The You in You
Interconnectedness is a guiding principle in Buddhism, Taoism and Hinduism. Essentially this means that the Western way of knowing things, either by empirical induction or logical deduction, is problematic. This is because when we analyze what we are doing is looking at component parts and seeing how they fit together. Whether it is the way systems work in the natural work, or how a logical argument in composed, we see parts.
Systems theory in ecology comes closer than most other scientific and logical approaches to knowing. Herein ecologists see not an individual tree as separate from the rest of the forest or the rest of nature, but rather see how the interaction between soil bacteria that benefit from nutrients in the tree also serve as a defense against pathogens. The more well known illustration of this is utilization of carbon dioxide by plant life and the production of oxygen, just the opposite of mammals. The interconnection between plant and mammal is inescapable and utterly essential for the very life of both.
In the view of systems theorists then, we can see a global inhale and exhale. Whether it’s the plants that are doing the exhale and mammals the inhale depends upon one’s point of view, I suppose. The entire globe, all of the biota are interconnected, dependent upon one another. But cutting down trees we are damaging our own existence. Certainly such a view underpins concerns over global warming.
But yet even such a view still refers to parts, sees how the parts function in the inseparable whole, so that in our conceptualization of is really more interdependence than it is interconnectedness. The difference is crucial. In interdependence separate objects require each other to thrive, even for their very survival. Humans cannot live on a planet which does not also provide a home to trees, and vice versa. That is interdependence.
Yet in the metaphysical reality as understood in Eastern traditions there are no parts. There is nothing to separate. Consequently there is nothing to analyze to see how parts fit together. Western epistemology, predicated upon analysis, is useless and this is very confusing. Leaving logical deduction aside, observational induction is just as problematic.
Using observationally-based inductive logic is something we do all the time. You step on the brakes, your car slows down. You do this all the time and as a result, even without needing to think through the connections, you draw the conclusion that stepping on the brakes slows your car down. And this is pretty reliable logic, though not infallible as there are a bunch of reasons your car might not slow down – ice, leaves, mechanical failure, etc. But again, here we are conceptualizing of car, brakes, road, road conditions and so forth as all separate things. Interdependent sure, but still parts of the whole and thus separate.
Interconnectedness in the Hindu and Buddhist sense is different. Rather than separate objects that depend upon each other for their well-being or survival, it indicates that there is no separation whatsoever – there are no separate objects. The distinctness that we experience through our senses is a delusion. The way we know things, through logical deduction or experiential induction take us further from knowing the actual nature of reality, the nature of ourselves. This is because analysis requires looking at parts, and there are no parts, just a singular whole.
One of the first lines of the Tao Te Ching is this: “the Tao we speak of has already lost it wholeness . . .” which is perhaps a confusing statement. How can we not talk of a thing and yet know it? What this means is that when we use our language we are categorizing, separating things into separate objects. To call something a chair necessarily implies there are other things that are ‘not-chair’. Even more specifically when we say ‘I’m going to sit in the chair’ we have identified ourselves as separate and individual, the chair as separate and individual and the action of sitting in the chair as a separate action from, say, brushing one’s teeth. Thus the very act of using language simultaneously both reflects the metaphysical view of separate objects and creates that separateness. The Tao is everything and yet to call it Tao infers something is not-Tao, which is not possible since it is everything. Do we see how language fails us?
But this is crazy. Our experience of everything reinforces the reality of separateness. At our level of existence, Newtonian physics describes nothing but separate objects. But if we have a look at reality as disclosed to us through quantum physics we find that at the sub-atomic level there are not separate objects either. At that basic level of reality all objects dissolve into a set of relationships such that we cannot actually find objects that are separate and distinct from anything else. In other words, quantum physics discloses to us a reality that is directly in line with view of reality that Eastern belief systems have described for smoothing like 4000 years.
And so we have this problematic dilemma, that at our level of every day existence we experience separateness all the time. Yet our level of everyday existence is comprised of quantum material for which there is no separate existence. Practically speaking this means that as you are sitting in your chair reading this part of the chair is now part of your ass, and vice versa. This is what Stephen Hawking was working on – a Grand Unified Theory of Everything and for which he did not find a solution. It’s the case that Newtonian physics works very well to describe action at our usual level of reality and quantum physics works very well to describe action at the sub-atomic level. But they do not work together. So as it turns out, reality is very difficult to understand.
Yet we can glean some clues. The first is that you are not fundamentally alone, that all of us are part of the grand universe. Your very being is made of the dust of some ancient star. It is as if a part of the universe has become aware of itself in each of us. Time, space, distance are all illusions if everything is interconnected, something we find evidence for in the Theory of Entanglement, something that vexed Einstein so much that he called it ‘spooky action at a distance’.
Second, there is wisdom in ancient thought. Eastern views on metaphysics are ancient and in many ways supported by modern scientific understanding, a fairly powerful combination. In Western religious thought we can find similar ideas if we look at the debate between immanence and transcendence. The latter indicates that our souls transcend or traverse from this physical realm to a spiritual one, which supports the opposing idea, that there are distinct and separate realms between the physical and the spiritual. Immanence, on the other hand, is the position that there is one reality, that the physical realm and spiritual are singular. There are, of course, substantive and significant debates over the implications of both, but my purpose here is not to litigate those but rather to illustrate that all traditions have at least a strain of thought that supports interconnectedness.
So to know something in this kind of realty, one in which there is no separation so that analysis just takes us further from knowledge requires us to experience something directly without the interposition of rational thought. Reading about places can be valuable, but to know them one must experience them directly. There’s a superlative quality to this. Books are visceral, television can be engaging, but neither substitutes for one’s one direct experience. Travel, therefore, is immersive and propels the kind of experience without analysis that brings understanding. One can study, one should study, but ultimately it is the intuitively felt experience that brings more than knowledge, it brings understanding, it makes you aware of your interconnectedness with everything else. You come to understand not just the places but the people, for what is the place without the people that created it? And finally you come to understand that the you in you is the you in me.