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Un-naming the World

We are all familiar with the biblical story of Adam being given the assignment by God to name all the creatures of the earth. There’s something in this story that has always interested me.

When I was in college, one of my favorite courses was Botany. I loved that course because it allowed me to see the world in greater detail by teaching me the names and different characteristics of the various plants. I’ve always loved plant-life, and for a brief moment in college, I even wondered if I shouldn’t change my major from religion to biology. The naming of the plants helped me see their variety, the differences between the common Loblolly and Short Leaf Pines with which I had grown up, for example, and the majestic Ponderosa Pines in the mountains of New Mexico. There were male and female pines, I learned, and one variety, the Jack Pine, in the far northern forests of Minnesota, only reproduces after a forest fire because it takes such enormous heat for its cone of seeds to break open.

There’s something essentially human about naming all the things that surround us in the world. There’s something heuristic about having the right categories to use in the exploration of knowledge.

It took years, however, to discover the human value of un-naming the things around us.

Naming things tends to separate us from the world. “I’m the namer, after all. I stand here, and all the other things stand over there or out there, and I name them.”

So, when I wander through a forest, naming things as I go, I impose an external body of knowledge, but also of assumptions, upon all the things I encounter. And among the most powerful assumptions I impose, is that I am somehow other than that which I name. Certainly, there are rewards in hearing and recognizing and naming the call of one bird in contrast to another variety of bird, as I walk a forest path. But there is also a loss in doing so. The very act of naming can reduce the richness and fullness of that which I’m encountering, and can cause we to entertain the foolish illusion that the whole of nature and I are not at one.

I confess, I didn’t come to this consciousness by myself. Thomas Merton opened the door for me to understand that there are astonishing spiritual, emotional and intellectual rewards awaiting us when we encounter the world of nature without allowing the human world of language to mediate the encounter.

It was ten years ago when I first attempted the spiritual practice of un-naming. And I first attempted this practice in the grounds of and in the forest surrounding the Trappist Monastery where Merton once lived as a monk.

During walking meditation, I allowed my gaze to fall wherever it wished. And whatever I saw, I tried to encounter visually without naming it, without bringing to it my own assumptions, my own knowledge about it. Each time language (my internal descriptive voice) interrupted my seeing the things around me, I stopped in my tracks, closed my eyes, and silenced the voice inside me, before taking another step with my eyes again open.

There were times when I hardly made more than a step or two, especially at the beginning of this practice. But, in time, I was able to walk the trails of the forest in those Kentucky knobs for long stretches, just allowing my eyes to take in the world around me without naming the various things I saw, without differentiating among these things, without critically categorizing, and without setting myself apart from this natural world through which I was walking.

Merton’s insight regarding this practice challenges the illusion of an enclosed, fixed and discrete self separated from the world. He often reflects in various ways on the false selves we construct and defend, worry about and fret over. And this spiritual practice can help to free us from our preoccupations with such a manufactured self. By emptying our minds of words, and allowing the reality of creation to strike us as it will, without ordering it by names, we develop what ancient Taoist and Ch’an artists and philosophers described as an “awareness like a mirror looking out on the world.”*

It was from Merton’s study of such ancient Eastern mystics that he got the idea that led to his famous epiphany on the streets of Louisville, Kentucky, when, standing on the sidewalk, watching the crowds of people hurry about him, he suddenly felt himself entirely at one with them. Suddenly they were no longer differentiated by their educations, backgrounds, ethnicities, wealth, and so forth; suddenly they were all one with him, and Merton was overwhelmed with love for them.

The philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, once said that “taxonomy is the death of learning.” I have puzzled over this quote for a very long time, because, as an scholar, I dedicated so much of my energy to naming, to trying to distinguish one thing from another, to putting things in their right categories. Taxonomy is an essential scholarly work that contributes to the acquisition of critical knowledge. But I have come to believe that there is real wisdom in Whitehead’s words, and the manner in which the exercise of naming can stop our learning in its tracks.

If I can name something, I can (in a sense) dispose of it, remove my attention from it, because I already know about “that sort of thing.” The danger, of course, therefore, is that encountering it, I am already closed to understanding anything more or different from that thing in front of me. And I am also closed to seeing the intimate creaturely union of “that” and “me.” This is why Shunryu Suzuki often said, “In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind, there are few.”

However, to move through the forest like a child, or like a rabbit, or like the wind, I recognize no divisions between the world of things and me, and I can learn a thousand new things about the ten thousand things that make up what we call “the world.” Sometimes it is Adam’s vocation to name; and sometimes Adam learns even more by stilling that tongue that seems ceaselessly to run in his mind.



*David Hinton, the respected translator of many ancient Chinese Taoist and Ch’an manuscripts, explores this practice in his moving book, “Hunger Mountain” (Shambhala, 2012). Merton’s book on Chuang Tzu remains one of the greatest resources for understanding the deep resonance between Eastern and Western spirituality.


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