This article is based on a talk given at the online Embodiment Conference on 25 October 2020.
Illustrations are by the author.
John’s book – Interwoven Nature: relatedness and identity in a changeful world – covers in more detail many of the ideas and issues discussed in the article. It is available from Amazon.
I am going to talk about the relationship between body, mind and world from the perspective of someone who has been practicing zazen, a form of mindful meditation, since 1965. Zazen is a very simple practice but not always easy. It consists of sitting quietly, paying attention to whatever arises in my embodied mind and in the world immediately around me – without comment or judgment – expanding my awareness outwards from my breath to encompass all that happens while I’m sitting – simply being awake and open to the everchanging stream of phenomena that constitutes who I am from moment to moment. I notice how everything changes and passes away. Thoughts and perceptions, feelings and moods endlessly shifting and transforming with each breath I take.
Secular Zen practice
I am a secular Zen practitioner. I consider experience to be the ultimate teacher – not the Buddha, a Zen master or a charismatic guru. For over fifty-five years zazen has been my teacher along with all those individuals and groups I have met who manifest kindness, insight, wisdom, compassion and equanimity – many of whom would not call themselves Buddhists. Not all of these individuals are living. I have learnt much from historical figures within the Buddhist tradition, and from thinkers, philosophers, poets and writers who are part of my cultural inheritance, though not part of the history of Buddhism. This is the very inclusive and diverse sangha to which I belong.
Being mindful – a gateway to connection and kinship
One important aspect of zazen (which is a Japanese term meaning ‘sitting meditation’) is the use of the breath as an initial focus of attention. The process of breathing becomes a gateway to a realisation of our interdependence with the world about us – the constant interaction between our embodied mind and the air we breathe. I observe the in-breath and the out-breath as the rhythmic manifestation of the rise and fall of consciousness, the motion of life as it is lived from moment-to-moment. The breath is not forced in any way, I am not trying to make it deeper or shallower – simply observing it as it is. This steady, patient observation of the breath becomes a gentle discipline of the mind, a way of becoming calm and collected, and it affords me a refuge from whatever turbulence might otherwise be troubling me. Paying attention to the whole sphere of sensations, thoughts, moods and emotions follows on from the practice of being mindful of the breath.
Mindful meditation enables those who practice it regularly to experience the self as a process that extends out into the world, to realise how open and porous we are and how interconnected we are with other beings and with our surroundings. We feel less divided from the world about us and less alienated from ourselves and other creatures. We observe the interplay of countless causal networks that make up our being – forming and re-forming who we are and how we are in the world. Mindful meditation is a method of enquiry and realisation – a way of observing impermanence and interconnection in action, and a way of learning how to let go.
There are those who consider the practice of sitting meditation to be a self-centred and individualistic activity that only benefits the meditator. No doubt the most immediate effect of mindful meditation is experienced by the person who is meditating. However, paradoxically, one of the main effects on the individual is to change both how the individual experiences himself, or herself, and to transform the way in which they relate to other beings and to the world. It is in this way that the practice of meditation is associated with the development of feelings of kinship and compassion. Being mindful is also to mind, to care – to look after whatever is in our field of awareness – to pay attention and to take care of ourselves, other beings, and the world in which we live.
If we recognise that everything in the universe is interdependent, it follows that we are all related to each other. There is kinship and fellowship between all beings – from a fly on the wall to a Queen in her palace. This realisation of interconnectedness and interdependence is a key factor in the development of principles of social interaction, community and environmental awareness.
The divided self
In my day-to-day life I realise how I often feel divided within myself. I’m aware that one stream of thought is commenting on, or making judgments about, another stream of thought or feeling – one voice in my head is saying one thing, while another is saying something else; at times my mind is divided from my body. This fragmentation is often not beneficial. I feel unfocused, pulled in different directions, lacking in unity, divided within myself.
I’ve also noticed that when my attention is divided, not only do I feel a sense of fragmentation within myself, I also feel disconnected from the world – from other people and my surroundings. At times this can be felt as being slightly out-of-step with the world. Sometimes it can develop into a profound feeling of alienation from everything and everyone. I am so locked into my divided self that I feel separated from what is around me. I lose touch with, and stop noticing, the flavour of the world, the tactile immediacy of my environment. In this state of fragmentation and division, the world can seem an alien, even hostile place. The practice of zazen, simply paying attention and being present, helps me reconnect and unify not only body and mind, but also my embodied mind with my surroundings – restoring a sense of wholeness and wellbeing.
None of us can be considered as separate or self-existent. We are deeply porous beings, overlapping, merging and interweaving with our environment and with other beings. Just as our bodies are porous, our minds are not bounded by our bodies, or by our conventional sense of self. Our being is both firmly located in this space we occupy, and, at the same time, it is a meeting place for all the other organisms who share our envelope of skin, and for all the ideas, stories, beliefs and values that make up our embodied mind. This is an ecological view of the self – a self that is firmly woven into the mutually responsive totality of other beings, substances and energies – all jostling and interacting in a universe at play with itself.
For me there is heaven all around. Every day brings something new, something surprising, something that makes me think and ponder and wonder. I have a body and it is a body full of windows and doors through which I can sense this world overflowing with sights and sounds, touches, odours and tastes. Every pore in my skin is a point of contact, an opening through which energies flow in and out. I am host to a myriad of creatures, on either side of my skin, enriching, cleaning, maintaining and, at times, threatening, my life. They are my closest relatives, always at hand, companions on the road of life. I exist with them. They are part of me, and I of them. We co-inhabit this nomadic territory I call my body. They come and go, as do I, cell by cell, in cycles of growth and decay, throughout the days and years of what I mistakenly refer to as ‘my’ life – for it is their life as much as mine.
We are not bound by our body but freed by it – opened by its pores and openings to the light and shade, the fluid substance, of the world. The body is a place where mind meets and interacts with the world – it is not a fortress to keep the world at bay. The skin is as much of the world and of others, as it is of my-self. And the embodied mind is always in motion, flowing through and dancing around the skin and bones – a gathering and intermingling of trajectories that are as much ‘yours’ as they are ‘mine’, as much the product of interaction and interpenetration with the world (and with others) as they are generated by the ego-self. Ideas arise in the space between beings – in the conversations and debates that are integral to our human imagination and action.
Seen from this perspective, self and environment are not separate entities. My skin is also the skin of the world – a shared porous membrane through which flow light, oxygen, food, water, sound (and other microscopic beings).
Here’s a poem that evokes this way of seeing the embodied mind:
so many openings
through which the world
melts into me
only to flow on
into others, world
into self, self into
like sticks in a stream,
bent by the light, we
pass through a prism
rainbowed and scattered
we are not what we
seem always more
than we appear to be
When I experience my own consciousness, I perceive many strands of personality constantly forming and re-forming – intricately interwoven into the lives of other beings (human and non-human). I do not observe a nucleus of self, somehow separate and unchanging. What I experience is a complex, multi-stranded self, made up of many identities that are always shifting and adjusting to changing circumstances and roles.
When he was ill, in the winter of 1623, John Donne wrote these famous eloquent lines that capture this relational view of the self:
No man is an island,
Entire of itself;
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
The politics of desire and division
I’d now like to look at connectedness and interdependence from another angle – to shed some light on how this way of seeing things relates to ethical values and how we might act in the world.
The Buddha advocated a way of life that is grounded in three aspects of awareness: a clear and realistic understanding of how things are (dharma); a compassionate openness to others and to the world; and, a balanced attitude characterised by equanimity and composure. He recognised that all things are transient and interconnected, and that this transience and interconnection gives rise to suffering. The fact that all things come and go, grow and decay, are born and die, generates feelings of loss, grief and dissatisfaction. On the other hand, feelings of separateness and disconnection also lead to conflict and suffering.
The transient nature of all things gives a poignancy to every moment of life – because every moment is passing even as it arrives. It is important to learn how to enjoy and fully attend to things, without wishing to hang on to, or to possess, them. The Buddha advised us, if we are to minimise suffering, not to cling too rigidly to ourselves, other people and beings, or to ideas, beliefs and opinions. Understanding suffering, and its causes, including habits of desire, attachment and acquisitiveness, is the first step in learning how to cope with transience, dissatisfaction, pain and loss.
The Buddha argued that insatiable desire fuels dissatisfaction, restlessness, and conflict – we chase after novelties in the hope that our desires and wants will be fulfilled. But new things, experiences and ideas only reinforce our desire for more, taking us further and further away from peace, equanimity and wellbeing.
Capitalism is grounded in greed, division and inequality – one group of people making money out of another, and all groups exploiting the earth’s resources in ways that are unsustainable. In order to do this, it nurtures desire and acquisitiveness in a myriad of forms, in the full knowledge that they are insatiable and self-propelling. The result of this is great inequality, enormous wastefulness and widespread suffering. Our intention must shift from making a profit out of others, to living within our means – that is, sustainably – ensuring the wellbeing of our planet.
The exploitative approach typified by capitalism, is underpinned by a feeling of disconnection, a feeling that we humans are separate from, and superior to, other beings and to our surroundings. As already mentioned, this feeling of separation from the world is closely aligned with a feeling of division and fragmentation within ourselves. Unless we can heal these internal divisions, we will be unable to heal our feelings of separation from the world. Re-connecting with the world has to begin with re-connecting our divided self.
An ethics of moderation & non-attachment
Sulak Sivaraksa is a contemporary Thai social activist. He writes: ‘According to Buddhism, there are three poisons: greed, hatred, and delusion. …. Capitalism and consumerism are driven by these three poisons.’ If things are to change, he says, ‘…two realisations are necessary: an inner realisation concerning greed, hatred and delusion, and an outer realisation concerning the impact these tendencies have on society and the planet.’
I would add to these two realisations, one more: a realisation that we are dependent upon each other and upon the planet we inhabit. We are part of a vibrant living network woven across, and into, this magical place we call earth. We are all inter-related – human to human, human to bacteria, bacteria to virus, organism to organism. We are co-inhabitants of this planetary home. It is important we rediscover this sense of kinship and connectedness – for it is in the light of this awareness that we can begin to repair ourselves and re-establish our place as members of the global community of beings. It is only in this way that we can begin to move from behaviour grounded in disconnection and exploitation, to action grounded in connection and sustainability.
In a finite world with limited resources, insatiable desire and consumption will inevitably be destructive of ourselves, of other beings and of the world we inhabit. Somehow the delusion of unlimited consumption and disconnection has to be seen for what it is, and to be replaced by an ethics of moderation, and wise and compassionate caring for the planet and all its interrelated inhabitants.
Mindful meditation – reconnecting and healing
The practice of some form of mindful meditation, and the minding and caring that goes with it, can be an effective way of healing the pain that arises from feelings of disconnection and division. However, this can, at times, be a very challenging experience. Paying attention to what is going on in, and around, us, can lead us to feel more intensely our own fears, anxieties and conflicts, and to feel the tides of loss, grief and pain that ebb and flow through all sentient beings. Connectedness is not always a pleasure.
To feel kinship with other beings is to empathise with their struggles and difficulties, as well as to be aware of their joys and achievements. It is also to recognise that our connectedness carries with it the potential for illness and disease to spread rapidly from organism to organism – the current Covid pandemic is a realisation of this potential. This is a danger that can only be addressed by collective action rooted in awareness of our interconnectedness.
It is crucial that we learn to be mindful of these challenging relationships and feelings – to see them clearly, but without being attached to them – and in this way not to be overwhelmed by them. Unless we notice what is happening in and around us – the good and the bad, the agonies and the ecstasies – we cannot come to an understanding that enables us to act in ways that are wise and beneficial.
In this talk I have argued that our nature consists of many interwoven strands, and that we in turn are woven into the infinite strands of nature. We are participants in the natural world, implicated in it, rather than outsiders observing it from a distance. We are inextricably involved in what goes on around us. All of nature is woven into one coherent and multifarious whole. The universe is a dynamic, interactive, relational field – a wonderfully diverse realm of chemical, genetic and cultural forms.
It is possible that by being mindful, paying attention and taking notice we can learn to act wisely to transform both our present and our future. It is important to keep our focus on the miracles of life, consciousness, kinship and caring, and to use these gifts to do all we can now, to mend divisions and disconnections, and to begin to heal ourselves and our planet.
Sivaraksa, Sulak. 1992. Seeds of Peace: A Buddhist Vision for Renewing Society, Parallax Press, 1992