“Independent as a hog on ice.”
That’s one of my favorite expressions from my days working in Washington. It’s a rich image. Yes, the hog is independent. He’s all by himself. Because nobody is going to come to the aid of a hog flailing around on ice, hurting themselves and not helping anybody else in the long run.
The image speaks well to the limitations of over-celebrating independence and raising it to the highest of virtues, which we see displayed in the cult of the independent genius and personal freedom at all costs. The belief that the smartest people in the room are the ones who should run the world results in parents going to outlandish extents to turn their children into the smartest people in the room. And the primacy of personal freedom can lead to a kind of toxic individualism that ignores the inevitable communal effects of personal choices.
In fact, as the great Zen teacher Suzuki Roshi pointed out, we have two sides to our nature. What he called independency and dependency. Yes, we are distinct, as represented by our name, address, genetic inheritance, personality traits. Yet we do not exist as an entity cut off from all other entities. We depend. Therefore, we’re enmeshed in an unavoidable web of interdependence.
Recently, the power of this interdependency came home to me vividly when I contracted COVID-19. After having been conservative for the first 18 months of the pandemic, during the fourth wave, I ventured out, traveling to see family, friends, colleagues, and clients. And though one cannot know for certain where exactly the virus entered one’s system, it most likely occurred when I attended a team-building event where no one wore masks, and as it turns out, several people who were unvaccinated (unbeknownst to me) got sick and spread it to a number of other people, likely including me.
When I tested positive, it was one of the most uncomfortable challenges of my life to have to contact the 17 people I had extended contact with, let them know I had tested positive, and advise them to get tested. They were relatives and friends and close associates, and each of those 17 people were connected to many other people. The instantaneous connectedness we have with so many other people became immediately and vividly apparent. Abstract to concrete in a flash. (Fortunately, because of the vaccine, I had a mild, almost imperceptible case, and none of the people I was with contracted COVID.)
Around the same time that connectedness was brought home to me so tangibly, two mindfulness teachers separately alerted me to a book, The Extended Mind, by Annie Murphy Paul, a work of science journalism that reports on research that demonstrates that mind is not limited to the organ in the head, the “brainbound” understanding of mind, in philosopher Andy Clark’s words. In her book, Paul lays out three ways the mind extends outward: It is always embodied, located, and socially connected. Movement and gesture clearly affect the nature and quality of our thinking, as does the landscape and soundscape we’re situated in, and who we do our thinking with and how. Adopting this broader view has significant implications for how we adapt and thrive personally and collectively. It invites us to consider how our perceiving and thinking mind is always connected to larger wholes. It’s worth continually noticing how the condition of our body and where we are located have a potent impact on our ideas, insights, and perspectives— and mindfulness can help with that. Beyond that, given the daunting collective challenges we face, finding ways to extend our mindfulness outward to improve how we think as groups may be vital to our survival.