If we are going to open humanity up to a global story beyond one of overconsumption, stress, and unsustainable practices, we first need to change the stories within ourselves. Living in America, we mask our stress and fear behind small doses of pleasure obtained through consumption. Stress in America has increased in recent years and is more likely to cause physical symptoms than in the past.1 We have to change our relationship with our past, present, and future so that we can change our relationship with others and the environment. By coming from a place of love and compassion for ourselves, can we spread those values and reach in unity for a sustainable future.
The purpose of this paper is to share my research about interconnectedness and how it might serve a sustainable future. Interconnectedness is the oneness we feel within ourselves, with others, and with the environment. It comes from a deep understanding that, in the grand scheme of things, we are all connected. Even on a microscopic level, we each have organelles working together in every cell that are connected and transmitting information from one cell to another. They form organs and organ systems that come together to create a whole person. Each person is part of a larger social structure that is also inherently embedded in the surrounding environment. In science, we call these socio-ecological systems. One common example is the waste management system, which includes people coupled with land and aquatic ecosystems. There are countless other examples of socio-ecological systems on the planet and they all impact one other. Essentially, we all are of significance and have a place in the world. We are exactly where we need to be right now and it is in the present that we make a difference. That difference starts in who we choose to be in every present moment.
There are many ways of reaching a state of interconnectedness and they all have merit. My research considers three specific pathways to reaching a state of interconnectedness: experiential, intellectual, and embodied. Below, I briefly highlight these pathways with one exemplar for each, selected for the impact it has, as supported by science and my own personal experiences. The experiential pathway is exemplified by connecting to nature, the intellectual pathway delves into neuroscience, and the embodied pathway explores psychedelics. I also see a significant fourth pathway, religion and spirituality, but it would require its own paper. Next, I briefly highlight what I consider, based on my personal research and experience, to be an effective practice for each pathway. Inherently, there are many practices for every pathway and no pathway has a practice that does not include the other pathways as well. In other words, every practice affects us experientially, intellectually, and from an embodied perspective. Yet, I personally feel some are more influential than others and have arranged this article as such. My intention is to empower you as a reader to find what practices make sense for you to follow in your journey toward interconnectedness. The diagram below shows these three pathways with correlating practices, including more examples than written in this piece to remind readers that they have options and there are many different ways to reach a state of interconnectedness. It is a personalized experience and will be different for anyone who goes on this journey.
Connecting to Nature Pathway
As we become more urbanized, we get further away from the natural environment. Our ancestors spent generations evolving with the Earth and only recently have we become disconnected from it. Yet, spending time in nature keeps us grounded and connects us back to our ancestors by reminding us how we used to live. Nature also improves psychological, social, and emotional well-being as well as makes us more mindful.2 It can also restore cognitive function after immersion3 and boost positive affect.4 The University of East Anglia also recently discovered that “exposure to greenspace reduced the risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease… and levels of salivary cortisol, a physiological marker of stress”.5 Essentially, spending time connecting to nature can benefit our mind and body while making us feel rejuvenated, calm, and improving our overall well-being.
Connecting to Nature Practice: Diaphragmatic Breathing
Try the act of resting one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach while breathing deeply, extending the stomach and not moving the chest. This act is called diaphragmatic or belly breathing, and it results in numerous health benefits including reduced stress, anxiety, and increased positive affect.6 Diaphragmatic breathing is used to lessen the stress response and engage the parasympathetic nervous system. When we are stressed, we often times unknowingly hold our breath or take slow, shallow breaths, causing our fight-or-flight system to engage and make the response worse. Diaphragmatic breathing deactivates that stress response and encourages relaxation. This technique can be used throughout the day and is recommended for at least 15-20 minutes daily or as little as 5 minutes before a stressful event.7 It is also an excellent practice to do outside with the intention of connecting to nature. As our bodies relax and return to a state of calm, opportunities increase to listen to the sounds of the trees and the wind. We become centered and grounded when practicing diaphragmatic breathing outside purely by becoming immersed in the experience and with the intention of connecting to nature. This practice is the first I cover because it brings us back to a state of balance, which can also be found in all undisturbed natural systems and processes.
Neuroscience and Ontology Pathway
The intellectual pathway is neuroscience and ontology. Ontology is “the branch of metaphysics concerned with the nature and relation of being”.8 This topic is meant to help the intellectual and more linear thinkers to understand that we are inherently good, connected, and altruistic. Ulluwishewa9 studies this topic and states that greed and fear “are not intrinsic to human beings,” but that we are selfless and loving. It is very easy to dismiss this, but mirror neurons have evolved so that we can feel what others feel, making it so we want them to feel good so that we in turn feel the same. We as humans have evolved by helping each other and living in close knit communities that have only very recently changed. Our neuroplasticity has allowed us to find the best ways to stay afloat in past and current environments, but we can also transform ourselves into new experienced states of love, connection, and inner harmony.10
Neuroscience and Ontology Practice: Gratitude
Gratitude is defined as the affirmation of good in the world that comes from outside ourselves.11 This practice reminds us that we are inherently connected to the people around us because it focuses on the good that we see in our lives and how we give to and gain from others. It was chosen for the intellectual practice because it involves taking time to sit and think about what you are grateful for. The most effective way of practicing gratitude is to make it a habit, either by journaling or setting aside time to give thanks every day. Robert Emmons, a researcher that has been studying gratitude for over a decade, discovered a myriad of beneficial effects from keeping a gratitude journal. Emotionally, people feel more alive and have more positive emotions if they practice gratitude.11 Physically, people experience stronger immune systems, become less bothered by aches and pain, lower their blood pressure, and even get better sleep and exercise more.11,12 Socially, gratitude helps connect people by making them more generous, compassionate, forgiving, and outgoing.11 Emmons also says that gratitude helps us stay present, not take things for granted, become more stress resilient, and have higher self-esteem.13
Lastly, I focused on psychedelics because I personally knew little about them. I knew that many people had used them and that there are massive stigmas associated with them, but since I had no knowledge on the subject, I wanted to learn more and practice checking my biases. I found evidence that debunked some of the common concerns about psychedelics, which includes potential psychological or neurological damage, suicidal behavior, or addiction.14-17 I learned that psychedelics have been used for generations by Indigenous societies for spiritual enlightenment and that specific substances such as psilocybin, or magic mushrooms, and LSD are being clinically tested to help with mental illness with positive results.18,19 The history of these substances does not change that they are illegal in many places, likely due to stigma but also because of side effects such as nausea, vomiting, and changes in heart rate. Yet, their use can help people reach a state of interconnectedness when an intention is set beforehand and there is a professional, shaman or psychiatrist, who can help guide the experience.15,18, 20
Psychedelics Practice: Yoga
Not all psychedelic experiences require the use of drugs. Yoga is a psychedelic practice because it impacts the body and mind. Yoga improves mental, physical, and spiritual well-being. With statistical significance, yoga has been shown to decrease mood disturbances, improve negative affect, and reduce self-reported tension and anxiety even when compared to regular exercise.22 It is a practice that can be adapted to suit most physical limitations and with related techniques, can improve flexibility and strengthen muscles.22 Spiritually, yoga can bring people together and deepen one’s sense of spirituality by incorporating other aspects of yoga such as reading moral doctrines.22 Those who do yoga can use it as a way to cleanse the body and prepare the mind for further internal practices.23 In the end, practicing yoga can improve all states of well-being, can be altered to fit a person’s needs, and can cultivates a sense of interconnectedness through its practice.
All-Encompassing Practice: Mindfulness Meditation
Mindfulness Meditation is an all-encompassing practice that can be used during breathwork, a gratitude practice, and yoga. For this reason, it was chosen as a practice that can used regardless of pathway and to enhance other practices. Mindfulness is a state of heightened awareness of internal and external experience, present-centered focus, and detachment from judgement.24 This allows us to be aware of the meaning we naturally attach to events, such as good or bad. In reality, there are as many different views of the world as there are people. We can recognize it as our own interpretation and set it aside, so that we can be content, balanced, effectively manage our emotions, transcend the ego, and bring love to all of our relationships. This practice cultivates a sense of well-being within the practitioner so they may share it with the world and make a difference one interaction at a time.25 For this reason, meditation also has been used as an effective treatment for various mental health conditions.26-28
Interconnectedness, or the sense of oneness with the world, can improve mental, physical, and spiritual well-being. It can help us have a non-judgemental and empowering relationship with ourselves, others, and the environment. It can be attained many ways and by using many different practices. This research provides fundamental knowledge of interconnectedness for the purpose of empowering readers to incorporate interconnectedness practices in their lives and in the way that works best for them. These practices promote love, connectedness, humility, open-mindedness, and a non-judgemental attitude. This is important because if we come from a place of interconnectedness, we can put our biases aside, truly communicate, and work together toward a single vision of a sustainable future. Just as the world is inherently connected, so too is interconnectedness and sustainability. Sustainability is about creating a world that works for everyone, including future generations. I would like to see people come together with love and use their united power to create a sustainable world that works for everyone.
- American Psychological Association. Stress in America [online]. https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2017/state-nation.pdf
- Howell, AJ, Dopko, RL, Passmore, HA & Buro, K. Nature connectedness: Associations with well-being and mindfulness. Personality and Individual Differences 51, 166–171. (2011) (doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2011.03.037).
- Bratman, G, Hamilton, J & Daily, G. The impacts of nature experience on human cognitive function and mental health. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1249, 118-136 (2012).
- Mayer, FS, Frantz, CM, Bruehlman-Senecal, E & Dolliver, K. Why Is Nature Beneficial? Environment and Behavior 41, 607–643 (2008) (doi: 10.1177/0013916508319745).
- Study: Spending Time Outside Is Good for You. Laboratory Equipment (2018).
- Fish, MT (2018). A Primer on Stress and Applications for Evidence-Based Stress Management Interventions in the Recreational Therapy Setting. Therapeutic Recreation Journal, LII, 390–409 (2018) (doi: doi.org/10.18666/TRJ-2018-V52-I4-9013).
- Harvard Medical School. Relaxation techniques: Breath control helps quell errant stress response [online] (2018). https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and- mood/relaxation-techniques-breath-control-helps-quell-errant-stress-response
- Merriam-Webster. Ontology [online] (2018). https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ontology.
- Ulluwishewa, R. Development Aid as a Gift of Love: Re-inventing Aid on a Spiritual Foundation. Problems of Sustainable Development 12, 109-118 (2017).
- Begley, S & Begley, S. Train your mind, change your brain: how a new science reveals our extraordinary potential to transform ourselves. (Ballantine Books, New York, 2008).
- Emmons, R & Stern, R. Gratitude as a Psychotherapeutic Intervention. Journal of Clinical Psychology 69, 846-855 (2013).
- Emmons, R. Why Gratitude Is Good. [online] (2010) https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/why_gratitude_is_good.
- McCullough, M, Tsang, J & Emmons, R. Gratitude in Intermediate Affective Terrain: Links of Grateful Moods to Individual Differences and Daily Emotional Experience. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 86, 295-309 (2004).
- Gable, R. Toward a comparative overview of dependence potential and acute toxicity of 802 psychoactive substances used nonmedically. Am J Drug Alcohol Abuse 19, 263–281 (1993).
- Strassman RJ & Qualls CR. Dose-response study of N,N-dimethyltryptamine in humans. I. Neuroendocrine, autonomic, and cardiovascular effects. Archives of General Psychiatry 51, 85–97 (1994) (doi:10.1001/archpsyc.1994.03950020009001).
- Johansen, Pål-Ørjan & Krebs, T. Psychedelics not linked to mental health problems or suicidal behavior: A population study. Journal of psychopharmacology 29, 270–279 (2015) (doi:10.1177/0269881114568039).
- Le Dain, G. The Non-medical Use of Drugs: Interim Report of the Canadian Government’s Commission of Inquiry. p.106. Physical dependence does not develop to LSD (1971).
- Nichols DE. Psychedelics. Pharmacological reviews 68, 264–355(2016) (doi:10.1124/pr.115.011478).
- Griffiths, R et al. Psilocybin produces substantial and sustained decreases in depression and anxiety in patients with life-threatening cancer: A randomized double-blind trial. Journal of Psychopharmacology 30, 1181-1197 (2016).
- Leary, T, Metzner R & Alpert R. The Psychedelic Experience (University Books, 1969).
- Noggle, JJ, Steiner, NS, Minami, T & Khalsa, S. Benefits of Yoga for Psychosocial Well-Being in a US High School Curriculum: A Preliminary Randomized Controlled Trial. Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics 33, 193-201 (2012).
- Iyengar, BKS. Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patañjali. Philosophy East and West 46, 291-292 (1996).
- Rao, R et al. Role of yoga in cancer patients: Expectations, benefits, and risks: A review. Indian Journal of Palliative Care 23, 225 (2017) (doi:10.4103/ijpc.ijpc_107_17).
- Vago, DR & Silbersweig, DA. Self-awareness, self-regulation, and self-transcendence (S-ART): a framework for understanding the neurobiological mechanisms of mindfulness. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience Vol:6 (2012) (doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2012.00296).
- Anuruddha, Bodhi, & Narada. A comprehensive manual of Abhidhamma: the Abhidhammatta Sangaha of Acariya Anuruddha. (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1999).
- Segal, ZV, Williams, JMG & Teasdale, JD. Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for depression: a new approach to preventing relapse. (The Guilford Press, New York, 2002).
- Bowen, S et al. Relative efficacy of mindfulness-based relapse prevention, standard relapse prevention, and treatment as usual for substance use disorders: a randomized clinical trial. JAMA Psychiatry 71, 547–556 (2014) (doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2013.4546)
- Linehan, MM. Dialectical Behavior Therapy for Treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder: Implications for the Treatment of Substance Abuse. PsycEXTRA (1993) (doi: 10.1037/e495912006-012).