Independence and Interbeing
Last Sunday was July 4th - Independence Day - and while it was somewhat muted here in the PNW due to fire danger and the firework ban it still was an opportunity to reflect on what independence and freedom mean. These are things I have written about before - see for instance the letter on the idea of 'One Taste.'
When we embark on a meditation path one of the things that starts to fall away is the strong sense of an independent self. We start to move beyond the feeling of 'self' and 'other' and realize that we cannot adequately draw a solid line between the two. This is the realization of 'anatta' - often translated as 'no-self.' However, the realization is not that the self doesn't exist - that is a misconception that often leads to a rather nihilistic reading - but rather that we are unable to separate the self completely from all that is around it. We are all part of a process, not boxes stacked on a shelf.
So when we think about Independence it is a relative thing not an absolute. When a young adult leaves her parents and gets an apartment we say she has become independent - but the causes for her existence, her social and psychological status, her values and attitudes are all still framed and dependent on her experience - even if they are reactions to those experiences. Similarly when a country ceases to be ruled by another there is a level of independence but it is not complete - the country still has to participate in the global order, still has the experiences and traumas of the past and has to build its path in concert with other countries - including the country it became independent from.
One way of understanding our interdependence is to start to think more deeply about things and their causes and connections. In his essay The Heart Sutra: the Fullness of Emptiness Thich Nhat Hanh coins the term 'interbeing' in the following way:
If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either. We can say that the cloud and the paper inter-are. “Interbeing” is a word that is not in the dictionary yet, but if we combine the prefix “inter-” with the verb “to be,” we have a new verb, “inter-be.”
If we look into this sheet of paper even more deeply, we can see the sunshine in it. If the sunshine is not there, the forest cannot grow. In fact, nothing can grow. Even we cannot grow without sunshine. So we know that the sunshine is also in this sheet of paper. The paper and the sunshine inter-are. And if we continue to look, we can see the logger who cut the tree and brought it to the mill to be transformed into paper. And we see the wheat. We know that the logger cannot exist without his daily bread, and therefore the wheat that became his bread is also in this sheet of paper. And the logger’s father and mother are in it too. When we look in this way, we see that without all of these things, this sheet of paper cannot exist.
One of the first meditations I was taught is a very simple one where we sit and contemplate the question "How did I get here?". This seemingly straightforward contemplation opens up our mind to understand how we are not independent entities, that our 'self' doesn't end at our skin and that we are part of a process. The beauty of the question is that it can be answered at many levels, from the mundane ("I came here by car" - how is it that I own a car..?) to the philosophical ("By committing to meditate" - why and what lead up to that..?). I have done this meditation many, many times and every time the realization is different.
It's a powerful meditation and one I would like to encourage you to try yourself. I have linked below an audio recording from last week of a group of us meditating in this way - if you find it useful in your practice I would encourage you to use it however you wish.
Wishing you all a wonderful week,
P.S. For the music lovers among you I go into a fun story about connections and interbeing here.
Excerpt from The Heart Sutra: the Fullness of Emptiness From “Awakening of the Heart: Essential Buddhist Sutras and Commentaries,” by Thich Nhat Hanh.