unlearning aloneness

Out of the many beautiful teachings I’ve gleaned from recent fermentation experiments, one of the most fundamental wisdoms the microorganisms have shared with me is that being alone is a matter of perspective. Aloneness is a choice, not a state of being.

This occurred to me as I was washing one of my (many) 1/2 gallon jugs, soon to be the home of a very happy Jun SCOBY (which is a fermented sweet tea, similarly to Kombucha, except the SCOBY feeds on honey rather than sugar, yielding a delicately floral and bubbly celebration). Elbow deep in soap suds and SCOBY remnants, I realized that my most basic conceptions of being an ‘individual’ human were deeply myopic. I’m eating spoonfuls of kraut and kimchi and kefir and Jun and fermented hot sauce everyday… how could I ever think I was the only organism living within the body that gives shape to my being? How can a body ever even be “mine” if it’s also the body that’s home to thousands if not millions (if not billions) of microorganisms, bacteria, and fungal spores?

The idea of interconnectedness among visible species has always made sense to me, both on the physical/scientific and spiritual/esoteric dimensions, but recognizing the multi-species-interconnectedness within my physical body is a newer knowing.

I breathe in oxygen, I emit carbon, plants breathe carbon, plants emit oxygen, therefore what’s going into my vessel came from someone else’s vessel, therefore we are literally connected through the exchange of matter in the form of gas. Similarly, I’ve grown to know that cosmic force that rises the sun in the morning and pulls the ocean tides is the same force that grows my hair, makes me cry, falls me in love, and rings my alarm clock. The lines of separation between me and plants or me and spirit/creation are conjured within my mind, as are the lines of separation between my digestive system and the various internal friends that make the whole process possible.

So, what does it mean to recognize that I truly can never be alone given the very nature of my existence as an interconnected organism? I’m thinking of particularly of Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings on inter-being:

“Nothing can be by itself alone, no one can be by himself or herself alone, everyone has to inter-be with every one else… True self is non-self, the awareness that the self is made only of non-self elements. There's no separation between self and other, and everything is interconnected. Once you are aware of that you are no longer caught in the idea that you are a separate entity.”

These words come from The Art of Living, a book by Thich Nhat Hanh that continues to offer me gifts months after I closed it’s covers.

The microorganisms and Thich Nhat Hanh are both inviting me to look towards interconnectedness on deeper levels— to see how inextricably interwoven my existence is among webs of other lifeforms, lineages, places, and cosmic forces. Aloneness seems a bit silly to me once I realize how deep in company I always am.

So, when I watched the video for this week’s reflective prompt (titled “Alone in the Wilderness”), I approached it with a head cocked sideways. A bit of skepticism lingered in my throat. When the narrator of the video spoke of the Alaskan lands as being untouched, uninhabited by people, and vacant, I felt those words reifying narratives of separateness, of colonizer mentalities, of individualistic and anthropocentric perspectives that ultimately led to the chasm that now rests between many humans and Earth.

Where was the gratitude and recognition for the Indigenous peoples of those Alaskan lands? And why is it that ‘wilderness’ seemingly only exists in places where white men have not yet laid roots?

I appreciate the self-motivation of the fellow in the video. To live in deep human-isolation is no easy feat. But I’m beginning to shift my language away from “living off the land,” as he might have said, and towards “living with the land.” There is no such thing as living off the land… maybe unless you are an aquatic being or you have left this atmosphere. I’m seeing aloneness as something that might feel very real (because it absolutely does for me), but truly as something that is constructed by my imagination.

Thus, to unlearn aloneness, I must continually learn connectedness— this is an active and intentional process. I must learn connectedness within my being, between me and other beings, among my being and ecosystems, through realms of existence, throughout history, through ancestral lineages, and with deep gratitude to all of the peoples and beings that cultivated connectedness to create conditions for my life and survival.

In just about 24 hours, I will be entering the woods around Minnewaska State Park— the ancestral lands of the Lenape peoples— for a 5-day camping adventure.

May those 5 days be overflowing with connectedness, may I continually remember to offer gratitude to all of the beings that enable my existence, and may I revel in the beauty and joy that arises when I recognize all of the interconnected relations and activity within me and all around me.

Lila Rimalovski