From the myth of independence to an understanding of interdependence

As 2017 comes to a close, it is interesting to reflect on the seeds which were planted in 2017 and wonder which ones might germinate in 2018. So many conditions are needed for a plant to flourish. Some of them are within our control, some of them are not. In the backyard, I have a self-sown tomato plant – the result of so many factors coming together: eating tomatoes some months ago, putting the vegetable scraps in the compost, spreading the compost in the vegetable patch, spring rain, weeding around the tomato plant, sunlight, watering the tomato throughout summer etc. If any one of these conditions were absent, the tomato bush with its ripening tomatoes would not exist. Its health depends on many factors.

The interdependent nature of our world is recognised in science, Buddhism, the Australian Curriculum and even the Sound of Music. (There is a song that Maria sings to the captain in the gazebo under the moonlight. You might remember it: Something Good. One of the lines is: “Nothing comes from nothing, nothing ever could.” In that song, Maria recognises the basic truth of the interdependence of everything. Here’s a link for any other Sound of Music tragic needing a hit.) Another way of putting it, is that everything is the product of certain causes and conditions.

Applying this at an individual level, how we feel in one moment is the result of our present (external) situation, coupled with our inner resources and attitudes. Our present (external) situation is the product of what went before it. And, our current capacities and attitudes have been developed (intentionally or by accident) over our lifetime. Caught in the myth of independence, we can feel that when things don’t go well, it is our fault. And yet, most of the causes and conditions in our lives were not chosen by us (country of birth, family of origin, economic conditions, school we went to…). Remembering the interdependent nature of existence can help give us perspective in the face of self-blame. From this broader perspective we can accept our present circumstances as a consequence of what went before, and take responsibility for our actions now, without the undermining that comes from harsh self-judgement.

Seeing ourselves as part of a bigger whole – family, community, ecosystem – acknowledges our interconnectedness. It can also be reassuring to bring to mind the many relationships that help sustain us (imperfect as they may be). Humans are fundamentally social beings and research shows that to feel disconnected from others is not good for our mental and physical health. Martin Luther King Jr, describes our interdependence in a way that can generate gratitude:

“We are everlasting debtors to known and unknown men and women. We do not finish breakfast without being dependent on more than half of the world. When we arise in the morning, we go into the bathroom where we reach for a sponge which is provided for us by a Pacific Islander. We reach for soap that is created for us by a Frenchman. The towel is provided by a Turk. Then at the table we drink coffee which is provided for us by a South American, or tea by a Chinese, or cocoa by a West African. Before we leave for our jobs we are beholden to more than half the world.”

Reflecting on our interdependence can also help us to feel connected to our environment. We are 100% reliant on the health of the planet’s ecosystems for our continued existence. Recognising this truth can evoke greater appreciation and care for plants and animals, and a greater commitment to preserving habitat and a climate that supports life.

The myth of independence suits a neoliberal agenda. It is convenient to be able to blame the individual when they don’t “succeed” rather than look at the role of the broader social, political and economic framework. We see this in action when we blame a young person for not being able to find work, and when we blame an Aboriginal person for not “fitting in” to white society. The individual is the result of myriad causes and conditions – both internal and external.

As a mindfulness teacher, I need to remember that mindfulness was traditionally embedded in a bigger framework of values, attitudes and knowledge. These include an understanding of the interconnectedness of humans and their environment. Ensuring that mindfulness is practised within an ethics of care is vital for its transformative potential.

Go well


Kathryn Choules (PhD)

Dr Choules is a certified instructor of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction from the University of Massachusetts and a Senior Teacher of Meditation (Meditation Association of Australia). She has been practising mindfulness over 25 years and offering mindfulness programs, workshops, training and retreats in Western Australia since 2013. With many years’ experience in government, academia and the community sector, both in Australia and overseas, she understands the challenges and benefits of finding calm amidst the storm of modern living and the modern workplace.

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