When the title of this essay came to me, I was not sure where it originated in the files of my memory. As it turns out it’s from the Three Musketeers. This was not the association I was hoping for, so I will be redefining it for my own purposes. (Isn’t that how it goes? The human species invented words as tools for communication, and it is the human that gives them meaning.)
All spiritual traditions outside of Western thought and religion share the premise that we are all one. The human, the animal, the forest, the sea, the sun. There is one intelligent source of life out of which myriad expressions are born, the human species being one of them. And in the case of the human family, we are 6.8 billion particulars all made of the same stuff.
Hard to conceptualize, I know.
Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk and internationally renowned evoker of peace, teaches a practice to make concrete this idea. He has each person in the room first point to themselves and then to each person in the room repeating over and over, “I am pointing to myself, I am pointing to myself, I am pointing to myself.” It was a powerful exercise for me to experience, but a challenging perspective to sustain. It is especially difficult when someone won’t let you merge into a lane in heavy traffic when you need to get all the way over to the left before the next light. No “one for all and all for one” in that scenario.
I was thinking about this today because I live directly across the street from an elementary school and in the morning kids are dropped off at the same time that I need to leave my house to get Claire to her school. It is usually a very tricky maneuver to get out, and today I was not paying attention to the positions of the cars on all sides of me because I was obsessing about my daughter’s Scooby Doo birthday party and how on Earth I was going to succeed at making it fun enough.
Hosting parties is not my favorite activity, even if it is for my beloved child. I get anxious about the details. Will I have enough time to make the necessary “groovy” decorations and plot out a good mystery with fun clues? Which website had those Scooby Doo ears? I wonder if I should…SLAM!
I hit a car that is partially blocking my driveway on the left. I get out. I apologize to the woman for not paying attention and look at her car. The end of the rubber bumper is hanging off a bit, but it looks like it can be snapped in. She tells me it’s her husband’s car. I tell her it is best for both of us not to go through insurance, to get an estimate if it cannot be snapped in and get back to me. I give her my phone number and we drive away.
My body is buzzing, as it is always a tad traumatic to hit another car. And though I am attempting to exhibit a calm façade for Claire, my mind is racing inside as I wonder how the man whose car I hit is going to react. I’m worrying that he is going to get angry about the minimal damage and want to take me for all he can. This of course leads to concern about how much this is going to end up costing me. As if the cost of my daughter’s birthday party isn’t enough! Here I am, a yet-to-be-published writer living off my savings and now another chunk of change is leaving me. Ru roh… (that’s Scooby Doo talk for uh oh.)
Money. It is fascinating to me that on our U.S. currency is the phrase “E Pluribus Unum,” which translates as “out of the many, one.” And yet it is money that often rips us apart in society. We need it, we hoard it, we fight over it, we worry about it, and we can’t live without it in the world we have created. It can destroy marriages, friendships, workplaces and nations. It inspires greed and superiority and induces fear. It separates us from each other – mine not yours, us against them.
I realize that this feeling of separation is no different from the separation humans experience with the other-than-human world and the universe itself. The truth is there is no “us and them.” There is no separation. It is all us, whether we are able to perceive this truth or not. This is why Jesus of Nazareth said, “love they neighbor as thyself.” We are one living thing, born out of the stars, continually evolving. We breathe the same air and live out a particular life, but it is Life with a capital L nonetheless. We are all living this gift of Life, surrounded by the mystery of existence.
Yet the awe of this reality fades into the distance under the myths of modern society. Money, productivity and things distract us from the overarching numinous mystery that is always there awaiting our attention. Think about it. It is amazing to be alive, to be in this extraordinary body that is functioning independently of us as a complete system, which functions in the extraordinary larger system of the biosphere. And the biosphere within the solar system. Every day. But we don’t see it anymore. How can we when life is so busy, so full of details related to ourselves, our families, our communities, our work? So much thinking and doing to be done.
Back to the car. After dropping Claire off, in an effort to calm myself down, I begin to think of the man whose car I hit as me. I have a conversation with him in my mind in which I let him know that I am on his side, that I honor that his car was hit and that it matters to him. I tell him that every action we take creates the world and that if we settle this in a fair and kind way, the world will be a better place for it.
Later, when I meet him face to face, this man Michael turns out to be a fair human being. We settle respectfully, converse as neighbors, and I write him a check for a reasonable amount. I let go of the money in the name of something greater and see the gifts that have come my way from this experience. Was it worth $200? Who knows. It doesn’t matter in the larger scheme of things.
That’s what the world is about right now. The larger scheme of things. The modern industrial world and all its institutions are breaking down before our very eyes because it is time for something new to emerge. It is time to live life differently, to go beyond ourselves toward the greater whole, to recognize that what we do to one another we do to ourselves.
We are the wildlife killed in the Gulf oil spill, the shark killed for shark fin soup, the soldier killed in war, the child killed in an earthquake. We are the homeless, even if we choose to look the other way. And that is probably why we often choose to look the other way. Because we know that could be us living on the street and we are lucky that it isn’t. Yet, if you look that homeless person in the eye, you will look into the window of the larger soul from which we all originate. It is the force that seeks to love and be loved, to celebrate and create in a continual event that began 14 billion years ago.
E Pluribus Unum. It’s more than a sentence on a coin. It is cosmic truth.
This idea of oneness may seem unnecessary and impractical to take in and act on, given the full nature of our daily responsibilities and concerns. But you don’t have to do anything additional, just try on a different filter through which to perceive the experiences that make up your world. Notice how often “us and them” shows up in your posture. See what it feels like to look at the person who pushed their way ahead of you in a long line at the grocery store and think “I am pointing to myself.” Perhaps they have a meaningful reason to be in hurry. When someone is angry, remember we all know what it is like to come from anger, fear or a lack of self-worth.
This practice may not appeal to you, nor is it easy to do, but the truth is if you cultivate it, it will cultivate compassion and connection. Once cultivated, compassion and connection will guide our actions and eventually melt the illusion of separation that plagues our current society. Living from an understanding that all life is interconnected and dependent on that interconnection is probably the only way we will survive on Earth. I say it’s worth taking a stab at. Touché!