The Great Illusion of Separation

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In modern industrialized societies it is easy to forget about our inherent connection to the natural world. Our finite attention is drawn towards our devices as media companies compete for our screen time. The online world has become ever more pervasive in our daily life as we have come to focus more and more on the images on our online profiles than the direct experience to the world around us.

 Further, the dense cities, crammed highways and large skyscrapers separate us from the awe-inspiring beauty of nature.  

Since the Age of the Enlightenment, humanity became convinced the it was the masters and conquerors of nature.  Nature wasn’t something that ought to be venerated, but rather used as a resource for our personal gain. It was humans who learned that we can use our brilliant technologies to increase their influence and control over the planet.

Separation

The writer and activist Charles Eisenstein notes that our view towards the natural world, and to others around us is influenced by ‘The Story of Separation.’ In modern societies, we don’t view ourselves as beings immersed in a multitude of interdependent complex systems. We see ourselves rather as separate individuals absorbed in a game in which we are competing for finite resources.

Economics theory tells us that we are rational utility maximizers who each seek to increase our material possessions in the search for everlasting happiness. The creed of individualism convinces us that we ought to adopt a competitive mindset in our personal and professional lives. We hear the echo’s of the mantra ‘Greed is Good’ – what is more for you is less for me.  

The more power we influence over natural process the more powerless we become before it. In a matter of months, we can cut down a rain forest that took ten thousand years to grow, but we are helpless in repulsing the dessert that takes its place.

James P Carse – Finite and Infinite Games
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Interbeing and Connection

What this modern narrative misses however is the complexity, connectedness and interdependence of the world.  This is something that is deeply ingrained in the worldview of some Indigenous cultures and religions such as Buddhism.

Indigenous peoples have a reciprocal and spiritual relationship to the earth. They understand that the health of the planet is directly correlated to our wellbeing. This attitude towards the world enables them to practice humility, reverence and reciprocity for all living things. Resources are used in a way which respects the natural environment consumed as something that is sacred. Likewise, there is an awareness of the necessity and responsibility towards future generations.

Similarly, the tradition of Buddhism recognizes the interconnectedness of all existence, rejecting the notion of an independent self. That is to say that the world is fundamentally molded and shaped by a myriad of relationships and connections.  

The Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh talks talks about this idea in his term ‘interbeing’. We are immersed in the systems and networks, and shaped by the qualities and characteristics inherited from our ancient ancestors.   

Our body is a community, and the trillions of non-human cells in our body are even more numerous than the human cells. Without them, we could not be here in this moment. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to think, to feel, or to speak. There are, he says, no solitary beings. The whole planet is one giant, living, breathing cell, with all its working parts linked in symbiosis.

Thích Nhất Hạnh

A helpful example to expand on Thích Nhất Hạnh’s idea can be seen in the important role bees play in maintaining our ecosystem. These little creatures pollinate approximately 70% of our crop species which feed about 90% of the world. What this implies is that their decline will have a domino affect in impacting food for the animal species who rely on those plants, and eventually inhibiting our own food supply.

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If we understand this idea on a personal level we begin to realize that our wellbeing is directly linked to the quality of relationships that we have with not only other humans, but other living beings as well as nature itself.

Our egos can begin to breakdown at the realization that the world we inhabit is composed of sophisticated systems and networks relying on the functioning of each organism and unit to function properly in harmony.

 A Shift in Values  

With the number of issues that we face in the 21st century, it feels like we are drifting further and further towards this ‘winner take all’ and ‘us against them mentality’.

However, we are in an era when our economic, political and social systems are becoming more interconnected .This becomes increasingly obvious to us in a global recession, war or in time of pandemic. 

So the key question I think that must be addressed in the 21st century is:

How can we shift from zero-sum (winner/loser) to positive-sum (winner/winner) relationships and build systems that encourage co-operation rather than fuel division?  [1]

Of course, this seems like a daunting question, but the answer begins with a shift in values from selfishness and greed to co-operation, from individual identify to empathy and community.

The responsibility falls on each and every one of us.

What kind of world do we want to create?

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[1] Of note, this question comes the writer/researcher/activist  Daniel Schmachtenberger who explores existential risk and the future of civilization in his research.  More information on his ideas can be found on his website: http://civilizationemerging.com/


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On Solitude

If I could I would spend the better part of my time in solitude. Preferably it would be surrounded by the beauty of nature.

The splendour of the trees and flow of the sparkling rivers drown out the noisy sounds of the busy city streets. For what is nature itself but a grand cathedral.

It is in solitude where one can rest in a state of contemplation, and be at peace with oneself.

Blinded by the trivialities of day to day life, we forget to admire the beauty that is close to home – that which is right in front of us. 

In a culture that tends to place a great emphasis on extroversion, perhaps we have long forgotten the wisdom bestowed to us by the great religious and spiritual leaders.  From the likes of Moses to Jesus and the Buddha, all these spiritual teachers sought to temporarily detach themselves from society in pursuit of the self-transcendence available to us through introspection.  

For how can one truly know thyself, and be free from the pressures and demands of modern society without an embrace of stillness.

I can continue to ramble on about the importance of cultivating solitude, but it would ultimately pale in comparison to the exquisite words of the great writers and poets.

So here are three of my favourite quotes and reflections, each exploring a different aspect of the topic.

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Rainer Maria Rilke

But your solitude will be a support and a home for you, even in the midst of very unfamiliar circumstances, and from it you will find all your paths

Letters to a Young Poet

The esteemed poet Rilke reflects on the necessity of solitude for personal and spiritual growth. Rilke acknowledges that time alone will come with discomfort as your mind unravels the fears and emotions hidden in the unconscious. However, only through stillness can one learn to accept and surrender these parts of themselves in order to transcend them.

We can escape from the demands of conformity placed on us by society, and relish in the peace and bliss that comes with cultivating our inner selves.  

Herman Hesse

True action, good and radiant action, my friends, does not spring from activity, from busy bustling, it does not spring from industrious hammering. It grows in the solitude of the mountains, it grows on the summits where silence and danger dwell. It grows out of the suffering which you have not yet learned to suffer

If the War Goes On: Reflections on War and Politics

Many of us spend our day to day lives stuck in the trance of busyness. We feel like we always ought to be doing something to feel important, to validate our self worth.

How little do we often spend time though on reflecting on the value and consequences of this ‘busyness’?

What can we genuinely achieve without modest self-reflection?

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Hesse comments that on the other side of suffering that our aloneness may bring, comes the bliss of solitude, peace and beauty.    

It is only when an individual voluntarily chooses and embraces seclusion can one reap its benefits. That is, one who spends time alone must be able to regulate their emotions and rejoin or re-enter social groups at their own will.

Once these preconditions are met, and one is able to ‘let go’ and accept their condition of solitude, it can provide us with the rejuvenation and insight we need.

Anthony Storr

It is widely believed that interpersonal relationships of an intimate kind are the chief, if not the only, source of human happiness. Yet the lives of creative individuals often seem to run counter to this assumption. For example, many of the world’s greatest thinkers have not reared families or formed close personal ties. This is true of Descartes, Newton, Locke, Pascale, Spinoza, Kant, Leibniz, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein

Solitude: A Return to the Self

Contrary to popular belief, it is not being in the physical presence of others that can subdue feelings of isolation. What matters is the connection or bond one has to others, themselves or their natural surroundings.

We can feel emotions of bitter loneliness while sitting in a packed room while embracing the benefits of solitude when we are alone with ourselves.

This is not to disregard the importance of intimate interpersonal relationships, rather it is to note that there are different alternatives and ways of life available to us. There is no one template one must follow to attain contentment in life.    

However, with all the anxieties we face in the modern world, it is good to still know we can always retreat into stillness – into solitude.

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The sources I pulled from were mainly from the excellent blogs Brain Pickings and Academy of Ideas which are great resources for philosophy and literature.

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The Search for Connection and Solitude in a Digital Age

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The Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg had a mission to break down spatial and geographic barriers and connect the world. In many respects he has succeeded. You can now instantaneously connect with family members or friends living across the globe. Moreover, you can virtually keep up to date on key milestone events in the lives of loved ones or distant acquaintances.

Despite the hyper connectivity that these technologies promote, preliminary research has identified several negative repercussions with excessive use of these applications. These applications incentivize individuals to post content of positive experiences in their lives in an attempt to receive ‘likes’ or social approval from their peers. This consequently causes us to incessantly compare ourselves to the artificial and manufactured social media profiles of others that we see online. Numerous studies have pointed to the association between social media use and a host of mental health issues including depression, anxiety , eating disorders and even loneliness. [1]

I want to focus the rest of the article on two key repercussions that social media and other digital technologies have had in our culture. That is, they have altered our communication and interactions with others, and have made it more difficult to unplug and seek solitude.

 Substituting for Face to Face Interactions

While social media may increase the quantity of our social interactions it is an inadequate substitute for the cognitive benefits of face to face interactions. Conversing online does not allow us to assess the feedback or visual cues of the individual(s) we are engaging in conversation with.  As Adam Atler argues in his book Irresistible, we fail to learn how to empathize with others because our conversations online do not enable us to watch how our actions affect other people. It is far easier to send a mean and spiteful comment online than it is to relay that same message to a person face to face. This is because the social and emotional consequences are not the same.

Furthermore, on a neurological level, online interactions do not generate the same degree of social connection. As Dr. Anna Machin notes during a typical social interaction,

Oxytocin lowers inhibitions and gives you the confidence to form new relationships by ‘quieting the fear centre of the brain’. Dopamine is released in conjunction with this, giving you a rush of pleasure – rewarding you for making these new relationships. Beta endorphins are also released, which feel good, but as a natural opiate can also lead to withdrawal symptoms when you don’t get enough, encouraging you to stick together.

You may see social media as a subsidy towards or even a replacement to socialising, but if it is, nobody has told your brain. ‘If you get loads of Instagram likes, you get a nice dopamine hit, but with things like beta endorphin and oxytocin you don’t get anything at all’

Solitude

Almost all of ancient philosophical, spiritual and religious practices emphasize the significance of cultivating solitude and stillness. These traditions embed the discipline of stillness as a key concept in their belief systems. As Ryan Holiday writes in Stillness is the Key

The Buddhist word for it was upekkha. The Muslims spoke of aslama. The Hebrews, hishtavut. The second book of the Bhagavad Gita, the epic poem of the warrior Arjuna, speaks of samatvam, an ‘evenness of mind—a peace that is ever the same.’ The Greeks, euthymia and hesychia. The Epicureans, ataraxia. The Christians, aequanimitas……. It’s all but impossible to find a philosophical school or religion that does not venerate this inner peace—this stillness—as the highest good and as the key to elite performance and a happy life

No other author popularized the benefits and significance of solitude than the 19th century writer Henry David Thoreau. Famous for his book Walden, Thoreau secluded himself in the woods for over two years to realize the benefits of living a minimalist lifestyle free from the noise and day to day toil common in urban cities. In Walden Thoureau writes about his reverence for stillness,

I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.

The fast-paced nature of digital technologies hinders our ability to attain solitude and stillness. The notifications we receive on our devices make it seem that we must respond to everything instantly. This gives us no time to seriously reflect on our thoughts or actions, and put things into perspective. We simply do not have an opportunity to recharge.

How can we possibly think clearly when our brains are constantly stimulated?

A Way Forward

We need not remove social media or digital technologies from our lives, but rather assess how these technologies help us achieve our goals and support our values. Cal Newport’s book Digital Minimalism helps us chart a path forward.  He recommends that we consider three central questions before using an existing or new technology:

Question 1: Does this tech support something I deeply value?

Question 2: Is this the best way to support this thing I value?

Question 3: How do I use this tech to maximize the benefit and minimize the harms?

While seemingly benign, technology companies undertake in vast amounts of research and invest millions of dollars to get you to spend more and more time on these applications. Cal Newport’s approach enables us utilize technology as a tool, and to not get hooked on its addictive qualities. He recommends that we limit time on our devices to engage in deeper and more authentic social interactions.

 Although at times the world may seem frantic, we all must learn how to limit our inputs, more effectively filter out information that does not serve us and regain connection to the beauty and awe of the world around us. Through solitude and contemplation, we can rid ourselves of the constant noise and chaos of the modern world and distance ourselves from our internal cognitive biases. Through this practice, we can better understand ourselves.

Till next time,

AA


[1] It is important to note that evidence is still forthcoming and it would be an over simplification to insinuate that there is a direct casual link between social media use and mental health issues.