“A human being is a part of the whole, called by us “Universe”, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but the striving for such achievement is in itself a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security.” – Albert Einstein
Everybody has different ways of coping with the stress of the pandemic and the social distancing measures. For me it has largely been to dive into study of an area of mathematics called Category Theory. In studying this, I’ve come into contact with other people interested in Category Theory around the world. Due to world wide lockdowns, far flung people with common interests seem to be more available for deep engagement online. We’ve seen this at CEC, as moving our weekly meditations online has resulted in people from all over the world connecting and contributing to our community. Of course, the downside is that online interaction does not provide for all our relationship needs and especially for those who live alone, the lack of person to person social contact can be crushing.
Category Theory itself is based on the premise that everything in math can be understood in terms of relationships. A category is made up of objects, relationships, and the combination of smaller relationships into bigger relationships (e.g., the friend of my friend is a friend).
For example, we can form a category of non-negative whole numbers ordered by their size. Before we can identify any specific number, say 5 or 27, we first have to identify the number zero. To do this, we find the object in our category that has a less than or equal to relationship to every other object in the category. This is what it means to say that zero is the smallest.
Let’s pause here. We tend to think glibly of the number zero as “nothing”. Yet, we’ve just defined it by its relationships to everything else in the number category. This teaches us that nothingness or neutrality is still a matter of relationships. In meditation, we may experience states that seem empty or blank or neutral. Yet, to be consciously aware of these states, we need something to contrast them with, some positive sensation that is absent in the “nothing” state. There are even different flavours of nothingness depending on what we are implicitly contrasting it with. For example, if we are meditating on body sensations, then “nothing” may feel like the body has dissolved into empty space. On the other hand, if we are meditating on thoughts, then “nothing” might be experienced as a silence in the mind.
Having found zero, we can find any other number by asking, what is bigger than zero but smaller than everything else? That gets us the number 1. By iterating this process, we can produce every number in the category one-by-one. Crucially, at no point is a number defined by some intrinsic property. Each time, it is defined by its pattern of relationship with every other number.
It is amazing to me how well these ideas from mathematics seem to mesh with ideas in developmental psychology about the nature of self. Infants recognize the faces of their parents and other caregivers before their own face. It may be that a baby has a concept of “another mind” before having a concept of “my own mind”. The sense of “myself” may actually be an internalization of an earlier perception of “another self” or even through seeing that “another self is seeing someone (me?)”. This idea turns philosophy’s “problem of other minds” on its head!
We triangulate our sense of self, balancing internal self-perception together with our perception of how others regard us. What I am is informed by the network of relationships with everybody else (including the self-looping relationship from myself to myself).
This has profound implications for ethics, spiritual practice, and politics. It helps us understand why the social isolation measures used to combat COVID-19 can be so existentially devastating, especially for those who live alone. Yet, it also explains why we constantly seek connection with others, even if it means spending hours a day staring at a screen. We are relational beings, woven into the fabric of our nature as individuals is a need to see and be seen by others.
In the past month, we’ve seen an unprecedented protest movement against anti-Black systemic racism. As I’ve worked to understand what this means for me as a white person, I’ve drawn insights from anti-racism scholar Dr. Ibram X. Kendi. He argues that the crucial transition from being “not a racist” to being anti-racist begins with an acknowledgement of the ways that being brought up in a racist culture shapes our own unconscious attitudes and beliefs. Too often we view racism as a conscious belief system adhered to by a small number of despicable individuals. This makes it all too easy to respond to the current cultural dialogue in a defensive way by saying “But I’m not a racist!”.
What happens if we can move from seeing anti-Black racism as something that a person is (a racist), to seeing it as a pervasive culture force that affects all of us in different ways? For a Black person this impact is pretty hard to miss. For white people its effects may sometimes fall into our blindspots. Kendi would say that the shift to the anti-racist mindset requires making a conscious effort to be mindful of how racism shapes our own beliefs, attitudes, and behaviours, as well as how it affects others.
I think it helps us make this shift when we consider how our selfhood is not something intrinsic to us as individuals. When we understand how our minds are continually shaped, constituted even, by a vast network of social relationships past and present, this makes it easier to accept that our inner life can be infiltrated by the racism of our culture even when we do not consciously choose racist beliefs or values. It takes active work of self-examination and examination of our society to combat racism within and without.
By increasing our mindful awareness and capacity for insight, meditation practice can help us navigate and improve our relationships to ourselves, each other and the societal structures in which we operate.This month at CEC, we’ll explore practice through the lens of relationships, exploring how these relationships shape our inner and outer worlds.