Mindfully Embracing Our Role in the Web of Existence
At the root of some of our world’s most pressing problems is a misunderstanding of our relationship with one another and the planet that sustains us – an illusion of separation and complete independence. In order to live fulfilling lives, it’s important that we develop a more accurate understanding of and take an active interest in the intertwined causes and conditions that create suffering and make happiness possible, in mind and body, individually and collectively, socially and environmentally.
“…it is an essential way of seeing that arises when we free ourselves from our normal mental habits that create division and boundaries and barriers, that create a sense of self and other.” – Sharon Salzberg
To cultivate this understanding, it can be useful to think of all beings, experiences (both internal and external), and material things as interwoven like a tapestry – not one, but inextricably interconnected. Each thread has a place and a role, but no one thread alone can create the fabric of existence. This is not a magical or fluffy concept – we can see this: 1) on a biological level through the mind-body connection, 2) on a societal level with the impacts of increasing mass communication and globalization, and 3) on an environmental level through the effects of climate change.
The Mind-Body Connection
We now understand that the state of our bodies impacts the state of our minds and vice versa. We know there is a gut-brain connection – you experience this directly when you get “butterflies” in your stomach or when you feel like you have to go to the bathroom before a performance like giving a speech or competing in a sporting event. The gastrointestinal tract is sensitive to emotion; feelings like anger, anxiety, sadness, and elation can trigger symptoms in the gut. The very thought of eating can release the stomach’s juices before food gets there. We know that prolonged levels of high stress are correlated with a number of health problems such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes.
Our bodies are made up mostly of water molecules (60%), which are made up of hydrogen and oxygen atoms, which are made up of subatomic particles like protons, neutrons, quarks, leptons and bosons. These are the smallest units of matter we can currently measure, but it’s likely there are even smaller parts. We have a symbiotic relationship with all the other organisms that reside in and on our bodies – we need them to live. And if the delicate ecosystem in and on our bodies that supports them is disrupted, they can die. A small change in our genetic code can replicate into life threatening cancer.
All these little parts of our bodies work together so we can function. The basic building blocks bind together and communicate with one another in endlessly complex ways. Even very small changes can have powerful ripple effects – a mutation in one tiny cell can lead to cancer that spreads throughout the body. Did you know life giving and sustaining water is only one oxygen atom away from being hydrogen peroxide – a bleaching agent that can also be used in explosives?
Even something as intangible as a thought or emotion is related to a change in neurotransmitters in the brain and sensations in the body, which are dependent upon and modified by other creatures and our surroundings. We are made up of many parts, some of which we have yet to discover because they are too small for our current technology to measure, and some of which include other beings like microbes in our gut and mites that live on our skin. The human body contains about 100 trillion cells, but only maybe one in 10 of those cells is actually what we might call human. The rest are from bacteria, viruses and other microorganisms. For every human gene in your body, there are 360 microbial genes. Our minds and bodies are more like an ever-changing symphony played by a variety of instruments, rather than an unchanging sculpture carved from a single medium.
Our interpersonal relationships teach us the lesson of our interconnectedness. We have seen this very clearly through the lens of the pandemic. We literally breathe each others’ air, so our fellow human’s willingness to wear a mask, physically distance, and accept a vaccine impacts our wellbeing. The virus has even been found in the waste water of city sewer systems. Our failure to manage the pandemic here in the US causes resurgences of COVID-19 in the countries our citizens travel to.
We have also seen this in the increased social unrest and protests in recent years. A murder of a man (George Floyd) by police in Minnesota became a tipping point for protests across the US, in over 60 countries, and on all seven continents. Mis- and dis-information proliferated due to ignorance or out of self-dealing, such as anti-mask and vaccine memes and lies spread by leaders about widespread election fraud, can cause reactions that weaken systems that protecting human rights and public health, and lead to sickness, death and/or destruction across the country.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” – Martin Luther King, Jr
The environment also teaches us we are interconnected. We’ve also seen this more and more with climate change. Fires in Colorado impacted our air quality here in Kansas City. Waste dumped into the ocean in Asia turn up in the seafood in our supermarkets. The destabilizing effects of fracking in Oklahoma caused an earthquake that shook my house in MO. Some years ago, I stepped over garbage from China as I walked on a beach in Thailand. The tiny plastic fibers shed from the synthetic clothing we wear and wash are found in the water we drink.
This winter with rolling blackouts in my town amid arctic temperatures, I was keenly aware of how our very lives depend on the people and systems that maintain our power grid. With advances in space travel, we can still only live so long in space, because we don’t understand yet which elements of the Earth we need to keep our microbiome healthy. Think about the garments you’re wearing right now, where they came from, what they are made out of, and how many different hands they passed through before you put them on for the very first time. In fact, everything we need and enjoy has been touched by or come from something or someone outside us.
Think about the concept of throwing things away. Right in the middle of my living space has always been a large garbage can that every day receives many deposits. And until fairly recently in my life I didn’t think much about where “away” was. I now understand that there really is no “away”. Since we are the Earth, we are also our garbage dumps, smoke stacks, and sewer systems. And those who are most vulnerable among us live even closer to “away”, being the first to experience the harmful consequences of our consumer culture.
In addition to understanding the truth of our deep interconnectedness with our own internal parts and processes, one another, and the planet, we also must continually remind ourselves of the law of cause and effect.
Cause and Effect
Every action has some effect, whether we are aware of it or not, and the complex conditions in which actions are taken, help to co-create their outcome. For example, introducing a predator to get rid of a pest can be devastating to an ecosystem. Breeding animals for certain desirable qualities while ignoring the wholistic impact can lead to unintended inherited health problems like cardiomyopathy, joint failure, eye diseases, and cancer. An act of kindness when witnessed by others can ripple out creating a wave of compassion.
Causes bring about the production or arising of something. Conditions help shape the identity of what is produced or arises… if we can see all the different components of it, and realize that everything is changing at a different rate, and there are so many variables that are affecting what I’m experiencing right now, then it helps to desolidify it. And when we have deconstructed – desolidified – what we’re experiencing… we can see all the different things that it arose from, all the different results that we’re experiencing simultaneously, and then deal with it in a much more rational type of way. – Dr. Alexander Berzin
There is an understanding in some cultures that the means are inseparable from the ends, because everything is interconnected. It makes sense that some element of our actions exists essentially within any outcome, even if it is merely a mental imprint – a new connection forged in the brain. We might imagine actions as threads woven into the whole cloth of our experience – or as seeds that might bear fruit under the right conditions. In either case, some trace of the cause remains within the effect. In more modern terms, we understand that our thoughts and urges are functions of the neural pathways that form the “whole cloth” of the brain. In this way, the mind itself becomes imprinted with our actions – especially the ones we repeat – through the strengthening of neural pathways. Conversely, what we don’t nurture weakens and fades.
As the means, so the end. The means may be likened to a seed, the end to a tree; and there is just the same inviolable connection between the means and the end as there is between the seed and the tree. – M. K. Gandhi
All worldly things, including ourselves, are composite, come into being, function, and transform based on complex causes and conditions. Bringing to mind all the factors that had to come together to make you and me, it seems like an impossible miracle. Just think about the many factors that coalesce to spark a human life – so many things that have to happen before conception, lots of pieces of the puzzle that have to fit just right for conception to happen, and all the processes under the right conditions that must occur during gestation, and finally surviving the drama of birth and adapting to our encounter with the outside world.
Sharon Salzberg said, “When we take the time to be quiet, to be still, we begin to see the web of conditions, which is the force of life itself, as it comes together to produce each moment…” We begin to see things not as a “solitary, singular entity, but as a set of relationships—of elements and forces and contingencies all connecting in constant motion… each of us in every moment is a set of relationships.” This means we all have a responsibility to consider the potential immediate and longer-term impacts of our thoughts, words and actions on ourselves, other beings and the planet, while at the same time understanding that we aren’t fully in control of outcomes. In other words, our wellbeing depends on each of us doing the best we can, while accepting our limitations.
The Truth of Our Interdependence
We are interdependent with one another and the planet. All of this is a culturally revolutionary concept for most of us in the United States. We tend to value our independence, believe in rugged individualism, fiercely protect our personal freedoms, and operate from a boot-strap mentality. When we believe that success is always within our reach if, as individuals, we just work hard enough, the flip side of the coin is that failure is the result of inaction or incompetence. While these beliefs have undoubtedly driven many to push beyond perceived boundaries, the costs can be devastating both personally and to those around us. These attitudes can limit our vision by defining weakness and failure, strength and success in very narrow ways. In blaming individuals (including ourselves) for our problems, we fail to see how larger systems may be flawed and in need of change. We may begin to value results over process and in our desperation for success, we may disregard other people and our values to get there. We may convince ourselves that the end justifies the means.
These foundational, rarely questioned mainstream American principles of “success” (extract, more is better, acquire, dominate, conquer, win) are actually in direct opposition to interconnection. We see ourselves as masters of the Earth. Our consumer culture requires us to work for our survival, but if we happen to manage that, many of us will work even more to acquire beyond what we actually need. We are encouraged to see resources like a pie – a piece for you and yours means one less piece for me and mine – so we experience immense pressure to jump right in and get ours before its gone. This feeling of scarcity and competition, separation from one another and our own lives, and disconnection from the natural world, can dehumanize us and make us lose our sense of enoughness.
“In order to have a happy life, we must take an active interest in the sources of our happiness… If we wish to flourish individually and together as a society, it is not enough for us to simply acknowledge the obvious interdependence of the world we live in. We must consider its implications, and reflect on the conditions for our own welfare… When we have respect for others and take an interest in their flourishing, we ourselves flourish.” – Ogyen Trinley Dorje
How Can the Wisdom of Interconnection be Cultivated?
Awareness is a very important first step – this alone takes much courage. Mindfulness makes us aware of our interconnection – we can’t help but see this if we pay close attention and look deeply. It makes us question things that were previously unquestioned. In practicing mindfulness, we can begin to observe the relationship between cause and effect and determine for ourselves whether the means justify the end.
First we might notice, with a sense of curiosity, how certain intentions and actions impact our internal experience. Then we might observe how this ripples out into the external world of people and events, both short-term and longer term. When we act from a place of selfishness or anger, how does this play out? When our intentions are generous and compassionate, what arises from our actions? Might we invite a heartfelt inquiry into lifestyle, where we put our attention, and how we invest our precious energy? When we examine this more closely, we may begin to call into question what many of us spend so much of our life force doing each day. The insights we gain from the practice of mindfulness can help us choose our path more wisely in a way that considers the actual costs as well as the potential benefits. Gradually we develop more openness, curiosity, and a willingness to experiment with going out into the world and living a new truth.
“Gaining a new understanding of the forces at work in your life can be a first step toward relating positively to them… Interdependence is our reality, whether we accept it or not. In order to live productively within such a reality, it is better to acknowledge and work with interdependence, wholeheartedly and without resistance. “ – Ogyen Trinley Dorje
Lovingkindness and compassion can also open us to this possibility. The practice helps us let down our defenses and open ourselves to experience in an insightful way. Understanding interconnection increases our compassion and our ability to take joy in others’ happiness – when we realize we are inseparable, how can we hate? As Sharon Salzberg pointed out, “Rather than viewing others with fear or contempt, which arises from a belief in separation, we see them as part of who we ourselves are.”
Practicing in community can also be an important part of opening our hearts and recognizing our interdependence. We begin to understand on a gut level that we aren’t alone in our experiences. We also become exposed to a wider range of perspectives, which broadens our understanding and strengthens our compassion. In nurturing these relationships, we see how our caring presence combined with the richness of our varied experiences, serves to support one another along the journey.
Through this willingness to practice in relationship, to pause and remember before responding, to include our fellow beings and the natural world in our consideration, and to act from a place of compassion and wisdom, we can help to co-create a flourishing world that is welcoming and sustainable for us all.
If you would like to learn more about interconnection, you might want to check out our on demand workshop, “Interconnected: Embracing Our Role in the Web of Existence“. We also offer a number of guided practice on our resources page.
It is easy to slip into complacency, apathy, overwhelm, even denial, when we look at the realities humanity is facing – ecosystem collapse, growing inequality and prejudice, the rise of nationalism. Interdependence is a crucial lens to better understand how these realities came to be. At the same time, the reality of interdependence gives us many options for shifting the world’s current trajectory. In a sense, interdependence is our best hope. First we need to see how all things are interconnected and then realize the value of this insight to help us understand who we are and to more fully grasp the nature of all we experience. Whether we acknowledge it or not, interdependence is the defining force in our lives and in the universe… Ultimately we need to live interdependence – to feel humanity as our primary community, to dissolve all boundaries that divide us, to feel our responsibility not as burden but as an opportunity to love. – Christine Heming
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