April 8, 2007

Self-Portrait-Body Parts: Interbeing

It is not my intention to turn off readers who are unenthusiastic and unresponsive to new age spiritual dogma. I am dictating this warning, because I am guilty of being one of the people who shakes his head and discredits any teachings that involve images of galaxies and the universe. (My image this week depicts a picture of the Milky Way.) In this age of spiritual cynicism and the death of mysticism, it is easier to berate and make fun of ideas that seem beyond logical explanation than to consider them seriously. I am often guilty of judging any teaching tagged with the label of spirituality. I blame my suspicion and distrust of religion on the three formal faiths. The three biggies have tainted my spirituality, and it has taken me thirty-two years to reconnect.

I do not want my words and the subsequent image to be viewed as holy dogma or worse as the flighty, capricious ramblings of a new age guru. I hope this post will be read as an honest, simple, and even scientific plea to reconnect to, for lack of a better word, what I am calling our “true” nature. Who the “our” is referring to or what the word “true” could possibly mean is a mystery to me too, but I am tried of feeling so empty and alone.

One reason I connect so strongly with Buddhism and particularly Zen is because I do not see it as a religion, but rather as a way of life. Its lessons are simple and clear and depend on my personal experience for understanding. I need not place faith in something bigger than myself, or put my salivation in the hands of a savior. I simply need to be aware of my actions and realize my interconnectedness to the world. I simply need to understand that I am not separate from anything. “I” as I know him does not exist.

This interconnectedness is the theme of this post and this week’s image, and is the basic tenet of Buddhism. As I understand it, Buddhism says that there is no individual self. The self or the ego is just an illusion, and we are part of a much larger web of life. It is when we see ourselves as separate from all beings that we suffer. Ask any scientist studying the ecosystem and they will tell you the same thing. Go out into nature and observe for yourself, and you will see this interconnectedness everywhere you look.

Lately, I have been thinking about what it is that separates us in particular. I wanted to get even more basic than our mental constructs and psychological parameters. Since the prompt for this week’s SPC is Body Parts, I wanted to explore the idea of the body as our boundaries, and how much we cling to the notion that our bodies house individual selves. This idea of our flesh being permanent and belonging to us individually is beginning to make less and less sense to me. This idea of separation from the universe is as thin as our skin. What is our skin, but a porous, thin layer of flesh?

It is quite empowering to realize that you do not exist individually and that you are connected to everything in the universe. This means that we are truly one large interconnected being. I tried to come up with a variety of ways to articulate my point, but our friend Thich Nhat Hanah has done such an amazing job, that I will leave you with a paragraph explaining the concept of interbeing:
We cannot 'be' by ourselves alone; we must be with everything else. If we observe things mindfully and profoundly, we find out that self is made up only of non-self elements. If we look deeply into a flower, what do we see? We also see sunshine, a cloud, the earth, minerals, the gardener, the complete cosmos. Why? Because the flower is composed of these non-flower elements: that's what we find out. And, like this flower, our body too is made up of everything else-except for one element: a separate self or existence. This is the teaching of 'non-self' in Buddhism. In order to just be ourselves, we must also take care of the non-self elements. We all know this, that we cannot be without other people, other species, but very often we forget that being is really inter-being; that living beings are made only of non-living elements.
I hope this image conveys these ideas and is not too nauseatingly new age. All the photographs were taken by me expect the shot of the galaxy. The ocean picture is from Sipadan in Malaysia, and the sky shot was taken from a motorbike in a rice patty outside of a town called Hoi An in Vietnam. The body is mine and was taken in my house on a Saturday morning.

If you are still interested here is another except from Thich Nhat Hanh from his book Peace is Every Step says:
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. So we can say that the cloud and the paper inter-are. If we look into this sheet of paper even more deeply, we can see the sunshine in it. Without sunshine, the forest cannot grow. In fact, nothing can grow without sunshine. And 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 wheat. We know the logger cannot exist without his daily bread, and therefore the wheat that became his bread is also in this sheet of paper. Looking even more deeply, we can see ourselves in this sheet of paper too. This is not difficult to see, because when we look at a sheet of paper, it is part of our perception. Your mind is in here and mine is also. So we can say that everything is in here with this sheet of paper. We cannot point out one thing that is not here; time, space, the earth, the rain, the minerals in the soil, the sunshine, the cloud, the river, the heat. Everything co-exists with this sheet of paper. We cannot just be by ourselves alone. We have to inter-be with every other thing. This sheet of paper is, because everything else is.


  1. Great representation of interbeing.

  2. Sarah e. Smith2:08 AM

    Your thoughts on spiritualism and buddhism are expressed so much better than I ever could have said. I feel the same way regarding spirituality and self...i actually just posted about something similar today as well...i also just added Walking Meditations to my amazon list, also by Thich Nhat Hanh before i stopped by here and saw your post with his quote......hope all is well, thank you for your image (which is very well done I might add :) and for voicing your thoughts so well.

  3. Another beautiful post. Your photo is so cool too...it reminds me of a friend of mine that you might find interesting to look at:

  4. I just read a post you made about fasting in Ramadan. Have you read a book called 'Ghazali and Prayer' by Kojiro Nakamura? He outlines the similarities between the practices of Zen and Islamic mysticism (Tassawuf). It's fascinating and quite beautiful.

    Your blog is very interesting.

  5. Awesome picture.

    I'm quite attracted to elements of zen buddhism myself, particularly non-attachment and the interconnectness of life. I suspect I skate pretty much on the surface of these things but that doesn't mean they are any less valuable. I guess I'm trying to say, it's not necessary to apologise for being new agey. People may mock but we need all these ideas for the world to survive. And maybe get better.

  6. OOoo I love this.....SO well done...and ditto on all that everyone else has said.

    Big hugs,
    Love Toni

  7. i got my books but have been sick. i expect to start reading this week. i liked the picture- kind of apropos for upcoming environmental stuff for earth day too.

  8. Well said. I don't agree - I believe that despite our interconnectedness, individuality is no illusion - but you express yourself well.