Whatever is going on for us individually these days is necessarily being lived out against the backdrop of the dual traumas of the pandemic and the political turmoil that has unfolded so dramatically at the capitol in the past week. We chant “Each moment life as it is the only teacher.” Well, it seems this week the teacher has been working overtime, giving lessons in impermanence and interdependence. In Buddhist practice we sometimes encounter the idea of interdependence first in the form of ideas about oneness and part of the experience of our practice can be one of escaping the kind of isolating solitary sense of individuality, of a private inner self that struggles to make itself known to others or struggles to feel connected to the outside world, and much of our practice can be oriented towards breaking out of that shell into a realization that we can’t be ourselves by ourselves, that who we are is inseparable from our contexts of being, our relational world or home, and that that kind of realization can initially be experienced as a great relief, a great joy.
It can be a kind of revelatory alternative to our sense of isolation, separateness, and sometimes in meditation people will report experiences of oneness when they see their own face in everything and everybody. They see themselves in the world. These kinds of experiences initially open us up from the shell of selfhood. We might say they unfortunately don’t stop there because at some point we realize what we’re connected to is a world of suffering and we realize that so much of the shell of selfhood that we have been living in has been defensively maintained as a kind of attempt at autonomy to keep ourselves independent of others, unconnected, invulnerable. In a sense the isolation that we’ve complained about has really been serving a function that we’ve been very reluctant to give up, walling us off from things that are very frightening.
So with that kind of oneness, when it turns over into a recognition of interdependence as part of interconnection, comes a strong sense of both vulnerability and responsibility. Some of you have been following me on FaceBook when I’ve been writing some notes on Heidegger’s “Being and Time.” He’s trying to describe our place in the world philosophically, not in terms of separate subjects encountering objects out in the world or separate from other individuals, but a kind of radical contextualism that offers an alternative to the Cartesian dualism of traditional Western philosophy. So rather than talking about individual subjectivities, he has this word “dasein,” which means “being there,” and combines the sense of “being” with “there,” where the “being” is being in the world. Where he is using these long polysyllabic words, English translators usually have to resort to complex hyphenated words like “being in the world” as one complex phrase.
So Heidegger starts with this sense of our basic non-separation or embeddedness in the world as the fact of what we already are, not a special kind of oneness that we try to achieve through spiritual practice, but the way reality is already constituted that we fail to recognize. It’s not so different from Buddhism, really, in some ways. But he also talks about an experience of anxiety which comes about when we see something about the vulnerability associated with this embeddedness in the world. For Heidegger, this comes about because the world we’re embedded in, particularly the social world, is self-constituting, that is, that culturally, historically, we have created the norms that organize our life and we follow them basically by habit. Though we may tell ourself stories about God giving us commandments or laws, or natural science organizing society in particular kinds of ways, there’s really nothing holding it all up except the ongoingness of our practice.
Heidegger talks about the recognition of our existential predicament in ways that are reminiscent to me of the old cartoons about Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner. If you're old enough you’ll remember these cartoons where this coyote seems to have only one mission in life, which is to catch and eat this Road Runner bird, and he goes to more and more elaborate and desperate schemes to try to catch the bird who always eludes him. But one recurring theme in these cartoons is that the coyote will chase that bird anywhere, no matter what, and often there’s some scene in which he’s chasing the bird right to the edge of the cliff and the bird at the last minute dodges and veers off to the side and the coyote runs straight off the cliff into space and just keeps running and running. For a long time, because he’s running so intently, he doesn’t realize there’s no ground under him any more. Then all of a sudden the moment comes when he looks down, he sees there’s nothing under his feet, there’s just this abyss, and when he sees it he falls.
For Heidegger when you have this kind of moment you realize all your life you’ve been running on thin air and there’s nothing under your feet, and that’s when you have a real dose of reality. Now I think that different traditions and practices see that kind of moment very differently and perhaps it can have different kinds of effects. Psychoanalyst Bob Stolorow has written about those moments in terms of trauma, that they’re characteristic of what happens when our whole relational world is shattered by some kind of traumatic event. It’s not just that we experience a loss, even of a person; we experience a loss of our world, we experience a loss of everything that has given us meaning and orientation. We lose not just the love of someone, say, but we lose our bearings, we forget how we’re supposed to live now without that person, and the healing of trauma is a complicated process in trying to reknit the fabric of a lost world.
However, in some traditions, like Zen, they talk about those kinds of moments as revelatory and liberating. When everything drops away the self is empty, the world is empty, and we’re free from the constraints, the constrictions of self and social norms and expectations. It’s interesting to think about the enabling conditions that constitute the possibility of a breakthrough rather than the experience of a breakdown. Some ways they’re not that different except for the container in which they happen. The traumatic breakdown has no container. Everything shatters. The breakthrough typically happens in the context of a practice so that even as our sense of self is shattered, our sense of practice holds us up
I was thinking of this in terms of what’s going on in Washington now, where people’s sense of what’s expectable, what’s reliable, what’s trustworthy, in many cases has been torn apart. We can look at those images of the Capitol being stormed and our reaction is a kind of: That can’t be happening! That’s not the world as I know it. I don’t know how to imagine myself in a life where that kind of thing can be happening. For others, the pandemic itself has been not knowing how to imagine a world where life as usual simply has to stop, where everyone is suddenly vulnerable to sickness and death in a way that we didn’t think would happen here. It’s the kind of thing that happens in third world countries, someplace else. We don’t imagine the cities in America and Europe being completely shut down by the plague. It’s the kind of thing that happens in the Middle Ages, not now.
So again, there’s that possibility of traumatic rupture of our known world. We don’t know where it is that we find ourselves. What I would like to suggest in terms of our practice is to realize that if the first consequence of oneness is interdependency and vulnerability, the second is a sense of responsibility. If we are constituted by this shared fabric of our existence, a shared social fabric which is our daily equivalent of Indra’s Net that binds all things together, that’s what’s holding us up. When it tears, when it has a rupture, as it has now, it’s equally our responsibility to knit it back together. We may have forgotten that we are the ones who put it in place originally, and it’s now our responsibility to maintain it.
We maintain it by maintaining our democracy, which in a way is our broader social sangha, and we maintain it nearer at hand in our commitment and engagement in a sangha like this one, where we don’t just come as individuals to practice having a valuable hour or two every day or every week that’s good for our own personal psychology or personal growth, but we come together to create and maintain a sangha and a sense of interconnection that in the long run may be far more valuable than any kind of private personal experience you may have on the cushion when you’re sitting. It’s now you're part of something, part of something that holds and maintains you and who you are, your life. So in these traumatizing times, let’s redouble our commitment to holding together and re-knitting the tears in Indra’s Net in our sangha and in our democracy. It is our job together.