Most Sunday evenings, I sit and conspire with others. I mean this in the sense of the Latin roots of the word con, with, and spirare, to breathe . A group of monks sit quietly in a second floor yoga studio and breathe together. As the French-born Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard explains in the current issue of Parabola, intelligence in our culture is usually associated with the acquisition of information or posited as a faculty of reasoning. But real intelligence means understanding—and Ricard means seeing through the appearance of things, to the underlying nature of reality. And you don’t have to travel to Tibet or Nepal to uncover the truth. If you dig down to the roots of the English word, you come up with the Latin verb intellegere, which means to understand.
The yoga studio where we sit and conspire is on a busy block, just around the corner from the Tarrytown Music Hall. But even when there is no famous old rock act playing, people fill the restaurants and cafes below us. The town is carved into a hill that runs down to a breathtaking view of the Hudson and the illuminated span of the Tappan Zee Bridge. This is a place that flows. Especially on warm nights, the sounds of laughter, shouts, talking, cars with radios blasting ebb and flow below us.
Yet for about an hour, we just let it be. We sit in stillness and walk in stillness, and after about an hour we listen and talk in a new way, grounded in understanding. If I leave you with nothing else in this post, let it be that the search for truth and meaning can be very, very local. It doesn’t mean uprooting ourselves, but just the opposite: digging down into our experience right here and right now. Words get a bad rap for being labels that we cling to rather than opening to the living experience of the moment.
But if we dig down to their roots, we often find that words—even plain old, seemingly uncool English words–are records of the experience in being here in the most basic human way. Understanding comes from the Old English understandan, which probably literally meant stand in the midst of, from under + standan, to stand. In other words, to stand under, to let the truth of what it is really like to be here to rain down on you.
Thomas Merton writes: “We betray ourselves and one another in the No Man’s Land which exists between human beings, and into which they go out to meet one another disguised in words. And yet without words we cannot find ourselves, without communication with men we do not know God: fides ex auditu [faith comes from hearing]….”
What if instead of trying to escape or nullify our experience with words, we could sink down into our most basic human experience and gently bear witness to it—breathing, the sensation of being present, alone or with others Without going anywhere, right here and right now, wherever you are you can allow ourselves to be vulnerable to the truth, to go without the disguise of words, to be inspired, filled with life and spirit.
What we practice together when we sit and conspire in the yoga studio is the same as Parabola’s aspiration (there’s that Latin root spirare yet again, this time related to breathing into or infusing): we seek to contact and communicate a deeper truth. We cannot reach the truth without grounding ourselves in our own experience, literally humbling ourselves (from a root shared with humus or earth and human). When we are grounded, even for a moment, we can listen in a new way. And when we communicate with each other from that experience, the words can resonate like bells, sounding all the way back to their roots.
Mind you, I do not know Latin or Old English, and my daughter, who has studied both, reminds me that what I’m sharing is really just someone’s opinion. To that I say, Mea Culpa—my bad. And yet, thanks to my long experience with English and with living and Phil Cousineau’s clever book Word Catcher, I have confidence (which comes from the Latin con, with, and fidere, “to believe in” or “have faith in,” that I have found something worth sharing. Faith can start with what we can experience here and now. Let yourself be vulnerable to your ignorance and inner emptiness or poverty.
The word “contemplate” does not mean to escape into grand cosmic thoughts. It comes from the 13th-century contemplationem, the act of looking at, and contemplari, to observe. From con, with, and templum, originally an open space reserved for observation of augurs. When we meditate or engage in contemplative prayer , we have stepped inside a temple, we enter an a special empty space where we may consider the signs, the underlying laws or reality of our lives. Traditionally, this templum was marked off with a line drawn in the ground by the augur, and was later demarcated with stones, gates, and doors. As most of us know, the temple later entered English as a place for the holy, from an Old English haelen, for heal (which my daughter can pronounce in a wonderfully hale and hearty Old English way) and PIE kailo or whole or uninjured. To enter the stillness and emptiness of the temple is to be healed, to be made whole…to be in accord with the deepest laws of reality (which the augus sought, throwing bones or sticks or whatever…and Merton found in solitude, in God).
I don’t mean to take it too far, but it strikes me as amazing that our words contain these depths. Words like “contemplate” and “inspire” actually signify our deepest human capacity for observation and experience. Of course words are just points on a map, and the map is not the territory. May we all come to know the ground for ourselves. May we all enter the temple and conspire. May we all be be healed and made whole.