On Interbeing

At the end of this week, we will observe the Spring Equinox: the day marking the astronomical commencement of Spring in the Northern Hemisphere. Of course, the shift in seasons is not defined by a single day. It is a steady transition out of one reality and into another. Like the animals around us, we gradually begin to shed those extra layers, acclimatizing to the warmer, brighter days.

It strikes me that we are also in the midst of several other significant transitions in our realities, which equally require the shedding of layers and beliefs that no longer serve us. Our relationship to climate change appears to be shifting. In a recent community climate discussion led by Stewardship Pemberton, host Veronica Woodruff described a shift in our climate response towards ‘Ruggedization’ and an acceptance of discontinuity.

The transition to a reality defined by climate disruption and ecological loss is also contributing to a more profound transition in our understanding of the reality of life itself. Charles Eisenstein has described this shift as a movement away from the long-held belief of separation, to a renewed* belief in the reality of Interbeing.

The story of separation sees life as the interaction – usually competitively – between discrete entities in an objective reality. Sure, we may come to rely on, or form dependences on, other life forms (for example, our relationship with the coffee plant or even cows), but ultimately, we are distinct individuals with clear boundaries. We are separate.

In contrast, the notion of Interbeing understands life to be inherently relational. That is, the existence of one implies the existence of all. Carl Sagan illustrated this concept with the famous quote: “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”

The term Interbeing was coined by the late Zen Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. It stems from the Buddhist teaching that all phenomena are interdependent. Holding up a place sheet of paper, Thich Nhat Hanh explained:

“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.”

From a scientific standpoint, our ability to identify the neat lines that delimit organisms has actually weakened with advances in instrumentation. As we look closer, we see that ‘non-human’ cells outnumber our ‘human’ cells by a factor of 10. Only 10% of your cells are your own, the rest belong to the bacteria, protozoa and fungi that, according to the biologist Lewis Thomas, “share, rent and occupy” our bodies. Thomas writes that without these tenants, we couldn’t “move a muscle, drum a finger, or think a thought”. Our very bodies then are diverse communities of organisms working in concert.

Even our human cells are the result of ancient partnerships between tiny organisms. Long ago, our single-celled ancestor co-opted the services of another prokaryote to boost energy production, resulting in the mitochondria that powers our cells.

The interconnectedness of life is not just a micro phenomenon. Our ability to breathe is contingent on the exhalation of plant life. As heterotrophs, our ability to eat and produce energy is innately linked to the organisms that produce their own food through sunlight. More broadly, we are becoming increasingly aware that the stability of global temperature, ocean salinity, and atmospheric oxygen levels are codetermined and coregulated by life on this planet.

To understand Interbeing is therefore to understand that what you experience right in this moment is created by infinite expressions of life, from the plants growing nearby, to your parent’s physiology at the time of conception, to the moon’s influence on the earth’s water bodies, to your kindergarten teacher. We are interwoven in an immeasurable tapestry uniting all the threads of existence.

Knowing that we are sustained by this vast web of relationships allows us to delicately shed those layers of conditioning and belief that create the prison of separation. When we are fully aware that every node in the web of life is essential, the seemingly mundane can ignite wonder, awe and reverence. This knowing expands us in ever-widening circles of relationship and intimacy.

Perhaps most crucially, we are reminded of our place in the world. Renewing this sense of connection to the larger body might be the work of our time. It is the antidote to the epidemic of loneliness that poisons our minds and enables us to poison the world around us. What might change if we approached our world as a series of relationships? Recognizing the bonds of reciprocity that define any relationship, we might re-evaluate the balance of giving and receiving. We might improve our ability to listen and communicate. And we might reimagine our place on this earth as one in a democracy of species.

My sincere hope is that we are able to catalyze the despair of climate change into an embodied sense of Interbeing. In this process, the pain of losing the rainforests, the snow leopards and the countless creatures we never even had a chance to meet, might wake us up to the reality that we are losing a part of ourselves. And just like the transition from Winter into Spring, we might be able to gently release those layers of conditioning that kept us separate and alone.

*An understanding of the inseparability of life is characteristic of many Indigenous belief systems.

Invitation of the Day: Breathe with a Tree

Go outside and find a tree that draws you in. Introduce yourself aloud or internally, and seek permission to settle in a comfortable position close to, or touching this tree. Allow your attention to rest on your breath. Imagine each inhalation is drawing in the oxygen offered by the tree, and each exhalation is an offering of nourishment to your tree. Breathe consciously in this way for as long as you want, noticing how it feels to be in connection with this tree.

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