Alone and Not Alone

We must be willing to let go of the life we’ve planned, so we can open to the life that’s waiting for us.  (Joseph Campbell)

In Zen Buddhist practice, when you meditate you sit and face the wall. One thing this does is confront you with your aloneness. A fundamental aspect of being a human being is that you are very much alone. You crawled down the birth canal by yourself, and no-one will go with you when you die. No-one else can breathe for you, meditate for you, think for you, eat for you. Coming to grips with our aloneness is an essential part of our evolution. Then we no longer look to others to take care of us. We discover resources and capacities inside ourselves that are deeply fulfilling and enduring.

The other side, which is just as true, is that we are not separate. We live as beings who are intimately connected to everything in the universe. Our capacity for ignoring this connection is one of the reasons for global warming and the environmental crisis. It’s becoming more and more obvious that we can no longer afford to live our lives as though we are small, separate, isolated beings. The price is too high. There are things we need to do that we cannot do alone.

Recognizing our interconnectedness turns the whole way we normally think upside down. Someone who was going through a hard time once said to Byron Katie, “I feel so alone right now, so unsupported.” Katie said to her, “Wake up! Think of all the beings that participated in creating the chair that you are sitting on: the trees, the water, the sun, the truck, the factory, the store, the highways, and all the people involved in bringing that chair into your home. You’re not surviving by yourself. You have the whole universe to thank for that, in every moment.”

It’s so easy to forget the reality of interdependence, especially in our western society, where we live in world of cell phones, computers, MP3’s, and one car per person. Our cultural heroes are the strong ones, the independent and successful people, who make it by themselves. (Remember ‘Hi-O Silver” and the Lone Ranger?) This kind of collective mythology has permeated our thinking, and our biology. Many of us are trying so hard to be strong and independent that we have forgotten how to ask for help. We’ve also forgotten how to receive. We regard these things as a sign of weakness. How many people do you know who would rather get lost than ask for directions? We really believe it is nobler to go on struggling by ourselves than to reach out and connect with the resources all around us. Of course it’s risky, scary,…we open ourselves up when we ask for help. Anything can happen. We are no longer in control!

Depending on our level of maturity, there are very different ways of asking and receiving. We can ask in a way that perpetuates our weakness, neediness and lack of responsibility. Or we can ask because we are willing to participate in the great cycle of giving and receiving. I learned when I was fund-raising in India, that I am free to ask anyone for anything; and they are free to say yes or no.  When I’m ready to hear whatever your answer is, I can learn to take risks, to be creative and daring. I can connect with my genuine longing to be fully myself-to make a contribution through the way I live my life.

On a deeper level I can meditate or pray and ask the whole universe to support me. The movie ‘What the Bleep’ touched on how all of this works, according to quantum physics. We are not living in a cold and unresponsive universe! The truth is much more surprising and miraculous than that.

Mother Teresa was traveling once with my Uncle Bob on an airplane. When the stewardess came round with the lunch, she said to my uncle, “Bob, please ask the stewardess how much she’ll give me as a refund if I don’t eat my lunch.” Bob posed this question to the stewardess; she went up and conferred with the chief steward and came back. “We’ll give you $3 for your lunch,” she told Mother Teresa. Mother said, “Fine, I’ll take that money for my people,” and handed back her lunch untouched. Bob paused for a moment, and then said,” Okay, I’m giving back my lunch too. The money goes to Mother Teresa.” The people sitting across from them and behind them followed suit, and by the time lunch was done, more than half the people on the plane had donated their lunches to Mother Teresa.

A while later, Mother Teresa said to Bob, “Please ask the steward if the airline will give me all those lunches for my people. I happen to know that airline regulations do not allow them to re-use that food.” Bob paged the steward and passed on Mother’s request. “But Mother,” protested the steward, “We just gave you a check for all that food. Now you’re asking for the same food back.”

“Because you can’t use it again,” she said. “Why not give it to me for my people?”

“When you put it that way, I guess the answer is yes,” he told her.

By that time, they were coming in for the landing. As they taxied to a stop, Mother Teresa saw the baggage carts rolling up to the plane. “Bob look!” she said. “I need one of those carts to carry all this food. Just ask that nice young man if they’ll give me one of those little carts.”

“Mother,” Bob said, “This is really pushing it.”

“Oh Bob,” she said, “What’s so hard about just asking?”

He went to the front of the plane and spoke to the steward, who called someone on the phone. “Just do it,” the message came back. “It’s great for our publicity.”

They were getting off now, watching all of the lunches piling up on the baggage cart. Mother was beaming. Bob turned to her and said, “Mother I love you dearly, but I’m not asking for the plane!”

Try engaging in some simple self inquiry by asking yourself these questions:

  • Do I believe in the value of struggle? Do I really have to know what the outcome is before I take the next step?
  • How do I feel about taking risks? How much of my life is about playing it safe, going by the rules?
  • Am I willing to let go of struggle and control and open to what life brings me, that which I cannot imagine or predict?