Embracing Simplicity as an Interbeing

Ice ‘pearls’ forming in Jackson Creek, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

I’m a writer and aside from putting out the odd novel and short story, I teach writing for a living.

I teach online courses and tutor students at various writing centres at the University of Toronto on scientific and scholarly writing. I coach fiction writers of novels and short stories to publication. I help writers all over the world achieve clear, accurate, and compelling narrative, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction. I do this by focussing on the clarity and direction of narrative. The key to good narrative and good storytelling—whether it is a historical fantasy or a scholarly essay—is simplicity. Ernest Hemmingway knew that. His writing emulated simple and became profound.

The best writing can take something complex and express it simply. Just as with valid scientific theory (recall Einstein’s ‘simple’ and elegant theory of relativity, E=mc2), effective communication embraces complexity through simple expression and resonates with accuracy and power. Embracing complexity through simplicity is achieved through metaphor, key images and symbols that encompass an entire culture or thought.

If I were to write, “Jack’s office was a prison cell,” you’d have a good idea of what Jack’s office was like. In five simple words the concept and its emotional associations are clearly conveyed. This is because we all have a clear idea of what a prison cell is like. Yours may not be the same imagined prison cell as mine, but the metaphor works as effectively. It’s that simple.

Lately, I’ve taken the lesson of simplicity into my life decisions.

My car on a country road through a snow-covered forest, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

For the past ten years or so, I’ve become a bit of a nomad. After bringing up my family, I left my marriage nest in British Columbia, divested myself of virtually all my possessions (what I own fits in my car—a 1998 Jetta), and traveled across Canada from the west coast to the east coast and Nova Scotia. I lived in Lunenburg and Mahone Bay for several years, spent some time in Toronto, and am currently living in the Kawartha Region of Ontario. Before COVID-19, I travelled the world, through the United States, much of Europe, parts of Africa and Asia and Australia.

What I learned during my travels is that a person doesn’t need that much to live a full life. My health. A safe place to sleep. Food. Adventure for my curious mind. Purpose and meaning (something to live for): good people to love and share my adventures with and a way to feel that I am helping to make this a better world.

Living a simple life helps me find focus, meaning and joy.

In her article in YES! Magazine, Megan Sweas writes that “living simply can help us challenge society’s inequities, live in alignment with nature, and build community.” Sweas argues that a simple lifestyle is an ethical choice: “living simply so that others may simply live.” As the saying credited to Gandhi goes.

Vietnamese Zen Buddhist teacher and author of more than 100 books, Thich Nhat Hanh celebrates 94th birthday (Contributed by Don Farber)

Cultivating the Insight of Interbeing

Buddhist Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh coined the term “interbeing” to describe our interconnectedness. In a 2017 article entitled “The Insight of Interbeing,” Hanh described his experience:

“About thirty years ago I was looking for an English word to describe our deep interconnection with everything else. I liked the word “togetherness,” but I finally came up with the word interbeing. The verb “to be” can be misleading, because we cannot be by ourselves, alone. “To be” is always to “inter-be.” If we combine the prefix “inter” with the verb “to be,” we have a new verb, “inter-be.” To inter-be and the action of interbeing reflects reality more accurately. We inter-are with one another and with all life.

human bodies are ‘shared, rented, and occupied’ by countless other tiny organisms, without whom we couldn’t ‘move a muscle, drum a finger, or think a thought.’ Our body is a community, and the trillions of non-human cells in our body are even more numerous than the human cells. Without them, we could not be here in this moment. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to think, to feel, or to speak. There are, he says, no solitary beings. The whole planet is one giant, living, breathing cell, with all its working parts linked in symbiosis.”

Thich Nhat Hanh

Hanh drew the analogy of a piece of paper to make his point about interbeing:

“If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either. So we can say that the cloud and the paper inter-are…If we look into this sheet of paper even more deeply, we can see the sunshine in it. If the sunshine is not there, the forest cannot grow. In fact, nothing can grow. Even we cannot grow without sunshine. And so, we know that the sunshine is also in this sheet of paper. The paper and the sunshine inter-are. And if we continue to look, we can see the logger who cut the tree and brought it to the mill to be transformed into paper. And we see the wheat. We know the logger cannot exist without his daily bread, and therefore the wheat that became his bread is also in this sheet of paper. And the logger’s father and mother are in it too.”

Thich Nhat Hanh

We inter-are. “Everything relies on everything else in the cosmos in order to manifest—whether a star, a cloud, a flower, a tree, or you and me,” said Hanh.

Hanh argued that this all starts with mindfulness. Mindfulness is rooted in Buddhist meditation. Practicing mindfulness helps us live a fuller and happier life; we become fully focused on the present moment, not absorbed in regrets, plans, worries or other thoughts. When we practice mindfulness we create more stillness which allows us to see more clearly what brings us happiness and what causes suffering. With this awareness, we can make positive choices in everyday life.

Those who practice mindfulness and contemplate interbeing seek “to protect life, practice generosity, love responsibly, speak lovingly, and listen deeply, as well as consume in a way that preserves peace, joy, and wellbeing in oneself, others, and the Earth,” said Hanh. He added that “understanding how their own consumption—of a burger, a glass of wine, Facebook, or gossip—causes harm is what spurs them to give up such ‘toxins’ and consume less.”

To live more simply is to live more lightly on this beautiful planet. And that’s a story worth reading…

The creek’s thalweg reveals itself as the creek ice melts, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

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