The illusion of separateness

The illusion of separateness

by Zarko Andricevic

Our incapability to live in harmony with ourselves, others and the environment is a consequence of deep ignorance of our nature and the nature of existence in general. All human suffering, misery and discontent, be it personal or collective, arises out of a fundamental ignorance that is called avidya in Buddhism. Avidya is not common ignorance or what we commonly think of as ignorance. Every person, learned and unlearned alike, may be a victim of such ignorance. Human maladjustment with the nature of existence varied throughout the history of mankind and had consequences that were usually short-lived and local. The harm that one person could have afflicted by its actions to oneself or to community or the environment was quite limited. However, since the beginning of the industrial revolution to this day, the incredible development of science and technology that happened in a short period of some two centuries made the consequences of human actions long-lasting and global. Today the World is smaller than ever, while the impact of mankind on the planet has increased to a rate unprecedented in history. Now we are witnessing the global ecological crisis that threatens our survival, the survival of other forms of life on Earth, and the nature as we know it.

Therefore the global ecological crisis is what comes back to us as our own collective karma. To face the crisis means to face the self.  We have to become fully aware that the situation demands much more than superficial changes only. We have reached the point where the sustainability is possible only if we are ready to undergo a radical and genuine transformation of our worldview and behavior. To be profound and efficient, that transformation has to be reflected in all aspect of our lives – be it personal, social, economical, political or religious. It is good to remember that as every crisis so this crisis alike contains both danger and opportunity. It is true that we have brought ourselves to the edge of abyss, but this position gives us an opportunity to use the awareness, awakened and sharp because of danger, to start afresh with a life based on the ethics of the common good and cooperativeness instead of pursuing selfish interests and competitiveness. 

The process of industrialization, the use of fossil fuels, an ever-expanding consumption of goods, human population overgrowth, pollution of soil and groundwater, the increase in greenhouse gas emissions, global warming, melting of ice, rise in sea level, shortage of drinking water and food, the extinction of animal and plant species that ultimately threatens the survival of human race – this is the cause and consequence sequence that has been proven undeniably by uncorrupt and wise members of scientific community. The alarming phenomena of today are only among many symptoms of uncaring human actions such as economic exploitation, wars, religious and ethnic hatred, to mention only a few. To struggle against these phenomena on the individual and local level, as they appear, means to deal with the symptoms, and not with the causes. However positive and necessary such actions may be, unfortunately they are never universal, efficient or permanent. 

The crucial question is where the true causes of the crises lie, what is their nature and how to eliminate them? If we stop for a moment and look closely and deeply into the current crisis, we will inevitably see ourselves. The deeper we look, the deeper we will get onto our own self.  What is it in us, human beings, that is responsible for the situation that we got ourselves into? What are the traits in us that lead to the causes of the crisis? Are these the worldviews and attitudes that we hold or are these emotions that govern our behavior? What is it in us that makes us so destructive to ourselves and to our surroundings? This is actually a question on who we are in the first place. If we were utterly honest and open in our inquiry, without inclination to any theory, we would arrive at a conclusion that we do not know the answer to that question, indeed. And if we reach that point, we will realize that most of our problems stem exactly from our conviction that we know everything about absolutely every thing in the world. We all have our identities, ethnicities, religions, names, personalities, our special life stories, our virtues and faults, our professions, talents, hobbies, we have multitude of roles. We put huge efforts to maintain the belief that our own identity is solid and to keep the self-image that we want to present to ourselves and to others.  But who are we, really?

The very awareness of that question may help us to find the way out of the clouds of mental constructions and ground us to here and now, in the reality of the present moment. We may then discover that in our self-preoccupation we find very little place for others, for nature, for the reality in which we live. A peculiar paradox of egocentrism is that the more we want for ourselves, the poorer and more unsafe we feel. The feeling of alienation, separateness and confrontation to the world is what we call illusion of separate existence. Because of it, we view ourselves and the world through a prism of our own narrow interests that are constant source of conflicts at all levels. Guided by an illusion of duality of the self and the world that is often accompanied by the belief on a special and superimposed position that we hold in the world, we used modern technology to create the crisis in which we find ourselves today.

The belief in the illusion of separateness makes us unaware of our own nature and of the nature of life in general. We behave as if we were going to live forever, we hold on to things as if they were eternal and as if we can truly own them. The world exists for us to be subordinated to human race and other beings live to serve us. This anthropocentric and egocentric perspective is narrow, shallow, harsh, painful and dangerous, and misses wide context and subtle nature of the phenomena as they are. We are not aware of impermanence and fragility of life. We are not aware of the opportunity that we have been given by life.

We are not aware that the suitability of our planet for life is not absolute, but rather it depends on a very fragile balance of a series of causes and conditions that are fluctuating and inconstant.  The mankind living on this planet may be compared to a bull in a china shop, clumsy and uncaring, moreover too overbearing, arrogant and aggressive to look at its own face and ask – who am I, really?

We are not aware of all that because our awareness is a captive to our own egocentrism. When we are full of ourselves, there is little place left for anything else. Being full of oneself means wanting to own everything else, wanting to become master of everything else. That is the source of our troubles, the condition that makes our nature full of conflict and our experience painful. 

It is of critical importance to free ourselves from false views on separate existence, from arrogant views on the superiority of humans over other forms of life and the nature itself. Only if liberated from egocentrism can we really become aware of ourselves, of others and nature as intertwined phenomena, deeply interrelated and interdependent. It is like a cup of tea, when it is full there is simply no space for some fresh tea. Likewise with us, if we want the world to unfold in its entirety and in its full splendor, as it really is, we have to escape the egocentric perspective.

In our deluded condition we think that the skin is boundary between the self and the outside world. Everything that happens in our body we see as internal, and all that happens outside we see as external. This is narrow understanding of one’s self as opposed to the world. The self that expands draws within the boundary things from outer world that are considered to belong to it or with which it identifies. However, no matter how the boundaries are shifted, the self stays separated from the whole, opposed to the rest that it hasn’t incorporated, hence the conflict. If we free our mind of self-concepts and if we start to observe carefully ourselves from one moment to the next, the myth on who we think we are will begin to dissolve. To begin with, the body that we identitfy with, internal and separate from the outside world, is sustained thanks to the environment only: air, water, food, warmth, light, gravitation, other beings, people… Without air we would not be able to live more than a few minutes, nor without other elements that we consist of. Our body is made up of the same elements that make our planet, and the universe. 

From that perspective our body is not ours at all. It is an inseparable part of nature that surrounds us, it belongs to nature and to nature we “return it” upon death. If we succeed to liberate our mind from egocentric perspective and rigid categories that enslave it, we will discover a completely new dimension of our being that is bound to change our understanding of the self, the body, others and the environment. The realization of oneness with the world leads to profound internal transformation. If all people perceived and treated the environment as if it were their own body, we would not have the crisis that we have today. 

All sentient beings share not only the experience of having a body, but also the nature of their corporeity. Usually we are oblivious of that deep connectedness. We are deceived by our superficial, shallow and scattered ordinary mind that sees only differences – in species, shapes, sex, color… 

If we look even deeper, deep inside our being, we will discover that in addition to corporeity we also share the experience. The common denominator of human experience and the experience of all sentient beings is suffering. Birth, illness, old age and death connect us deeply, these are experiences that we all are subject to and that we all share. Dhammapada says: “You too shall pass away. Knowing this, how can you quarrel?” How far have we gotten from that truth, the insight that what we have in common connects us more deeply and strongly than the differences, of any kind, divide us. 

Going still deeper, we will observe that we do not only share the same experience, but we also share its very nature. We share the same nature of mind and its potential of realizing that nature. So when we, observing our mind, recognize how relative all views, perspectives and beliefs that we hold true and absolute are, and that these views present merely just another description of reality, that we perceive differently because it is viewed from different perspectives although all this notwithstanding the reality is one and whole, beyond all divisions and contradictions inherent to a deluded mind, only then will we be able to say that we know that not a single thing remains to divide us and make us stand apart. This realization holds the answer to a question – who we are, really. 

Mankind today is perhaps confronted with the greatest challenge in history. The challenge is so great because we have to open ourselves to a new and substantially different way of living in the world and dealing with that world. If we fail to agree on the fundamental principles of the new way of being that comes from the deep sense of Oneness of people, animals and environment, we will miss the great opportunity that lies in the crisis. The crisis is but a mirror. It seems that the future of life on Earth depends on whether we are ready to look deeply enough to be able to recognize our true face and change the way we live accordingly. We may not get another chance like this, ever again.