“We are here to awaken from our illusion of separateness.”
— Thich Nhat Hanh
Two years ago, my sweetheart and I put a “Poetry Pole” in front of our house. Each week I try to put up a new poem for passerbys to read.
George, a neighbor down the street, is one of several regular readers of our pole. George is 86 years-old and spent most of his life running his own restaurant with little time for reading. But after retiring, he decided to start reading all the things he missed. Though George is a refreshing outspoken atheist, all his kids are into Buddhism and have encouraged him to recently read up on Buddhism, with their most recent recommendation being Thich Nhat Hanh, who I have read a bit of.
As often happens, George caught my sweetheart and I today when we sat on our front lawn sipping drinks and chatting. He came up to me and pulled a crumbled yellow sticky note from his pocket and told me, “Sabio, I’ve been saving this to ask you to explain it to me”, and handed me the above quote.
My explanation was a follows:
George, let’s start with the simple notion of “self”. (Readers will know where I am going). We all have this illusion of ourselves as being different and set apart from other people — separate. But think about how when your kids return on holidays, they often return to their Middle School personalities as they relate to each other. You see, we have no “true self”. Who we are changes depending who we are with and what our environment is like. We are not separate, we are connected and dependent. And “self” is just one such example.
But I said, I don’t think we are here to awaken, but instead, like squirrels and cockroaches and bacteria, we are just here. But I do think that waking up occasionally from such illusions of separateness can be very useful.
George was thankful for my insight, but I warned him that Thich Nhat Hanh may disagree with a good part of what I explained. We both smiled and then shared more stories.