Zoe and I were sitting around a bonfire at an open prairie campsite when a chipmunk cautiously ventured from the tall grass onto the mowed trail next to us, grazing for crumbs. The little guy was easily spooked, darting undercover at any sudden movement, but who could blame him? Birds of prey hovered constantly overhead, scanning. Our chipmunk lived under relentless threat of death from above.
I say “our” chipmunk because that’s how we began to refer to it.
“Our chipmunk’s back,” we’d say, as it would emerge inevitably from the tall grass every time we sat down. We had left our dog with a babysitter, so in her absence we psychologically adopted this other creature as a temporary pet. I assumed it stuck nearby in the hopes we’d toss it food (which is also why our dog stays nearby). But then I had another thought. The hawks and eagles overhead never dared get too close to us. Our chipmunk was a gambler. It bet its life that Zoe and I posed less of a threat than the raptors. It stayed close not just for food, but also for protection.
This meant the wildlife around us had completely changed its behavior, taking on a new paradigm, simply because we were sitting there, doing nothing. Our mere presence warped the ecosystem.
That’s when I had one of those obvious epiphanies that really ought to have been clear my whole life: humans can’t be in nature without being nature. We change it and it changes us. We can never be separate from it, never mere observers. We are not visiting it. We are not confronting it. We are it.
And with that realization, I felt completely at peace, which is a big deal for me. I’m not what you would call a laid-back individual. My inner radar is like that chipmunk, always scanning the environment for threats, always on alert.
I’ve lived with a severe anxiety disorder for two decades, so when I experience moments of peace, like the one I had at the campsite, it stands out. But why was that moment so powerful? What was it about feeling one with nature that put me, an incessantly high-strung person, at ease?
Here’s the best theory I could come up with: I felt at peace because my sense of separateness had dissolved.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot since that day, and I’m starting to believe the sense of separateness is the source of my anxiety, and it may be the primary source of unhappiness for humans in general.
Is there anything that promotes long-term happiness that also emphasizes a sensation of separateness? If you can think of an example, please comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I would like to discuss your ideas in a future post.
Think about all the things in life that make you feel separate. They’re all negative. When you’re sick or out of shape, you’re miserably aware of your own body. When you’re embarrassed, angry, or afraid, you feel a distinct barrier between you and others, us and them. When you’re comparing yourself to your neighbors, you feel overcome with status anxiety. When you’re bored, you are resisting the moment as it is, unsatisfied and frustrated with what the universe has given you. No frustrated person stuck in traffic ever thinks, “Golly, I sure feel one with the world right now.”
But hanging out with friends and loved ones, getting lost in a conversation or a game or a book, or entering a state of flow while playing music or dancing, or forgetting yourself in a moment of sexual intimacy, or joining a cause that turns your energies toward something bigger than yourself, or sitting around a campfire realizing you and your surroundings are inseparable, that what you are and what you are not are two sides of the same coin—these are moments when we forget to think of ourselves as isolated, separate beings. These are moments of happiness.
The good news is, both scientifically and philosophically speaking, we are never actually separate from our surroundings. Like a black dot on a white surface, or a white dot on a black surface, we are only identifiable as individuals by contrast to our backgrounds, meaning our very identity depends on everything other than what we identify as ourselves.
As Alan Watts puts it: “You cannot describe the behavior of a living organism without simultaneously describing the behavior of that organism’s environment. One does not describe an organism in an environment; rather one describes a unified field that is an ‘organism-environment.’”
We are our backgrounds and our backgrounds are us.
The bad news is, it’s really, really hard to shake the feeling of being separate, largely because it’s an incredibly useful sensation.
When our ancestors were being chased by tigers, they needed to distinguish between themselves and the predators. That’s why they ran. To stop and say, “I will not run from the tiger, for the tiger and I are one,” would mean they would soon literally become one with the tiger.
So the feeling of separateness, primarily, does two useful things: it gives us a sense of possession (how would we know which house to drive home to if we didn’t have separate identities?), which promotes individuality, and it keeps us on the lookout for danger.
In other words, our sense of separateness, which many of us rely on to establish our identities, is built on the instincts of territorialism and anxiety.
No wonder I’m anxious all the time. I’ve built my sense of self on a survivalist instinct. I have come to identify not with my surroundings and how I’m intrinsically connected to them, but with my vulnerability, my worrisome thoughts, and my muscle tension—all things that make me feel separate.
In that moment by the campfire my anxiety melted off as my sense of separateness faded, as my self-concept as an insecure, nervous person dissolved. I became happy and at peace.
By losing my sense of self, I discovered who I truly am.
(Note: There’s a lot to unpack when it comes to the topic of separateness. This post is part one of a series I’ll be publishing periodically.)