What is in a Name? Cynthia Westby, Dir. of RE for Children and Youth

What is in a name? Great question! I just read a wonderfully provocative book by Rabbi David A. Cooper’s book “God is a Verb: Kabbalah and the practice of mystical Judaism.” His suggestion? That we begin to think of all beings as verbs rather than nouns. So, you would see your child and see “Carol-ing” rather than “Carol,” for instance. This way of naming with verbs captured my imagination and I worked with this as a spiritual practice over the past few weeks.

Language and naming are important. They affect how we experience ourselves and other living beings. Consider this idea of naming ourselves and other sentient beings with verbs rather than nouns. When we use nouns, we consciously and unconsciously believe we have captured a being’s identity; that we know them; that this identity has attributes that we believe we know something about.

As a nature observer, I practiced perceiving the trees, myself, and birds as verbs, which silently sounded like this: tree-ing, bird-ing, and Cynthia-ing. As I did, I experienced a palpable felt sense of each of us vibrating with aliveness, energy in motion. The shift in perception was radical. When I labeled with verbs, I experienced us as evolving and changing. When I observed a Douglas Fir, or a Black-Capped chickadee or a particular person as a noun I noticed I had a very static, defined idea of that being. The very nature of nouns forces me to think this way. Imagine thinking of the divine or mystery (if your beliefs include this concept) as divine-ing or mystery-ing. What happens then?

Labeling with nouns objectifies and can distance us from the animal or plant we are “naming.” We may have trouble experiencing the uniqueness and aliveness of whatever we have identified with a noun. They might not have room to be as they are in that moment. Experiencing a chickadee as a verb shifted my awareness of this bird from the concreteness of chickadee to a more mysterious sense of a unique and amazing being. I enjoyed the chickadee-ing in that moment we were creating together. We were in process. We were evolving – as verbs – and it was captivating. A worthwhile spiritual practice.

Nouns confine us to a fixed idea. Nouns are fixed things. When I am seen as Cynthia rather than Cynthia-ing, I am locked in, defined. When I see people as verbs, I discover myself being present with them and letting them become, in the moment, whatever they are moved to be. They are then in process. They are free to be their own vast mysterious self. Their becoming is revealed in each moment.

The Jewish Talmud teaches that one of the ways to change someone’s fate is by changing her or his name. Changing our names from nouns to verbs, might change not just our fate, but the fate of the world. I offer this as your contemplation this month. Let me know how it goes if you decide to play with this!

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