure that is not true, but what goes unspoken is the shift in the very terms of the debate—we are no longer arguing how to best care for all the members of our society. Rather, we are being asked to buy into a fragmented and individualized world, a place where the important goal is to get the most for myself. Thich Nhat Hanh, Mother Teresa, and other teachers, call us to a different outlook. They call us to remember that we are part of a larger unity. They call us to return to our true wholeness.

Feeding the Birds

Female Cardinal

Photo by Margy Dowzer

It is also possible to make a relationship to animals by feeding them. At our house, we offer sunflower seeds that are loved by cardinals, chickadees, and tufted titmice; suet for the woodpeckers, and thistle for the gold finches. Some of the birds are around all year long, but in late spring it is a delight to see the travelers again. We put out a hummingbird feeder at the beginning of May, and we put out orange slices and wait for the orioles to show up. They bring so much beauty to our ears and eyes.

 Thich Naht Hanh says,

When we recognise the virtues, the talent, the beauty of Mother Earth, something is born in us, some kind of connection, love is born… We want to be connected. That is the meaning of love, to be at one. When you love someone you want to say I need you, I take refuge in you. You do anything for the benefit of the Earth and the Earth will do anything for your wellbeing.

When we make a deep connection with one small part of Mother Earth, we are helped to make a connection to the whole of our mother. We are helped to see that we too are a part of the Mother Earth, that we belong here. And then we can honor the whole harmony of connections that make up life. May we find a way to experience the joy that comes with knowing this deep harmony.

Thich Naht Hanh quote from an article by Jo Confino, “Beyond environment: falling back in love with Mother Earth,” Feb 20 2012, The Guardian

Mother Earth

Blue Marble EarthFor how many years have people been calling the earth our mother? The image dates to the days before history, in cultures all around the world. And no wonder. Our mother is the one who feeds us. Before we are born, in our mother’s womb, we are literally fed and shaped from out of her body. After we are born, we are fed milk from her body. The earth is our mother because we are created and fed from her body. We are a part of her, and all of our life is out from her.

We live in a time when this ancient understanding is coming to the fore again. During the industrial age, people treated the earth as a resource to be exploited. Whatever could be mined or cut down or damned up or harvested was taken for human use. So much was taken and destroyed that now for the first time in history, we can see the fearful limits of the earth’s abundance. In order to find wholeness, we must restore a relationship of respect and honor between people and the rest of nature. We are beginning to understand that we are not separate from the earth.

Buddhist teacher Thich Naht Hanh speaks about this. He says,

You carry Mother Earth within you. She is not outside of you. Mother Earth is not just your environment… Fear, separation, hate and anger come from the wrong view that you and the earth are two separate entities…. That is a dualistic way of seeing… So …breathe in and be aware of your body and look deeply into it and realise you are the Earth and your consciousness is also the consciousness of the earth…

It is one thing to mentally acknowledge that we are part of the earth, that we and the earth are one. But it is more challenging to experience it in our bones. We have been taught by our culture to think of ourselves as separate from all that. We live in houses that divide the inside from the outside. We think of some things as human and other things as natural. It is a mental leap to imagine ourselves as a part of the larger life of the earth. But if we desire to understand our connection, to awaken our instinct for feeling the unity of it all, connecting to one tree, one rock, or one place, can bring it down to our human level. 

Here is a practice for paying attention to a very small place:

GrassMark out one square foot of earth, perhaps with some sort of string on a few sticks hammered into the ground. Then sit near your square foot, and observe all the life forms you find there. Look for the different kinds of plants—maybe clover and grass and wild strawberries and moss. Look for the insect life—some of it moving in and out, like bumble bees and flies; other staying close, maybe an earthworm or a group of ants. Perhaps you might take pictures of the ones you don’t know, and look for them on the internet, or with a biology teacher or friend.

Then, realize that there are also microscopic life forms in that square foot of soil. Thousands of them. If you are up for it, get a microscope and check out our hidden neighbors in the soil.

Biologists say,
When we are standing on the ground, we are really standing on the roof top of another world. Living in the soil are plant roots, viruses, bacteria, fungi, algae, protozoa, mites, nematodes, worms, ants, maggots and other insects and insect larvae (grubs), and larger animals. Indeed, the volume of living organisms below ground is often far greater than that above ground.

 It is because of all these living beings that plants can grow and be fruitful.  If we want to wake up our awareness of connection to the whole, it can help to wake up our awareness of connection to the small.

Thich Naht Hanh goes on to say,

If we are able to touch deeply the historical dimension – through a leaf, a flower, a pebble, a beam of light, a mountain, a river, a bird, or our own body – we touch at the same time the ultimate dimension. The ultimate dimension cannot be described as personal or impersonal, material or spiritual, object or subject of cognition – we say only that it is always shining, and shining on itself.

Thich Naht Hanh quotes from an article by Jo Confino, “Beyond environment: falling back in love with Mother Earth,” Feb 20 2012, The Guardian
Biology quote from Dr. Jill Clapperton and Dr. Megan Ryan, “Uncovering the Real Dirt on No Till

Risky Talk

I have some of my own baggage attached to spirituality. From my earliest memories, I knew that it was risky to talk about spirituality. It was sure to mark you as strange or crazy, or get you into trouble. I don’t even know how or where I learned this—maybe at school among my classmates? There was something embarrassing, or dangerous, or profoundly broken with the idea of speaking about this realm.

But in my immediate family, it was just the opposite. Spirituality was an ever-present force. My father didn’t just believe in God, he was in love with God. He had called out to God, and experienced an answer. It filled his life like a contagious fire. A spark of that fire ignited in my heart, too.

FlameI was hungry for this burning love. But I was also afraid of what other people would think of me. How often do we deny our own deep experience to gain social acceptance? It seemed to me that most people outside my family said they believed in God, but they didn’t really expect anything to come of it. So I learned to keep certain things hidden—especially the solitary and mysterious experiences of longing or feeling loved.

Because I was a child growing up Catholic, I fit my experience into the stories I learned, the beliefs that were given to me. It was safer to talk in the language of belief, rather than to reveal my feelings. Later, those beliefs were challenged by my experience, and my journey brought me into a very different place. My beliefs got turned upside down, in order for me to be true to my experience. But that fire of burning love kept re-igniting.

Today, when I venture inside my own heart, I still experience deep longings, these hungers that feel almost like pain, or sometimes like restlessness. It is difficult to feel this and I am tempted to read a book, or find something else that might fill up that empty place. But instead of escaping or fixing it, I invite myself to try to be present with it. I breathe into the longing and let myself experience the hunger. Is this what it means to become friends with my burning? I accept the feelings of my heart just as they are. I connect with the experience of my deeper self.

Perhaps that is all that happens. But sometimes, something else happens too. My heart opens up, the emptiness becomes a doorway, and I fall into a larger awareness. I feel the earth, the sky, the wind. I feel joined to everything. I find answers to questions and guidance when I face a crossroads. I feel held in the arms of tenderness. I feel that I have come home. Sometimes, as Rumi says,

Something opens our wings
Something makes boredom and hurt disappear
Someone fills the cup in front of us
We taste only sacredness.

This has been my experience of spiritual awakening. Hunger itself becomes a doorway into sacredness, into feeling connection beyond my aloneness. Does it matter, on any particular day, whether I feel longing or feel love? Whether I feel questions or feel answers? The Buddhist mystics would say no. What matters is that I am becoming conscious. Vietnamese Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, says,

“If we want to enter Heaven on Earth, we need only one conscious step and one conscious breath.”

Take some time to notice what is brewing in your heart. Do you feel a sense of emptiness? A sense of connection? Do you feel questions? Don’t try to change anything, just become aware of what you are carrying in your heart in this moment.

Quotes from: The Essential Rumi, trans. Coleman Barks p. 280.
Thich Nhat Hanh, Touching Peace: Practicing the Art of Mindful Living, p. 8.

Bread

“We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness.”  Zen Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh invites people to do an exercise, to begin to grasp with our minds the symphony of the larger whole. 

BreadTake an object—any object. He talked about a table, but I would like to reflect on a piece of bread. Find a piece of bread and hold it in your hand. Then, let yourself imagine what has conspired in order for this bread to be here in your hand. First of all, think of the wheat. In order for it to grow, it needed topsoil, with its fungal and bacterial components, its minerals and small worms. It needed the decomposition of the plants of many years, decades, and even centuries to create this fertile soil.

Think about the sun that shines on the earth, and the rain that falls, and the earth itself turning round in its orbit of seasons, and the moon that shapes the tides and the weather, all utterly necessary. Think about the wind, which helps the plants to self-pollinate, and the ancient peoples in the Middle East who began to cultivate the grain during the seventh pre-Christian millennium, and those who developed it and carried it to many continents through the intervening centuries. The wheat that is used in bread co-evolved with human beings, and does not thrive in the wild.

If your bread is made from organic wheat, it doesn’t use petroleum for fertilizer, but it took petroleum in the form of gasoline to harvest it and ship it to the bread makers. Non-organic wheat uses even more petroleum. Petroleum is created from the remains of ancient plants, so this bread is also dependent on them. Think about the metal in the trucks that drove the wheat and in the machines that mixed the bread, and the mines it came from and the factories where the machines were made.

Think about the yeast, and the process by which human peoples discovered and developed the properties of yeast to raise the dough of bread. The honey, and the bees that work tirelessly to make it, and the flowers and their nectar. Think about the water that enabled these ingredients to be blended together. Think about the fuel to heat the ovens.

Think about the farmer, and the miner, and the bread-maker and the factory worker; think about the food they needed to eat, and the clothing they needed to wear in order to do their part of the work that brought this bread to your hand. The trucker, the grocery stocker, the clerk. The houses they live in, their schools and their doctors and their dentists.

Think about their parents, and their grandparents and their great grandparents, and what kept them alive, to bring forth their children, that these people who work might be here today. If you are holding organic whole wheat bread, think about the growing environmental consciousness, that created a market for organic whole wheat bread, after many farmers, bakers and corporations had abandoned the old methods for the soft white appeal of Wonderbread.

I could keep talking all day if I followed all the threads of connection just linked to this one piece of bread. Paraphrasing what Thich Nhat Hahn would say:

If you grasp the bread’s reality then you see that in the bread itself are present all those things which we normally think of as the non-bread world. If you took away any of those non-bread elements and returned them to their sources…[the honey to the bees, the metal to the mines, or the farmers to their parents], the bread would no longer exist. A person who looks at the bread and can see the universe, is a person who can see the way.

 As long as we think of God as “up there” somewhere, like a father or a king or some other kind of person, we imagine that we are separate from God, we imagine that we can think or not think about, believe or not believe in, pray or not pray to that God. But in a spirituality of connection, the gaze shifts to understand that there are no truly separate things, that there is no separate self or separate God—that our “own life and the life of the universe are one.”

Quotes from Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness, Translated by Mobi Ho, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1975) p. 47-48.