July 2016: Interdependence

Not long ago a therapist friend of mine told me about a developmental model he uses for relationships of all kinds.  In it there are four stages of development in a relationship: Dependence, counter-dependence, independence, and interdependence.

When we are young we are dependent on our parents. As teenagers we go through a counter-dependent phase, when we are against anything our parents are for – another form of dependence of course.  If we continue to develop we become truly independent of our parents. The fourth and final stage is one of interdependence, when, though separate from our parents, we realize and appreciate the many shared connections we have with them.

Similarly, in Buddhism we say that realizing our interdependence is a mature point of view.

The doctrine of pratitya samutpada says that there is not anything that is truly independent. Everything is dependent on others for its coming into existence and for its sustained existence. The whole universe is interdependent.

Take you and me for instance.

Because we humans are top-of-the-food-chain independent actors with amazing powers of thought and creation, we may imagine that we stand alone above nature, independent of it.

In fact we are more connected to the natural world than we like to admit. We depend on food which is made by others, on the air we breathe, the sunlight, the ground we walk upon. Going a step further, our self that seems so unique and independent, is actually made up of a lot of un-unique parts. Our idea of self depends upon all of these parts.    A lot of interactions that are not exactly us – sight, hearing, emotions– we’ve been gifted by evolution.  And we are inexorably a part of the great interrelated web of life and death.

Though we have special powers, we are also nothing special.  As Ernest Becker says in a book that’s on my nightstand, The Denial of Death, “This is the paradox: [a human being] is out of nature and hopelessly in it; he is dual, up in the stars and yet housed in a heart-pumping, breath-gasping body that once belonged to a fish and still carries the gill-marks to prove it.”

We tend not to emphasize our gill-marked aspect. Rather we’re drawn to celebrating the unique, the personal, and the independent.  That’s fine, but let us not forget that we are both.  In some ways above and beyond nature; and at the same time we are completely a part of it.

Zazen helps me remember this interdependent part.  We cool down, stop building our amazing castles in the sky, and remember our more humble activities – breathing, looking, hearing.

The more we realize our interconnection, the more care we naturally take of each other and our surroundings. And the more grateful we feel for the interconnected web that we depend on.

Declarations of independence have their place in our individual lives and in our collective history. But so does the quiet voice of interdependence. This voice doesn’t get celebrated with hot dogs and fireworks. It doesn’t take victory laps. But it’s crucial to our evolution and our survival as a species. Let’s be careful not to overlook it.