Saturday, October 3, 2009

No Self, No Other

At Russian River Zendo today, Darlene gave a dharma talk about interconnectedness, the most basic of Buddhist principles. When Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree and suddenly saw the world as it really was, the moment of enlightenment that was the foundation of Buddhism centered on his insight that there is no separation, no self and no other. This transformative "seeing" forever changes the way one perceives everything.

In Zen, it is expressed in terms of "form" (separateness, definition, differentiation) and "emptiness" (all things united without boundaries, nothing but everything, one is two and two is one).

To explore this point, Darlene spoke about a Deepak Chopra article in a recent edition of the San Franciso Chronicle which dealt with the concept of "social contagion." Harvard researchers have found something interesting: if Person A is overweight, smokes or gets sick, his or her family and friends (Persons B) have a 50 percent chance of exhibiting the same behavior. Not too surprising; we all know how peer pressure and social environment works. But here's where it gets trickier: Person C, who knows Person B but not Person A, also has an increased chance of showing those behaviors, about 20 percent. So it can skip a link. According to the data, a friend of a friend can influence your health habits. Chopra claims this is suggestive of invisible connectors, showing we are affected by people we don't even know.

I must admit, I immediately want to punch holes in this argument. A statistical trend only shows how many people and which people this holds true for. It does not supply that most critical piece of data: what causes it? I can think of one explanation that completely takes the "wow, that's eerie" element out of the equation. Let's say I'm Person A, and I am overweight. Now, supposedly, everyone I know has a 50 percent greater likelihood to be overweight. Okay so far. But remove that one step - everyone who knows my friends and family (but not me) has a 20 percent greater chance of becoming or being overweight. It seems to me there is a simple rationale here. People who are my friends and family, through their relationship with me, have exposure to someone who is overweight, and so are more likely to tolerate that condition in someone else in their lives. So, the chances they will have other friends who are overweight is slightly elevated (that 20 percent).

In other words, there is no mysterious link between overweight Person A and possibly overweight Person C. It might simply be that Person A's friends and family, because they're used to accepting him or her in their lives despite weight issues, will not shun another potential friend because they are heavy. The Harvard researchers may have stumbled upon something, but I'm not sure it will help them deal very effectively with troubling health behaviors.

But, leaving that aside for the moment, let's get back to the Bodhi tree. Even my new explanation about the behaviors reinforces the principle of interconnectedness. Instead of explaining health behaviors, it suggests our attitudes towards each other can have far-reaching ramifications in terms of options and choices we consider. That I find very comforting. Maybe "doing the right thing" for the environment, or social justice, does actually affect the rest of the world, even though it doesn't feel like that on most days.

There is something that runs through all of us, through all of nature, through every thought and feeling and sensation we have, that ties us together. I do believe that my behavior at any given moment sends a ripple undulating through everything around me, animate and inanimate. That never changes. The only thing that fluctuates is whether or not I notice it - whether or not I am paying attention.

1 comment:

  1. Check out the CDC on obesity @ and you quickly see why your link to a friend of a friend even though you have not met this friend is still 20% more likely to be obese. With 72.9% of the population overweight statistically this could be much higher for obesity! I am quite skeptical of this study.