(Dis)[Inter]Connecting Selves

“I hope you’re living in harmony, appreciating each other, without quarrelling, blending like milk and water, and regarding each other with kindly eyes?”

Shorter Discourse at Gosiṅga, MN31

Black and white painting by Cameron Gray showing someone who has lifted on part of their face and is holding it a mirror, the gap on their head is a cage with a writhing serpentine figure inside

In spiritual circles, people often talk about experiencing a feeling of being one with everything, a state of interconnectedness with all living beings and with nature—even the whole cosmos. Do such experiences reveal a truth that we are usually disconnected from, uncovering our real self? Are such moments an experience of enlightenment or do they lead to wrong views? In this essay I approach the idea of interconnectedness in a few different ways using personal experiences and recent events, and then interrogate these ideas in view of the Buddha’s teachings.

Connections of a Romantic Nature

Living in forest monasteries, one of my favourite things to do is to plunge off the beaten path and deep into the bush to find a special spot to sit and meditate; under a giant kauri tree, or on a rocky outcrop, or a fallen grey log. Some days I would be drizzled by rain, sometimes soaked; other days were searing hot and I would hide in the shade of a she-oak. Other times I would sit at night, bathed by silvery blue moonlight. Being alone in the forest is magical. It’s wonderful to feel real solitude, to be completely disconnected from all the busy activity of the human world, and feel truly connected to nature instead. Sitting there in quiet stillness, ants crawl over my legs, kangaroos bounce close by, and snuffling echidnas waddle right past me, oblivious to my presence, and birds perch nearby, regarding me inquisitively.

At such moments, it is as if the barriers that usually keep me—a human—divided from the natural realm all collapse and dissolve. I feel that I am actually a part of nature, within it, rather than outside of it. I belong; I feel one with nature—to utilise an overly sentimental cliché.

But this is just a trick of self view and says more about my underlying sense of ‘me’ than anything about nature itself. Usually, my sense of self is distinctly contained within myriad invented barriers and boundaries. The way we decide to participate in the experience of nature is often like an uninvited but curious observer, watching from the edges of the trees, still on the safety of the path; as if we are just visiting but yet remain separate somehow. After all, this is not our world; we belong instead to the human realm with all its shiny human things. However, this is just an illusion our mind has constructed. We have been conditioned to believe that humans belong outside of nature, or more precisely, above it: such is our conceit of superiority. This artificial separation causes us to forget that humans are very much a part of the natural landscape and that our ‘own’ human habitats are still a part of nature, too. Rats play amongst our garbage dumps, birds nest in our skyscrapers, figs sprout in our drainpipes. In the big picture, the natural world and the human world are very much interconnected; humans are entirely reliant on nature for survival, and increasingly, nature is reliant on humans for its protection, due to the ongoing destruction by our own kind. Mostly this goes on out of our sight, but sometimes happens right in front of us. If we look really hard at ourselves, we see that this destruction is also being done by us, by which I mean me and you.

Photograph by Chris Jordon of dead seabird decomposed body showing stomach is full of small pieces of plastic

Dis/Connected to Our Shadows

It’s easy to paint nature as an idealised, romantic realm, as I did above, with animals frolicking about happily. When humans 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, there are some who graze with ears twitching, constantly looking up whilst drinking at the waterhole, wary of predators; and then there are the predators searching out those same animals for food… We don’t want the doe-eyed prey to die, but the predator must also eat. This is what interconnectivity truly means. 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. If everything is interconnected, we 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 forest to make new wooden furniture, or clearing land for raising animals that we slaughter for food. We love the convenience of plastic packaging but are reluctant to admit that we are part of the problem of plastics polluting our cities, forests and oceans. We cannot be partially interconnected; we need to see our connectedness in its totality.

etching of snake eating a lizard

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. Sickness and health are interconnected; sickness follows us around like a shadow. We quickly learnt how our own careless actions could lead to causing others to get sick and even die. We had to temper our personal desires to just go on doing whatever we want; other lives are in our hands, and our own lives are in the hands of others. 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.

More recently, the brutal death of George Floyd in Minneapolis has shown that a seemingly isolated incident is in fact connected to a brutal and systematic oppression of a whole section of American society. Further connections were quickly made to the Australian context, where 432 First Nations people have died in custody since 1991, with no arrests made. It’s hard for us to look at this disturbing side of our society without flinching, without turning away. It’s tempting to close our eyes to it, in some sort of pseudo spiritual display of exaggerated detachment from the world, and ignore it all. But if we are truly interconnected, we need to understand that—just as with covid—we are all in this together. We need to examine our thoughts, speech and actions carefully, to see where we are contributing to a problem, or where we are helping to solve it. It is challenging for us to look and see our own shadow side and the connection we have to racist cultures; those occasional racist stereotypes that exist in the corners of our mind, that lingering suspicion of certain peoples, or those times where we heard something racist but didn’t do anything. If we look more broadly, we start to see that a system that provides certain people with wealth, power and privilege is connected to the denial of those things to others. It follows that if we benefit from privilege that we must also be connected to this unfair system.

black and white image of protester holding a sign that says white silence = white violence

If we are truly connected to each other, we wouldn’t still have these barriers that divide us from others. We would treat others how we want t be treated our self. This is the type of connection with others that the Buddha asks us to make in the ethical conduct outlined in the Five Precepts; by not killing, not stealing, not committing sexual misconduct, avoiding wrong speech, and not being intoxicated, we protect others as well as our self. Other practices, like cultivating loving-kindness and compassion, deliberately break down the barriers and divisions between our self and others, by including all living beings within our mental sphere. Such practices are profound and beautiful, overcoming overt and subtle ill will and cruelty in our own minds and heightening a sense of connection with an unlimited number of beings. However, if this remains a purely internalised experience and fails to show up in our life through our thoughts, speech and actions towards people around us, then the connection we feel toward others will be tenuous and short lived. We need to examine our minds seriously 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 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.

Painting of Indras Net by Phoebe Rathmell black and white conected lines

Cosmic Self Creationism

I admit that the ‘oneness’ I’ve described above based on ethics and harmonious relations is not what people in spiritual circles are referring to when they talk about those moments of ‘oneness’ experienced in meditation. In those states, people describe the dissolution of self, all those barriers that divide us coming down as they merge with a higher consciousness into the oneness of cosmic nature. Many people believe that this is a Buddhist concept, but it is not something that the Buddha taught; he never said we are ‘one with everything’. Whilst we do live in connected world, sharing the air we breathe, the resources we use and our neighbourhoods with all other living beings, dependence on these things doesn’t mean we exist in a state of ‘universal oneness’ with everything. If this was the case, our experience of happiness and suffering would be intrinsically tied to the experience of every other being in the world. We wouldn’t have free will to make our own choices and we would be unable to get enlightened and become free from the realm of samsara.

In the Simile of the Snake sutta, MN22, the Buddha talks about the problems that occur when we wrongly grasp the Dhamma, likening it to the danger of grabbing a snake the wrong way and getting bitten. Although the idea of interconnectedness allows us to understand that we are dependent on manifold phenomena in the world, there is a danger in that we might start to create think that this is our permanent state of selfhood. However, the Buddha specifically singled out the idea of universal oneness as a form of wrong view, linked to the wrong view of self:

(They think) ‘The self and the cosmos are one and the same. After death I will be permanent, everlasting, eternal, imperishable, and will last forever and ever.’ They also regard this: ‘This is mine, I am this, this is my self.’

This was a view that existed at the time of the Buddha and prior, and which has even come down to us today through the Brahmanical and Hindu traditions, including yoga, as well as the contemporary non-dual movement. When we hear people talk about oneness and interconnectedness, this sense of their self being in oneness with everything is what they are referring to. Maybe they had a blissful experience of oneness in meditation, or a deep feeling of being connected to nature. But they take this for evidence of a self and grasp at that. Seeing themselves as part of external phenomena, they come to think that their self exists beyond them and because the world around us seems eternal, their self is somehow permanent, too. They believe that they will continue to exist by virtue of the interconnectedness they feel—this sense of oneness. But if we truly want long lasting happiness, the Buddha says this is a wrong view that should be given up.

This notion of ‘oneness’ is based on a deluded view of self, the Buddha says, so it can only give rise to suffering (dukkha). We cling to this version of selfhood thinking it is permanent when it is actually impermanent (anicca), we think it is stable but in reality it is liable to change (vipariṇāma). Because it is impermanent and unstable, this view of self is will only lead to sorrow, lamentation, pain, sadness, and distress. The five aggregates or khandhas—form, feeling, perception, volitions and consciousness— which we mistake for our self are also impermanent, subject to change and therefore, suffering. Our embodied view of self—our body—and all the internal processes of our mind combine together for a time, like an illusion but when we examine them individually, we find they are insubstantial and spurious; they are not a ‘self’.

It is the same for all conditioned phenomena. This includes everything in the world around us: none of it can be regarded as an intrinsic part of our self that is fixed and stable. Nor can external phenomena be our intrinsic self, existing in some sort of interconnected totality. Like all conditioned things, we arise in dependence on causes. We do not exist in isolation but in relation to other phenomena, causes and conditions. So even though we are interconnected with all the things on this earth—in that we are dependent on its resources of oxygen, water and food—we are not ‘one’ with all the things in the sense that they are also ‘us’. Everything that makes up our bodies, all the elements of earth, water, air heat arise out of causes and conditions, and are merely borrowed by our bodies for a short time only, in an ongoing process of change.

To make this point clearer, after pointing out the mendicants wrong view of an externalised self in the Simile of the Snake, the Buddha asks:

The Buddha: “What do you think, mendicants? Suppose a person was to carry off the grass, sticks, branches, and leaves in this Jeta’s Grove, or burn them, or do what they want with them. Would you think, ‘This person is carrying us off, burning us, or doing what they want with us?’” Mendicants: “No, sir.”

The Buddha: “Why is that?”

Mendicants: “Because that’s neither self nor belonging to self.”

The Buddha: “In the same way, mendicants, give up what isn’t yours. Giving it up will be for your lasting welfare and happiness.”

Someone who sees like this will completely overcome ignorance and craving. They will overcome the five lower fetters (including the fetter of self view: sakkaya ditthi), and also overcome the persistent conceit of “I am”. There will be no future rebirths, only total extinguishment without remainder. The Buddha says that all these things are obliterated, like a palm stump cut off at the root, unable to arise again in the future. This state beyond birth, the ‘deathless’, which is free of suffering, is the aim of the Buddhist path, not merging into the oneness of the universe and continuing to exist as some form of intergalactic cosmic being.

Image Credits

  1. Cage, Cameron Gray AKA Parablev
  2. Photo by Chris Jordon from the series Midway: Message from the Gyre
  3. Etching of snake eating a lizard, artist unkown
  4. Photo from Black Lives Matter Rally in Sydney June 2020, by the author
  5. Indras Net, Phoebe Rathmell