If a butterfly becomes extinct in Australia, it affects the ecosystem of the whole world, because a third of our food supply depends on insect pollination. Caring for each other and the planet is, therefore, inseparable from caring for ourselves; we are both dependent on and a part of the earth and the woods and the children playing in the street, and they are a part of us. But living with this awareness takes some consideration, for our consensus reality is one of separation and isolation.
As actress Jane Fonda writes in our book, Be The Change: “There are practical reasons for dividing everything up. It makes things easier to manage and to solve, especially technical matters: the us and them, the either-or, the man versus nature, mine and yours. Life is simpler to deal with. But we have applied this fragmenting mindset to all of life so that it’s become our reality, which has led to further fragmentation and chaos and planetary destruction. The challenge is to figure out how to deal with our day-to-day life, while at the same time changing our mindset so that we see reality as the unbroken wholeness of the totality of existence, an undivided, flowing movement without borders.”
In the Buddhist teachings there is a description of a huge net reaching in all directions with a multifaceted mirror-like jewel at each of the many knots, every jewel reflecting all the other jewels. It is called the Jeweled Net of Indra and represents our interconnectedness: see one and you see all within it. Not one can be separated from or is independent of any other; take one away and the net becomes unusable. In other words, we are interrelated, interdependent, inseparable, and interconnected all at the same time, part of an integrated whole, not separate from the trees, elephants, owls, our neighbors, the people in South Africa or a river in India.
Zen teacher Bernie Glassman writes in Be The Change: “Imagine that each of my two hands has the notion that it is an individual object and not connected to anything else. Left hand calls itself Sally, and right hand calls itself Harry. Then Sally gets cut. Harry has read many things about the oneness of life, but he believes that Sally is separate and thinks, I can’t do anything about Sally being cut, I’m not a doctor, and I don’t have a first-aid kit. And anyway, I don’t want to get my new clothes stained. Harry walks away and Sally bleeds to death. But that means Harry also bleeds to death, as Harry and Sally happen to be very attached to each other. This is what happens when the experience of oneness is not there.
“Now imagine Sally and Harry both meditate and, while recognizing the separateness of Sally and Harry, they also recognize their oneness with Bernie. When Sally gets cut, Harry does the best thing possible to help her because he knows that to help her is also helping both him and Bernie. This is not a thinking process; it is the direct experience of the oneness of life. The appreciation of this is huge.”
On a relative level, of course, we have our own thoughts and feelings, but they cannot be separated from what we were taught by our parents or from experiences of pain and joy in our relationships—just as it is impossible to separate our body from the food we eat or the farmer who grew the food or the earth and the rain. There is actually no part of our being that is a separate or independent entity from everyone we have met and everything we have done or from every part of the world around us.
Author Tim Freke writes: “We think that we are separate from each other, and we are not. We think we are separate from the whole of life, and we are not. Tim is an integral part of the whole, and everyone and everything are also an integral part of the whole and, therefore, one with Tim. Separateness is the conceptual story we tell to make sense of life, the story of who we are, and when we get sucked into it we are not conscious of our deeper being. This is when we cause suffering to each other and our world. Waking up is the recognition that there is no other, that every person or situation is not separate from our essential nature.”
Where separation divides and causes conflict, awareness of our interconnectedness means we see all others as ourselves. The jewels in Indra’s net are independent jewels and each reflects a different aspect of the whole, while also reflecting each other. Each is so interrelated to all that they cannot exist without each other or without the entire net.