Interconnected: Embracing Life in our Global Society

For twelve Sundays Nalandabodhi Connecticut is offering a book discussion group on H. H. Karmapa’s book Interconnected: Embracing Life in Our Global Society. Below is a summary of the third chapter and a list of contemplations related to this chapter that will be the basis of our online discussion of this chapter on Sunday June 7th at 10:30 a.m. For more information, go to Events on this website.

CHAPTER 3: Being and Interdependent Individual

It may seem strange to apply the term “interdependent” to ourselves. It seems to negate individuality. Not so. Interdependence is what develops the personality traits that define us in unique ways.

We never question our assumption that we are a separate, self-sustaining or independent entity. Buddha taught interdependence because he saw that people were clinging to this assumption that we are independent and separate. Buddha taught that this view is the source of our deepest confusion in life and the gravest problems in society.

This view underestimates or ignores the connections between ourselves and others. We see others as apart from us. We believe we can act without consequences for others.  However, we cannot ignore the collective effects of our individual actions.

“Interdependent individual” is not an oxymoron. It is a powerful guide leading us to take better charge of our lives.

Examining the Unexamined

Interdependence is how things are whether or not we are aware of it. Both scientific studies and observation of our experience come to the same result – interdependence.  Everything arises from multiple causes and conditions, including ourselves. Nothing comes from a single cause alone.

    Contemplation: Consider the people and events that made you who and what you are today (body and mind).

Yes, we are unique, but not distinct and unrelated to others. The unique person we become over the course of our lives is based on the ongoing interplay of interdependent causes and conditions.

If we cling to individuality without appreciating how our individuality is supported by interdependence, we live in a state of willful blindness that harms us and others and limits the positive ways we can help others through our connections to them.

From Arrogance to Love

Viewing ourselves as independent leads us to believe and behave as if we are entirely self-made, as if we gathered all the conditions needed to bring us into being. We think we owe nothing to others.

Ignoring interdependence disregards the importance of others to our current well-being. We devalue their contributions. This harmful delusion impairs our ability to relate in a healthy way to others.

Interdependence is a more realistic and healthier vantage point from which to relate to our individuality.

    Contemplation:  How has interdependence made you unique?

    Contemplation: Consider what you have received that makes you the unique individual you are today. Consider your feelings about the individuals identified in this contemplation.

    Contemplation:  Karmapa says that gratitude and appreciation for what others have done for us leads to cherishing and affection for others, which in turn leads to responsibility for the well-being of others. Contemplate this point.

We can actually experience the intimate connections that link us constantly to others and to the planet. This transcends simply understanding interdependence. This is an active sense of love and concern for other people and the natural world.

Real Self-Reliance

We need to cultivate healthy self-reliance. Interdependence provides a firm basis for healthy self-reliance because interdependence allows us to consciously change course and grow in new directions.

Why? When things depend on causes and conditions for their existence, they are open to change. Causes and conditions constantly interact in ways that affect the outcome.

Example: A seed is not the sole cause of a tree. Conditions such as moisture, soil, and warmth determine the size, strength and quality of the tree. Manipulating any of these conditions changes the result.

In the same way changing conditions in our lives (especially inner conditions) can change our lives.

First, we need to identify correctly the inner conditions we can and must change. Being attentive to the workings of interdependence allows us to recognize the opportunities we have to take charge of our lives. This is healthy self-reliance because it does not deny the role of others or external circumstances. Instead, takes them into consideration. We attend to both our experiences within and also to the interactions we have with our social or natural environment.

[Humility and Confidence are explained later in this Summary]

    Contemplation: Consider what positive quality you aspire to strengthen (love, compassion, wisdom, humility, or confidence). What is your plan for strengthening that quality?

We cannot change the course of our lives by changing a single cause or a single condition. We must cultivate many inner conditions to bring real transformation. The potential has always been there, but once we decide to develop that potential, we do so by bringing together all the conditions that enhance the quality we want to strengthen.

Mental and emotional elements are required to give rise to compassion and other qualities. We need to consider the health and strength of our motivation, our feelings, our understanding, and our perceptions. Then we can use self-reliance to develop the qualities we wish to nurture. Simply wanting change is not enough by itself. Our wish to change must interact with other inner elements and then those inner elements must interact with outer conditions to shape our external circumstances.

Don’t be discouraged if change happens more slowly than we want. Recognizing the possibility of change is inspiring, but we can’t change rapidly. Compassion and other qualities are not something we can acquire, install and power on. They must be cultivated gradually and in concert with other qualities. Why? Because inner emotional and mental states exist interdependently; therefore, increasing our virtuous qualities takes multiple steps. Simply wanting is not enough.

Self-Cultivation is not Self-Absorption

We must cherish ourselves in a healthy way. We have the primary responsibility for the state of our own hearts and minds. This is healthy self-cherishing – looking after our inner affairs.

Each person must become his or her own protector in order to extend care and protection to others. Extending protection to others is what prevents us from falling into self-obsession or self-absorption.

Self-absorption ignores the web of relationships in our life. Our view is restricted to “I”, “mine”, “my” partner, “my” parents, and “my” friends. Egocentrism is a prison in which we shut ourselves away from everyone else. Only a few people or pets matter to us. Only they are allowed to enter our self-made jail. Everyone else is irrelevant. We are shut off from the world. Our self-sufficient and independent view reinforces those walls. We create this isolation. Only we can liberate ourselves from this imprisonment.

Once we tear down these walls, our view is so broad that it can take in the entire world. Our awareness of connections must be expansive because we are impacting others, not just through immediate and direct interactions. Through long chains of causal connections, what we do in our own home and neighborhood contributes to the happiness or suffering of others in the far corners of the globe.

At the same time, we can’t overlook our own experiences.  When we become aware of how much unites us, we become able to learn about others by seeing our own situation clearly. When we recognize that we want to be happy, we see that the people connected to us want to be happy. By knowing what hurts us, we know what not to do to others. Our experiences help us know what others are feeling.

At the same time, we need to educate ourselves about the unique situations others face in order to be capable impacting them positively.

Our knowledge of our shared inner condition is the starting point that motivates changes in our actions so that we benefit others and avoid harming them. We begin with understanding that others want to be happy and free of suffering just like we do.

Humility and Confidence

Humility and confidence are qualities we must cultivate to become healthier and happier interdependent individuals.

In a self-oriented world, humility and confidence seem inconsistent with each other. But in the world of interdependence, new possibilities make sense (including humility and confidence paired together).

Our consumer society thrives on competition and displays of strength. The “winner” approach seeks positions of superiority over others and conceals weaknesses. This makes it hard to address weaknesses (which we need to do).

Humility does not mean weak. Healthy humility does not demean our qualities. Rather, we recognize that because everything is relative, there is always room to grow. Nobody is ever the absolute best.

Humility is enhanced by understanding that we are in a constant state of development. However much or little positive qualities we have, further growth is always possible. Our positive qualities can be developed without limit. We may know a great deal, but we can still learn from others and from our own experiences. Healthy humility helps us keep an open door to improvement.

Pride closes that door. We tell ourselves we are better than everyone else and have more than everyone else. Pride looks down on others. We need them to be less in order for us to be more. This egocentric wall boxes us in. Reducing pride does not mean losing confidence.

Confidence is a virtuous form of pride. We realize that we are able to do good things. Confidence helps us get rid of our limitations. Humility and confidence allow us to grow beyond our limitations while allowing us to live our interdependence well.

Being the Best Ever

Independent means feeling distinct and separate from everyone else and wanting to stand out and be the best. We feel we matter only if we are unique and special in some way.

When we appreciate the value of what we are and have, then there is no need to stand out. This relates to the third quality of interdependent individuals: contentment.

Contentment means enjoying what we have and what we are, truly savoring and making full use of it.

The consumer culture is based on dissatisfaction – thirsting after what we lack. The habit of desire disregards what we have, constantly searching for newer and better. We are unable to feel satisfied with who we are or even notice what we have. Dissatisfaction also affects relationships. We feel we are not good enough; our partner is not good enough. No matter what we have, we want more. Learning to enjoy what we already have rather than chasing more is a better approach.

Dissatisfaction is seen as healthy because it drives progress. Contentment is seen as complacent and stopping forward motion.

However, there is no conflict between contentment and progressing. Satisfied does not mean we stop growing or gaining new things. It means appreciating what we have. Contentment provides a strong basis for improvement. Without appreciating what we have, there is no firm basis to build on.

We make happiness unnecessarily complicated, but happiness can be simple and natural. Appreciation and joyful gratitude is the spontaneous natural extension of full awareness of interdependence.

Just being a human being is amazing. Our precious human life means we have opportunities to develop positive qualities. A sincere wish to make the most these opportunities provides tremendous value.

    Contemplation: Our precious human birth is valuable beyond compare. We have something special and worthy of profound satisfaction. If we use this life to develop our understanding of interdependence, this will lead to endless value for ourselves and others.

Adjusting Course

Life presents endless opportunities to deepen our awareness of interdependence and reorient our daily interactions and experiences accordingly.

    Contemplation: Simply observing our own experience is a reminder of the value of interdependence. Contemplate this and make a short list (no more than 10) of examples of other individuals who are indispensable to our well-being on a typical day.

    Contemplation: Consider your feelings about the individuals identified in the previous contemplation.

    Contemplation: How are these moments of interdependence opportunities to cultivate humility, confidence, contentment or any of the inner qualities we have determined to deepen?

These moments can transform interdependence from an idea into something we feel and value highly.

In the course of everyday life we can awaken to the reality of our interdependence and begin to live according to this basic underlying principle – it becomes a way of life, a principled way of life.

The Refuge of Love

Karmapa left Tibet and came to India when he was fourteen. There he found lots of new opportunities and much benefit, but also many challenges. He has not been free to go wherever he chooses, which  greatly reduced what he is able to accomplish. He had to cultivate satisfaction with whatever was possible.

Karmapa views the point of life as cherishing and supporting others, trying to serve as a refuge where others can find love. This is what has given meaning to his life.

Even though he cannot benefit others in a direct way, he holds in his heart affections and concern for others – then they know someone cares deeply for them. As long as he is alive, he will offer support and love to all. All we are connected with him can take comfort in the knowledge that they have at least one person in the world that sincerely and completely cares about them. This gives Karmapa purpose and meaning in his life.

This basic fact of interdependence is a source of courage and determination for him.

Once we fully embrace our connections to others, we can intentionally breathe life into them, and this can fill our lives with meaning and love.

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