A central truth in Buddhism is anatta — no separate self — which can be misconstrued as nonexistence, but is just the opposite. We and all life exists in an infinite web of interconnectivity!
Not feeling it? Let’s look at ways we can strengthen our sense of interconnection:
For many people, being in the wild creates deep relaxation, vibrancy, and a recognition of being an intrinsic part of a mutually supportive system of life. When we quiet our minds and our mouths, when we let go of goals and labels, we come into a quiet, receptive, and fully sensory state. Ah! We don’t disappear, we just feel our interconnection. Anatta.
When I was on a meditation retreat just above Muir Woods National Park, each day I would go down the steep trail into the deep recesses of the canyon floor where visitors were rare. As my inner peace deepened, I was able to recognize a stray thread of fear about losing my delicious sense of equanimity if I wandered amidst chattering humans. On my next descent into the park, I felt grounded enough in my practice to challenge that fear. Slowly I walked toward the park’s main entrance, staying fully present with my breath and the sense of my feet padding on the soft needles of the forest floor. When the path transitioned to decking that protects the redwood roots from the trampling of millions of visitors, I paused to make sure I was up for this. Yes. As I began walking among people, I used the same kind of beginner’s-mind attention I had been giving the rough bark of the towering trees, the dappled light, the fern fronds and delicate oxalis understory, and the rippling water in the creek. A shift happened in my perception of people. I saw them as just another species of wildlife: colorful bipeds with a variety of mostly melodic sounds walking in small groups at different speeds, pausing to look up into the trees, sometimes caught up in a flurry of chatter. Not so different from busy songbirds. They were not alien to nature. They were part of it. And so was I. My prejudices about crowds, noise, and the lack of appropriate reverence in that awe-inspiring place were gone. Instead I felt a tenderness for these humans that I would not have imagined possible. I saw that our species is just another form of life, one that is physically vulnerable, so it weaves fabric to drape on its fur-less bodies, creates dwellings out of earth and trees, and dons hard shells for movement on land, sea, and air. It’s innate curiosity and creativity has compensated for every physical limitation. In a fearful frenzy it has overcompensated and has made a mess of things, but we humans don’t need to erase ourselves from the planet for the balance of systems on Earth to be sustainable. We simply need to expand our understanding of the way of things — that we are not a species apart and we need the Earth and all its inhabitants to be healthy for us to survive as an intrinsic part of a mutually supportive system.
Some people either don’t like nature or are afraid of it, preferring the vibrancy and interconnectivity of city life. They may enjoy nature in smaller doses, but it’s the city that makes them feel alive and connected. One of the most difficult things about the pandemic has been the shutting down of venues where that sense of interconnectivity thrived — live theatre, for example. And, my heart go out to all who have been so financially impacted by the shutting down of restaurants, bars, music venues, and so many other businesses. Yet it’s in our nature to look for silver linings to challenging situations, and one during this period is a shared sense of everyone coping with something that impacts every human on the planet. It has deepened that sense of interconnection, and made for a lot of creative ways to lift each others’ spirits, to honor those who have sacrificed the most, and to take the opportunity of a global slowdown to see and learn more about inherent challenges we face that we may have glossed over in our previously busy lives. And, thankfully, we live at a time when we have the technology to stay connected, even when we can’t be physically close.
If you Google ‘interconnectivity’ you will find much more about the internet and cell phones than Buddhist teachings. And though those modern-day offerings can be distractions from being fully present, we can use them in a way that strengthens our sense of interconnection. Just being able to meet on Zoom with my students over these many months, growing our sangha to include people from other states and countries, has been such a gift.
In the early days of the World Wide Web, there was a shared intention by developers to make it a utopian community, where software was offered freely and there was a sense of reciprocity. I hosted a ‘folder’ on AOL called Meditation Tips & Techniques. This was in the early 1990s when few people had access to meditation groups in their communities or books on the subject. It was wonderful to be in conversation with so many people all over the U.S. Now meditation is universally accepted and practiced by many, and the community is supported by such apps as Insight Timer, where you can say ‘Thank you for meditating with me’ to someone ten miles away or 5000 miles away! As a publisher on Insight Timer, I want to give major props to them for their efforts to sustain the offering while keeping it as free as possible. And to all the teachers on Insight Timer who, like me, operate on a dana (donation) basis.
Even though much of the internet has been appropriated for corporate profits, there are still many vestiges of those early values. when shareware was universal, part of the spirit of pioneering together. Sharing is still an essential part of social media. If you like something, you share it. This replicates the organic patterns of branching out or the way nourishment is carried to all parts of the body.
Those who go on social media and simply look, without participating in the organic nature of it, are missing the whole point. This is not television, with its popcorn passivity. This is the internet! This is an exchange! This is the modern-day equivalent of the ancient Greek agora, a gathering place that was the center of the athletic, artistic, spiritual, and political life of a city. We have nothing comparable to it in our modern life, especially during the COVID pandemic. But the internet, as frustratingly problematic as it is since it has been taken over by greed and pumped full of aversion (As shown on the Netflix documentary Social Dilemma) , still embraces interconnectivity, and can be used wisely. If something delights or inspires you, like it! share it! Don’t keep it to yourself!
I remember how in 1966 in the Haight-Ashbury District of San Francisco, people often handed out flowers to people they passed on the street. When you received a flower, you found someone else on the street to give it to. Those flowers passing from hand to hand made a kind of communion, a celebration of interconnection. Another central truth in Buddhism is Anicca, impermanence. Everything changes, things fall apart, and certainly life on Haight Street did. By the so-called Summer of Love, the core awakening that was shared early on had been trampled. But Anicca does not contradict Anatta. Impermanence does not nullify our intrinsic interconnection. Everything in nature is interconnected and at the same time impermanent, ever changing.
By meditating, we activate awareness and compassion. We see clearly that we are interconnected. We may not pass flowers to people on the street, but if we find something meaningful, we share it with others, using the technology we’ve created to do so. In this way we co-create the world we want to live in.
It’s much like our metta practice: infinite lovingkindness. We begin with ourselves—May I be well. But once we’ve received it, we don’t hoard it. We share it! May you be well! May all beings be well!
In that spirit, please check out , then share my new book!