Thursday, July 13, 2017

Always a We and Never a Me

"A Web of Relationship"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

I was having lunch with a friend of mine the other day. As soon as we sat down he excused himself to go and “wash up” before he ate, telling me: “Gotta be sure to wash away all those nasty germs.”  

It’s probably a good idea to wash your hands before you eat, but my guess is that most people think about “germs” and bacteria as being harmful and foreign to human life; and yet, the scientific data suggests that human beings are only able to survive on this planet because of our constant and dynamic interaction with the trillions of microscopic cells that live in our bodies and in every other life form in the universe. 

In his book, I contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life, Professor Ed Yong (who is a microbiologist) points out that the human body contains more microbes than human cells. In fact, there are more bacteria in our stomach than there are stars in the galaxy. Furthermore, through our skin and various external organs like the eyes, nose and mouth, each of us interacts with the trillions of other microbial systems that exist in other people, in other animals, in the air, the ocean.

Without this dynamic web of universal symbiotic interaction, life could not be sustained.

Yong observes:

When we look at beetles and elephants,
sea urchins and earthworms, parents and friends,
we see individuals working their way through life
as a bunch of cells in a single body,
driven by a single brain and operating with a single genome.
This is a pleasant fiction.
In fact we are legion, each and every one of us,
always a ‘we” and never a ‘me.’
As the poet, Walt Whitman, once wrote:
‘I am large, I contain multitudes.’

As I think about this mind-expanding scientific observation, I am struck by the fact that this is precisely the wisdom offered by the great mystics and spiritual teachers throughout history, far before the age of quantum physics and microbiology.

Jesus taught that we find our “true self” when we become aware of the truth that we “are” our relationships. Likewise, the Buddha sat under a Bodhi tree and he found “enlightenment” as the veil of his ego was torn away and he realized that there is no separated “I,” there is only a “we,” a dynamically interconnected web of interaction.

Professor Ed Yong observed that, “unaware of our dynamic relationship with a vast unseen world of microbial life we tend to see the world through a keyhole.”  I think he’s right and I believe that this is exactly what the mystics and teachers of all the many spiritual traditions have always maintained - the goal of any spiritual journey is to move away from looking at the world through a keyhole and finding a grander view of life.

If we fool ourselves into thinking that our own individual, separated ego “is” who we are, we narrow our vision and we miss the glory of it all - always a “we” and never a “me.”

Rumi, the 13th century Sufi Poet, once wrote:

The whole universe exists inside you.
God writes spiritual mysteries on our hearts
where they wait silently for discovery


  1. I enjoy how you make me aware of the very little things in life, at the same time make me aware of the universe within us. I do appreciate that you continue to do this.