The term “interbeing” (“Tiep hien” in Vietnamese) was coined by the Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, to refer to the interconnectedness of all things. We cannot, he says, set sharp boundaries between our bodies and the elements that constitute us—like the air and the water and the food we take. When the air we exhale leaves our bodies, does it then become “other” than us? Common sense tells us that we are beings in the world, distinct from that which surrounds us. This often leads us to think that the world was made expressly for us.
Scott D. Sampson, an evolutionary biologist and paleontologist who wrote a book on dinosaurs, has attempted to scientifically ground this Zen insight in order to drive home an important ecological point. “Having externalized the world beyond our bodies, we are consumed by thoughts of furthering our own ends and protecting ourselves. Yet this deeply rooted notion of isolation is illusory, as evidenced by our constant exchange of matter and energy with the ‘outside’ world.”
In truth, we are not apart from the world. “We must learn to see ourselves,” he says, “not as isolated but as permeable and interwoven—selves within larger selves, including the species self (humanity) and the biospheric self (life). The interbeing perspective encourages us to view other life-forms not as objects but subjects, fellow travellers in the current of this ancient river.”
This kind of language may strike some as distinctly “new age” rather than scientific. But, in fact, all current systems thinking proceeds from it. Systems evolve only as they differentiate themselves from their environment. However, the point at which they draw the line between themselves and their environments is purely contingent, meaning, it could have been marked elsewhere. From a given system’s standpoint, the boundary that sets it apart from its environment might appear as the most natural in the world. But, this line is as much a construct as the “environment” from which the system distinguishes itself. It is nothing but the product of an observer.
With a shift in perspective, system and environment meld into one complex unity. They would be—not so much distinct and static entities entangled with one another—but “whirlpools of energy” in a timeless river. Think of a newborn baby, as I have been doing this past week while visiting my grandson Xavier.
He is, in every sense, still in a state of “interbeing,” unable to tell the difference between himself and the arm that carries him. The poor child, wrenched out of the protective walls of his mother’s womb, is now seen by all the adults around him as a fully formed separate being. But obviously he has yet to acquire this consciousness of separateness. Indeed, it is startled even by its own internal processes; the little infant stops sucking momentarily while he gathers some energy to let out some gas or poo. Desperately, it navigates its way in this unfamiliar terrain by its mouth. It must be a frightful feeling—to be hungry, sightless, speechless, and unable to use one’s hands. Thank God babies can cry.
As we mature into self-conscious beings, we tend to move to the opposite extreme. We lose all sense of identity with the world that sustains us. We begin to imagine ourselves to be several levels above everything else. We learn to see the earth, the world around us, including even our own fellow human beings, as nothing more than things at our disposal.
In many ways, insofar as it represents a shift in perspective, religion teaches us to see the larger unities of which we are but a minute part. That is why it is perhaps not a coincidence that spirituality has been an abiding source of environmental ethics. In many pre-modern cultures, for example, people see themselves as somehow “owned” by, or an integral part of, the land they till, rather than its proprietors. They see the land and its bounty not as objects to exploit but as a domain that outlives them and over which, at best, they are only stewards.
The religious sense, says the sociologist Niklas Luhmann, splits the world into two: first, that which is “immanent” (meaning, inherent in the nature of things) and, second, that which is “transcendent” (i.e. beyond the human world). Allowing space for the “transcendent” enables people to step back from the concerns of their daily lives and view these as aspects of a larger and more complex reality beyond comprehension. In the course of intellectual progress, however, philosophy and, later, science, took over this space which had been the preserve of the divine. In philosophy, the transcendent took the form of a priori principles against which the world built by humans could be assessed. Science, on the other hand, dispensed with divine agency altogether, replacing it with theories of evolutionary processes that offer no value standpoint from which to assess progress. But, science has supplied us with the tools for observing in a non-judgmental way the unfolding of life forms in different contexts. It has also shown us the blind spots that lie outside the scope of our practical visions. The best science brings us back to a humility that, in past ages, was made possible only by religion.
To experience interbeing is, to the Zen Buddhist, to be mindful not only of the connectedness of things but also of their impermanence. It is to rid ourselves of the arrogance that had been the hallmark of a dangerous anthropocentrism. In the Christian narrative, God sent Jesus, his only begotten son, to teach us how to do this. It was called “kenosis”—the act of self-emptying.