It’s November – the month of elections, and of Thanksgiving – and Veterans Day, which used to be called Armistice Day. Leaves fill up the yards. Sweater weather segues into parka weather. And our theme of the month this November is Interdependence.

You might be thinking: What kind of theme is that? It’s like saying our theme was bipedalism. Yes, we humans walk on two legs – as do birds – so what? How is that a spiritual value to explore, to cultivate, to unpeel layers of meaning of? In the same way you might say yes, we are interdependent. If you use money, you can’t make it yourself – that would be counterfeiting. So we are necessarily dependent on customers or clients or an employer. And if you went off into the woods to live by yourself surviving on nuts and berries, you’re still dependent on Earth and sky and plants to provide nuts and berries. Besides, that’s a miserable way to live. So, yes, we are interdependent. But how is that relevant to the spiritual path?

Let’s look into how this interdependence works and let’s just see what we discover about spirituality, shall we? We are made to need each other, to rely on each other. We are a social species. We aren’t the only social species. The list of species that are highly interactive with their own kind to the point of having a recognizable society and whose psychological well-being is associated with social interactions is a long list. According to the Animalia web site, 2,826 species have so far been identified as social species. These include: wolves, lions, raccoons, rodents, sheep, horses -- chickens, ravens, pigeons, and many other bird species – whales and dolphins – otters and beavers. Even a number of reptiles are counted as social species.

Some social species, however, take their sociality to a much higher level. These are called eusocial. The eusocial species have cooperative brood care (including care of offspring from other individuals), overlapping generations within a colony of adults, and a division of labor into reproductive and non-reproductive groups. Eusocial species include ants, bees, termites, wasps, some shrimp species, the naked mole-rat – and -- some biologists argue -- humans.

Perhaps the better term for characterizing homo sapiens would be hypersocial. Not only are we fantastically cooperative – which ants, bees, and naked mole-rats also are – but our ability to imagine ourselves into each other’s heads is amazing. Your brain is not only looking out for you, but it is also simultaneously running a sub-routine mimicking how the brains of people around you are looking out for themselves – including, mimicking the part of their brain that’s running an analogous sub-routine to mimic your brain. You see me – and you see me seeing you – and you see me seeing you seeing me.

And yes, we often make mistakes when we imagine how the world looks through another person’s eyes, and we do need to be humble about claims to know what someone else is going through – but the amazing fact is, we kinda do know what others are going through. We inevitably miss some of the details that may be quite important to the other person, but it’s actually astonishing that human brains can get the basic gist of what it’s like for other people in completely different circumstances.Sometimes someone else might know me even better than I know myself.

How did evolution produce brains that can read other brains so well? Our brains – like all vertebrate brains – are built to do three things: find food, avoid becoming food, and find a mate. That’s their purpose. Keep us alive long enough to reproduce – and maybe also stick around to help our offspring do likewise. Each species has its own unique set of abilities that dictate its strategy for reproducing itself and there are a gazillion different workable strategies – and, of course, a gazillion squared strategies that don’t work.

It’s a very challenging problem for genes to make an animal that can stay alive long enough to reproduce, and most of its experiments end up failing. Still, there are over 2 million known animal species currently extant, and about 380,000 known plant species, not to mention the fungi, protista, and monera – and, while some of them are endangered, many of them are doing fine – and they’re doing fine without the ability to imagine what’s going on in each other’s heads with anywhere near the level of detail that humans can. It’s kind of amazing that a species that can do what we do could ever have emerged.

The earth has had five mass extinctions:
  • 440 million years ago,
  • 365 million years ago,
  • 250 million years ago,
  • 210 million years ago, and, most recently,
  • 65 million years ago.
Six times life has covered the globe with ecosystems full of species, and five times mass extinctions wiped out between 70 and 95% of all Earth’s extant species. In the wake of each mass extinction, very different new species popped up, and all those millions of species, over the 2 billion years life has been on earth, emerged and lived out the arc of their extancy being reasonably good for their time at keeping themselves alive to reproduce – and every one of those millions of species except a handful in the genus homo, of which just one species survives today, did so without needing more than a rudimentary ability to imagine themselves in each other’s heads.

Through this super-power, at some point in about the last million years, our ancestors developed shared intentionality – that is, the ability to share mental representations of a task so that multiple people can work on it. Take something as seemingly simple as one person pulling down a tree branch so that another person can pluck the fruit, and then both of them can share the meal. That’s a simple example of shared intentionality. Chimps don’t do this. Chimps are highly intelligent and highly social: they have hierarchical leadership structures, they monitor their status within the group, they bargain, they do favors for one another, expecting and usually receiving reciprocation later – yet even a simple case of shared intentionality seems to be beyond them.

We humans are profound collaborators, connecting our brains together to solve problems that single brains can’t. We distribute the cognitive tasks. No individual knows everything it takes to build a cathedral, or an aircraft.

Our species success comes not from our individual smarts but from our unparalleled ability to think in groups – to make bigger brains by interlinking our individual brains. Our great glory is how well we rely on each other’s expertise.

So even if you could be independent – by yourself in the woods surviving on nuts and berries – that would be a miserable way for a homo sapiens to live and no sane human manages it for very long. We aren’t made to be that way. We are made to be dependent – not just on the earth and its provision of food and air – but on each other. Now that we understand that about each other, what shall we do with that understanding?

The first thing to notice is that interdependence feels good and is good for us. It feels great to be on a team working together, contributing our part to a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

We have this amazing capacity for interlinking our brains, for cooperating and collaborating, for shared intentionality, but we don’t always have it fully activated, and we don’t always notice the ways that it is engaged. The fact about what sort of species we are becomes a path of our spiritual growth when we commit ourselves to cultivating mindful awareness of connection, interrelationship, and mutual reliance. We can more consciously notice our interdependence with each other in our hypersociality, and also more consciously notice the interdependence of all life on our planet.

As Unitarian Universalists, this is our faith path. Our denomination’s current statement of purpose, adopted 40 years ago, describes our covenant in seven principles, the seventh of which is “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” The proposed new statement of purpose includes interdependence as one of seven values of which love is the central one. It says:
“We honor the interdependent web of all existence. We covenant to cherish Earth and all beings by creating and nurturing relationships of care and respect. With humility and reverence, we acknowledge our place in the great web of life, and we work to repair harm and damaged relationships.”
To understand who we are is the central mission of the spiritual quest, and who we are is each other. To commit to live in the unwavering awareness that the self, what I am, is the whole Earth, the whole universe – that’s the spiritual path. To commit to live in the unwavering awareness that anyone’s suffering is mine – and also that anyone’s act of violence, anyone’s cruelty, anyone’s evil is also my very own – that’s the spiritual path.

The Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, put it this way in his poem, “Please Call Me by My True Names.”
“Don’t say that I will depart tomorrow —
even today I am still arriving.
Look deeply: every second I am arriving
to be a bud on a Spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.
I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
to fear and to hope.
The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death
of all that is alive.
I am the mayfly metamorphosing
on the surface of the river.
And I am the bird
that swoops down to swallow the mayfly.
I am the frog swimming happily
in the clear water of a pond.
And I am the grass-snake
that silently feeds itself on the frog.
I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks.
And I am the arms merchant,
selling deadly weapons to Uganda.
I am the twelve-year-old girl,
refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean
after being raped by a sea pirate.
And I am the pirate,
my heart not yet capable
of seeing and loving.
I am a member of the politburo,
with plenty of power in my hands.
And I am the man who has to pay
his “debt of blood” to my people
dying slowly in a forced-labor camp.
My joy is like Spring, so warm
it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth.
My pain is like a river of tears,
so vast it fills the four oceans.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and my laughter at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart
can be left open,
the door of compassion.”
This awareness is ultimately what spirituality is. It’s why I, materialist that I am, use the word spiritual: because this awareness of interbeing is not intellectual, not cognitive, though it includes and draws upon intellection and cognition. Nor is this awareness emotional, though it includes and draws upon emotions. There is something not reducible to head or heart and that is, in short, awareness of interbeing – or, even shorter, spirituality.


We haven’t always seen, and don’t always see, awareness of interbeing as the primary spiritual task. Sometimes the world feels more like a battlefield, or a proving ground than like our very selves. Joanna Macy describes the “world as battlefield” paradigm that some people explicitly embrace and that sometimes sneaks into the thought patterns of all of us. In this paradigm, good and evil are pitted against each other, and we are on this earth to fight on the good side against the evil side. The world is our battlefield.

This is the worldview of George Lucas’ Star Wars movies -- the forces of light battle the forces of darkness. It’s not clear, in the universe of those movies, what’s so bad about the Empire, or why life for beings throughout the galaxy would be any better if Luke Skywalker and the rebels were to prevail, but we’re told Luke is the good guy, that Darth Vader has turned to the dark side of the force, so we cheer for Luke.

People for whom some “world as battlefield” story is the context for making meaning of their lives, will be oriented toward “courage, summoning up the blood, using the fiery energies of anger, aversion, and militancy.” The “world as battlefield” paradigm is good for building confidence. It’s a story that reassures you that you are on the right side, and your side will eventually win. Even if you don’t really believe this paradigm, it’s fun to indulge it sometimes, which is why so many people, including me, have flocked to Star Wars movies.

A variation on the “world as battlefield” paradigm is the “world as proving ground” paradigm. The “world as proving ground” paradigm views the world as a kind of moral gymnasium for showing your strength and virtue at the snares and temptations of the world. We are here on this Earth so that the mettle of our immortal soul may be tested prior to admittance to some other realm. That’s only a slight variation on the “world as battlefield.”


The second paradigm is the “World as Trap.” As Joanna Macy describes this one, our spiritual objective “is not to engage in struggle and vanquish a foe, but to disentangle ourselves and escape from this messy world . . . to extricate ourselves and ascend to a higher, supra-phenomenal plane.” Not in some future life, but in this life, the objective is to escape the trap, to live with contempt for the material plane, prizing only the rarefied life of mind and spirit, aloof from the world of strife and desire.

This “world as trap” paradigm engenders a love-hate relationship with matter – for aversion inflames craving, and the craving inflames aversion. Wherever we see people vigorously denouncing something and then being caught at doing that very thing – whether it’s extramarital relationships, or eating fatty foods – we are seeing the playing out of a love-hate relationship that comes from seeing the world as a trap.

I have seen people be attracted to Buddhism out of a feeling that the world is a trap, and a hope meditation will take them to a place removed from worldly entanglements. I tell them that the Buddha taught detachment from ego, not detachment from the world. And that even with ego, he taught being present to it, seeing it clearly for what it is, not suppressing it or ignoring it.

For people who see the world as a trap, social justice may still be a concern, but their approach is to get themselves detached and then help others detach -- escape the trap of the material world.


A third paradigm Macy describes is “The World as Lover.” This view beholds the world as an intimate and gratifying partner. With training, one can see in every experience something of the beauty and sweetness of primal erotic play. Since lovers are impelled toward union and oneness, this view can then segue into the final paradigm: “world as self.”


In the Western tradition there is more talk of merging self with God rather than with the world, but the import is about the same. When Hildegard of Bingen experienced unity with the divine, she gave the experience words like Thich Nhat Hanh’s. She wrote:
“I am the breeze that nurtures all things green....I am the rain coming from the dew that causes the grasses to laugh with the joy of life.”
In riding a bicycle or driving a car we can quickly come to feel the vehicle as an extension of our own bodies. In the same way, the whole world is an extension of your own body. Yes, sometimes it does things you don’t want it to and can’t control, but the same is true of your joints and organs (increasingly so as the years go by). Truly, everything in the world is your joints and organs, sinews and bones, glands, skin, and hair. And brain and mind.

These paradigms – world as battlefield, proving ground, trap, lover, or self – are ways to answer the crucial question: “In the face of what is happening, how do we avoid feeling overwhelmed and just giving up?” How do we not give up our responsibility, not simply succumb to the many diversions and distractions of our disjointed, frenetic, consumer society? Each paradigm provides an answer. I think most of us are attracted to numbers 3 and 4 – world as lover and world as self. But most of us probably waffle a bit. Sometimes the world does seem like a battle-ground or proving ground: everything is a test, and I am constantly being judged – sometimes well, sometimes poorly.

The simple act of identifying “world as lover” as a world-view helps me feel the joy of that view, helps me live into it more consistently. Identifying “world as self” as a world-view helps me stay in it. As Joanna Macy says,
“We are our world knowing itself. We can relinquish our separateness. We can come home again – and participate in our world in a richer, more responsible and poignantly beautiful way than before in our infancy.”
May it be so.


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