Always Well Within

Calm Your Mind, Ease Your Heart, Embrace Your Inner Wisdom

How to Understand Interdependence, The Key to True Happiness

Be at Peace

Isn’t it intriguing that the definition of ecology reflects the natural principle of interconnectedness that lies at the very heart of many of the world’s wisdom traditions like Buddhism?

The Oxford Dictionary of English defines ecology as “the branch of biology that deals with the relations of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings.”

It appears that ecology and spirituality agree: we are all inextricably linked – for better or for worse.

We are not independent. What we think, say, and do has an impact. Is it a positive impact or a negative one? The choice is always yours.

According to the principle of interdependence, our impact is like a boomerang. Our actions go out and touch others, helping or harming. Then the impact bounces back to either harm or help us too. It’s impossible to escape the effects of our own actions. Therefore, your interest and my interest are intimately connected.

A practical example of interdependence is the simple fact that radiation from Japan’s nuclear crisis will touch everywhere in the world, carried along by wind and water.

Understanding and living in accord with interdependence is the secret to finding your own true happiness, healing the environment, and making other positive changes in the world.

“In today’s highly interdependent world, individuals and nations can no longer resolve many of their problems by themselves. We need one another. We must therefore develop a sense of universal responsibility… It is our collective and individual responsibility to protect and nurture the global family, to support its weaker members, and to preserve and tend to the environment in which we all live.” – the Dalai Lama

Living Interdependently

Embracing interdependence – really allowing this truth to permeate your being – will transform the way you view the world and gradually inform every action you take. It won’t happen overnight, it takes practice. But once your recognize interdependence, there’s no turning back. Here are three ways that living with the awareness of interdependence touches and transforms you and the world around you.

1. Learning to Love Everyone

We all want to be happy and we all want to avoid suffering. It’s our very nature and the motivation behind all our actions and endeavors as individuals and as societies. This wish for happiness is the common thread that binds us.

“After all, all human beings are the same – made of human flesh, bones, and blood. We all want happiness and want to avoid suffering. Further, we have an equal right to be happy. In other words, it is important to realize our sameness as human beings.” – the Dalai Lama

When we understand interdependence, we realize that harming others only harms us, whereas helping others, helps us. Most of us understand this intuitively and can easily observe the principle in our lives.

For example, an angry person almost always puts other people off. Their words and actions usually trigger more discord and a greater sense of separation. Chances are, their blood pressure rises and they can even feel worked up for days. It’s clear that the harm of being angry bounces back to harm you.

“Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.” – Mark Twain

Understanding this common wish for genuine happiness and our fundamental interconnectedness makes it far easier to connect with others person-to-person. This in turn increases our ability to solve both individual and global problems. It’s just common sense that people who feel connected are more likely to work together to solve problems.

One way to cultivate interdependence in action is to consistently practice putting ourselves in another person’s shoes. When someone violates your environmental ethics, instead of going with a knee-jerk reaction of blame, judgment, anger, or frustration, try to remember that they are simply “another you.” They’re a real person just like you with the same desires and same fears. Look for the common ground. The only way we can affect lasting change in the world is to reach out and genuinely interact with others and to treat others with respect.

Problems are compounded when we treat our “adversaries” as though they are not human. New possibilities and solutions – even miracles – arise when we drop our attitude of judgment and connect person-to-person. Operating from judgment and separation only creates a greater divide. There are negative actions, but there are no good guys and bad guys. We are one.

“To see the all-pervading Spirit of Truth, one must be able to love the meanest of all creation as oneself.” – Mahatma Gandhi

This doesn’t mean whitewashing environmental assaults, unethical marketing, and inappropriate actions. Holding people accountable for their actions is different than judgment and blame. It can be done with love.

When we understand interdependence, we realize that love is the answer. It takes practice and perseverance, but we learn to gradually open are heart wider and wider.

“Whenever you are confronted with an opponent, conquer him with love.” – Mahatma Gandhi

2.  We’re All Ignorant

Why does anyone harm in the first place?

It all boils down to ego. We take ourselves very seriously. Almost all our actions are centered around trying to promote or protect ourselves. This typically leads us into an array of negative thoughts and emotions: desire, anger, ignorance, pride, and jealousy. And these in turn lead to problematic actions.

Sure we have moments of happiness, but for the most part dissatisfaction and suffering ensue. Although we have countless material possessions, dissatisfaction pervades modern life. Divorce, child abuse, violence, crime, drug and alcohol addiction, depression, anxiety and other desperate states are all-pervasive. All this stems from identifying so strongly with our sense of self and considering it to be permanent, singular, and independent.

The very structure of modern life is geared toward building up the notion of self and creating a greater illusion of autonomy and independence. Marketing focuses on fulfilling “your” needs. Owning your own car, home, computer, and countless other personal possessions fosters this sense of independence and separateness rather than a sense of connection and community.

We all operate from a place of self-interest, almost all the time. There may be a difference in scale, but the truth is that we are mostly thinking about “me” – my problems, my goals, my agenda, my illness, my pleasure, my pain, my personal development. What will make “me” feel good? While it’s often easy to see this in others, it’s usually more difficult to recognize this tendency in ourselves. But if you honestly look into your own mind for a few moments, chances are you’ll find that most of your thoughts are about you.

The funny thing is that this solid sense of self we’ve created doesn’t really exist. In the Buddhist view, ego is defined as the incessant grasping at a false notion of self. If you take a deep look, you will never be able to find this “self.” It’s just a construct or label we’ve created for the ever-changing stream of thoughts and emotions, sensory experiences, and body parts we call “me”. The self does not inherently exist.

Don’t worry. This doesn’t mean you don’t exist at all. We exist, but not in the way that we normally think we do – not as an independently existing self. The idea and label of “self” is a handy convention for relating in the world, but it is not an accurate picture of reality.

There is a way out of this constant preoccupation with self. Beyond our narrow, limited idea of self is an ever-present, pure awareness – our true self. It’s like a clear, open, limitless sky and the very heart of compassion. Our thoughts and emotions are simply like clouds passing by in the sky.

“When the mind goes beyond the thought of ‘the me,’ the experiencer, the observer, the thinker, then there is a possibility of a happiness that is incorruptible.” – Jiddu Krishnamurti

You are not your thoughts and emotions.

Realizing this brings a tremendous sense of freedom. Gradually, we learn to stop identifying so strongly with every passing thought, emotion, and sensory experience as the real “me”. Instead of enmeshing ourselves in turbulent emotions, we can let them pass right by. Instead of creating an ego-driven story fraught with drama and despair, we can see our habitual tendency, smile at ourselves, and abort. Connecting with our innermost essence and living wide awake, here and now, cuts the endless circle of suffering.

This fundamental heart of goodness lives within every single one of us. It’s simply called by different names in different wisdom traditions. At the moment, it may be obscured by the clouds of thoughts, emotions, and the illusion of separateness; that’s the essence of ignorance. But it’s always there waiting for us to uncover it.

When you recognize the sky-like nature of mind, a tremendous sadness and surge of compassion arises for all those who suffer needlessly due to this constant grasping onto self. Any sense of separateness falls away and a deep wish arises for everyone else to recognize their true nature too. When we touch our true nature, we spontaneously feel one with all of life.

Awakening to interdependence and discovering our true self, moves us to cultivate the qualities of the human spirit – such as love and compassion, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, contentment, a sense of responsibility, a sense of harmony – that will bring a more enduring happiness for ourselves and everyone around us. An appreciation for biological interdependence and a concern for the environment naturally follows.

3. Living Wide Awake

Once we release the illusion of separateness, interdependence infuses our thinking and our being. We naturally want to make different choices. Simplicity is not necessarily easy, but we just start where we are and slowly move forward. Our deep concern for others impels us to think sustainable, press pause, consume mindfully, and live more green. We resist the urge to consume willy-nilly and start asking questions like:

  • Is this a sustainable choice?
  • Is this a responsible choice?
  • Do I really need this?
  • How will this choice effect others?
  • Could I buy this item locally instead of purchasing an item that has to be shipped hundreds or thousands of miles?
  • Is there an option that contains little or no plastic packaging?
  • Can I buy this used instead of new?
  • Can I make this for myself?

The way to heal the environment is to awaken to interdependence – from both a biological and spiritual perspective – and express it in every one of our thoughts, words, and deeds. When you change yourself, you change the world.

“We have destroyed our Mother Earth in the same way bacteria or a virus can destroy a human body. Mother Earth is also a body. Of course, there are bacteria that are beneficial to the human body, that protect the body and help generate enzymes that we need. Similarly, if the human species wakes up and knows how to live with responsibility, compassion, and loving kindness, the human species can be a living organism with the capacity to protect the body of Mother Earth. We have to see that we inter-are with our Mother Earth, that we live with her and die with her.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

Changing ourselves does not preclude collective action, technological solutions, or political savvy. Each challenge needs its own practical solution as well. For example, climate change isn’t going to reverse itself simply because we are nice to each other. We need to take practical steps too, but without an inner revolution there is no hope for lasting change.

It’s disastrous to think we are separate from nature or each other – both science and spirituality agree.

What do you think?  Does recognizing interdependence make a difference in your life?  I would love to hear your thoughts. If you’re reading by email or RSS, click here to join the conversation.

Thank you for your presence, I know your time is precious!  Don’t forget to sign up for my e-letter and get access to all the free self-development resources (e-books, mini-guides + worksheets) in the Always Well Within Library. May you be happy, well, and safe – always.  With love, Sandra

Image ©Sue Alexander




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  1. Jean Sampson

    What a rich and freeing post, Sandra! Yes, we ARE self-enclosed beings, dealing with being spirit housed in an animal body that is created for physical survival. What a dilemma we are in from birth, how to live in the world of spirit, where we KNOW we are all one, and how to, at the same time, deal with our individual instincts to survive at all costs. And the poor Earth bears the brunt of it because we have the ability to create much more than we need to survive and also to create in such a way as to make us desire more and more. Our means of mass communication seem to incite fear and feelings of not being enough or not being like the other humans who are all better than we are—-hence the advertising that makes us feel bad about ourselves so that we will rush right out and get whatever product that bears the promise to magically “fix” us and make us like all the other beautiful, brilliant, ageless and perfect people we see in movies, on TV and in magazines. So much in this world makes us feel separate and different from the other humans we share the earth with! I have a mental picture of a human being trying to “wake up” from this dream of being separate, constantly having to peel off all of the ideas of separateness that are trying to cling to him or her, trying to distract that being from getting fully conscious of being one with all other beings (human and other living creatures). I struggle with all of this, Sandra, and I don’t think that I am the only one trying to wake up and stay awake to what is really true and what is important. I do know that I usually try to walk in the other person’s shoes and see the pain and struggles that led them to be where they are. That always helps me to feel love rather than some other thing that I had begun to feel and think about them. That is something that saves me a lot of anger! I hope that people will do the same for me 🙂 Well, this has gone on long enough! This post really did speak to me and to the things I struggle with as a human being 🙂 Thanks!

    • Hi Jean,

      I appreciate the dilemma you’ve raised about the challenge of being spirit in a body. I think there is an answer here that lies in the awareness that everything is always empty and appearance and therefore there’s no fundamental conflict. Although I don’t think that’s necessarily so easy to grasp. And, you are right that this physical body is typically trained to react in survival mode so it takes insight to see when that’s necessary and when it isn’t. But, how wonderful that we have this capability! This is the gift of being human and being able to actualize our full potential.

      It is crazy how our culture promotes the idea of independence and separateness and getting ours above all. When it’s not really necessary. There’s enough for everyone if we eliminate our fear and greed and share wisely and generously.

      Walking in the other person’s shoes is really a huge part of the answer for how we can move forward in an open-hearted and sane way. As always, you have such beautiful wisdom to share! Thank you!

  2. Hi Sandra,

    I agree that this is so important. I’m definitely bookmarking this post for future reading – so many good tips and amazing quotes.

    I think this is really hard for me as a modern woman we’ve been told we need to be independent and that not needing other people is a strength.

    For me embracing interdependence is about being vulnerable something we’re all taught to avoid. Definitely lots of work needed on this one although I think the idea of being part of the earth, a community and a common goal is beautiful there’s a lot of re-education that needs to be done on my part 🙂

    • Dear Annabel,

      It’s fascinating to see how you look at this from the lens of independence as a woman. I can see the challenge now that you’ve shared it. I think recognizing interdependence and self-sufficiency aren’t necessarily contradictory ideas. My sense is that we can create a balance of the two. But, I can see the cultural push you feel up against for sure. Thanks for raising that point. It’s very illuminating.

  3. Yes I will be at peace with myself and others. Love that and those words spoke to me at my hearts core today as I have been struggling with really bringing my art to the world as it is what brings me peace.

    So many great tips and staying wide awake I love- yes buy used have just done that save the landfill plus $$$

    • I’m glad those words spoke to you today, Suzie. Your artwork is beautiful. I hope you find a way to bring it to the world that is hassle free and brings you more peace.

      With love to you!

  4. Great post! Sometimes, knowing all these things, the greatest hinderance is the ego. We may not be “egotistical” and outwardly express our attitudes, but within, that is the reality we all face. The ME is quite important. I think your post helps to come to grips with that struggle. I don’t want to deny ME but I need to acknowledge my interdependence. Thanks.

    • Yes, you are so right, Alexi! The ego can be a challenge at times. But, I think we can find a good balance where “me” and “we” are all taken care of! Thanks for your thoughts.

  5. Interdependence is truly an amazing topic to take on. Thanks again for creating passion to be universally social human beings.

    • Abdul, I really love this phrase “universally social human beings.” That’s what really counts in my mind and heart. Thanks for sharing it.

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