Overcome the Notion that You Are an Individual
Rejoice in the continuity of life and fear death no more
We were taught physics and biology on the basis that atoms make up molecules, that organize into cells, organs, and ultimately our beautiful, functioning body. But this functioning body can’t truly be named an individual: it is not an indivisible whole.
Where does your body start and stop if it needs microorganisms, in and out, to perform?
Your body comprises more bacterial cells than your own human cells (Senders, 2016) and these microorganisms actively participate to your physiology (your digestion, immunity and levels of inflammation, skin health…) metabolism (how much energy you absorb from your diet, cholesterol metabolism, hormone regulation and mimetics, etc.) and even behavior (stress, anxiety, cravings, with impacts on depression and dementia…). In the case of toxoplasmosis, a parasite that requires to finish its life cycle in felines, its simple contamination of a mouse can reverse its natural disgust towards its predator into an intense attraction that favors the chance for Toxoplasma gondii to end up inside the cat. Interestingly, as highlighted by Alanna Collen in 10% Human, the contamination of people by Toxoplasma gondii is also associated with higher risk-taking behavior, dementia, car accidents and even Tourette syndrome!
All in all, these trillions of microorganisms shape your identity to a point we are just starting to discover.
This is not true only for humans, but for most if not all species. Ed Yong, in I contain multitudes, describes many such cases that are well-studied in the animal world. For instance, aphids were colonized by buchnera about 200 million years ago, when dinosaurs were emerging. They co-evolved and started shedding unnecessary genes that were present on both organisms, and now part of the enzymatic chain needed to break down the phloem sap that is their subsistence is produced by the aphid’s cells and the other half is produced by the microbes. Together, they thrive on sap. Separated, there is no subsistence for either of them.
We never were and never are an isolated being. We all evolved in an environment that was already teeming with life. Our bodies unfolded intertwined with other beings in the Great Collaboration and the Great Competition of Life.
Where does your body start and stop if it sheds parts and intakes parts constantly?
If you think of the self as separate from the environment, what do you make of a hair that falls off of you? When does it stop being you exactly? When it detaches from your skull but remains on your head? When it lays on the couch? When it finishes in the hoover? Any answer would be both personal and arbitrary, we decide and define limits that don’t exist in reality.
What about when you eat? When does food become You? When it passes the threshold of your lips? The threshold of your throat when you swallow? When it dissolves in your stomach? or when it breaks down in your gut and becomes absorbed into your bloodstream? I don’t believe there is a correct or clear-cut answer, but rather that there is a progressive process of absorption. Just like there is no clear-cut individual, but rather a continuous integration and intercommunication in the dynamic web of life.
When does your body start and stop?
We usually consider our date of birth as the beginning of our life, but this is more of a convention than a biological truth. We could just as well consider the moment when we have an awareness of “I” as the beginning of our life, or the moment of our conception, or the moment our parents decided to create us, or the moment our species became our species. Or the moment the very first cell came to life on our planet, some billion years ago. All these events can be used as conceptual cut-off points in the continuity of life.
Thich Nhat Hanh in Teachings on Love exposes very well this continuity with his proposed meditations on our ancestors and those who will come after us. By focusing our attention on our link with our past family and future family — first strictly speaking and then more at large — we do feel like a mere element in a chain, or an instant in the infinity of time. On the other hand, by focusing on our link with all beings that are alive on this planet in the same golden moment of now, we also realize all we have in common with the rest of the living kingdom and all the interactions that allow (or not) survival of the living community. It is a powerful meditation that does make you feel like a piece in the puzzle. We are but a cell for the organism that lives at the higher scale, the bigger picture of life, symbolized by Gaia, the ancestral mother of all life. And there is tremendous peace in this awareness. Cells die constantly in the body for it to work properly. Our own death no longer appears so tragic if we think of our body as a cell in this bigger organism, this slow composition of past & future comprising every living thing, that goes on.
This is the continuity of life. As soon as we realize our life is not segregated in “you” and “others” but comes from all lives that touched you and expands to all lives you are and will be touching, our dying becomes the mere natural senescence of a particle within a bigger living organism, ecosystem, Mother Nature, Gaia, the Universe, God, or whichever you would like to call it, which ineluctably goes on.
Seeing our individuality was probably a necessary step in our evolution and we placed God outside of us, as “something other”, in a separation theology, as very well expressed by Neale Donald Walsch in his Conversations with God. A separation theology creates a separation psychology which in turn produces a separation sociology in which human beings feel separate from each other and serve their own best interests as if different from the interests of the group. And this separation sociology inevitably produces a separation pathology which is self-destructive, leads to conflict and violence.
When a oneness psychology appears, we understand that we are like a wave, not detached from the ocean of life, or like the fingers, not detached from the hand of God. The perception of this unity and continuity of life leads quite directly to a place of serenity and universal love. War, cruelty, insufficiency, indignity, intolerance would all disappear if we collectively embraced this notion that We Are All One.