Contemplate the Interdependent Nature of Reality | An Excerpt from Radically Happy

Radically Happy

ERRIC SOLOMON

When I was around ten, I used to think a lot about how I would use time travel. My interest came after hearing family stories about the great hardship my mother’s parents and grandparents went through in Russia during the early years of the twentieth century. My grandmother was still a young girl when her village was burned by white Russians or Cossacks, and the family endured an arduous journey, first on foot to France and then by boat to the United States. My grandfather’s family escaped village pogroms by smuggling themselves into St. Petersburg, nearly getting my grandfather and his little brother impaled on pitchforks in the process. There are rumors that as a young teen Grandpa passed out flyers for Trotsky. Anyway, they eventually had to leave St. Petersburg too. I loved science fiction and watched a show called The Time Tunnel, where each episode involved using the time tunnel to go back in time.

So I indulged myself in a few fantasies about what I would do with the time tunnel. For one thing, I thought that I could somehow stop Grandma’s village from being destroyed by bringing them a few modern weapons. But most of my time was spent thinking about how to help the Trotskyites. I was pretty sure that Trotsky wouldn’t have been the horror Stalin was and would have been nice to Russian Jewish families. Furthermore, at this tweener age I was convinced that Trotsky would have allowed democratic institutions to be established.

As it turned out, I had to conclude that there was no way to change the course of history and ensure that my grandparents would meet. Even if I could think how to maybe arrange that, how would I get my parents to meet too? And if they didn’t meet, I wouldn’t exist. And then there was the problem of growing up in Russia. Would that Russian kid still be me? Was I willing to sacrifice my life and most likely my parents for the good of millions? Not only Russians but the whole Cold War in my mind would have been avoided. It was lot to think about.

Nearly every movie and TV show about time travel demonstrates how hard it is to not mess things up in the present by changing something in the past, no matter how innocuous the change may seem. This is because everything and everyone is connected; everything that happens is based on prior events. This seems pretty obvious; nothing in the universe comes into being without a cause. And every cause or action has an effect. Change one small thing and a whole bunch of others things change too, and over the course of enough time, the effect is nearly limitless.

Everything is interdependent. Nothing exists without being dependent on causes and conditions. Based on causes and conditions, we are born, galaxies arise, atoms form. By the same token, other causes and conditions lead to our passing, great galaxies are no more, and atoms fissure. When we are self-absorbed, we are exaggerating our separateness, making a big deal out of decisions that are often just conditioned responses. We think making choices represents our freedom, but it could actually be reinforcing our slavery.

THE FREEDOM OF CHOICE?

Every day we make decisions, from super important, potentially life-changing decisions to many more that are pretty mundane. We may even pride ourselves on our decision-making abilities, perhaps thinking this ability is what “separates us from the pack.” But most decisions are in reality a reflection of the pack. In other words, our decisions are usually the result of our conditioning, our biology, and the group of people we identify most closely with, rather than a completely unique expression of our individuality.

Let’s consider a fairly ordinary example and take a look at what it means to choose a bottle at our local wine shop.

For starters, how did that bottle get there? The person who runs the shop had to decide the bottle was sellable. That usually depends in part on at least one well-regarded wine critic praising that particular wine or the person who made the wine, the brand (château), or (if the grapes were purchased from the grower) the vineyard itself. Sometimes, the shop’s wine buyer simply liked the taste.

But all of these factors depended on a great deal of other factors, such as the fact that we live on a planet that supports both plant and animal life and that grapes and people were the product of evolution. Quite a few fortunate coincidences needed to occur in order for people and grapes to come into being. Then human beings needed to discover fermentation, and, of course, there was the further discovery that fermented liquids brought on the pleasant feeling of being slightly inebriated. But even more important was the fact that someone noticed that these liquids were often safer to drink than water. Over time, people became better and better at making fermented grapes taste more and more delicious. All kinds of agricultural and mechanical innovations had to take place, and these depended on a series of unrelated events such as the invention of gears and the replacement of ox and plow with gas-powered tractors. Roads were built that facilitated transportation and commerce.

None of these innovations were directly linked to making better-tasting wine, yet they were all part of a bigger interconnected picture. The more you look at all the different dependencies and interdependencies, the more you realize that all of the developments of humanity, if not the entire universe, are somehow connected to the arrival of the particular bottle of wine we chose to enjoy with our friends. So much so that the actual act of choosing a particular wine—a decision we may be very proud of—is the smallest, most insignificant part of the whole chain of events. It is hardly our choice at all.

Choosing a bottle of wine is not the only way in which we think we are making a unique, independent decision when we are really being governed by our connections. Most of the actions we take are a habitual response to the cultural, social, and environmental conditions around us.

Our decisions are usually the result of our conditioning, our biology, and the group of people we identify most closely with, rather than a completely unique expression of our individuality.

In an experiment dubbed “The Cookie Monster,” researchers studied groups of three random people who go to the same university. In each group, one person was randomly selected to be the leader, and the groups were tasked with a pretty boring project, working on some policy decisions the campus is facing. After twenty minutes, someone arrives with a plate of four cookies. In almost every case the person who was assigned to be group leader (a mere twenty minutes earlier) ends up with the extra cookie. Usually no one says, “Hey, let’s divide that extra cookie into three pieces,” nor does one of the two nonleaders reach out to take the cookie him- or herself. The extra cookie usually arrives into the mouth of the head honcho.

Why should we be making a big deal out of choices and extra cookies? After all, at least we get a bottle of yummy wine and a cookie. We’re pounding away at this point because these examples illustrate that a lot of what we attribute to free will and being “our decisions” are actually just manifestations of the interdependent nature of reality. Our interconnectedness with our environment, other people, and circumstances has a lot to do with why we act the way we do and what choices we make. And as we can see through the lens of Erric’s imagined time machine, the choices and decisions of people who seemingly have no connection with us at all, and died years ago, can have an impact on us right now.

This invites us to ask ourselves a question: Do we live in accord with the interdependent nature of reality, what we refer to as “interconnectedness,” or is the way we live actually denying it? And if we are denying our interconnectedness, what does that cost us? Another way to put this is: Do you want to be a slave to an unconscious conditioned response to people and things, or is there a more authentic way to interact with this constant dance of interconnectedness? And is there an upside to freeing the slave?

ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE?

“Happiness is love. Full stop.” That is the conclusion of George Vaillant, the director of a seventy-five-year study conducted by Harvard University that followed 268 men over the course of their lives. Vaillant summarized the study’s conclusion as the “warmth of relationships throughout life have the greatest positive impact on ‘life satisfaction.’” People who enjoyed warm relationships during their lives were much more likely to consider life a success. Here are some of the findings:

They lived longer.

They made considerably more money, while IQ beyond mediocre had no effect on earnings.

They had better marriages.

They were much more likely to find satisfaction in life.

Growing old with grace and vitality has more to do with how we live our lives than with our genetic makeup.

Love, really? That’s the solution? Perhaps you’re thinking we’ve gone soft. Okay, so let’s be practical about it. Rather than focus on a big abstract thing, like love, let’s think simply in terms of the kind of warm relationships mentioned on the previous page. We feel someone is warm toward us when he or she acts in a kind and caring manner, don’t we? So perhaps that’s the point, not some kind of airy-fairy notions of love but basic human kindness and care, which you can do anywhere.

During the first dot-com boom, which started in the late 1990s, companies in Silicon Valley were dealing with staff turnover of at least 35 percent per year. It was almost as though anyone who could fog a mirror was able to go out and get a job that paid way more than they were currently earning. Trying to manage projects in that kind of atmosphere was quite a challenge. Quickly it dawned on those of us who were leading companies that we were managing volunteers, rather than employees, since everyone who wanted to get another job could do so with seemingly little more effort than a finger snap. Where I was working at this time, the human resources department figured out which teams had better-than-average retention and interviewed employees to see if they could identify a trend that would account for a higher retention rate.

A few departments had performed extremely well, with less than 10 percent yearly turnover. Employees on these teams talked about their manager very differently than employees did in many other departments. It turned out the biggest factor in determining whether someone was likely to stay was the relationship the person had with management. In low-turnover groups people said things like, “My manager is interested in me, in how well I am in my job, not just whether we are making deadlines or not.” Furthermore, departments that had lower turnover had managers who were more likely to use constructive criticism as feedback.

In high-turnover teams, the manager may have been well liked, but people said things such as, “My manager only gives me the good news about how I am doing but never where my shortcomings lie or what we need to do about them.” And perhaps this kind of approach to managing was happening more than ever. Well-intentioned managers were afraid to say anything negative that might lead an employee to quit. However, in the low-turnover teams people said things like, “My manager gives it to me straight, not only what I am doing well but where I can improve. But not only that, she works with me to come up with a plan to help me excel. This is what I need to grow in my career: a manager who cares enough about me to tell me the bad news as well as the good.”

Being kind doesn’t mean just being a wimp. It means taking your caring far enough that you’re willing to be brave enough to give it to someone straight. And also to engage with others to help them flourish. Who wins? Well, according to the Harvard study, the kind and caring person. The more open, kind, and caring we are, the better off we are, and maybe even everyone else as well. Like a disease, it spreads. Except that unlike a disease, we are all healthier having caught the bug.

In the previous part on basic happiness, we talked a lot about the benefits of the present moment. When we are fully present, we are better able to enjoy the good times, whenever they arrive. In non-distraction, Erric can enjoy his time on the beach free from useless “Too bad every day can’t be like this” thoughts. Basic happiness is the kind of contentment that comes from enjoyment, the fruit of non-distraction. But interconnected happiness is a little different: it’s the kind of satisfaction that comes from finding meaning or purpose in our lives. And what does this meaning or purpose arise from?

That is the big ah-ha in the Harvard study. “Warm relations” lead to feelings that one’s life has meaning and a sense of satisfaction with life. Cultivating interconnected happiness doesn’t have to be a big deal—putting a smile on someone’s face when you pour them a cup of coffee at a diner, helping a disabled person onto the bus, or just generally being kind—all these things add up. And that eventually leads to life satisfaction.

It’s pretty easy to see a glimpse of how this might work in your own life. Think of a time in the last month when you helped someone for no other reason than because you saw a need. When you recall this moment, don’t you get a little bit of a warm feeling inside?

PHAKCHOK RINPOCHE

The Nepalese earthquake occurred in the middle of the monsoon season, on Saturday, April 25, 2015, at 11:56 a.m., with its epicenter approximately fifty miles northwest of Kathmandu. This initial quake lasted approximately fifty seconds. There is some disagreement about the magnitude, 7.8 or 8.1. All I know is that it was far stronger than anything I could have imagined, and those fifty seconds were the longest seconds of my life. Immediately, in less than a minute, our world was turned upside down. Buildings were destroyed or so badly damaged that it was unsafe to be inside them; we had more than forty-five aftershocks ranging in strength from 4.5 to 6.6. Like nearly everyone else, my wife, two very young children, and I spent the next two months living outside in a tent.

Initially we were in a small one-person camping tent where four of us slept like sardines. When the rains started seeping through, we had to use our shoes as a kind of improvised dam against the stream of water trying to enter our tent. My parents were living right next to us, also in a very small tent, which was not as modern as ours. Behind their tent was the young boy who is the reincarnation of my grandfather. We used makeshift toilets, dug out of the ground with plastic wrapped around the hole. We were some of the lucky ones, since we at least had a bit of shelter from the torrential rain. My father’s health can be a little fragile, so in this situation I was quite concerned about him. We went without showering for some time, my kids got head lice, and we were eating mostly rice and lentils. Honestly, it was hard to ever completely relax because of the constant shaking from the aftershocks.

The afternoon of the earthquake we were mostly in a state of shock and were literally counting aftershocks. The first indicator of an aftershock was the dogs barking, the birds flying, followed by the humans shouting! In the confusion, we could barely find the presence of mind to look to make sure our many neighbors, family, and friends were safe. The next morning, I went around the monastery compound to see if all the monks in their makeshift tents were comfortable and to assess the damage to the monastery caused by the earthquake.

The monks were shaken but intact, but our monastery—which was built by my grandfather, grandmother, uncle, and father, along with our senior monks and students—was badly hit and had incurred major structural damage. It was truly heartbreaking, but because of all the blessings, our monastery, which was built in the old-fashioned style with no iron beams, was still holding up—sitting upright like an old dignified meditation master. Just when I stepped outside and into the courtyard, one of our younger monks came walking toward me and dropped into my arms crying. His mother had died when her house collapsed in a nearby village, and that moment shook me out of my own self-absorbed concerns.

No one was immune to a situation like this, and so instead of waiting for help to come, we all had to take matters into our own hands. Our monastery needed to organize a relief effort. My wife and I joined in and helped to bring food, medicine, and shelter to surrounding villages almost nonstop for the next two months. It was a struggle to be both a survivor and to find the inner strength and presence of mind to constantly be there for those in need.

Strangely, when I think back to that time, while I do remember the suffering, my most vivid memories are quite different. I remember little things. I remember my wife’s sense of humor—the way she teased me about how much better organized nearby Shechen Monastery was than ours, especially when they came around first thing in the morning to offer hot tea for everyone camped outside. I remember the faces of the villagers when we handed them tarps to sleep under and to shelter them from the rain. I remember how kind and considerate our group of monks and nuns were, not only to all the people we helped but toward each other. But mostly I remember the quiet satisfaction that came from being part of a team that was making at least a small dent in the devastation.

It wasn’t an easy time—there was sadness and heartbreak, frustration and despair—but there was always something positive that needed to be done, that could be done, and really no time to dwell on anything else. Even though I am what people might call “a member of the clergy,” and my job is to respond to people in need, I never faced such a challenge before, nor was I ever so inspired to do something. All of us who were there were victims and caregivers. All of Nepal, it seemed, was connected—depending on one another just to make it through another day. When I look back now on that time, although I was surrounded by tragedy, it was also a time of joy. There was a lot of satisfaction to be had just by being able to provide for those in great need.

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Phakchok RinpochePhakchok Rinpoche is a new generation Tibetan Buddhist Master. Learn more. 

Erric SolomonErric Solomon worked as a Silicon Valley technology entrepreneur before becoming a meditation teacher. Learn more.