Sustaining the Gaze Towards Interdependence (Part 1)


mařenka cerny
7 min readNov 10, 2016

“I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”

— James Baldwin

Are we getting closer to or farther away from an interdependent world? What will it take for humanity to take the leap to a functioning interdependence, a world in which we live for each other and not against each other, as expressed by this video:

“This has been the formula throughout the history of man.”

These are questions of necessity, not utopia. Mainstream news would help enormously if they offered a comprehensive reflection of reality. They do not, so we turn to social media to follow each other in the search for what is true. Yet it is still often difficult to tell.

Reflecting on what is in the way of an interdependently functioning world, systemic fear of other people is a conspicuous obstacle. Could xenophobia and racism be on the rise? Or through the collective streaming of successive events revealing the fear and hatred of people with backgrounds different than our own, is it our awareness of these phenomena that is increasing?

Whether one or both are true, I remind clients and activists alike who are alarmed by people’s insensitivities to the struggles of others how terrifying the evolution of consciousness can actually be. To be able to fully grasp the implications of another person’s distinct set of burdens is a key component of emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is, in turn, a key component in the evolution of consciousness. And, it seems inherent to the dignity of the individual that our own free will determines whether, or at what pace, we participate in the evolution of our own consciousness.

Crossroads: Labor Pains of a New Worldview | FULL MOVIE

But now there is added pressure. The demands of our planet and evolving global systems have been calling for the growth of our psyches like never before. We are being pressured psychologically under threat of annihilation to evolve at an extremely fast pace towards the only viable conclusion there seems to be for the well being of humanity: global human interdependence.

The 2013 documentary Crossroads highlighted the urgency to evolve into globally interdependent systems, emphasizing how the attempts to manage the dire problems people face have been “fragmented and simplistic”:

“all global risks are inter-related and interwoven, so that economic, environmental, geopolitical, social, and technological risks are hugely interdependent. A crisis in one area will quickly lead to a crisis in other areas… The way we use natural resources is based on our economic system, which is closely related to our social values, which directly affect our psychological and emotional systems and all our actions… You cannot separate what’s happening in the world from what’s happening within people. So we’re not just in crisis in politics or economics. Human beings are in crisis with themselves.”

Richard Pryor nails the connection between racism and capitalism

We are in crisis, but the self does not occur in a vacuum. We are affected implicitly by the economic, cultural, political, and familial bodies we live within. And, our economic system stands staunchly in the way of global human interdependence, because capitalism thrives on the attitude of I have to get what’s mine. Constant competition generates anxiety and even hatred of other people because in this economic system what’s mine is perpetually threatened. The challenges of our individual lives and our efforts to make a good life for ourselves and our families can further inhibit caring about the struggles of others, from seeing that the systems we’re living within don’t work for most people.

Nor are they sustainable for the earth. Paul Hawkin wrote in the The Ecology of Commerce:

“Quite simply, our business practices are destroying life on earth. Given current corporate practices… every natural system on the planet is disintegrating. The land, water, air and sea have been functionally transformed from life-supporting systems into repositories for waste. There is no polite way to say that business is destroying the world.”

And this is just one strand in the ultimate Gordian knot intertwining the systems we live within with our psyches. It seems the undoing of this knot requires coinciding evolutions in multiple systems at once. Some kind of catalyst is needed to create the tipping point, which we have with climate change. But like the lifelong smoker unable to quit when diagnosed with lung cancer, the catalyst has been presented yet we continue to resist responding appropriately.

from the 2011 documentary “Surviving Progress.”

Even as we watch the paragons of capitalism accelerate irreversible changes in the earth’s atmosphere — the fossil fuel and automobile industries along with industrial agriculture — “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism” (from the NY Times Review of This Changes Everything). Which is probably why, in The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, Amitav Ghosh emphasizes the psychological dimension as he shows us how the debate about transforming our economic system is not sufficient without also transforming our minds. According to Tabish Khair, Ghosh illustrates climate change not only “as a crisis of ‘nature’,” but, so poignantly, “a crisis of culture, and thus of the imagination.”

Perhaps we will access more of our imagination if we do as the scholar Joanna Macy has encouraged for decades: increase our capacity to “sustain the gaze.” Sustaining the gaze is a Buddhist approach for staying in relationship with that which we wish did not exist.

In the film Connected, Peter Coyote calls for us to pay attention in just this way so that together we could uplevel our shared reality:

“Maybe our first step is to stop and think more about where we want to be headed. We are caught in this giant ball of problems spun from our desire for growth. And growth for growth’s sake is cancer. Somewhere along the way did we lose our sense of what’s important?”

Unfortunately, powerful aspects of the human psyche impede us from accessing our collective imagination, from sustaining our gaze, and from effectively addressing head on what’s important. What makes it so hard to see the connections between what appear as separate parts of life — “the economy,” “the environment,” “race relations” “psychology,” “the refugee crisis” — are the same factors that are destroying our world: disembodiment and the illusion of separateness.

For some, imagining making interdependence the model for all our governing systems induces sudden motivation and great inspiration, for others a high increase in mental dis-ease, and still others are forced by virtue of the human nervous system’s demand for familiarity to insist things stay as they have been.

This is because until a functioning interdependence becomes humanity’s prevailing weltanschauung (worldview), the idea of interdependence also evokes our deepest fears. The pressure to abandon or change cherished values and behaviors is happening at a rate that is faster than most psyches can tolerate. Imagining a better world for everyone requires deconstructing the existing order, which can be terrifying.

In response to the valid reaction of panic to what would be a second order change to our world, I present in Part 3 six psychological factors that obstruct the natural collective evolution to global interdependence. In Part 4 I recommend five habits to cultivate in ourselves, and to practice with one another, because this particular inner evolution is something we have to do in relationship with others.

Initially we get to choose who we invite into our personal evolution. The more we cultivate the capacities described in Parts 3 and 4, the easier it becomes to truly connect with more and more people, and the more standing up for the dignity of all sentient beings and every aspect of life becomes an implicit expression of self, on the journey to interdependence.

In the beginning of this video Russell Brand points to why, like the lifelong smoker, it is ultimately our duty as intelligent, sentient beings to locate the catalyst internally, in the form of personal desire and agency:

“Our culture does not work, consumerism has failed, and the people that govern us do not know how to solve that problem. And until we, The People, become engaged in politics, society, mythology, and our own cultural narrative in a new and direct way, this problem and all of the problems we are facing will get worse and worse and worse. We have to do something. We can’t expect them to do anything. They are not going to.”

For a core challenge in evolving towards interdependence, go to Part 2.

For 6 ways the human nervous system inhibits interdependence, see Part 3

For 5 habits for strengthening the ego, see Part 4

About Marenka Cerny:

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mařenka cerny