The whole in part

Separating an object into component parts and then ascribing that object’s existence to the coming together of those parts is reflected in the way most of us conceptualize the world. We call this reductionism, and from one perspective it is correct. For example, taking an automobile as object, we typically view its various components as the parts necessary for the automobile’s existence. If the wheels are missing, the auto won’t be able function as an auto, and in a certain sense is no longer an automobile; if it can’t move, we call it junk.

Although an auto can be disassembled piece by piece into parts, if even one single part is missing the remaining parts do not add up to a complete auto. If the auto is incomplete, we might even say that each individual part then is junk because it is the whole that allows each part to fulfill its function.

Using this metaphor, what emerges is an intriguing situation in which each part is functionally absent without the presence of the whole, a reversal of our usual view. Rather than the parts powering the whole, it is the whole which bestows power to each part. If wholeness is lacking, the parts themselves have no actual power, only potential power.

Seeing our world from the perspective of wholeness can feel quite strange, as if the reality of parts is an illusion. In one sense, it is, for the world is at once complete and always whole, all “parts” participating equally in a unified simultaneous spontaneous expression. Our inclination to identify parts, discriminate, divide, find difference, and make judgment is the product of ordinary mind, and ordinary mind is notoriously subject to confusion. By relying on our habitual frames of reference, we repeatedly fail to see the wholeness of totality, and this then leads to further confusion.

Similar confusion pervades the understanding of cause and effect. Once again, our tendency is to see outcomes (effects) as the result of the coming together of separate parts (causes), and we readily find ways to support that conclusion. However, from the perspective of totality, effect generates its cause. This is more difficult to see; although cause is simultaneous with effect, this reality is not always immediately apparent. For example, only once the mortgage crisis suddenly became visible did the reasons for it become obvious. Thus we can say the event generated the cause, for if the crisis event had not arisen, the cause would have remained invisible. Seeing things in this way – events generating causes – is not of our usual way of understanding.

Is there a practical application of these principles in everyday life? In totality we observe the complete inter-penetration and mutual interdependence of whole and part, cause and effect; they are inseparable, simultaneous, spontaneous and continuously self-generating. Resting in this complete and inclusive quality of wholeness opens up the possibility for us to let go of our habitual labeling and blaming in favor of a more grateful and generous experience of becoming.

We are simultaneously part and whole, interconnected to all other parts and the whole. We are both cause and effect, inextricably woven into the fabric of all events. This, Buddhist nun and author Pema Chodren says, is “the wisdom of no escape.” I say, relax and enjoy the show.