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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The Intuitive Self – A Discussion with Dante

The nature and question of the sacred has been contemplated by humanity since the dawn of our species. Philosophers, mystics and theologians have spent countless hours in an effort to develop rituals and frameworks to establish a path towards the sublime.

This begs this question however if the notion of the sacred can be fully comprehended by the finite individual. Perhaps rather it is a feeling, emotion or instinct that can only be known by our intuitive, self outside the scope of the rational mind. One of the most explicit representations of this idea can be found in the Tao Te Ching, Daoism’s seminal text. 

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name

Lao Tzu

I will explore this notion in future posts, but for now I will introduce Dante who provided his perspectives on spirituality, and introduced us to his contemplative practices in the interview below. I met Dante through Rosemary and we connected over our mutual interest in Nietzsche, particularly the notion of Amor Fati (love of Fate). I asked him some questions and he provided his responses below.    




  1. How would you define spirituality?

It varies from individual to individual, so I will give you a definition that only applies to my perspective.

Spirituality is a sensitivity towards recognizing reality from a position independent of the ego.  The ego (or subjective sense of self), is blinding towards the state of things as they are.  There is a famous quote: “we don’t see things the way they are, we see them the way we are”.  For one to be “spiritual” one must only have this sensitivity, a desire to see things the way they are.  I don’t see it as inevitably seeking some truth or reality. Rather it is more akin to seeking the discernment to recognize reality when it is presented.  I make this distinction because the truth may come, or it may not, but the ability to recognize it is where the value lays.   

2. What types of spiritual practices do you engage in?

Since abandoning all the major world religions one after another through my childhood, I’ve learned to simplify my practice.

A daily meditation practice is the crux of my practice.  I take my meditations from a variety of sources, and practice what I need to practice.  It takes pieces out of Vedanta, Buddhism, Yoga and secular neuroscience, and blends them into an East-West hybrid that suits my needs quite well. 

One can only sit in quiet meditation for so long before going broke and getting kicked out of their apartment, so I’ve adapted to apply my meditative practices into my vocation.  Modern neuroscience shows states of “flow” in activity induce similar brain function as compared to states of deep meditation.  So when I am doing a job I really enjoy, I find flow states very meditative. This is important to me because I like living in the city.

Finally, I think the most valuable part of my practice to me is the practice of service.  To me, the real value of my practice is the ability to do good in this world.  Volunteer work, mentoring, a kind word, a piece of advice, or even picking up some trash in the park, is an irreplaceable part of my spiritual practice.

3. The Canadian-American writer Saul Bellow said “Science has made a house cleaning of belief.” One of the predominant paradigms in the 21st century is that of technology and scientific progress. How do you reconcile scientific fact with spirituality?

This is an important question for me.  As a scientist and an engineer, I have found many challenges in diving into spiritual practices. 

As I continue to learn more about both in my practices, I have decided for now that the two need not be reconciled.  To me, it is like the night sky is to the day.  The two exist on different planes, have different purposes, don’t understand each other and perhaps never will. But they both have an important place in the world, and thus, with a healthy dose of skepticism, should be appreciated and admired for the value they bring.

4. As we grow older, we develop more rigid patterns of thinking, and it can become easy to fall into mundane routines of everyday life. How do you deal with these issues, and maintain a connection to your spiritual purpose?

Learning stops once the mind perceives existence as mundane. 

My solution to this is to remain childlike (to recall Nietzsche’s famous allegory).  The child “is innocence and forgetting…a sacred Yes”.  In this state one is able to create, to will existence through the creative energy the child wields so freely.  Children are capable of learning at an astonishing rate, and psychologists have linked this to their sense of wonder and play.

 I make a point to always consider myself at play, to perceive this life in astonishment.  We’re biological meat sacks flying through infinity on a rock.  There’s a giant ball of fire in the sky that keeps us alive but can also give us cancer.  Looking at the world through this childlike perspective keeps me from falling into the trap of growing up in the conventional sense.

5. It seems like spirituality and eastern contemplative practices such as meditation and yoga have become increasingly popular in recent years. How do you make sense of this trend? 

I think every human has an intrinsic sensitivity to spirituality as I have described it in question one.  Since the beginning of time, people have sought to understand our state of existence.  We find a strange solace in seeing that is bigger than just our selves (or our egos).  This is just a swing of the pendulum of human consciousness.

 I make a point to always consider myself at play, to perceive this life in astonishment. 

A Look at Modern Spirituality: An Interview with Rosemary

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One term that seems to increasingly capture the values and belief systems of individuals in the West is ‘spiritual.’ Survey data from both Canada and the United States shows that more people are identifying themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious.’

While organized religion provides its believers with a set of ethics and rigid practices, spirituality seems to be more fluid, subjective and open to interpretation. Consequently, this results in some ambiguity surrounding the term.

Personally, I have been thinking about how to define this term, and contemplating the meaning and implications of a spiritual life. Perhaps it means the belief in something greater than yourself or following the moral imperative to treat all of humanity with inherent dignity and respect. At its core I think spirituality is an attempt to find meaning, purpose and connection in the world. As Robert Fuller notes in his book Spiritual But Not Religious,

We encounter spiritual issues every time we wonder where the universe comes from, why we are here, or what happens when we die. We also become spiritual when we become moved by values such as beauty, love, or creativity that seem to reveal a meaning or power beyond our visible world. An idea or practice is “spiritual” when it reveals our personal desire to establish a felt-relationship with the deepest meanings or powers governing life

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As part of this blog, I wanted to explore this concept of spirituality, and what it means to different people.

I met Rosemary in a yoga studio where she was one of my instructors. At the end of each class she would read quotes touching on topics of spirituality, some of which deeply resonated with me. So, I asked her a couple questions about what spirituality means for her.

1. What does the word ‘spiritual’ mean for you?

For me, the word spiritual means to be connected with your deepest self. I know that this word is pretty broad – but I think that it means exactly what comes to mind for the person it’s being asked to. For me, it’s finding your true purpose – and perhaps that’s just finding something to believe in (I.e. religion), or pursuing your true passion, or career path. We are all put on this earth for a reason: big or small – and we are all on a journey to find our purpose. Once we realise this, the person can become more spiritual as they connect with their spirit and deeper self.

2. What authors, ideas or practices helped shape your idea of spirituality?

Growing up Catholic, I was always inclined to believe in something more than just the physical. Once I started practicing yoga, I started to go a bit deeper and delved into my inner self. And that’s when I found Alan Watts. I was so drawn to his philosophy and adored his lectures that I began to play him in yoga classes that I taught. His work was such an inspiration to me, and through researching more about him, I discovered Eckhart Tolle (duh).

3. What does one living a spiritual life seek to accomplish?

I believe that they are seeking to accomplish either: discovering their purpose in life, or pure and sheer happiness/enlightenment.

4. Many contemplative and spiritual traditions touch on the concept of ego dissolution. This idea is that our sense of the ‘self’ is an illusion. Does this concept resonate with you at all?

Yes – I don’t believe that we are our ‘self’. I think that we experience our self, and that are souls are the true being.

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5. How does this idea of spirituality connect with the pursuit of happiness for you?

Back when I was completing my masters, I had countless moments where I kept asking myself, “what next” and “what’s the purpose of life”? I struggled with these questions almost every day. What’s going to happen after I graduate? Will I find a job? What’s the purpose of all this? Why are we here?

It wasn’t until I realised that we are just all on the pursuit of happiness.

6. Spirituality has gained a lot of attention recently. Any advice for people trying to find their footing and navigate this complex space ?

Our spiritual journey is ever-lasting and will constantly change. As you continue to explore your spiritually, some things will land on you, and others won’t. Be open to anything that comes your way – signs, books, readings, people. Hey, maybe even reading this article was a sign you needed.

If you are starting to find your foot, or if you ever feel lost, close your eyes and simply ask yourself, “who am I before anyone told me anything?” or “what do I believe in”?

It wasn’t until I realised that we are just all on the pursuit of happiness.