Originally published in Balance Garden
The question of who we are has dominated the thoughts of philosophers, spiritual and religious theorists, scientists, artists and everyday thinkers for centuries.
We’ve been born into a time and culture in which the greatly dominant view has followed a lot of the scientific and psychological paradigms of the 20th century, which places man (and woman) each as their own separate self-contained entity, with their own unique and more or less consistent consciousness. This consciousness, we suppose, derives in part from our genes, part from our upbringing and experiences, and perhaps, partly to chance. Yet this view hasn’t always been so culturally dominant. Nor does it necessarily ring true with the most contemporary views held in science, philosophy or psychology.
Take the physical body. The human body is made up of 100 trillion cells but only 10% of these can actually be considered distinctly human, the rest comprising a wide range of microbes that are essential for our survival. Given this volume of foreign constituents that make us up and that we can’t live without, it seems like a stretch to think of our physical bodies as a reliable self-contained signifier of the ‘self’. Moreover, our cells are constantly renewing, our appearance is constantly changing, indeed there is absolutely nothing about us that says the same. As the science of epigenetics shows, even our DNA is responsive to environmental factors. So which version of us is the real ‘us’?
And what about the ingredients of our bodies? If we have any notion that we are remotely the same person yesterday as we are today and will be tomorrow (and most of us would concur that there is at least some consistency of ‘self’ from one moment to the next), then the water we have consumed and will consume to make up the 60% of us which is made of H2O, should logically also be included in our concept of ourselves right now. This makes rain, clouds and the sea a critical part of us.
Likewise with all the crops (and even chemicals, stores, and trucks) that supply our food chain, likewise with the land that grows these crops, and likewise with the sun and atmosphere. Indeed everything is so interconnected that there is little that can be considered outside our bodies in this sense.
When we look at the mind we similarly see that there is no logical way in which consciousness can be separated from the external world. If you are reading this and I mention a blue whale, some notion of a blue whale will naturally spring to mind. I wouldn’t have mentioned a blue whale if there was no potential person to read the sentence, and you most likely wouldn’t have thought of it right now if I hadn’t mentioned it. So our minds are linked. Taking this a step further, we can begin to realise how all our thoughts from birth are a symptom of the minds of others, from which brand of washing powder to buy to even our marriage decisions. In turn, we can also deeply appreciate how much others have to offer us.
Many indigenous tribes across the world throughout history, as well as yogic sages, have shared this view, enjoying deep connections with nature, spirit animals and the like. In the Buddha’s time and still in Buddhist cultures today the notion of the self as a distinct entity is completely alien. Central to this view of the world is the concept of interbeing, the idea that we are inherently connected to everything else in the world. In Mahāyāna Buddhism, one of the two main branches of the Buddhist system, the emphasis of dharma practice is not to reach personal enlightenment but to become a Bodhisattva, one who strives for the enlightenment of all beings.
The idea being that one’s suffering cannot end until all beings are free from suffering, as no one individual living creature is distinct from the other.
Fast forward to today and scientists and thinkers like Riccardo Manzotti in his book ‘The Spread Mind: why consciousness and the world are one’ are arguing that we are all overlapping versions of the same consciousness, and that ‘I’ at any given moment counts as the total of everything that is perceived through the senses and is perceiving. As in, I am the drill I hear in the distance and the wind I feel on my skin right now.
Both these similar views may sound vague and unimportant for practical purposes but if wholeheartedly adopted they bring about profound shifts in how we live our lives. If I really internalise and believe that everything and everyone is me, then I become much more inclined to take care of them. If someone is suffering it means I suffer. If a rainforest dies a part of me has died.
We see this interconnectedness all the time in our lives. In the increase in civil unrest that follows a major drought and then eventually brews into a terrorist attack in our own back garden. In our economy, our history, and in our rapidly deteriorating climate, already one degree hotter than it ever has been and triggering weather patterns that are afflicting many of the poorest countries due to countless economic forces.
In the coming decade, a radical shift of humanity towards a more ingrained sense of interconnectedness with others and the environment is needed to keep the forces of greed and self-interest that are causing so much suffering and that have the potential to cause irreparable damage to our planet in check. No less than the lives of our children depend on it.
Undoing a lifetime of cultural conditioning around how to view oneself and the world isn’t necessarily easy. In fact, it can take a lifetime’s worth of practice. But little changes can make a big difference.
Here are just a few mindful ways to cultivate your sense of interbeing:
- Before each meal, take a minute to consider where your food came from. Everything that made it possible. And express simple gratitude for what you have received.
- Next time you feel a negative emotion towards someone, take a deep breath and place yourself in their shoes. Think, ‘this person is also me’ and consider that if you had lived their life and been born to their particular skills and circumstances you would be exactly the same.
- Practicing interbeing around how we purchase and consume goods and services can be a daunting task. For one thing, it can be difficult to know the ethics and working conditions under which products are made. For another we sadly have to pay a premium for ethical products, organic food etc. The key is to take it one step at a time. Buying an alternative to leather next time you shop for shoes, for example, or start with your regular grocery shop. Over time, each time you buy something you will be much more aware of where it came from, the impact it’s production has had and where it will end up. Become curious. The more we care, the more we send powerful signals to the economy that a shift towards ethical standards drives profits. The world is so complex. If in doubt, simplify your source or consider whether you really need it at all.
- Consider the impact of your behaviour as you go through life. The care with which you treat public objects and spaces. How your demeanour can influence how others feel. Set an example. Challenge yourself to make a net positive impact with everything you do.