Some astronauts experience a cognitive shift in awareness when they look at planet earth from space. They get overwhelmed by the fragility and unity of life on the globe, become aware of the big picture and how everything down there is connected. From space, national boundaries vanish and the conflicts and differences that divide people become less important.
Sadly, only a few people will have the opportunity to look at earth from that perspective. But being down on earth, we can actually experience a similar, terrestrial overview effect. To achieve this, I have developed an exercise where you use your imagination. It’s easiest to do this exercise whenever you find yourself surrounded by an amount of people you don’t know personally, for instance on a platform waiting for a train, in the supermarket or on a busy street.
Take a moment, and look at the people around you: the human beings you share the space with. In these particular situations everybody is usually minding their own business, there’s not a lot of connection or interaction. Maybe you think that you don’t know anything about those people, they are complete strangers to you.
Imagine that each of these human beings is living a life just like you. I know this sounds obvious. But try to really imagine those other lives: imagine them having parents and perhaps siblings, partners, children, friends, like you have. think of all the stages that you’ve been through in your life: childhood, young adulthood, the years after that, and all the experiences you’ve had. Now imagine that those others people too started as a little, helpless babies, completely dependent on caretakers for survival. They experienced exactly the same stages after that like you, steadily growing into autonomous individuals like yourself.
Then, remember all the emotions you felt in your life: joy, anger, jealousy, enthusiasm, desire, insecurity, sadness, surprise, and so on. Although triggered by different events, those other human beings experienced exactly the same emotions as you have. Can you imagine them sad, joyous or angry? They have laughed, cried, loved and felt disappointed, just like you.
As human beings, we not only share the same emotions, but also the same basic needs like appreciation, respect, community, contribution, support and understanding. Imagine that everyone around you is spending a great deal of their lives trying to get their needs met, although in very different ways. Sometimes even in ways that you find hard to understand. But whether people choose a life where they take care of sick people, earn a lot of money, make art or prepare a terrorist attack, all choices are a result of the desire to comply their needs. Their strategy may or may not be according to your values, but know that every action comes from the same source of universal human needs.
Then, think of all the thoughts you had in your life. Remember how you fantasize about your future, how you overthink your past. How you dream, judge, worry, give meaning, reason, and how you make plans. Imagine now that the people around you all have different thoughts going on in their minds right now. They are constantly thinking, just like you. Maybe they think about what happened earlier that day, or what they need to do the rest of the week. Or they might think of something completely else. Be aware that all of this mind activity is going on around you, but you don’t see or hear any of it. Now imagine what it would be like if you could hear everyone’s inner world out loud: all of their thoughts and feelings. That would be quite intense, isn’t it? All minds are active, but they can operate in silence.
Next, extend your awareness to all the human beings you are connected too. And I don’t mean just family, friends, co-workers and neighbours. You are connected to many more than that. Try to recall some random activities on a given day. For instance, in the morning, you wake up and take a shower. In a lot of countries, you just turn on the tap and fresh water is pouring out.
Imagine the human beings working in water treatment, who make it possible for you to have access to clean water every day. Imagine that those water employees are living a life like you with families, friends, thoughts, feelings and needs. Think about the 7.7 billion other humans on earth who need several litres of water per day to survive. And imagine that in your country there is group of people taking care of this important task, for you.
After the shower, you get dressed. What do you choose to wear? Every piece of garment is made for you, by another human being. Maybe this person is an independent tailor, or an underpaid employee in a sweatshop. Which of the two, that is not the issue here. Imagine this other human being, living a life in a different country with families, friends, thoughts, feelings and needs. He or she made these jeans or shirt, so you could wear it.
Same goes for your phone, laptop, cosmetics, furniture, kitchen utensils, and so on. All those things you own are made for you by another human being, whom you are thus connected to. Even imagine the house you live in, and what it’s made off. Other humans build this house for you out of wood, stone or concrete. Maybe those humans are not alive anymore. But they had a life like you, and thanks to what they did in their lifetime, you now have shelter in your lifetime.
Think about what you had for breakfast. Where did it come from? Usually we only meet the people who sell us food in shops or restaurants. Imagine now where the food chain really starts. Is this tomato grown at a small farm or a multinational company? Imagine the food producers who keep the crops for our food. How they grow and harvest, with machines or by hand. Imagine the people in the food industry and on farms living a life just like you, with everything that comes with it. Imagine that without food producers you would have no access to food, or at least access to very limited products.
These are just some examples of how you are connected to other unknown human beings every day, without realising it. If you keep thinking of it, there are many, many more. Now maybe you can extend your imagination to all human beings in your city, country, or even your planet. Imagine every one of them is living a life like you. In total there are 7.7 billion people experiencing, feeling, needing and thinking just like you. If you fully realize this, it can feel a bit overwhelming or incomprehensible. But it can also feel reassuring that there are so many others that you share the same human experience with. Whether the content of their particular lives, their stories, is completely different from yours, in a lot of things you are exactly the same.
And it’s not just human beings we are connected to. Let’s go back to our food. If you eat meat or animal products, think about the meat, milk or eggs that you buy, and the animals it belongs to. Being raised and fed to become or produce food, imagine the lives those animals live. Maybe their circumstances are not good and the animals suffer, maybe they are kept in better circumstances. Imagine how those animals almost never die naturally and how their lives end in slaughterhouses. How they might feel frightened or confused and suffer pain while dying.
Please note that I’m not stating a moral judgement against animal products, this is emphatically not the point. The exercise is about becoming aware of all the other living beings you are connected to, in this case the animals whose life purpose it is to provide you with food. So think about all the animal beings, offering their lives to you: a human being on the top of the food chain.
Also imagine the grains, pulses, fruits, vegetables and other plants you eat. Imagine that they are living beings too. Human beings have constructed straight, moral borders between animals and plants. To other beings with sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch, we attribute some of the same features we recognise in ourselves. We widely acknowledge now that animals have the ability for pain and suffering. But there is also a more recent view that “trees have friends, feel loneliness, scream with pain and communicate underground via the “woodwide web”.*
Consider what this could mean for the plant-based food you eat. Have you ever thought whether plants suffer when they get cut and get eaten? I’m not sure if they do, and I’m not sure if they don’t. We have no idea what it’s like to be an animal, but we have even lesser clues what it is like to be a plant. Try to imagine what it’s like to be a plant. Become aware of those plants you are connected to, grown in fields or greenhouses. They are living beings who dedicate their lives to feed you, so you can stay alive.
Let’s stay with the plants for a bit longer. They also provide you with oxygen, the first most important thing you need to stay alive. Imagine the trees around you, but also the big forests, woods and seaweeds on the planet. All around the world, these trees and plants are connected to you and keeping you alive, making sure you can breathe air with sufficient oxygen.
And let’s not forget the sun: a big, hot, gassy bulb in the sky that is responsible for our daylight and keeping all beings warm, energized and alive on planet earth. Without the sun, there would be nothing growing here at all. Every living being on earth is connected to the sun.
Interconnectedness is so obviously in front of us all the time, that we stopped noticing. And maybe that’s the reason why we might experience our lives, thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest. But although we may sometimes feel lonely or disconnected, at the same time it is impossible to be alone because we are always connected. Albert Einstein (who never went to space) called this an optical delusion of consciousness: “This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” **
If you imagine the interconnectedness between everybody and everything throughout the planet, you realise how you can never really be an isolated or independent individual. How you can never be held responsible single-handedly for your accomplishments, nor your failures. How we together contribute to beauty and suffering on the planet. Every day, your fellow living beings on earth make it possible for you to live another day of your life. And with everything you do, every choice you make, you too make an impact – small or big – on the lives of other beings throughout the globe. You don’t necessarily need to go space to become aware of that.
* Peter Wohlleben in The Hidden Life of Trees (2015)
** This is noted on Wikiquote as being found in the a letter from 1950, which was quoted in The New York Times (29 March 1972) and a few months later in The New York Post (28 November 1972).