How to Cultivate Belonging

How to Cultivate Belonging

How to Cultivate Belonging

Sebene Selassie

We can contemplate the oneness of humanity and the interconnectedness of all things. We can also know we are different, honor those differences, and understand how they affect the way we treat one another. These ways of thinking, despite existing at separate poles, both represent something true. They exist together. Understanding these opposite truths is key to seeing the world clearly: Rather than weaponizing one truth against the other—an easy pattern to fall into—we have to carve out space somewhere in the middle.

  1. You Belong: A Call for Connection by Sebene Selassie
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Author and meditation teacher Sebene Selassie has been studying how we understand connection and disconnection for decades. Her new book, You Belong, feels like it’s arriving at just the right time: It teaches us how to walk this middle path by getting curious about what it means to exist with one another. It’s rich with history, ancient spiritual wisdom, and Selassie’s own experiences. It spans from established theories in physics to woo-woo (and justifies both). And ultimately, it lands us at one final truth, the product of some number of paradoxes: You and every person around you, whether you love or hate them, belong to one other.

A Q&A with Sebene Selassie

You Belong begins with a paradox: “Although we are not one, we are not separate. And although we are not separate, we are not the same.” Why is that the foundation for your discussion of belonging?

I think a good paradox is at the heart of most truth. In Mahayana Buddhism, this is referred to as the doctrine of the two truths, which refers to the absolute truth and the relative truth. The thing about them is that they’re both true.

The absolute truth: Most spiritual traditions and philosophies that have any substance or merit recognize the paradox of our existence. Ancient wisdom and Indigenous knowledge systems tell us that we are interconnected: There’s this South African idea of ubuntu, or in North American Indigenous wisdom, “all my relations”—the idea that we are all connected and affect one another. It’s also the truth of modern science that observation itself affects the nature of reality. Things appear to function separately but exist only in relation to one another. So there are what seem like illusions or delusions to our perceptual reality. Things are energetically much more connected than our ordinary senses can tell us, and there is so much more interconnection than on just that fundamental physical level.

The relative truth: However, we can turn to absolute truth as a way to not reckon with this other truth, which is that we live in a relative reality, and we have separate bodies, and those come with separate identities and experiences. Not to mention the systems of inequality and oppression that have historically resulted from that sense of separation.

What role does curiosity play in understanding this paradox?

Being curious about what’s really happening is key both to our personal transformation and to our collective transformation. We often want to lean toward what’s most comfortable. This shows up just in our day-to-day lives: We crave pleasure and comfort and ease, we move away from things that are difficult, and we grasp things that are easier. On a meditative level, we tend to move away from things that are uncomfortable, and often that becomes a bypass, where we’re not really letting go of our rage or our sadness, but we’re actually just clinging to states that are more pleasant.

It’s the same when we’re talking about these two truths. We lean more toward one or the other, depending on which one we’re more comfortable with. That comfort is complicated because we might be more comfortable with the harmony of “we are all one” and “I don’t see difference.” We see this show up in people who would say, “I don’t see race.” Alternatively, we might cling to the complexity of our separation and our differences. Because we are so aware of the hurt and the pain of that truth, we may be caught in our rage. And rage is very valid. But we can stay stuck there, not recognizing the other truth—that we are connected.

I find that being curious about our own patterning and conditioning allows us to see where we tend to gravitate to one truth and helps us get interested about the other one. If we tend to cling to the harmony, we might ask: What are we avoiding? Maybe the discomfort of having to deal with this truth of separation and disconnection and oppression. Or if we cling to the righteousness of our rage, then are we dismissing the truth of our interconnection?

How does personal identity affect how we perceive reality?

We talk about marginalized groups as if being on the margins is a deficit in some way. That deficit model acknowledges that resource allocation and access as well as systems of harm happen because of marginalization, but there’s also an inverse to that model: We imagine that people in the center have objectivity, when in fact what they have is just a perspective of power and dominant culture.

In sociology, this is called standpoint theory. Standpoint theory says that people on the margins often have a greater view and better understanding of the reality we all live in because they can see more. If we think about the most marginalized people in our societies, they often have perspectives of the reality that they come from, but they also have the perspective of the dominant culture because that’s what is broadcast by the media. That’s what they see all around them. And often people from the margins have to physically travel to the center because society and capitalism and culture serve the needs of those in that center. You can see it in a city like in New York City. In the outer boroughs, you have more immigrants, poor people, and people of color, and all of us have to travel into Manhattan, the wealthiest and most elite part of the city, in order to go to work, get services, and take part in particular activities. Whereas the people from the center much more rarely travel to the margins. Even people at the center who have contact with some diversity in their lives need to look at how that happens: Is it people from the margins moving into your center and into your world? Do you truly have an understanding of the margins and the people from the margins? Those people have to take a look at the strength, perspective, and empowerment of having a clearer picture, which is different from how we often see it.

“We imagine that people in the center have objectivity, when in fact what they have
is just a perspective of power and dominant culture.”

This certainly doesn’t encompass the whole of reality, but it’s one way of seeing something that we usually maybe don’t see in this way.

How do we cultivate a sense of belonging within ourselves and within our communities?

As my friend Reverend angel Kyodo williams says, you can’t have outer change without inner change. Or as bell hooks says, if you’re fucked up and you lead the revolution, you’re going to have a fucked up revolution. If we want to see change in our communities or in the wider culture, we need to start with ourselves. We need to do the inner work, cultivating that sense of belonging within ourselves that we hope will extend outward so that there’s less polarization, less division, less inequality, and less violence.

It starts with examining that inner sense of not belonging. This is not only an intellectual exercise. Although we do some reflection and contemplation of our minds, our emotions, and our thoughts, we really have to start with the body. That’s the first place we start not belonging: feeling in some way that our bodies are wrong. Trauma is stored in the body and shows up in many ways. It could have something to do with our ideas of how our bodies should look, but it’s also rooted in disconnection from how our bodies actually feel. The tendency, especially in this culture, to intellectualize things, to go straight into the head and not actually have a sense of the body, is an issue here.

I use “embodied awareness” as a synonym for “mindfulness.” Mindfulness is a great word in many ways, but it’s not a perfect translation of the ancient tradition it’s meant to represent: sati. When this ancient Pali word “sati” was first translated into English in 1881, “mind” was put right in the beginning of the translation. Our collective understanding of mindfulness is now centered on the mind itself. But “sati” in its original meaning is really this sense of remembering our full capacity for freedom, and that doesn’t happen only in our heads. It happens initially through this capacity to be fully present. And to be fully present, you have to be present with your body, your heart, and your mind.

Why is mindfulness such a powerful force for change?

I have underestimated—and maybe still do—the importance of self-love. In our culture, it’s so hard to unlearn treating our spiritual growth as a personal improvement project. There’s something almost punitive about the way we approach our spiritual growth, our meditation practice, our personal development. And the more I come to it from a place of genuine self-love and self-understanding, the more freedom I can bring to myself and to others in all of my interactions.

“We have a crisis of imagination in the sense that we often build change in structures that are faulty. So to imagine something different takes a quality of creativity that comes from that embodied freedom.”

Mindfulness is a process of self-forgiveness, self-spaciousness, and self-knowing that is imbued with this love and caring. I wish that I had known that more deeply a decade ago, and my wish for myself is that I continue to deepen in that.

This is not about coming to some perfect idea of how we’ll be in the world or a perfect sense of belonging that never falters—maybe if someone is completely enlightened, but I wouldn’t know that experience. In my experience, mindfulness an ongoing process of remembering. That’s one of my favorite translations: Sati, or mindfulness, has the connotation of remembering. We forget, and then we remember, and then we forget, and we remember, and that embodied awareness is imbued with two qualities: clarity and kindness. Clarity means seeing things really how they are rather than how we are conditioned to see them or how we want to see them. Kindness means meeting what we are experiencing with compassion.

What do we collectively need to make meaningful change in the world around us?

In a lot of ways, we’re in a crisis of intimacy and imagination. So much of our lives is sped up, disembodied, manufactured, and distracted by all that we see and take in. Because of that, we’ve lost an intimacy with our lives. Belonging and freedom and joy, which I understand as synonymous concepts, don’t happen except in the present moment.

When I am really connected to and fully present for my experience, whether that’s eating a blueberry or swimming in the ocean or walking down the street, there isn’t a problem. I can tap into a sense of freedom. We have to become intimate with our experience to understand what freedom is—that means meeting our experience with wisdom and compassion, clarity, and kindness. With that embodied awareness, we uncover the truth of our belonging. And to me, that expression is loving. It’s hard to harm another or disregard pain in ourselves or others when we are fully present.

So many of us are focused on wanting to see change in the world right now, but we need to imagine change. We have a crisis of imagination in the sense that we often build change in structures that are faulty. So to imagine something different takes a quality of creativity that comes from that embodied freedom. We have to imagine from a place of freedom and joy and love. I don’t know what that’s going to look like, but I know that those qualities are integral to our flourishing as a species.

Sebene Selassie is the author of You Belong: A Call for Connection. Selassie studied comparative religion and women’s studies at McGill University and has a master’s in media studies from the New School. She has studied Buddhism for over thirty years, and she now teaches workshops, retreats, and courses on meditation. In addition to twenty years of service in arts-based learning nonprofits, Selassie has served on the boards of New York Insight Meditation Center, the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, and Sacred Mountain Sangha.

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