I was recently at a playground with my five-year-old niece Evie. It was a beautiful spring day, and Evie hopped onto a teeter-totter with another little girl about the same age. They teetered up and down — first Evie was up and the other girl was down, then the other girl was up and Evie was down. I’m sure you’re familiar with how this works.
The two kindergarteners locked serious eyes as they tottered, aware that their movement was dependent on the other girl and at any moment one might suddenly end the fun and cause the other a sudden butt-first plummet to the ground. This is not a game you can play alone.
I often notice something similar to a teeter-totter inside my mind. I can go from thinking I am above others to thinking I am below them or equal to them in the course of a few minutes. Last weekend we were eating dinner at a nice restaurant when one of the diners became irate and climbed up onto a chair bellowing out a long denouncement of his 45-minute wait, the restaurant, and everyone in it. As I thought to myself, “I would never do something like that,” my side of the teeter-totter went up, and the ranting man’s went down. I thought about how much more calm, rational and sane I was than this man.
Later, when I saw other people jumping up helpfully to prevent the angry would-be diner from smashing the window, I thought, “Oh, I should have gotten up to help, too.” At that moment, I felt myself plunging from the up position to the down. Now I was looking up at those helping and feeling like I wasn’t as good as they were. Sometimes it happens that I feel I’m equally balanced with the other person. Like when I’m co-teaching a mindfulness class and I think, “We are equally good teachers.” Or when I sneak a cigarette with my son and think, “We are equally unhealthy.”
“When we feel equal, we are still separate. Our practice is to liberate ourselves from all distinctions, to understand I am in you and you are in me. No distinctions. No separation. This is true interbeing.” — Thich Nhat Hanh
Thich Nhat Hanh describes this teeter-totter as our superiority, inferiority and equality complexes. All three of these states of mind cause us to be unhappy because all three of them separate us from other people. Rather than being open to the moment with another person, we are caught in the endless up and down of judgment, or trying desperately to find equal balance. While our mind is busy comparing ourselves to others, the moment in which we could enjoy connection rolls right by us.
The way I understand interbeing, or interdependence, is that without you I cannot be here and without me you cannot be there. You cannot be reading this without me having written it, and I could not be a writer without someone reading my words. Nothing exists by itself. The right side of something can’t exist without its left side. Evie couldn’t be up on the teeter-totter without the other girl being down. Before the angry man stood up on his chair, I couldn’t consider myself a calm, respectful diner. Such judgments can be helpful, but only when we know they are temporary categories that aren’t real or lasting.
Staying on this teeter-totter wastes precious moments and energy and keeps us feeling isolated and alone. Instead of struggling to get above others, feeling guilty because we are below, or desperately trying to maintain a balance, we can let go and see that we inter-are with each other. If someone creates a beautiful masterpiece, we have all contributed. And if someone freaks out at a restaurant, we are in that together too.
When it was time for us to leave the park, Evie and her new friend exchanged a wordless glance that meant that they were done, and together they piloted the teeter-totter to where they could easily climb off. They enjoyed an intimate moment of shared shy smiles, freed from all those distracting ups and downs. Maybe we can follow their lead.