(Title of feature: Taking Stock of Your Connections)
Zen Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh often says, "We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness." He describes the interconnection of all creation as "interbeing." When we touch one thing, we touch many. If you look deeply enough, he writes in Cultivating the Mind of Love, "You will see yourself as multitudes, penetrating everywhere, interbeing with everyone and everything."
But how do practice this? We may agree with the concept, but how do we remind ourselves of its implications?
A good place to start is in your home. Ethan Nichtern is the founder of The Interdependence Project, a grassroots movement bringing the principles of meditation and interconnectedness to the arts and activism. He was empowered by his teacher, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, as a Shastri or a senior teacher in the Shambhala tradition (Tibetan Buddhism). In the following passage from his book One City: A Declaration of Interdependence, he describes all the connections to the world he encounters in the first few minutes of a typical day:
"I wake up in my apartment in Brooklyn. I slap the snooze button on an alarm clock made in the Philippines. For a few minutes I lie on a bed manufactured in New Jersey, on sheets woven in Mexico, under a blanket from India, reluctantly gathering the mental energy necessary to rise and face another day in NYC. With a deep breath I get out of bed and make coffee with a French press, the way my mother taught me. I grind coffee beans grown on a Puerto Rican plantation. I boil water that comes from a number of reservoirs in upstate New York. This water has pulsed through an intricate web of ducts and unseen pipes that some forgotten engineers constructed decades ago, so that the tens of millions of people in the metropolitan area can stay alive for yet another day. When the coffee is ready, I pour it into a mug manufactured in China that says 'Don't Mess With Texas.' I add the requisite milk that a few weeks ago pooled inside the udders of cows on a huge industrial farm in Pennsylvania.
"Right now, though, I'm not thinking of any of these places, or the people and animals in them. I am concentrating, with the single-mindedness of a junkie, on the familiar taste of coffee.
"I brush my teeth and shower — using a toothbrush from Massachusetts, soap from Mexico, shampoo from Ohio, toilet paper from Wisconsin, and a towel from Georgia (the state, not the country). I take asthma medicine manufactured in England. Then I put on my clothes: boxers made in Bangladesh, a T-shirt from Turkmenistan (seriously), pants from Nicaragua, an overshirt from Vietnam, socks from China, a hooded sweatshirt also from China, and a watch with parts from Korea and Taiwan that were assembled in China. All of these things arrived in my apartment thanks to the archaic energy of petroleum.
"Not once do I imagine what the people look like who made these clothes. Not once do I consider the long pathways these items had to travel just to be finally stamped with the hidden mental label: 'mine.'
"I sit down to do my morning meditation practice. I settle my mind and gather myself back from a million fantasies and alternate realities, consistently trying to return to the immediacy of the present moment. The practice is incredibly helpful for my sanity, but I didn't invent it. I sometimes forget that my ability to do this practice — to understand my mind at all — depends on the invisible kindness of every teacher I have ever had. In this moment I fail to reflect on the wise, eccentric, and creative geniuses who have collectively helped knit together my own sense of identity. Spacing out, I fall into the trap of thinking I somehow arrived here and now without the guidance of others.
"I get up from meditation and put on shoes (made in China). I grab the things I will need for the day (many of which also come from China) and put them into my bag (again, China). I do not notice the irony: for a practitioner of a tradition that has its origins in Tibet, I own a ridiculous amount of stuff from China. But how could I see the irony in this fact? I'm not paying any attention to it.
"At this point, I haven't left my apartment. Nonetheless, I have already made contact with and relied upon most of the inhabitants of planet Earth, past and present. I have already made choices that affect all of the inhabitants of planet Earth, present and future. Other than a sleepy grunt to my roommate on the way into the bathroom, I haven't acknowledged contact with anyone or anything at all.
"I step out of my building. The day is sunny and bright. I remember to take some time this morning to appreciate the fleeting sunshine. I stand still for a long moment on the front stoop. At least I believe I'm standing still. Actually, the concrete on which my feet seem so firmly planted rotates on its axis at a speed of more than one thousand miles an hour. The borough of Brooklyn hurdles around the sun, ninety-three million miles away, like a tether-ball, at a speed of sixty-seven thousand miles an hour. Meanwhile, within my body, two million dynamic biological operations involving millions of other microbial beings are occurring every second, just so that I can stay alive and falsely believe that I am standing still. I am not still, in any way, shape, or form.
"The people on the street in my neighborhood are mostly speaking Spanish, and their families originate from the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Mexico, Colombia, Guatemala, Venezuela, and Puerto Rico. Like a true New Yorker — wearing anonymity as a badge of honor — I don't acknowledge any of them as we pass each other.
"On the way to the subway I see that I have a new message on my cell phone. I dial my voicemail, and the satellite that orbits miles overhead bounces digital information back into my ear. I hear the reconstructed echo of my girlfriend's voice telling me her period is late. Very.
"I almost knock over a woman on the way down the crowded subway steps. How did all these people get in My Way? Hearing the violin-screech of the rush-hour train, I neglect to apologize. I barely make it onboard. The conductor makes a typical post-9/11 announcement about keeping an eye out for suspicious packages. On the crowded car, people are speaking a dozen dialects and languages. The voices stitch themselves into one patchwork patois in the background of my awareness: the dialect of English as it can only be spoken by teenagers in New York City, Spanish, Spanglish, Mandarin, Polish, Japanese, Portuguese, and Haitian French. But I don't pay attention to the symphony of voices. I am only hearing the repetitive thought skipping through my mind like a scratched CD: 'I don't wanna be a daddy!'
"I get off the train and walk upstairs to the street, emerging from the subterranean depths. I find myself in the heart of that island of concrete and humanity that functions as one gargantuan being called Manhattan. There are nine million human bodies on this island during work hours of any given weekday. I am now fully hooked in to the elaborate web of the city, with no specific center and no defined edge. It is a four-dimensional fabric of streets, sidewalks, pipes, tunnels, bricks, steel, glass, graffiti, stores, galleries, parks, homes, relationships, interests, communities, scenes, systems, dreams, intentions, histories, hearts, and minds. And despite all the diverse systems, those amnesiac minds keep forgetting a simple fact: it is still One City.
"In many ways, a city responds to events just as the complex systems within an organism respond. Transit strike or power outage, terrorist attack, just one delayed subway on one single train line, and the city will have to reshape itself into a new momentary entity. Within this system, if someone should happen to smile at me — even by accident — I might smile to the rest of the world for hours, spreading warmth along the sidewalk like a lip-curling virus. If I bark at people mindlessly, they might infect twenty other innocent bystanders with their frustration before they even make it to lunch. This is the real Internet — the organic network that transcends cyberspace — and we're all connected, to it and through it."
To Practice This Thought: Make a similar inventory of all the people and nations represented by the objects in your home. Note how you are dependent upon them and also how your actions might affect them.