One of the most precious insights I’ve gained on my journey is what Buddhists call interbeing.
Interbeing is a deceptively simple idea we’ve looked at before. Yet having lived with it for some time now, I’ve discovered whole new landscapes of understanding hidden within its unassuming simplicity.
Interbeing is the insight that all things exist in relationship to each other.
The surprising power of this teaching reminds me of the mustard seed parable, as told in the Gospels:
‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field.
‘Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.’Matthew 13:31-32
Very often it’s the simplest insight that has the power to completely transform our understanding of the world.
So let’s look at how the tree of interbeing can grow in the field of our own lives – and bring the birds of understanding perching in its branches.
There are subtle chains of cause and effect weaving reality together. They are invisible to our physical eyes, but our mind’s eye can perceive them – if only we remain still and awake.
Usually, the limited states of consciousness of our daily life present us the world in 8-bit resolution. We perceive and comprehend only what we absolutely need to in order to get through the day.
However, certain tools and techniques (*ahem*… meditation) develop mindfulness and let us expand our field of vision.
When we begin to see life in richer detail, our understanding deepens. New vistas open up and the world begins to make more sense.
So let‘s take a step back and look at our ‘trivial’ daily reality in higher definition.
Perhaps it won’t seem as trivial to us by the time we’re done…
Simeon’s Psychedelic Breakfast
‘Strangers passing in the street / By chance two separate glances meet / And I am you / And what I see is me’From Echoes by Pink Floyd
Some people skip breakfast, but not me. For me, it’s one of the best times of the day.
There’s nothing like sitting down on a cozy sofa and knowing I’ve got the next 10 minutes for just my croissant and cappuccino.
But say one unfortunate morning I do skip breakfast. With such a crappy start of the day, I’d be going to work annoyed, grumpy, and very much in the mood to take it out on somebody.
Suppose then my brother calls me on the phone and for no apparent reason I vent out on him.
Now suddenly my brother’s the one suffering the consequences of my missing breakfast.
But imagine my brother’s been meditating and cultivating mindfulness. So when I flip out on the phone, he doesn’t reciprocate my aggression but chooses to hear me out with compassion.
This calms me down and suddenly it’s me who’s reaping the benefits of my brother’s practice.
At a deeper level, my actions have become my brother’s actions and vice versa.
My brother’s private meditation has turned out to be on my behalf – and by failing to take care of myself, I’ve ended up mistreating my brother.
Thy Neighbor As Thyself
In real life, the consequences of our actions travel much farther than the example above illustrates.
But it’s important to stay grounded at the personal, everyday scale here and avoid grand examples. They have the tendency to blind us to the quiet miracle that is our everyday life.
To expand on the 8-bit resolution analogy, in our default state of consciousness we see the world pixelated in individual bits of information.
We see individual objects, actions, and events – each seemingly separate from the rest.
But a higher resolutions screen (a clearer mind!) immediately shows life is a continuous, flowing, and interconnected picture.
It shows interbeing.
Each of our actions – loving or uncaring, charitable or mean, responsible or inconsiderate – they all echo out into the world in a myriad of mysterious ways.
At the same time, we’re shaped by everything going on outside us.
‘To See A World In A Grain Of Sand’
‘This morning, before giving a Dharma talk [Buddhist lecture], I was having breakfast with my attendant, a lovely novice monk.
‘I paused and said to him, “Dear one, do you see the cow on the hillside? She is eating grass in order to make my yogurt, and I am now eating the yogurt to make a Dharma talk.”
‘Somehow, the cow will offer today’s Dharma talk.’Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart Of Buddha’s Teaching
Think of these very words you’re reading now.
Have I written them?
In a low-resolution sense, yes.
But if you set your resolution to HD, you’ll see all that’s led to this article.
You’ll see the books I’ve read, the hours I’ve meditated, the teachers I’ve encountered…
And then you’ll discover that each ‘individual’ cause that’s led to these words – is itself the result of countless other causes behind it: events, actions, circumstances, people, etc.
If you keep following this causal chain, you’ll soon discover the whole world has collaborated for this string of words and images to exist!
At a deeper level, this article – as any other thing – contains information about the entirety of life.
As is often the case, there’s a powerful Hindu image that captures this kaleidoscopic reality.
Imagine a spider’s net in early morning, all covered in dew.
If you zoom in on any individual dew droplet you’ll see in it the reflections of all other droplets.
But zoom in further and you’ll see the reflections of all droplets in each of the reflections of the droplets reflected in the single droplet – including the reflection of the single droplet…
No wonder our monkey brains prefer to simplify things!
Hindus use this image to communicate the infinite interconnectedness of life in which every person, object, action, and event is simultaneously defined by all others – and defines them in turn.
Now we’re touching the core of interbeing.
‘You should feel that whatever happens to someone else, whether good or bad, is happening to you.’Meister Eckhart
As is the case for most Buddhist doctrines, you don’t have to believe in interbeing. It’s enough to just take a sober look at life and you arrive at the insight yourself.
Remember, Buddha means ‘the awakened one’ – and all the Buddha did was pay exceptionally careful attention.
But where do we go from here?
How can interbeing be a creative force in our lives?
It’s exactly the ethical and moral implications of interbeing that moved me to write this piece in the first place…
You Are What You Eat
You can think of the world as a living organism and of your thoughts, words, and actions as food that goes into it.
There’s good, healthy food – and there’s poison.
Though you often don’t know the details of how food travels in an organism, you know it always affects the system one way or another.
Similarly – our thoughts, words, and actions propagate energy in mysterious ways through our complex world. But it’s important to remember that what we do always ends up somewhere downstream, affecting the lives of others.
What we do, say, and think matters.
As active participants in this evolving Universe, we have the privilege of choosing what energy we release into it.
Start With Yourself
Many agreeable and caring people are in the habit of sacrificing their own comfort and happiness for those of others.
While instances of this are harmless, over time the accumulation of too much self-denial leads to a poisoning of the spirit.
The once altruistic person grows cynical and ends up causing much more suffering to others than s/he ever did good. (Learn why it’s important not to suppress our shadow here.)
Such situations arise when one has not grasped the truth of interbeing. The truth that what you do to yourself – you do to others.
On a moral level, interbeing teaches us that if you wish to care for others and the world you should start with yourself.
This is also the core teaching of Christ’s role model. If you want to wash the sins of the world – pick up your cross and walk your talk.
Jesus never preached anything he wasn’t already practicing. He understood that redeeming the world is a personal task for every individual.
You think people should be more kind to one another? Be kind.
You think lying is poison? Speak the truth.
You think all we need is love? Give love.
Every single action counts as it enters the stream of life to either poison or enrich it.
And we shouldn’t fool ourselves we’re free to indulge ‘private’ vices as long as we keep them to ourselves. Even if done behind closed doors or in the secrecy of our minds, our actions are still leaking out into the world.
‘For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open.’Luke 8:17
This is one reason why Buddhists are so deadly serious about mindfulness.
They understand that all situations are part of one Being. Even in our most trivial actions, we nurture some kind of attitude that then enters the world.
Thich Nhat Hanh insists: ‘I clean this teapot with the kind of attention I would have were I giving the baby Buddha or Jesus a bath’.
How you wash your dishes today may very well define how you treat somebody tomorrow.
Yet this cosmic responsibility brought on by the understanding of interbeing is balanced by the lessening of other anxieties.
The Easy Yoke
‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.
‘Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.
‘For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.’Matthew 11:28-30
Self-criticism is a healthy and necessary part of all growth. But sometimes it can cripple us and make further progress impossible.
Interbeing reminds us our flaws and imperfections are never really ‘ours‘ to begin with. We are the product of an infinitely complex world – and so is everything within us.
This might sound like that toxic attitude that seeks to place blame on the world for all the shortcomings of the self. But that’s not what I’m talking about.
Seeing the interbeing of all things, we let go of attachment to our virtues and aversion to our vices. We stop identifying with what’s not us to begin with.
This frees all the time and energy we spend worrying about our problems – for actually addressing them.
If you keep interbeing in mind, next time you flip out on somebody you won’t think: ‘I’m an angry person and I’ll probably ruin all my relationships with my bad temper.’
You’ll think: ‘This is anger. It feels poisonous to my spirit and I’ll make sure there’s less of it in the future. Now let’s examine its causes…’
The Seed Of Interbeing
‘Big things have small beginnings.’Lawrence of Arabia
Interbeing is one of those things where the more you talk about it, the more remains to be said. We’ve only scratched the surface of it in this article.
Absorbing an insight is like growing a tree. All you need is the seed, some water, and time.
Once you receive the teaching in its purest essence, you only need to water it with your attention and give it the time it needs to blossom.
That’s the way it’s been for me, and I discover new subtle layers of interbeing all the time.
So here’s the seed again:
I hope you plant this insight in your own inner garden and in time enjoy all the blossoms it gives.
And next time you exchange glances with a stranger in the street, ask yourself this question:
Who am I really looking at?