“No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main”.
– John Donne
“The deepest need of man”, wrote the philosopher and psychoanalyst, Erich Fromm, “is the need to overcome his separateness, to leave the prison of his aloneness”. In every age and culture, Fromm argues, human beings have sought to find answers to this question of “how to achieve union, of how to transcend one’s own individual life and find at-onement”.
The philosopher Alan Watts explains how this feeling of separateness is created by using the analogy of an observer watching a cat pass by through a fence with narrow gaps in it. From this perspective, the observer sees first the head, then the body, then the tail. However, his position never allows him to perceive the cat as a whole and he then must mistakenly believe that the cat is constituted of separate parts. Perceiving these parts in this way he may deduce that they are separate from each other, rather than one indivisible entity – a cat.
“The narrow slit in the fence is much like the way we look at life by conscious attention, for when we attend to something we ignore everything else. Attention is narrowed perception. It is a way of looking at life, bit by bit, using memory to string the bits together – as when examining a dark room with a flashlight having a very narrow beam. Perception thus narrowed has the advantage of being sharp and bright, but it has to focus on one area of the world after another, and one feature after another”.
While this perception, this focused style of conscious attention, is very useful for dealing with the practicalities of our everyday life, it creates a delusion in our minds that the world is constituted of separate parts:
“But a scanning process that observes the world bit by bit soon persuades its user that the world is a great collection of bits, and these he calls separate things or events…The truth is that in looking at the world bit by bit we convince ourselves that it consists of separate things, and so give ourselves the problem of how these things are connected and how they cause and effect each other. The problem would never have arisen if we had been aware that it was just our way of looking at the world which had chopped it up into separate bits, things, events, causes, and effects. We do not see that the world is all of a piece like the head-tailed cat”.
When we live with the belief that we are all separate entities walking around in the world it gives rise to a sense of anxiety. Believing that this body and blood is the boundary and limit of our selves make us feel very vulnerable. We perceive life based on a limited identity which gives us a narrow perspective, and creates in us the need to protect ourselves against the danger of this vast cosmos in which we live.
This mindset and way of looking at the world creates the need to defend ourselves – perhaps by reacting and attacking others who we perceive to be a threat to our well-being. However, this strategy is really a form of self-destruction. Viewed from the perspective of the whole, this is akin to your arm punching your leg. It is one part of the life-body attacking another.
Ultimately, separating yourself from others, rather than protecting and preserving your well-being, actually damages it. By hurting others, you are really isolating yourself from the fullness of life and the whole of which you are part.
Marcus Aurelius explains:
“A branch cut away from the branch beside it is simultaneously cut away from the whole tree. So too a human being separated from another is cut loose from the whole community…people cut themselves off – through hatred, through rejection – and don’t realise that they’re cutting themselves off from the whole civic enterprise….Except we have a gift…we can reattach ourselves and become once more components of the whole”.
How do we reattach ourselves? How do we rediscover this primordial unity that is at the heart of our nature?
Through cultivating connection.
Einstein explains this sense of separation and how to transcend it:
“A human being is a part of the whole called by us ‘universe’, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
Connection is any attempt to move beyond our own ego and immerse ourselves in the greater ocean of life. In doing so we liberate ourselves from the narrow confines of our small selves and find a greater sense of identity, belonging and perspective in the whole, within the unity of life.
We can practice this by forging deeper connections with others. We do this by being more present, more generous, more compassionate, more kind and empathic, in our social interactions and relationships.
Likewise we can bring this same spirit of open-heartedness to how we relate to other living beings, nature, and life as a whole. Wherever we are, we can practice being completely present in the moment such that the boundaries between us and the world begin to melt and dissolve. It is only our thoughts and our self-concept that create this feeling of separation. When we become very present in the moment we allow our minds to become still and quiet, and we can perceive the nature of reality as a unity, more clearly.
When we realise that there is no separation, that there is no space where I end and you begin, we start to see ourselves in all things. The world becomes an extension of our self.
This feeling is the basis out of which genuine love – not just for those close to us in our lives, but for all living things – can emerge. Recognising this fundamental truth of existence is the key to living our collective lives with greater peace, harmony, and happiness.