Beyond binaries: from separation to connection

Being, becoming, belonging

There is an old Cherokee parable that goes as follows:

Image result for parable two wolves

I like this story for two reasons. First, it introduces the element of choice: nothing is fate. What we pay attention to, grows. Second, it points to the fundamental duality that exists within all of us, all the time.

I also find it a little limiting, because of course it isn’t just a binary: good vs bad. It’s everything in between, and more. As Whitman said: “I am large. I contain multitudes.”

1) Knowing my proclivities, friend Kristian Bolk sent me an essay by Max St. John with this provocative assertion in the context of climate change:

Our current model of relating and cooperating is built on a model of disconnection… It’s this disconnection from ourselves that leads to the disconnection from each other that in turn leads to disconnection from our environment — which is the only thing that has enabled us to create the extractive, destructive system we have in place. (Emphasis in original)

I think this core insight is really important: that many if not all of our current crises stem from this original sin - our separation from ourselves, from each other, and from the world.

2) To reinforce the point, a few anecdotes from seemingly disparate sources. On drugs and addiction, Johann Hari says “the opposite of addiction is not sobriety; it’s connection.” On hate crimes and violence, Sally Kohn saysthe opposite of hate is connection.” On masculinity and misogyny, Terrence Real, quoted in bell hooks The Will to Change, says: “Disconnection is not fallout from traditional masculinity. Disconnection IS masculinity.”

3) Friend Lindley Mease introduced me to the work of Diane Musho Hamilton for a systematic treatment of the origins of this disconnection. In this great podcast exploring the false binary of gender (and specifically our associations of the “masculine” and “feminine”) she observes, “Where’s there’s dualities, there’s pain.”

Building from Buddhist practice, she describes three levels of the “self”: the “ego-centric” self focused narrowly on the “I”; the “ethno-centric” self focused more expansively on the “we” (seeing ourselves as part of a broader community, even if that community may still be narrowly defined); and the third step toward a “world-centric” self that sees ourselves as inextricably connected to everyone and everything (the fourth and final step is to cosmic-centric self, which continues the evolution).

4) My favorite conceptual expressions these days are both old and new to me. Old is Emerson’s concept of the Oversoul, which I first encountered in college and I continue to find powerful, particularly when I am out in nature:

We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal ONE.

To this Kristian recently introduced me to Charles Eisenstein’s concept of Interbeing, which I also find deeply resonant. The whole chapter is worth the read (less dense than Emerson, I promise); it ties together many of the themes I’m wrestling with in this moment. Here’s a tasty nugget to whet the appetite:

Upon each of us, the wound of Separation, the pain of the world, lands in a different way… To condemn what we see as selfish, greedy, egoic, or evil behavior and to seek to suppress it by force without addressing the underlying wound is futile: the pain will always find another expression.

Put more simply: “We are each other and we are the world.”

5) In a recent “salon” we hosted at our apartment in Seattle, a friend commended the work of Richard Rohr. After some explorations, I found these meditations, which seemed a good follow-on to my last post on the question of whether we can build an “us” without a “them” (spoiler alert: Rohr believes that “Everything—yes, everything—belongs”). Rohr finds in Christian traditions a mirror of what Hamilton found in Buddhism; he talks of the move from “the small self into the Big Self.” He describes this evolution in people:

They have let go of who they thought they were, or needed to be, to discover who they always were.

6) This triggered for me a reflection on the notion of “becoming.” I was listening to the NY Times Still Processing podcast on Michelle Obama’s new book, where Wesley Morris and Jenna Wortham offered a really beautiful observation about the power of her title: not Overcoming (a response to forces outside the self), but Becoming (honoring forces within the self). I saw the same arc in Beyonce’s powerful performance at Coachella in her documentary Homecoming. Something about stepping into your own power, about appreciating the assets that you already have - and have always had - inside, despite whatever dominant culture may try to tell you. And about seeing in that process of coming into ourselves the deeper potential for finding our connection to others and the world. And of course, there’s a powerful connection to belonging (isn’t there always?) As Brene Brown reminds us:

True belonging doesn’t require you to change you who are, it requires you to be who you are.

It reminded me of a similar refrain I recently heard echoed by Ben McBride:

7) Parker Palmer remains among my favorites on this; his words simultaneously so simple, so inspiring, and yet so seemingly impossible. Here’s a teaser to draw you into the whole. Who doesn’t want to live an integrated life?

The person who lives a divided life also suffers. I can’t imagine a sadder way to die than knowing I never showed up on Earth as who I really am. But every time we show up as our true selves, we reclaim identity and integrity, and new life can grow within, between and around us.

8) Friend Ben Katt recently introduced me to Casper ter Kuile and Angie Thurston, and their work on “How We Gather.” They put out a really great reflection on “becoming our aspirational selves” that helped tie this all together for me. They channel the Aristotelian insight (“we are what we repeatedly do”) into a theme I’m ruminating on more each day: we become what we practice. Or as Movement Generation more poetically puts it: “What the hands do, the heart learns.”

I’ll leave it there for now - hopefully you were able to navigate the murky waters of my brain from abstract to something slightly more tangible. I subtitled this reflection “being, belonging, becoming” thanks in part to a conversation with Michelle Long that helped frame this post. I’m not sure that’s the right sequencing, but the relationship between these concepts at least seems evident to me. I welcome feedback, reflections, and other sources of insight, inspiration, and action.