We are all Connected!!!
No man is an island, Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main
I love these immortal words of John Donne, the great 17th century English metaphysical poet.
What is he trying to say? What insight is he expressing using the cryptic and emotive language of poetry and metaphor – a language exquisitely designed to bypass our rational, linear, intellectual, thinking minds?
I understand him to be saying that “everything is connected”, that “we are all connected”, that we human beings are deeply interconnected with everything else that is part of the living world. Perhaps we have experienced this whilst being in the natural world, whilst being with a person (or an animal) we love, whilst listening to music, whilst deep in meditation or prayer or contemplation, whilst singing or dancing with others, whilst being at a football match when our team scores?
If we hadn’t woken up to this insight already, we have experienced it all too well over the last year. Something untoward happens in a market in a place I have never heard of in China and pretty soon after I can’t go and hug my parents??!!!
The Vietnamese peace activist and Zen Buddhist master, Thich Nhat Hanh, invented a new word to say in prose what Donne the poet was hinting at. He speaks of ‘Interbeing’ and how we ‘inter-are’ with one another and with all of life. This is his way of articulating how all of existence is a vast nexus of causes and conditions, how everything is interconnected to everything else and the way in which the action of interbeing reflects reality more accurately than our ‘normal’ experience of being a separate, atomised individual.
Lewis Thomas, the scientist and former Dean of Yale Medical School and New York University School of Medicine, uses the language of biology to articulate this understanding. He writes:
I have been trying to think of the earth as a kind of organism, but it is no go. I cannot think of it this way. It is too big, too complex, with too many working parts lacking visible connections. The other night, driving through a hilly, wooded part of southern New England, I wondered about this. If not like an organism, what is it like, what is it most like? Then, satisfactorily for that moment, it came to me: it is most like a single cell.
In the Jewish mystical and spiritual tradition this insight is perhaps most clearly articulated in one of the most well-known verses from our Torah (Deuteronomy 6:4) and perhaps the single most important sentence in our regular devotional practice. I am, of course, speaking about the words:
‘Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad’
When I learned these words as a child, I was taught that they meant:
“Listen Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One.”
In other words, they were a statement of monotheism, of a core Jewish belief in one God or one Deity. But this is not a good translation.
As I have grown up, matured, developed and become more sophisticated in my thinking and my experience of life, I have come to understand that these words are not a statement of monotheism (the view that there are two different realities, God and the Universe), but rather a statement of monism (the understanding that ultimately there is only a single kind of reality – of which we are all a part).
One of the most important Jewish Spiritual Teachers of the late 19th century, Rabbi Judah Leib Alter of Ger (author of the Sefat Emet) wrote the following in a letter to his children and grandchildren explaining what the words of the Shema really mean:
…the meaning of the words ‘Adonai is One’ is not that Adonai is the only God, negating other gods…but the meaning is deeper than that: there is no being other than Adonai!!! This is true even though it seems otherwise to most people...everything that exists in the world, spiritual and physical is Adonai itself. It is only because of the contraction (tsimtsum)…that holiness descended rung after rung, until physical things were formed out of it…This is true without a doubt. Because of this, every person can attach themselves to Divinity wherever they are, through the holiness that exists within every single thing, even corporeal things…This is the foundation of all the mystical formulations in the world.
There is much to unpack in these words, and I look forward to doing so with you. Please let me know if you have any thoughts, reflections or comments.
 Adapted from pp. 22-23 of “Radical Judaism” by Arthur Green.