“Imagine a multidimensional spider’s web in the early morning covered with dew drops. And every dew drop contains the reflection of all the other dew drops. And, in each reflected dew drop, the reflections of all the other dew drops in that reflection. And so ad infinitum. That is the Buddhist conception of the universe in an image.”
- Alan Watts
The Theory of Interconnectedness
Interconnectedness is a critical concept in many Eastern philosophies and spiritual practices. The purpose is to illustrate that nothing is separate and everything arises co-dependently. In Buddhism, this phenomena is often referred to as “interdependent origination.” It is often used to describe the nature of existence.
Alan Watt’s spider web is a great analogy for interconnectedness. If every individual is a dew drop on a spider web filled with other dew drops, and every dew drop contains a reflection of all other dew drops, than we can say that each individual is a reflection of all other individuals. This helps describe the non-duality between “self” and “others.” We are all reflections of other personalities. Last year I tried to describe this using another analogy, “consciousness is a house of mirrors.”
Perhaps the most famous analogy for interconnectedness is Indra’s Net:
“Far away in the heavenly abode of the great God Indra, there is a wonderful net which has been hung by some cunning artificer in such a manner that it stretches out indefinitely in all directions. In accordance with the extravagant tastes of deities, the artificer has hung a single glittering jewel at the net’s every node, and since the net itself is infinite in dimension, the jewels are infinite in number. There hang the jewels, glittering like stars of the first magnitude, a wonderful sight to behold. If we now arbitrarily select one of these jewels for inspection and look closely at it, we will discover that in its polished surface there are reflected all the other jewels in the net, infinite in number. Not only that, but each of the jewels reflected in this one jewel is also reflecting all the other jewels, so that the process of reflection is infinite.”
The Practice of Interconnectedness: Empathy
Empathy is a logical, existential and practical extension of the truth of interconnectedness. It is our “capacity to experience the same feelings or emotions that someone else is feeling.” When empathizing we are literally treating another living being as if it is a part of ourselves. Like the way our hand is attached to our body. In a moment of empathy, we are one.
Consider the implications that empathy has when we are trying to achieve happiness. If our feelings are interdependent on the feelings of others, then part of making ourselves happy is making others happy too, and vice-versa.
Interconnectedness is the metaphysical reasoning behind Buddhist morality. It tells us to show compassion and loving-kindness toward everyone, because they are no different than ourselves, and our sense of separation is an illusion.
We are all connected by virtue of being sentient beings, beings that suffer, and beings that seek happiness, meaning, and fulfilling relationships.
I think we all empathize in varying degrees. The Dalai Lama is on one side of the spectrum and sociopaths are on the other side. However, I think we can also exercise our empathy and build it up like a muscle. So even if we don’t have any experience being really good at empathy, we can train our minds to be more empathetic.
Here are some actions we can take to increase our capacity for empathy:
- Listen to others more and try to adopt their perspective.
- Do something kind for a family member, friend, or stranger.
- Donate to a charity you believe in.
- Dedicate a song or poem to someone.
- Do a metta meditation. Metta means “a strong wish for the happiness of others.”
These are all ways we can exercise our empathy right now. With practice, we may find ourselves feeling more connected with our world, more attuned to the emotions and thoughts of others, and feeling a greater sense of belonging and satisfaction. To me, these are simple practices, but they can make us much happier.
Positive psychologists identify “kindness” as one of the key Character Strengths and Virtues (CSV) that lead to happiness. According to researcher Ben Sahar, doing small acts of kindness leads to good feelings lasting much longer throughout the day than when we only act with our ego in mind. This is more proof that others happiness and well-being plays an intimate role with our own happiness and well-being – a product of empathy.
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