by Ananda Giri: After another fun day at the school, we gathered at the dining place for our evening meal. There were students from third grade all the way up to tenth grade waiting in the room; I myself was in my seventh grade then. Our principal too joined us for dinner like he did on most days; this was a special evening though. He had something interesting to tell us or may be I should say that he had a very special question to ask us. The question appeared a simple one, a very harmless question in fact. He pointed to the nice shirts we wore and asked; “Children, is this shirt your shirt?”
Initially we got a little scared and confused listening to the question. We wondered; ‘Why such a strange question all so sudden?’
We thought that may be we were all wearing the wrong shirts by mistake or were wearing shirts that did not belong to us. We looked at each other’s shirts to make sure that there was nothing wrong with the shirts. After a few confused moments we relaxed and thought to ourselves; ‘What could be so difficult about this question’.
There was a brief pause before we finally responded to our principal’s question and in one loud voice we answered; “Of course Sir, it is my shirt”, thinking that the subject of our shirts was now done with. Very little did we know that this was only the first of many questions to come.
His immediate next question after we answered the first one was; “What makes you say, it is your shirt”, to which we replied; “our parents with their hard earned money purchased these shirts for us and so therefore they are ours”. Listening to our response, he said; “What you say is true but is only a partial truth, what then is the complete truth?”
Who owns your shirt?
The dialogue between us continued with back and forth questions and answers. We were now bombarded with a series of questions; “did you…? did you…? did you…?”
“Do you mean to say that you are the complete owner of your shirt?”
“Did you earn the money required to purchase this shirt yourself?”
“Did you manufacture the fabric yourself?”
“Did you design the shirt yourself?”
“Did you tailor the shirt yourself?”
“Did you grow the cotton yourself?”
“Did you transport the cotton from the field to the factory yourself?”
“And what about all those factors that supported the healthy growth of that cotton tree, were you responsible for all those supporting factors as well?”
“Did you manufacture the water, the soil, the wind, and the microbes in the soil?”
“For you to claim total ownership to the shirt you wear, you should be involved in the entire process of the shirt from its inception to its very end, which obviously you are not. How then do you say this shirt is yours? Children let us all think here for a moment. Is there anything that you know that you can claim as completely yours?”
“Now take a deep look into your shirt and tell me what you see in it.”
Learning to inquire
We nearly went blank after being bombarded with of so many questions.
Although I must mention that every single question that was asked was not only logical but provoked an honest inquiry in us. So following the directives of our much loved principal, we sincerely looked at our shirts hoping to find something there.
After nearly ten minutes of intense observation, one boy started to speak; “Sir I see the farmer in my shirt, I see the truck driver, I see the farmer’s family that took such good care of the farmer, cooking for him, massaging his aching feet and shoulders. I see a physician in my shirt. Whenever the farmer got sick, he needed someone to treat him and without that doctor I wouldn’t have this shirt that I now wear.”
He didn’t stop there either; he added “I even see a movie theater in my shirt Sir.” Even before anyone could interrupt him or ask him why a movie theater, he said; “It is true Sir. How would the farmer entertain himself when he is bored and proper entertainment is a part of his wellbeing? Therefore I cannot separate his wellbeing from the shirt that I wear”. The boy was serious when he spoke all this and was not just trying to be funny nor did he do it just to get some attention.
Most of us now saw in our shirts what the young boy was seeing and so one after another we started to speak out as well. We saw the farmer, the cotton tree, the soil and water that caused the tree to grow, the truck driver, the factory, the fabric, the designer, the tailor, our parents and so many people, so many inventions, so many technologies, so many events and all the innumerable factors that were involved in the creation of the fabulous shirts that we all now wore. We saw ourselves too in that shirt for we made the choice to buy and wear them.
The entire universe in a shirt
Literally our entire civilization is involved in the manufacturing of a simple shirt. Not just human civilization, but the whole planet and in fact the entire universe is involved in the creation of this shirt. It was a very magical evening for all of us. We never really expected to see what we saw, not that we had visions of all these people and events in our shirt but we could distinctly feel the presence of each one of them in the shirts we wore.
It felt to me as though they were living in my shirt. Oh my goodness! Do all these people actually live in my shirt? Yes it is true; they are now a part of my shirt and a part of the pleasure and happiness, I experience wearing this shirt.
All these years you would look at your shirt and all you saw there was a piece of cloth and now all of a sudden you were seeing the whole universe living in your shirt. What we experienced in our shirts that evening beat all our imagination. It was magic, absolute magic!
All of a sudden we were thinking and feeling differently. We felt overwhelmed with a deep sense of gratitude.
We looked at our shirts and profusely thanked all those people, things and events responsible for our shirts. Our gratitude was not restricted just to feeling, we started thanking aloud; “Thank you farmer, thank you truck driver, thank you tailor, thank you parents, thank you earth, thank you solar system, thank you god, thank you universe”. It was a list of endless thank yous. I cannot even describe the fulfillment we experienced thanking everyone.
It felt so good going through those motions of thanks giving that we wanted to do it again and again and so kept doing it until we got physically exhausted.
The feeling of thanks giving was in fact very addictive, a harmless addiction of course.
A whole new perspective
It was still hard for us to believe that we were actually seeing all this in a piece of cloth. I suppose it is not that hard for children to let go of old views and open themselves to seeing things from a whole new perspective, one that is inclusive and not divisive in nature.
After the completion of our “shirt meditation”, our principal now asked us the same question again; “So children, what do you think of your shirt now? Do you still think that the shirt is yours”?
In one loud voice we responded saying; “No Sir, my shirt is not my shirt!” We felt so much pride in saying so.
For the next few weeks this was the predominant topic of discussion in the school. Whenever you found two or more kids come together, you could be pretty sure that the subject of discussion had to do with the shirt. One student would ask the other; “So what do you see in your shirt now?” and you had to say something new.
We had to list more factors that are responsible for our shirt and each time we discovered a new factor, we immediately offered our thanks. The list was endless as the whole universe is involved in the making of your shirt. The factors that are visible are only a few and the invisible reasons are infinite and so there was an opportunity for infinite thank yous. We were most thoroughly enjoying our new discoveries. We kept looking for reasons to give thanks and if we didn’t find a new reason to thank, we invented one. Of course there can be no invented reason that is not true, for every reason that you conceive, even the so-called imaginary ones are in someway responsible for your existence.
Every once in a while our principal would return to us with a similar question, until we were firmly established in the truth of the interconnectedness of all existence.
This new understanding transformed the way we related to our family, friends, and teachers. The way we related to strangers became different, no one felt like a stranger any more. Friendships acquired a different meaning. When you realize how much others are a part of your life, you experience a new closeness to them. We developed a new love and affinity for this benevolent universe. It was a new state of being we experienced and there was such beauty in this new way of looking at life.
Inquiring further in to this question
The question “Is this shirt your shirt?” was actually a challenge to the idea of a ‘separate individual’.
Is it true that we exist independent of the world and the universe in which we live?
Can we separate ourselves from our parents, siblings, spouses, children, teachers, family, friends, well-wishers and all the others who have had a profound impact on our lives?
Can we separate ourselves from the efforts of the millions of people that cause us to have a comfortable everyday life?
Can we separate ourselves from the trees that give us the much-needed oxygen?
Can we separate ourselves from the plants and animals that provide us with much of the food, clothing and shelter required for the human body?
Can we separate ourselves from our mother earth that most generously hosts us?
Can we separate ourselves from the sun and the stars?
Can we separate ourselves from this universe of which we are part?
Is this sense of separation not the cause of much of human misery?
The root cause of all suffering
If we should reflect on some of the major problems we experience in the world today; problems such as poverty, crime, discrimination, exploitation, war, terrorism, conflicts (conflicts experienced between two individuals, between two families, between two communities, between two nations, religious conflicts, political conflicts) and if we tried to identify the reasons for each of these problems, we will most likely identify a definite set of reasons responsible for poverty, another set of reasons responsible for war and still another set of reasons responsible for discrimination.
While on the surface it might appear to us that the reasons for each of these above mentioned problems are different, in reality are the causes different for each of these issues?
Although the surface reasons may appear to be true, if we were to go all the way to the very root of these issues and asked the same question again; Why war? Why poverty? Why crime? May be we would discover that the causes are not actually different.
It is the same cause everywhere, a sense of separateness, a feeling of “the me” and “the not me”. It is this sense of separateness that is at the root of all war, all poverty, and all crime.
It is this very feeling of me and not me that is at the root of all division and conflict; mine and not mine, my family and not my family, my religion and not my religion, my ideology and not my ideology, my beliefs and not my beliefs, my nation and not my nation.
As long as we believe that we are separate individuals, all that would matter to us is our own survival, survival not just in a physical sense but more so in a psychological sense. All we would care is for our own safety, our own security, our own certainty and our own significance. If at any point of time, our security or significance is threatened, we would not mind hurting another to defend our own significance, we may not hesitate at all to go to war to preserve our own personal identity. Whether it is a conflict between two individuals or a conflict between two nations, the reasons are the same; a desperate effort to preserve one’s own identity.
Thinking and acting from a new awareness
If the foundation of our thinking is based on the idea that we are separate individuals, then there will be conflict both at the individual level and the collective level. If we are aspiring for a conflict free world, then it becomes necessary that the foundation of our thinking change. We need to think and act from a new awareness, that we are one and not separate.
Actions arising from this new state of being will no longer be isolated or limited to oneself but will include the well being of others. When you know that your existence at every level, physically, emotionally and spiritually is dependently arising, you no more feel lonely.
If Interconnectedness is the nature of all life, If Oneness is the essence of our existence, how do we then talk of two separate existents?
Can we think of any one moment in our life that exists totally independent of the rest of the world we live in?
Our every moment of pleasure, pain and thrill is dependent on something and this something is dependent on many other somethings. In other words all our experiences are dependently arising, dependent on innumerable factors. Your own existence is dependent on many factors. You are a resultant experience of many people, events, ideas and experiences. You don’t and cannot exist on your own.
How then do we even talk of two separate individuals or two separate events? Each one of us is connected to the rest of humankind and an inseparable part of this world and so is the case with every single event or experience.
The simple joy of interconnectedness
Even as I write these words sitting across the street from Central Park, there is a sense of thrill and happiness I feel and I ask myself the reasons for this moment of thrill that I experience. It is a sunny afternoon in New York and I am sitting by a fountain next to the Apple store located on 59th and 5th streets. Central Park is just a block away and I see the just blooming trees, as it is spring already.
There are tons of people walking all around me and I notice some of them admiring my Mac book air as I busily type away these words. I look up to see a small scattering of clouds moving across the sky and an American flag fluttering on top of the plaza hotel. With such clear skies and gentle wind, I could not have asked for a better day in New York. It is a perfect afternoon for reflection.
And now, contemplating on the thrill I experience in my heart, I ask myself the following questions; Did I create this moment of thrill all by myself or every single event that surrounds me contributes to this experience of mine?
My moment of joy is definitely a result of all those happenings around me. How then could I separate this pleasant sensation I experience in my consciousness from any of these events that surround me.
The illusion of a separate individual
The idea of a separate individual is an illusion and this illusion has become a habit, which makes it very hard for us to perceive otherwise.
A simple inquiry would reveal to us the obvious: the inseparability of anything from anything.
If we cannot talk of two separate existents, if we cannot talk of two separate events, if we cannot talk of two separate people, if we cannot talk of two separate worlds, how appropriate is it for us to talk about a separate independent God?
In a universe of interdependence and interconnectedness, who and what is God is a question each one of us must ask ourselves. The answer we find will be our discovery of God.
No one can find God for us or define God for us.
It has to be a discovery you make through your observation and inquiry. After all life is one process from which nothing can be included and excluded or added and separated.
If the individual is the world, then individual transformation is world transformation.
There is a reason we call this the “Universe” and not “Twoniverse”.