For most human healthy beings, there is a fundamental distinction that organizes the world: me and you. Me and the world I live in. I experience myself from the inside while everyone else lives outside of me. I may imagine what they are feeling and thinking, what their intentions are, but I can never really know.
This is a helpful observation and gives rise to such nuggets of wisdom as ‘Don’t compare your insides to someone else’s outsides.’ Whatever your fantasy of someone else’s life that looks so much more together or happy or easeful than yours, it’s not true. It also means that we can never experience ourselves as other do and no one can ever fully understand or judge our life. Each one of us is a singularity—a never-before-happening being. These are indeed helpful things to keep in mind as we make the choices that shape our lives.
But it is also true that this fundamental division of the world is a fiction. Though it appears that I am separate from the world in which I live, I am actually seamlessly woven into the fabric of this vast network of being. The world that appears so clearly to be ‘out there,’ is actually part of me and lives inside me.
Shunryu Suzuki, a twentieth century Zen teacher, put it this way:
. You may say something exists outside of yourself, you may feel that it does, but it isn’t true. When you say, “There is the river,” the river is already in your mind. A hasty person may say, “The river is over there,” but if you think more about it your will find that the river is in your mind as a kind of thought.”
The Buddhist teaching is that the world we live in arises in the interaction between ‘us’ and everything that is ‘not us’. The world, that is so vivid and causes us so much trouble is actually partially created by us – by our thoughts, our words, and our actions. We might say that whatever we encounter is ourselves.
This is not to be confused with the nihilistic position that posits the world as a projection of the mind that can be controlled with appropriate thoughts. Though the river may be in your mind, you can still drown quite completely if you try to cross where the current is too strong.
What might this mean in a world seemingly dominated by the disturbance of a fast-talking man with orange hair? Turning away and pretending it’s all fine is not a responsible option. But finding the commonalities, the similar impulses and inner disturbers is also work we should be doing. Though we must each stand up to do our part to stop injustice and ease suffering, it all happens in the context of the intertwinkling of self and other—in the midst of this mysterious, interdependent and dynamic world in which we find ourselves.