It’s easy to paint nature as an idealised, romantic realm with glorious sunsets and animals frolicking about happily. When people say they feel ‘one with nature’, it is this picturesque form of nature they feel connected to. But the truth is that nature is also a brutal place full of fear and suffering; animals are always searching for food, and whilst we don’t want the doe-eyed prey to die, the predator must also eat. We, too, are part of such heartbreaking systems. We cannot just choose the pretty parts of nature that we want to be connected to and separate ourselves from the things that we don’t like. We also need to acknowledge that there are some difficult and problematic things that we are connected to. Our love of nature doesn’t stop us from consuming vast amounts of plastic packaging that pollute our cities, forests and oceans. We cannot be partially interconnected, we need to see our connectedness in its totality.
The covid-19 pandemic thrust a newfound awareness into view of our interconnected world, showing how a small outbreak in a faraway land could grow to affect the entire planet. We quickly learnt how our own careless actions could cause others to get sick and even die. Our quarantine is not just a sign of how much we care for our own health but how much we care about the health of others, too. The barriers of social distancing that physically divide us from each other are actually a visible sign of care, whilst the internal barriers of selfhood—based on greed, hatred and delusion—that usually separate us from others have been lowered. There is cooperation and solidarity; we strangers care for each other. We are all in this together.
There’s always wars, famines, disasters happening somewhere around the world. It’s tempting to close our eyes to this disturbing side of our society, in some sort of pseudo spiritual display of exaggerated detachment. But if we are interconnected, we need to examine our thoughts, speech and actions carefully, to see where we are contributing to these or similar problems in our own little worlds and examine ways we can help find a solution.
If we are truly connected to each other, we wouldn’t still have barriers that divide us from others. We would treat others how we want to be treated our self. This is the type of connection to others that the Buddha asks us to make through the ethical conduct he outlined in the Five Precepts. Other practices, such as cultivating loving-kindness and compassion, deliberately break down the barriers between our self and others, by including all living beings within our mental sphere. However, if this remains a purely internalised experience and fails to show up in our life through our thoughts, speech and actions, then we might need to examine our minds to see if we are merely engaging in some intellectualised spiritual fantasy, or really making progress on the spiritual path.
In the Shorter Discourse at Gosiṅga (MN31) https://suttacentral.net/mn31/en/sujato we learn how harmonious relations are achieved by combining loving kindness with ethical conduct in both private and in public. Here the Buddha asks the Venerable Anuruddha how he and his fellow monks live together:
The Buddha: “I hope you’re living in harmony, appreciating each other, without quarrelling, blending like milk and water, and regarding each other with kindly eyes?”
Anuruddha: “Indeed, sir, we live in harmony like this.”
The Buddha: “But how do you live this way?”
Anuruddha: “In this case, sir, I think, ‘I’m fortunate, so very fortunate, to live together with spiritual companions such as these.’ I consistently treat these venerables with kindness by way of body, speech, and mind, both in public and in private. I think, ‘Why don’t I set aside my own ideas and just go along with these venerables’ ideas?’ And that’s what I do. Though we’re different in body, sir, we’re one in mind, it seems to me.”
Acknowledging the connections between our internal and external worlds is one way that we can experience interconnectedness. If we want to achieve a state of oneness, maybe a meaningful way to do this is by working together for each other’s benefit and being a good friend to all living beings.
This is an edited and abridged version of the essay (Dis)[Inter]Connecting Selves by Bhante Akaliko. Read the full version here. https://lokanta.github.io/2020/06/08/disinterconnecting-selves/