This web-site is called “Web of Connection”, a place where everyone belongs. What exactly does that mean? How do we realize this connection so it’s more than just a nice philosophical concept? Surely, we have lots of contact throughout the day. Unfortunately, a growing percentage of that is virtual. What about the times when we actually share physical space with others? What is the quality of our interaction?
I’m not suggesting that we should go around hugging everyone we see. There are other ways of connecting. What about listening to others in a way that brings your attention fully to the moment? Are you even curious what another person’s experience and perception of life might be? The paradox is that each of us lives in our own reality and yet simultaneously shares the same co-created reality. Like a hologram, the whole is contained in the apparently separate pieces. Have you ever considered that the person who works with you or shops at the same store as you is a reflection of this one reality - the reality that IS YOU?
Let’s come down to earth and get practical. Theories don’t actually change our lives unless we allow ourselves to be the experiments in which they become operative. Being the experiment requires a willingness to question our habitual ways of perceiving and interacting with others. Would we be willing to step outside our comfort zones for a little while in order to experience what it would be like to really be present with another human being. What kind of distance do we think is necessary to be safe? We may wish to come a little closer, but something gets in the way. How interesting! What can that be? Is it fear? Judgment? or something else? Hmm….are we willing to investigate that?
As I said in the last blog entry, our meditation practice can be a way of escaping into what we think is a safety zone. This might actually be comfortable at times. What’s wrong with that?! After all, don’t we all need a break so we can chill out once in a while? Yes, this belongs too. However, if you want to open up to a reality that is more dynamic and alive, albeit unpredictable, then I invite you to experience the inter-being that is possible when you bring your complete attention to an encounter with another being (humans are by far the most challenging of the lot).
The ironic thing is that we all most deeply desire is real, authentic connection an yet, at the same time, we guard against it in so many ways. What will she think of me if I’m really honest? What will arise in me if I allow myself to be vulnerable and open up to him? Maybe I’ll be judged if I reveal my true feelings. Maybe I’ll experience love. Oh no, what then!? When it’s impossible to predict the outcome, things become very scary! It’s much easier to play within the boundaries of social convention. Isn’t that what these norms are designed for - to keep chaos at bay?
I’m not saying these things because I’ve mastered the art of connection and that I’m always present with everyone I meet. It’s just that I’m starting to take an interest in the things that get in the way and move toward them instead of away from them. When I allow curiosity to take precedence over fear or judgment, discovery is possible. I inch my way forward with the help of good friends who also value honest connection. Together, we make the journey back to a wholeness that includes everything.
In the Buddhist world, a division is often made between those who practice for themselves and those who practice for others. Such a dualistic notion is far from what the Buddha actually taught. Nonetheless, those in one camp can easily disdain those in the other and vis versa. The Mahayanists can be accused by the Theravadins for doing “social work” whereas the Theravadins can be accused of seeking their own liberations exclusively while not caring about others who are in need. As usual, the Buddha cautions us of adopting extremes in either direction. In fact, in a sutta, the Buddha says that there are four types of people: 1) one who practices/lives for the good of neither oneself or others, 2) one who practices/lives for the good of others but not oneself, 3) one who practices/lives for the good of oneself but not others, and 4) one who practices/lives for the good of both oneself and others. Of the four, the Buddha praised the last: one who lives for the good of both oneself and others.
Now, what exactly do we mean by “practice”? What does practice look like? The way one answers that question is very much determined by the underlying view of one’s goal in life. If one is bent on escaping this world because it is full of suffering, then practice will most likely be of a solitary nature focused on one’s internal states of mind. On the other hand, if one leans towards compassionate action in this world (often referred to as the “Bodhisattva ideal”), then one is willing to engage with the messiness of the world in order to be of benefit to the greater whole. With the former, practice and life can look separate; whereas for the latter, one’s life is one’s practice.
Lest I be accused of generalizing or judging, I am not saying that individual practice has no benefit. The Buddha rated the one who practices for her own benefit as higher than the one who practices only for the benefit of others. This is because we can’t really help someone if we ourselves have not developed our own capacity. (You may remember the old simile of one who is unable to pull the other out of the mud while still in it himself.) But the Buddha didn’t stop there. He went on to mention that the fourth option is the one who takes what has benefited her and uses it in service of the whole.
I’m always impressed when reflecting on how after the Buddha was enlightened, he decided to forego a life of ease - resting in the bliss of his attainment - and instead help others find the way out of suffering. Although I cannot compare myself to the Buddha’s level of attainment, I can still emulate his example by caring for the welfare of others while I continue to care for my own welfare. For it is in the company of others that I begin to see my limitations and have the opportunity to grow beyond them. The whole concept of a separate “I” who can get “saved” apart from others is built on what the Buddha considers to be the central distortion of perception. The renown monk and nobel peace prize winner, Thich Nhat Hanh speaks, instead, of “inter-being” as the reality of which we are all a part. To separate ourselves from the web of life is impossible. Not only do philosophers and mystics agree with this truth but also modern science points to this same law of interdependence in the natural world.
Finally, the sutta on loving-kindness instructs us to “not disparage any being in any state”, whether this is a fellow practitioner who chooses a different mode of practice or any individual or group we might consider outside the boundaries of our caring attention. The boundless quality of loving-kindness is just that - boundless. No boundaries! Our so-called safety zones are neither safe nor ours. To ask where do I belong is to be asking the wrong question. There is a place where we all belong. It is the place beyond the separate me and mine. May we consciously choose to open to that reality.