As a young adult I became intrigued with herbal healing. I read books that identified particular herbs that could heal different ailments of the body. I learned, for example, that mullein tea was helpful for a sore throat. Then one day, someone showed me a mullein plant growing wild by the side of the road. I suddenly felt the connection: human beings and plants belong together! That mullein plant can actually heal my human sore throat. We are related to each other in some deep essential way.
Spirituality is about experiencing our connection to the earth, to each other, and to all that exists. According to Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist teacher, “We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness.” Seeing that mullein plant beside the road brought me a moment of awakening. For that moment, I knew deep in my being, that I was not separate from any of the plants or animals or people on the earth. I realized that, in reality, we all are one.
But time passed, and the illusion of separateness took over again. We are all one, and yet we are also divided from one another. Mother Teresa said, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” Certainly, for most of us, we go through our days forgetting this essential truth. How often do we feel isolated from, or even in competition with, the people around us? In fact, every day we are encouraged to see ourselves as separate and individual, we are encouraged to watch out for “number one.”
A whole series of television commercials come to my mind: a grandmother telling her grandchild to “Get your own bag of chips,” or a man guarding his chicken fingers from his co-workers, or a family getting individual pizzas so everyone can have their own topping… it just goes on and on. There are messages all around us that promote the illusion of separation.
In much more devastating ways, the political idea of a common good is being taken apart in favor of privatization. Programs like Social Security and Medicare are under fire, under the guise of some kind of freedom of choice, with the argument that people can do better on their own, that individuals can maximize their retirement options through private investing.
I am pretty sure that is not true, but what goes unspoken is the shift in the very terms of the debate—we are no longer arguing how to best care for all the members of our society. Rather, we are being asked to buy into a fragmented and individualized world, a place where the important goal is to get the most for myself. Thich Nhat Hanh, Mother Teresa, and other teachers, call us to a different outlook. They call us to remember that we are part of a larger unity. They call us to return to our true wholeness.