“Being (noun); Human (adjective)”

A new Earth Dharma post by Jill S. Schneiderman.

Trying out a new set of phrases for focusing my attention while sitting a four-day retreat with colleagues from the Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education, I sat on a rock ledge at the Garrison Institute, eyes softly resting on the castle rumored to have been the inspiration for the one in The Wizard of Oz.

“Breathing in, I am aware that I am breathing in; breathing out, I am aware that I am breathing out.”

The castle has long been owned and occupied by the Osborn clan, whose ancestors are not only railroad tycoons but also some scientists — among them geologist and director of the American Museum of Natural History for a quarter century, Henry Fairfield Osborn (1857-1935) as well as conservationist and president of the New York Zoological Society Henry Fairfiled Osborn, Jr. (1887-1969). …A red-tailed hawk sailed in the cloudless, powder blue sky, and the broad leaves of a tulip poplar rustled among the other leaves in robust autumn color. And the thought once again occurred to me: human being is no compound noun; being is the noun, human is just an adjective.

And then my mind wandered to the beings I find in my backyard most days of the week:

Cat, orange;
Chicken, white leghorn;
Deer, white-tailed;
Dog, stray;
Fox, kit;
Heron, great blue;
Maple, norway;
Owl, barred;
Spider, jumping;
Squirrel, gray;
Turtle, snapping;
Woodpecker, red-bellied

All of them beings, living.

When our group came out of silence, we spent a bit of time talking about how our contemplative practices affect us as teachers. One of the more concrete effects the practice has had on me is that in my geology courses, when talking about organisms, I no longer refer to “living things.” Rather, though sometimes sounding odd to my students, I talk about other organisms as “living beings.”

I owe this shift in perspective to the Metta Sutta (the Buddha’s words on kindness)

Wishing: In gladness and in safety,
May all beings be at ease.

Some years ago after reciting the sutta in the course of metta practice (wishing ease for all beings), I experienced this epiphany. Now, all that lives and has lived on this planet is a being to me, not a thing. And we share this Earth with multitudes of these beings. We need only be still in one place long enough to notice them. For those interested in such an endeavor, check out The Forest Unseen, biologist David Haskell’s observations of a single square meter of forest in Tennessee.

Have you had this kind of perspective shifting experience as a result of your sitting practice? I’d love to know. In the meantime, may all beings live with ease.


  1. says

    I find that the deeper and longer I practice, the more my mind and my eyes open and can deeply see the beings all around me. Whether it be the far away silence of stars or the close up warmth of my cat's face, I find myself engaging in deeper relating through steady abiding in my contemplation of them. And in return I feel the aliveness of my relationship to them. I am also aware I am still coming at it from the perspective of MY relationship to them – I look forward to my practicing furthering deepening until the experience becomes OUR relationship.

  2. Aparna says

    My daughter gets stares from her friends when she tells them her favourite animals are whales, dolphins, elephants, and yes, ants. By some strange coincidence, she never gets bitten by ants, no matter how many times she comes in contact with them. One day, I found out why. Some small ants had got into some dry fish I had stored. I had spread the fish out on a plate, and was trying to blow the ants away. Just then my daughter remarked from behind me, "Mom, give them love while you blow."

    I try to remember this surprising and wonderful piece of wisdom whenever I handle any living creature.