I used to feel like I didn’t fit in. As a baby, I had a lazy eye, and was wearing eye patches and glasses by the time I was two years old. I was bused several miles to elementary school, so I was one of the few left behind when everyone else walked home for lunch. We lived in an old farmhouse on several acres, while everyone else I knew lived in similar closely-spaced houses. My feeling of being an outsider persisted for decades.
I felt more connected when spending time in our beautiful backyard soaking in the fruit trees, the fall leaves, the blue sky and white clouds. One tree in particular was a favorite. I never felt separate in the compact, easy-to-climb apple tree that grew just behind the pond. Next to the tree was a small but sturdy bush, positioned just perfectly for a five-year-old to use as a springboard from which to propel herself on the spot where the first large branches met the trunk. From there, I could climb to the sky.
The details of my story are probably different from yours, but I’m guessing you have felt like an outsider at various points in your life, if not, like me, for much of it. When we feel like an outsider, we see ourselves as separate from the rest of the humanity and the rest of the world. In my younger years, I felt like I was something less than others. At other times, I’ve felt like I was different because I was superior in some way to others. Neither felt great.
Many myths and stories promote this feeling of exceptionalism, individually and as societies and countries. In the classic Superman story, Clark Kent appears to be different because he’s awkward and “unattractive” (not) but we find out later that he’s really different because he’s better than everyone else in pretty much every way. We humans are always trying to make sense of this feeling of being different, separate and apart.
Even the Buddha was trying to make sense of this feeling when he described anatta, the idea that we have no separate self. Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh uses the term Hiện to mean no separate self, or interbeing. Our existence depends on everything else in the cosmos. Here, Thich Nhat Hanh describes the interbeing of a piece of paper (Lion’s Roar, 2012):
If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow: and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either. So we can say that the cloud and the paper inter-are.
If we look into this sheet of paper even more deeply, we can see the sunshine in it. If the sunshine is not there, the forest cannot grow. In fact nothing can grow. Even we cannot grow without sunshine. And so, we know that the sunshine is also in this sheet of paper. The paper and the sunshine inter-are. And if we continue to look we can see the logger who cut the tree and brought it to the mill to be transformed into paper. And we see the wheat. We know that the logger cannot exist without his daily bread, and therefore the wheat that became his bread is also in this sheet of paper. And the logger’s father and mother are in it too. When we look in this way we see that without all of these things, this sheet of paper cannot exist.
So it is with us. Alan Watts, author, Episcopal priest, and one of the early Buddhist and mindfulness teachers in the U.S., suggests that we don’t come into the universe, we grow out of it in the same way that apples grow out of a tree. If we say that certain trees “apple,” then we can say that the universe “peoples.”
“WE DON’T COME INTO THIS WORLD, WE COME OUT OF IT.” — ALAN WATTS, OUT OF YOUR MIND
Think about that: We come out of this world. We didn’t get plopped down here from some other world. No matter what we think, say, do or look like, we can never be separate from it, just the same way that nothing your sister, parent, child can do or say will ever make them not part of your family and the way that even a “bad” apple is both part of and distinct from the tree. By our very nature we are inseparable from this world. Whatever crazy stuff we do, including thinking we are separate or exceptional, is just what people do, in the same way that apples get spots if they sit around too long.
I find a lot of comfort in knowing that I’m a part of this world, with all its beauty and its suffering. I can never be ostracized from this world. And I can’t ignore or push out anyone else either. Every single person — no, every single being — came out this world the same way I did, and no matter how angry or sad they make me, they can never be separated from it either. We all grew out of the same universe and we are all feeding off of each other’s words and actions. Not to mention apples. I think I’ll go enjoy one.