The Interconnected Self
On our connection to each other, our cities, the soil, plants, and everything around us. We are relational beings.
“People normally cut reality into compartments, and so are unable to see the interdependence of all phenomena. To see one in all and all in one is to break through the great barrier which narrows one’s perception of reality.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh
One of the guiding principles of my life is that everything is connected in some way. We are living in one giant ecosystem where everything interacts with everything else in one way or another. Acting this way has changed my life and opened up so many avenues of exploration for me.
However, it seems like the more widely connected we become the less connected we feel and the less we understand and recognize the connections that bind us. And despite the ever-increasing connection to places across the globe people feel less connected than ever.
300 years ago my words and actions might've reached a hundred or so people, my reputation would exist in my town, and everything I used in my day-to-day life, for the most part, likely would've come from within 100 miles of my residence.
Today, I am in close contact with friends in Singapore, India, Germany, France, Brazil, Canada, and a whole host of states in the US. I'm writing on a laptop with parts from at least a dozen different countries, put together by machines designed by many different people, writing on a platform with servers and participants across the globe. The food I eat is imported from different states and countries. The materials for the house I live in are similarly imported from all over the globe.
By merely existing at this point in time, my life is inextricably interconnected with thousands and thousands of other people's lives simply by doing what I'm doing right now, never mind the near-infinite invisible connections between myself and the world around me.
Despite this clear cut example of interconnection, many will still scoff at the idea that human beings—all living things—are even more inextricably connected to each other than is commonly understood in cultures today. Many understand that the global economies are connected and that social movements seem to be connected somehow. But how many recognize just how connected they are to their local happenings, to how their cities are built and operate, the soil that they live on, or the plants and birds they come across on a day-to-day basis?
On Cities, Soil, and Plants
It might be, or at least seem, easier to view all humans as interconnected. It might be a little more difficult to understand how we are interconnected with the plants, the soil, and the landscape around us. On an unconscious level we might be aware that the architecture of our cities is influenced by the landscape. San Francisco's hilly terrain alters the people who live there’s consciousness through its landscape and the way that the city is designed. It facilitates a certain type of thinking. The hustle and bustle is contagious. The narrow streets and the tall buildings guide your thinking as they guide the traffic through the maze. While in a smaller town the pace might be slower, the architecture different—more open—and vegetation is more common. Your city affects your style of life. I recently visited Copenhagen and was astonished at the number of people riding bikes. The infrastructure there allows for biking. There are legitimate bike lanes and they are wide enough to accommodate a large number of bikers.
Meanwhile, in my homebase of Salt Lake City, Utah when there are bike lanes, they are small and you run the risk of being hit by cars who don’t pay attention to bikers. While I may have the option to bike in Utah, the risks and barriers to entry are higher than they would be in Copenhagen. The design of the city changes the choices I make and thereby alters my life. Biking is merely one of thousands of instances where the location you live changes how you relate to the world.
Another example that the location of where we live influencing us is that our health is directly tied to the soil on which we live and the plants that surround us. Trillions of microbes make up the stomachs of plants, helping break nutrients down for the plants to utilize. These plants get eaten directly by us or by animals, which might in turn be eaten by us, and the health of the soil, the health of the plant, the health of the animal we eat directly influences the health of the human that eats it. (Here, Here, Here) For example, one researcher found that the constellation of organisms found in soil and on local animals change how children and adults respond to allergens. (Here) The healthier the soil the less one is prone to allergies.
Trillions of microorganisms in soil you might never see, let alone pay attention to, affect your health and subsequently the possibilities of choices that are available to you. A similar number of microorganisms live on and within you (the microbiome is an easy example here), not-so-subtly altering your health, mood, and choices.
The Interconnection of Plants
Plants are intimately connected with each other, just as humans are. Plant networks around us are alive and connected. Research has shown that landscapes and forests underneath us are all connected. Trees send signals through underground mycelium-connected root systems sometimes for miles to warn their neighbors of predators, drought, or other unfavorable conditions. (Here, Here, Here,) They share nutrients with each other, even between species.
Plants warn each other through volatile organic compounds (VOCs) of nearby predators, and there is some research indicating that humans unconsciously can sense whether or not the forest they are walking through is healthy or unhealthy through these VOCs. And those who walked through a healthy forest felt better than those that walked through an unhealthy one. (Here, Here, Here) If this is the case, imagine how many millions of unhealthy or neglected plants live in the city nearest to you, in the fields that will become the food we eat, and in the parks we spend our time in. Might that impact our overall health and mood?
The Net of Indra
One of my favorite examples relating to the connection of everything is the Net of Indra.
As Rajiv Malhotra describes it, “Indra’s Net originates from the Atharva Veda which likens the world to a net woven by the great deity Shakra or Indra. The net is said to be infinite, and to spread in all directions with no beginning or end. At each node of the net is a jewel, so arranged that every jewel reflects all the other jewels. No jewel exists by itself independently of the rest. Everything is related to everything else; nothing is isolated.”
In the Buddhist tradition, the net is a web with dew drops instead of jewels, each drop containing the image of all the other drops within itself, each individual drop containing the entirety of the web and all of the other drops; an infinity captured in a specific point.
Now imagine I shine a laser in the jewel that represents you. The red light then bounces from the jewel that is you, to the jewels that are nearest to you. These might represent your family, your closest friends, the things you use most often every day, etc. Because they are close to you, the light is only slightly diminished. What stems from you continues on to affect what their jewel looks like. The further away the light gets from its source the dimmer it gets representing a weaker connection.
There's the saying that who we are is made up of the 5 people we are closest to. That is likely true to a large extent. However, those 5 people might only make up 50% of who we are. The 10 people we are closest to make up 75%. The 20 closest people make up 87.5% and so on. However, this is only a part of the story. They might make up how you think, or what your personality is like, but we are also embedded in a societal context which constructs at least some part of our person. The individual you met while buying groceries, while maybe only the briefest transaction occurred, affects your person, your existence.
Because we are all interconnected, we build off of each other in seen and unseen ways. This functions in direct ways, such as a performer playing off of their audience's feedback or energy, or in indirect ways, such as someone unintentionally harming another person who then goes and unintentionally harms their friend as a result.
Imagine going down the checkout line at the grocery store and coming to a cashier who is cheerful (this would require them being paid a decent wage, but just imagine it), smiles, asks you how you are (and actually means it), and you have a pleasant conversation with them. This interaction contained a positive valence, and thus might serve to increase your mood, which makes you nicer to the next stranger you meet, and so on ad infinitum.
Imagine the opposite. The cashier is grumpy, makes a rude comment on your appearance, or judges how much ice cream you are buying. The negatively charged interaction might then influence you to be less likely to allow someone to merge during traffic or less likely to smile at a person on the street, which might in turn alter their experience and day to some degree.
Every interaction with someone or something strengthens your connection to it whether you are aware of it (like most human interactions) or not (such as the soil and plants you live on or near).
Some relations are more important than others. Generally, the way my parents raised me has a stronger impact on me than someone whom I was friends with for 6 months. This is similar to gravity: every object exerts a gravitational influence on every other object no matter how far apart they are. The total gravitational force on me includes the star 50 billion light years away. The effect on the net total might be tiny, but it still factors in just as all connections do.
If this is all true, that we are connected to everything around us, so what?
What We Owe to Each Other
Ever since coming across the title of Tim Scanlon's book, What We Owe to Each Other, in a library and the persistent usage of that phrase throughout the near-perfect show The Good Place, that phrase is constantly on my mind. "What do I owe to everyone? Do I owe anything at all?"
I think of a previous landlord of mine who proudly would declare that he doesn't owe anyone anything and no one owes him a damned thing. It didn't matter how much poison he dumped in the ground to kill off "weeds". It didn't matter what the effects on him or anyone else were, past, present, or future. He would take care of himself and nobody else. He had the atomized individual brainworm that is prevalent in particularly the United States. Given what we know of the soil, plants, and other people, this clearly isn’t the answer.
The answer is quite simple really. I owe everything to other living things. For, who am I without those relationships? I am my father's son, the husband of my wife, I am friend to many people, birds, plants, and other creatures. I am sitting at this desk, located in the basement of my current landlord's house, in a city in Utah, surrounded by the land and soil around me.
Take away everybody I know, take away the plants, the birds, the animals, and drop me in a void. What am I then? Nothing. I do not exist without a relationship to anything, anything at all. In fact, if we take the philosopher Graham Priest seriously, even nothing is something. And strip everything away, there is nothing and there is me. Therefore, I have a relation to nothing and so I exist. We are fundamentally, at our core, relational beings.
If we depend on others for our very existence, what then do we owe them? Our very essence and existence.
And frankly, there are two major reactions to this revelation: Life becomes excruciatingly meaningful or devastatingly meaningless.
But there is a middle ground. That is what life is—trying to find the balance between the excruciating knowledge that every action matters an infinite amount and the nihilistic knowledge that every single thing someone else has done has affected me in some way.
In many ways this knowledge is extremely comforting. You are never alone. You are never isolated. Perhaps you are lacking in human connection right now, but this might pose an opportunity to go notice the plants around you that you are equally as connected to. Go observe the birds that live around you and strengthen your connection to them.