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Anyone seriously interested in the spiritual life undertakes an inquiry: what is true, how can we know, and in what way will this knowledge relieve our unhappiness? Looking deeply into these questions, I would like to pick up on the practice of contemplative prayer as described by an earlier contributor to this column. In doing so, I invite you to consult the evidence of direct experience.

For example, an experience everyone trusts is that of their own body. Does my shoulder hurt? Might be something wrong with it; better see my primary-care provider. Does this cup of coffee taste good? Wonderful, better savor it. In many respects, the body is an infallible guide. If you tickle me, I laugh; if you hug me, my heart grows soft.

In the wisdom of the body we find a lot to ponder. Why, when TV programs show a child being hurt, do our stomachs clench? Why does news about the butchering of elephants in Tanzania affect our pulse-rate? Normally, we picture our body as having well-defined edges. We say another person is outside of it while our pancreas is on the inside. But if this were entirely true — if the body were limited to an isolated, ambulatory bag of skin — we would not be so susceptible to the world around us.

Here’s an alternative hypothesis: perhaps our human bodies are more like parts of an ecosystem. Foresters have learned that fungal networks in the soil connect the root systems of trees. You can cut down a Douglas fir, but its “treeness” is not contained within the trunk and boughs alone. Its identity extends to all the other trees on the hillside. When you remove one fir, its neighbors react by sending out chemical distress signals.

Maybe you see where I’m going with this. A human body and the world body are one. You can test this truth by means of your own experience. Sit quietly for 10 minutes, in a state of concentrated calm, with erect posture and eyelids at half-mast. Follow your breathing. When irrelevant thoughts arise, let them go. Keep returning to the breath.

As you do this exercise, can you imagine your body opening to the wide world? Your lungs inhaling oxygen released by vegetation? The iron from last night’s spinach coursing through your bloodstream, molecules that once could have formed a plowshare? Can you sense your pores interacting with the same seamless atmosphere as those of every other body on the planet?

Now, taking our experiment one step further, consider the direct experience of the mind. No one can deny that thinking happens and that its evidence is electrical impulses in the brain. But is thinking the only activity of the mind? Should we conclude that our thoughts are us, that what we call the “self” is located somewhere in our grey matter? This can’t be right. If it were, neurologists would have pinpointed that self by now.

Jan Chozen Bays, M.D., a pediatrician and elder of the Zen Community of Oregon, offers an exercise she calls “Wind in the Warehouse.” Sitting quietly again in an attitude of contemplative prayer, imagine as vividly as you can that your mind is a vast, empty warehouse. It is night-time. All is calm. The activity of the day has come to rest. While appreciating the stillness, you soon feel distracting thoughts begin to creep in. These thoughts, though, are nothing but dry leaves, and each of your exhalations can scatter them back into empty space, your breath sweeping the warehouse clean.

Experiment with this exercise whenever you feel restless, anxious, or ill at ease. See for yourself what happens. With practice and persistence, it is possible to confirm through direct experience what scripture teaches (Ephesians 4:2-6 and Romans 12:5, in particular).

We are, in the deepest sense, one body and one mind. The ethical implications of this fact deserve our most reverent attention.

Rob Schnelle is a long-time member of the Ellensburg Zen Group.


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