The Existence Of Family And The Non-Existence Of Self

From the book ‘Baby Loves Quarks!’

Iwatch the children run around with their cousins, or actually I don’t watch them. Like quarks, children have no position until they’re observed. They can’t be doing anything naughty until you see them, so I try to just not see.

So, (out of the corner of my eye) I see them running around—endlessly amused at a praying mantis in the garden—and I remember my own childhood. That joy at just being with other children, hiding under the buffet table stealing cutlets, maybe playing a video game, falling asleep on couches while the parents drink.

I’m old enough to have grown up myself, and to have seen cousins grow, and to see the cycles of life (and death) pass through families. I’ve felt the joy that other people’s children bring to a family, how houses fill up with little voices, how doors close with teenagers, and how young adults eventually leave. I’ve seen how houses fill, and how houses empty. I’m nearly 40.

I think of my 97-year-old grandmother, at home in the place I grew up, briefly. Her garden seems so small now, but in my childhood it was full of relatives, full of energy. I barely knew anyone but they all wanted a kiss and a sniff. For Christmas she’d sprinkle some grated coconut under the tree and tell us it was snow, give us little snips of coconut wine. When I was just a little baby, she used to carry me, me clutching onto her earlobe.

Now the house is largely empty. She tends the garden herself, but especially after COVID and the fuel shortages, people don’t visit so much. There’s certainly no parties. I bring my children and they briefly run around while Achchi feeds them way too many biscuits. The house is briefly alive for a moment, but a moment is all it is. I’m just another photo on the mantlepiece again. I don’t know if I’ll ever see her again.

On our way out of Sri Lanka (temporarily), we stay with my wife’s family in India, which is where the aforementioned cousins be. This house is alive now, at another point in the life cycle of community. The cousins run around so much that two of them get grounded. My kids stay up so let they get cranky.

We all eat together, we drink together, when I’m here I generally don’t touch money. It’s lucky because I can only withdraw $70 of forex a week from my Sri Lankan bank account. It’s still more than I need. There is a different existence here, different from my bank account, my name, my identity. Within family we share resources, we use relational names (brother, sister, uncle, aunt), and who we are is related. We’re simply not functioning as individuals. It’s a different plane of being.

I think the children understand this better than we do. They’re always rushing together (like quarks), they’re always demanding things of the adults, they’re always climbing on laps and heads with impunity. They—so much closer to the womb—understand the intrinsic interconnection of life, expressed through the eternal cry of Mommy! Mommy!

They always say ‘born alone, die alone’, but I’ve never understood this. You’re literally born connected to your mother, and someone has to physically cut you loose. But, inshallah, you’re never alone emotionally. There’s just an air gap but, god willing, that feeling doesn’t have to leave. And when you die you are, if you’re lucky, surrounded by people, but no matter what everyone gathers around for your funeral. You are shepherded out of this life by the flock. You’re dead, but you can’t say it’s lonely.

In birth and death it’s obvious that there is an individual self, but is it so obvious, really? When a baby is fresh out the feds they don’t know that. It shocked me how completely useless newborns are, and for so many months. They’re really not fully baked when they come out at all. They’re fully dependent for a long time, and when they don’t have that physical connection, they scream. Many of us go through life still screaming the same basic need, just more complicatedly.

I sit around watching our young family, connected to other families, and it doesn’t feel like a nice thing happening to me. It feels like an entirely different plane of being. The Buddha said there is no-self, but that idea is destroyed in dualistic language. The real idea is that there is both no self and many selves. It’s all illusion.

Hence I can have an identity as an individual, and as part of a family, or part of a nation, it’s all just different ways of looking at things. None is fundamentally more real than the other. Children know this intrinsically, until we ‘educate’ them out of it and then they leave. Then they start a new family and the cycle begins again. Families are dying and being reborn all the time. It’s always beautiful, always painful, such is life on the wheel.

You can see it in meditation, or just sitting around watching children, or—better yet—being a child. Life never really changes from the moment of birth, that feeling of a confusing mass of sensation and the relief of being held by somebody. We put more words and labels on the experience, but it’s always the same feeling. It’s always confusing, and the only relief is love and maybe eating.

For my children it’s obvious that we don’t just exist as individuals, they still depend on us for their basic digestive functions (eating, cleaning their butts). And yet as adults we also depend on each other for these functions (cooking, having a sewer system) but we act so aloof because we have bank accounts. We should honestly learn from the children.

No man is an island, nor are they a man. We are all part of families, of communities, of ecosystems, of bigger and smaller identities, all constantly shifting. The evidence of our eyes deceives us, there are in fact many more ways to see. The reality of our body conceals us, we are in fact a multiplicity.

I think about this because I’m not naturally the most ‘family person’. I suck at maintaining relationships, somewhat willfully. That’s me in the corner, losing my religion. And yet—through my children, through my wife—I can feel myself drawn into the vortex of family quite joyfully. Like my distant and cerebral grandfather, I am simply surrounded by loving family, despite doing little about it.

Hence I sit there and observe my children, not having any particular position until I observe them. We have this kids book about quarks and the little subatoms are holding hands, it’s adorable. I think of that when I see my children with their cousins.

We’re all connected and we only shatter into individual positions upon observation. But if we observe very closely it’s almost like not observing. In every Buddha there is a child, in every child a Buddha. Then everything is one, everything is nothing, everyone is no one, everyone is everyone. As Lauryn Hill said, everything is everything. I think about this as I sit around pointedly not interacting with my family to write this. Now I must take your leave. Somebody has pinched someone else and the boundaries between self and other have become screaming reality.