Happiness Is Collective

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Image by Evenliu

You can look deeply to see that our mother is not only out there, but in here. Our mother, our father, are fully present in every cell of our body. We carry them into the future. We can learn to talk to the father and the mother inside. I have done that several times, talking to my mother, my father, the ancestors in me. I know that I am only a continuation of them. I’m not a separate person, I am a continuation…

When young people say, “I have my own life to live,” or “This body is mine, and I can do whatever I like with it,” this is not reality. It is a misconception. We are not separate from each other. Your body is not just yours, it belongs to your ancestors, your grandparents, and your parents. It also belongs to your children and grandchildren who are not yet born, but who are already present in your body.

You and your parents are one reality. If your parents suffer, you suffer. If you suffer, your parents suffer. If we look deeply and see clearly, we will see that there is just one reality. When you look in that way, you will see clearly that happiness is collective, and you will not go looking for your own individual happiness anymore. You will see that we have to work together and understand one another.

- Thich Nhat Hanh

This idea seems very Eastern, very oriental, but when you stop and consider it you can see how obvious it is, as an idea. Our individualist culture emphasizes our separateness and ignores our connections to everything. We have trouble imagining all these links and ties without feeling constrained, trapped. Our idea of freedom is freedom from having to care and yet we act out inherited dramas without noticing they’re inherited.

Our American culture is like a giant Baby Huey on the world stage, extremely powerful but still a baby when it comes to vision and understanding of the web of life and our place in it. Thich Nhat Hahn is not just describing a mechanical connection of DNA, but a love-connection, a sense of caring and responsibility.

How we imagine who we are matters. Feeling disconnected is a state of despair. Feeling oneself to be an integral part of everything — a necessary part in fact — is grounding and energizing. Our tendency to imagine our isolation makes us dangerous. Our ingenuity with poisons and weapons is astounding. The natural world suffers. Our mental and physical health suffer too, not to mention our relationships.

This state of affairs underlies everything else, from politics to education and work life, to how we treat the earth and how we eat. I expect the current administration to avoid blowing the world to bits, but I don’t expect it to heal or even address our culture’s mindset. It’s good that logic and common sense will guide ecological decisions, for example, but can the world be healed without love, without a fundamental sense of connection and caring?

Thich Nhat Hahn raises this question by implication, by describing our fundamental connection to ancestors and descendants we enlarge our identity. We see that we “enter-are,” to use one of his phrases.

The U.S. is plagued by a sense of separation and isolation. It goes right through the whole culture. It’s very difficult to escape it once you grow up in it. Tracing our troubles back to their source, we come upon our embattled heart, our indifference, our haste and boredom, our inability to love. If we can address those things we may have a chance.

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