Your existence, your experience, right now, is the sight of this screen and the words you are reading. But these words didn’t come from nowhere. They came from me. I typed them. I experienced that.
In writing this post I consciously experienced thoughts, sights, and the touch of my laptop keyboard and as a result you are experiencing certain sights and thoughts. So our experiences are connected. My actions have actually createdsomething in your experience — you wouldn’t be having this experience of reading if I didn’t have the experience of writing, right? Cause and effect, from one mind to another.
So what you experience in life depends on my experience, my actions. If we interact, then what my experience is like depends on your actions. Hence inter-dependence.
Let’s venture a definition. Interdependence is our ability to construct and create one another’s conscious experience.
We exercise this ability all day, every day. Because in fact, whatever I do has results, has consequences, in the minds of other beings. And I am connected, in this way, of a lot of beings in my everyday life here on planet Earth. All of them, in fact.
Every single being we ever interact with has an inner world just as vivid, intense and alive as our own, and everything we do changes the content of these “other worlds” — for better or worse.
This is nothing mystical, but rather a simple fact about reality: we are not isolated beings; our minds are all connected by this mechanism of cause and effect. But let’s take some examples to explore it further — because it’s extremely easy to forget, overlook, or misinterpret as New Age rubbish.
If your friend is talking to you, you experience the sounds of their voice. In that moment, their experience is the feeling of their mouth moving and the thoughts of what they want to say. Your friend is literally constructing and changing your experience, because those sounds that you’re experiencing would literally not exist without your friend’s experience of speaking them. And following those sounds, your mind is filled with thoughts and ideas that wouldn’t be there without your friend’s mind.
The same thing happens when a bird sings and the sound appears in your experience. It actually created some sounds in your mind. Thanks, birdie.
If someone creates an artwork that you stop to look at.
If someone smiles at you, and that makes you feel good.
If you speak in a public place — just think of all the little bits of sound-experience, and resulting thoughts, that you are creating in the minds of everyone who hears you. If you make music in public, put on a show for people, too — that is a beautiful thing to consider.
In turn, so much of your own mind comes from other minds — the words that you think and speak come from others (since languages are developed by millions of people over millennia), your opinions, values and judgements are conditioned by your social context.
Over time, we co-create one other’s personalities—for example, just think how different you are as a result of the close friendships in your life. Moreover, the behaviours of everyone around us influences how we behave. Why else do we act the way we do, except from watching and listening to others as we grew up? This is how entire societies emerge.
When we stop to consider it, the implications of interdependence are huge, and we overlook them in a way that damages ourselves, others and the planet. This is responsible for a stupendous amount of suffering in the world. What went wrong?
Well, our society and economy raises us to believe we are isolated units of experience — separate and disconnected. And that leads us to think it’s okay to act just in our own interests, to “look out for ourselves before others”, and not do anything to improve their lives.
In addition we almost always underestimate the sheer number of beings that are impacted by our actions, believing we only really affect the lives of our friends and family.
But think about it: Who farmed your bananas, rice, and vegetables? Who shipped them, packed them, transported them, unloaded them, put them out in the store? Who made your t-shirt, shoes, jeans, tables, lamps and house? Who wrote the books, blogs, tv-shows and films you enjoy? Who sees your social media posts and photos? How many people see and hear you when you walk down the street each day? How many people do you talk to each day, and what are these interactions like for them?
Everything we do ripples throughout a vast network of human minds — and beyond, into a web of conscious beings stretching around the planet, one that involves all beings —certainly animal, but perhaps even to plants, funghi and bacteria.
The six degrees of separation idea speaks to how tightly integrated this network is. It also stretches far into the future — what we do today will change the face of Earth forever. As Maximus in Gladiator reminds his troops, “what we do in life echoes in eternity”.
So we are embedded in a global network of experiences, in which every mind is connected to every other mind. Not in a mystical way, but through the mechanism of cause and effect. It’s like a fabric of life, tightly interwoven and ever-changing, ever-evolving. You’re part of that. You always have been and always will be.
So, as inputs to this network that have very real results in the other minds in it: do we want to create happiness, or pain? Love, or suffering? Friendliness, or hatred? Joy, or insecurity? Which experiences are we going to try to create in other people?
We can drag the network down or raise it up — the choice is ours.
So in one sense interdependence feels like a responsibility. We should stop and consider which of our actions actually make life worse for others. And many of them will — but realising this is the doorway to changing them.
At the same time, it’s utterly beautiful and inspiring — because we see the almost infinite number of things we can do to make life better for others. To create positive experiences for them. Experiences that they cherish and find beautiful, that make them smile, laugh, or be inspired. Experiences that make them wonder and marvel and take a deep breath and be grateful for simply existing. Experiences that remind them of their intimate connection to so many other beings, or that help them open up (never underestimate the power of a sensitively asked question).
Realising the sheer range of things we create in others’ minds is a gateway to inexhaustible creativity; to spontaneous, joyous and natural self-expression through altruism. Artworks, conversations, ideas, questions, organisations, teaching one another, gifts, music, writing, meals, poems… there is no knowing how much positivity we could bring to the world, as an input to the global network, if we start exploring our capacity to give and create.
Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness. — Martin Luther King, Jr.
None of this means neglecting ourselves as individuals, though. It’s beautiful to realise that one of the greatest gifts you can give to the world is finding what makes you happy, what brings you fulfilment, and living by that — because those feelings will spread to others as you interact with them. So listen to yourself, ignore society, and find that thing — it’s good for everyone if you do. The impact of somebody who has the courage to live the life they want to is colossal, because in doing so they give other people permission and inspiration to do the same. Be good to yourself, and everybody wins.
What we so often overlook is that the ripples we send out come back to us. If I make people unhappy, their unhappiness will come back to me. What goes around comes around. So it is in my own interest to spread happiness and mitigate the suffering of those around me.
Making the people around me happy will literally make me happier. And if I’m happier, they’ll be happier, and we’ve started some kind of happiness chain reaction. But somebody has to start acting — start doing things to make life better for others — to start that reaction, right?