Maybe 'I'

My daughter put together an interesting history project recently. As part of their twentieth century overview, her class was looking at the stretch 1910-1919. Each student was given an aspect of this span to present upon; her focus was popular music. In addition to discussing the main musical trends of this decade, she gave some attention to how the ‘pop’ of the 1900’s birthed the sounds of the 1910’s - which did the same for the 1920’s.

Since watching this presentation, I’ve been listening to songs from the Roaring Twenties: George Gershwin, Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith and so on. It’s fascinating hearing many of the characteristics attributed to earlier decades showing up and evolving in these tunes. It has me realizing that not one of these musicians arises in a vacuum; all are given shape by what happened before and around them.

In Buddhism, this realization points toward our dependant nature. This teaching affirms that nothing in what we consider our ordinary lives arises in and of itself. Instead everything - this laptop, this cup of tea, the floor underfoot - is dependant upon a web of causes and conditions for existence. Remove late Apple CEO Steve Jobs from this matrix, to offer but one example, and my MacBook Air would likely not be here as it is.

For a variety of reasons, I think about the dependant nature a lot. I can be pretty judgemental, for instance, and this teaching helps lessen - helps perforate, helps aerate - this tendency.

It is humbling - which curiously comes from the root ‘humus’, which means ‘of the ground’ - to reflect upon the fact that we are all dependently existent. Our bodies and psychologies, our attitudes, values and beliefs do not exist in and of themselves but instead rise out of that complex web to which we all belong. We are all, in other words, formed by forces beyond our conscious choosing and control, beyond our circumscribed sense of self-identity (aka: ‘me’).   

While this fact does not absolve any of us from responsibility for our being, contemplating it when I am caught up in disparaging an other has several notable impacts. For one, it loosens my ability to think of the other as simply ‘bad’ because the truth is always much more complex and multi-layered than this. Second, it shakes up my ability to objectify and / or distinguish the other from myself. I am in the exact same dependently existent boat, after all, and goodness do I know how if feels to be under the sway of forces beyond my ken.

And then there’s a third impact - one which, in my experience, is as difficult as it is liberating. If our everyday personhood is not absolute or given, if our relative being comes into existence only by virtue of a vast range of affects and influences, who can say what kind of person any of us would be if that range was different.

More pointedly, if what gave rise to my personhood was exactly the same as what gave rise to the person I am disparaging, perhaps my actions and beliefs would also be exactly the same. Maybe ‘I’  - and I use air quotes here because this insight really undermines my sense of self-solidity - maybe ‘I’ would be just like ‘them’.

- Neil