“To know the spirit of a place is to realize that you are a part of a part and that the whole is made of parts, each of which is whole. You start with the part you are whole in.” — Gary Snyder
Avidya is a Sanskrit word that refers to something akin to a misunderstanding of the self, as well as all of the ways we construct an idea of it as something immutable. Some people translate avidya as ignorance, but ignorance implies a lack of awareness or knowledge. Misunderstanding, however, is a state of knowing a thing incorrectly. We think we know ourselves. But in truth, our ability to fully perceive the Self, let alone understand how it fits into the grand scheme of all things, often lies in the blind spots.
The root of this misunderstanding seems to be the feeling that we are separate from others. This is the root of all of the rest of our suffering, confusion, and conflict. Familial and cultural cues in the formative years teach us to feel that we are justified in fighting, outsmarting, or seducing others into fortifying our special sense of self.
We construct and uphold all kinds of personal myths that support the idea of our separateness from the universe, the planet, and all beings on it. Even the phrase ‘the natural world’ implies that we feel separate from it. We call ourselves the ‘top of the food chain,’ an assertion that doesn't quite hold up when one considers being airdropped into most ecosystems. We measure our uniqueness and superiority over other animal beings by our language, our ability to use tools, or any number of behaviors. Never mind that many animals exhibit these skills as well.
We conceive of ourselves as a discrete entity contained within the boundary of our skin. This is, of course, silly. Our body is not some enclosed barrier; there are things moving in and out of the body all the time. Breath, sweat, food, waste. We are porous and fragile beings, entirely dependent on our atmosphere and environment.
We extend that enclosed feeling of self by erecting a fence around a piece of land. By extension we feel joined with the land by way of claiming it as property, though we were always bound together unawares. When fences are no longer enough, roads, cities, parking lots, even countries arise. Inevitably we clash with ‘other’ countries over earth resources on the basis of this false notion of self and other.
If we were to accurately understand the self as interconnected and interdependent on the universe, how would our understanding of self-preservation change? The collective gaze would shift to include preservation of the whole system. We would suddenly feel it absurd to cut down every last tree and pull every last fish out of the sea. We would understand ourselves as whole in and of ourselves as well as part of the whole that is the universe.
There is a very beautiful and ancient mantra, and one of my favorites:
Purnam adah, purnam idam purnat purnam udachyate;
Purnasya purnam adaya purnam evavasisyate.
— Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 5.1.1
"The beginning of all things was whole, the entire universe that has come from that beginning is whole; from the whole comes whole, and what is taken away is also whole."