Who You Really Are
If there is any belief or doctrine that I consider to be absolute, this is probably it: everything is connected. Its hard to overstate how central this is to understanding the nature of reality. Frankly, it's not even a belief as much as it is an observable fact. Nothing exists in a vacuum - isolated by itself. For me, the easiest way to see this is when you realize that the things you considered to be opposites actually define one another. Take this blog post for instance. If these letters were white against the white background you would not be able to read this. Neither would you be able to read this if these black letters were typed against a black background. The contrast between black and white is necessary for you to be able to see the words. Although black and white are considered opposites, they are actually two sides of the same coin. You cannot have one without the other.
We seem to be separated from one another by space, but actually space is what connects us. If there were no space between myself and other objects or people I wouldn't be able to see anything or distinguish between myself and anything else. Space is necessary to be able to hold the solids of this universe, just like you need space in a bowl in order for it to hold food. Yet it can't just be space either. If there is nothing except space...then what are we even talking about? We don't exist. Solids and space define one another. They are in relationship to one another.
This principle, as far as I can tell, is universal. It applies all the way down the line: light and darkness, happiness and sadness, cold and hot, pain and pleasure, sound and silence, self and other, waking and sleeping, and life and death. Each exist in relationship to the other and define each other. You wouldn't know the one without the other.
Alan Watts was a master of illustrating this principle in myriads of ways. For example, take the relationship between yourself and the outside world. He pointed out that everything you see out in front of you is technically neural activity within your brain. All the lights and colors and shapes you see at this moment are actually just the activity of neurons and electrical signals in the visual cortex, which is in the back of the head. So you might come to the conclusion that the universe only exists within your skull, but "you've got to correct that thought by remembering that your skull exists inside the external world." So you're in this funny situation where "It's inside me and I'm inside it, and I'm inside it and it's inside me." What this shows is simply that reality is transactional. It is a function of relationship. Existence is relationship itself.
Scientists know this, because when they describe any organism or process they have to describe the context and the environment in which it happens. If you take a given organism you cannot describe it apart from where it lives, what it does, what it eats, etc. Those things are absolutely fundamental to what the organism is. We can't truly separate ourselves from our environment either. As Watts points out, even if we go into space we need to take a "canned" version of our environment with us in order to survive, meaning the space shuttle or the space suit. This is the clue to the reality that we are ultimately not separate entities from our total environment.
Many people have heard of the concept of "butterfly effect" in which small changes such as the flapping of a butterfly's wings in one part of the world can affect the weather patterns in a distant place weeks later. We are so used to thinking that everything is separate from everything else that this seems impossible. Yet if everything exists in relationship to everything else, then everything has an influence over everything else. Although you may not be able to perceive it, a galaxy 100 million light years away has real effects on how things are in the very place you sit.
The legendary Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh is another master at articulating this concept:
“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.”
And further he continues:
“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. 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 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.”
So, if everything is connected in this way, if everything affects everything else, then who are you, really? Are you the person named on your birth certificate? Is that what defines you? Are you just this individual body cut off and apart from the rest of the cosmos? Everything I've said up until now was to show that this is not true. In reality you don't exist as a separate self. As Alan Watts put it: "You are something the whole universe is doing in the same way that a wave is something that the whole ocean is doing." Or as he put it yet another way "You are an aperture through which the entire universe is looking at and exploring itself."
This is the big secret. We are not just tiny individuals lost in a vast, strange and indifferent universe. We ARE the vast and strange universe. We are expressions and manifestations of it. You and I, every person, every plant, indeed the whole planet is nothing less than the primordial energy of the cosmos manifesting in this particular way. As Watts once said, you are not a result of the Big Bang. You are still the Big Bang now. This is just what it looks like 13.7 billion years into it.
In my next post, I will write about how this view of the universe is expressed, believe it or not, within Christianity.