A sense of Belonging
‘In our relentless quest for human contact, we have forgotten the solace and friendship of nature.’
(Donohue: 1998, 74)
We long to be. This is one way of breaking down the word belong. A longing to be, to be seen, acknowledged, accepted, loved. There is a need to be in an intimate relationship. This need ignites our motivation to choose a partner. We create friendship groups and communities around us, or we actively look for communities of like-minded souls to join. Our first sense of belonging or not belonging is with the family we are born into. When we reach maturity, we long to build a family of our own. The way we behave in this group will be influenced by our experience in our original family. We may unconsciously act out patterns of behaviour from our first family. We will carry a cultural set of rules that we feel are the norms. Depending on whether or not we liked the original culture we may decide to carry on the same culture or develop a different one in our own new family.
Humans are hard-wired to live in packs. We depend on each other for survival. Belonging to a group is a fine balance between blending in with the cultural status quo and expressing one’s individuality. We crave acceptance from one another. We don’t join groups where our views and ways of being are contrary. For our mental health and well-being we avoid isolation and loneliness.
At times, although we are surrounded by others we feel alone. When we lose connection with ourselves we feel lonely. A sense of belonging comes through a deep connection ‘within’. The foundation for all relationship is the one we have with ourselves.
What is the self?
Carl Rogers, founder of person-centred therapy, claimed that there were two possible selves that we could be. One is a false self or self concept and the other is a truer natural self, which is the sense of being a living organism that is fluid and ever-changing. The false self or idea of me is fixed and rigid. It is a construct of thoughts made up of introjected values from people and the culture around me. Sometimes it can be a tyrannical perfect ideal. ‘This is what I should be like.’ Anything that is perceived as being unlovable is pushed away. We project these denied traits of our own onto others.
Split off parts of self
The last thing we want to feel is shame. When we feel ashamed, we deem ourselves unlovable and unworthy of belonging. When we hold that perfectionist ideal picture of ourselves in our heart then it is often a moment of disconnection from self and others.
Brene Brown, the shame and vulnerability researcher, describes how this works in her Ted talks and books. She says, ‘Authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are.’ (Brown; 2010,73)
We really connect with others when we are being true to ourselves. If we can be compassionate about our own pain then we can connect and empathise with others. Shunning others comes from a habit of repressing our own pain.
Nondual view of self
From a nondual perspective there is no separation. Separation is merely a notion. This explains why when we are truly authentic then there is a sense of being connected. What we are is life spontaneously happening. Life is in a constant flow and flux of change. To help ourselves feel more comfortable we write a storyline around events and identify with the landscape of the world we construct in our minds, the virtual reality in our heads. This brings us back to the fixation on the story of me. We highly value ownership. This is not merely a desk it is my desk or your desk. This is my house, my values, my truth. We can take umbrage if someone disagrees with our way of thinking. Many humans believe it is a lack of acknowledgement of this connection with everything that has led to our disrespect of our environment. Humans pollute, cause global warming, threaten other species.
Life is varied and people are unique. If the world did not show an abundance of diversity life would be boring. Yet accepting each other’s differences is our greatest challenge. We are split within our self concept into top-dog and under-dog positions. We project the things we don’t like onto others or put ourselves down, becoming stuck in a sense of shame. Unconsciously we bully ourselves and each other. This can be felt most severely in relationships and the workplace. Workplace stress is about losing heart and feeling overwhelmed with having too much work or being disconnected from the fruits of our labour.
We exist in a world of apparent paradox. When we celebrate self and other, diversity and uniqueness then we feel happy and life flows more freely. It is simple, yet, when we split off the uncomfortable feelings, we make belonging seem difficult. To belong we need to embrace not only parts of ourselves but the whole of what we are. We learn to sit with uncomfortable feelings. Avoiding them is the root of all addiction and prejudice. We are addicted to the self concept or false self. In the moments when we are not, there is a sense of freedom.
In these moments of freedom there is a sense of present awareness. We are not focused on self-identity but fully engaged in what is going on. Athletes call this ‘being in the zone’. This sense of simply being in the world gives a sense of belonging that is deeper than the experience of belonging to a group. It is impersonal and beyond any egoic claim. A sense of presence connects us with everything in life. Its essence is loving and joyful, a child-like appreciation of life. We can be alone or with others, there is connection, often coupled with a sense of wonder or contented appreciation. We are not fighting life by imposing ‘shoulds’ or ‘oughts’ or splitting into top-dog and under-dog to try to control events. When there is no expectation that things could be different then there is no disappointment.
The young naturalist, Dara McAnulty captures this visceral sense of connectedness when he describes the experience of holding a goshawk chick.
‘This is who I am. This is who we all could be. I am not like these birds but neither am I separate from them.’ (McAnulty: 2020,59)
And yet we do not sit in this presence all the time, at least, this is the illusion. When there is discomfort emotionally, we feel as if we fall out of grace with ourselves and life loses its charm, temporarily. Really it doesn’t fall away but our self-identity, the fixed concept of self returns to the driver’s seat to try and control things and make us feel safe. When we identify with this control aspect, presence seems to be lost.
Mindfulness practice has now become widespread in the West as a discipline towards inhabiting this present awareness. Meditation was designed as a tool to help us to wake up from the sleepwalking state of thinking that we are separate people.
Presence appears, as the ego-mind quietens or as we identify less with the voice in our heads. At any moment, we can sense that ever-present joy and identify as being that. Sitting with uncomfortable feelings and not trying to fix ourselves can enhance a sense of presence and belonging. Yes, this is what I am. Being with what is, is belonging.
Being means vulnerability
Yet, to be authentic means dropping the mask of the self concept. It feels vulnerable. We are afraid of being seen to be weak, so we distract ourselves and put on our armoured sense of self to seem more attractive to others. A pointless cyclical game that we unconsciously agree to play. Perhaps it is time to stop playing. As Brene Brown’s research has shown, this vulnerable place is the birthplace of love and creativity, it is the gateway to a sense of presence and our true belonging.
O’Donohue, J. (1998) Eternal Echoes, London, Bantam Press
Rogers. C. R. (1961) A Therapist’s View of psychotherapy - On Becoming A Person, London, Constable and Co
Brown, B. (2012) Daring Greatly, London, Penguin
Brown, B. The Gift of Imperfection: (2010) Let go of who you think you are supposed to be and embrace who you are, Minnesota, Hazelden Publishing
McAnulty, D. (2020) Diary of a Young Naturalist, Dorset, Little Toller Books
The Crazy Wisdom of the Unknown
There is so much focus on knowledge today. We value expert opinion. The worldwide web gives access to global facts and figures on all issues. There is an ever-increasing desire to know and understand. Scientists strive for a theory of everything. If we know something, then we believe we can manage and control it. We can stand safe on the ground of knowledge, secure in our knowing. But is this an illusionary ground?
If you can’t measure it then it doesn’t exist
What happens when we can’t label or measure? What if we trust part of ourselves that is not the familiar voice in the head that usually takes the lead?
I was talking to a friend who is an expert on whiskey. He is researching the physiological and psychological influences on savouring whiskey. Neuroscientist believe that our ability to taste the myriad of different flavours within a malt may be limited by our ability to articulate, to label the experience in words. If we don’t have the words for it then the experience remains lost to us, beyond the horizon of knowledge.
Are we limited by our over-identification with thought?
We are certainly confined by what has gone before. If the people around us haven’t acknowledged something, then we as children learn to ignore the experience. We live in the world of the known and are encouraged to do so as we develop. We grow to adulthood to inhabit the land of experience and remain suspicious of the unknown. We are not encouraged to see through the eyes of innocence and wonder at the world as it is, as we are seeing it for the first time in every moment. We learn to label and familiarise our surroundings and feel safe. But as the adage warns, familiarity breeds contempt. When we think we know something it can seem to grow dull. Think of the challenges of a long-term relationship or the way we place people in boxes. If we imagine that we know how a person is then we fail to see them fully, everyday as they change. We stop being surprised them.
There is an effect of labelling and measuring that creates a distance, a subject-object relationship with the world. Experience is strained through the sieve of the mind. Martin Buber described the two choices of how we can relate: the first is an I-It perspective where people, and our bodies are diminished to the status of inferior objects. The alternative is an I-thou relationship where we respect and honour the diversity of appearance of everyone and everything in the world. We are not limited to the way we think things should be. For instance, we don’t size up our bodies against traditionally packaged, airbrushed beauties and slim models.
Much of our daily outlook is governed by the I-It view where we feel disconnected and remote from our environment, from people and our own bodies. Our fear of losing control inhibits a spontaneous appreciation of life.
What happens when we learn to be mindful and look through the eyes of a child again? Can we unlearn our learnedness and trust not-knowing? What happens when we have this fresh view of possibility?
How does life feel different?
Who or what do you become when you drop the old labels and opinions of yourself?
When we focus on the alive sense of not-knowing what happens? How can we bring that wisdom into everyday life? How can we be in touch with the gentle wonder, joy and love that is the essence of life? Can we trust this crazy wisdom?
Can I let the unknown be a guiding light?
Let’s experiment and find out…
‘Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.’
This Buddhist proverb refers to our habitual response to pain. Pain is part of life but the stories that we weave around it brings suffering.
Am I the voice in my head?
We tend to believe our stream of thoughts to be true and use them to carve out our identity. The idea that there is a solid sense of self springs from childhood. When we believed in the name given to us, we hung our hat on this concept. For instance, my name is Halina, I am a person. Everything in this body is me and everything outside of it is ‘not me.’ We create an idealised version of ourselves. We want the world to be nice to us so that we feel safe. We develop an idea of how we would prefer the world to be based on the responses we have from our parents or family members. If I am good, they tend to show more love. These conditions for obtaining love are internalised as a map of conduct. We have conditions of worth, a rule book to map our own behaviour against. If I am hard-working, a success, then I will find more happiness and love.
We begin to believe the map of reality in our heads. Then we mistake this map for reality. We notice the discrepancies. When reality doesn’t live up to our expectations this causes suffering.
As we master language we learn to label. The world is split into this and that, subject/object. Although we are born into a nondual, undifferentiated reality we soon forget this view in favour of the virtual world in our heads. We relate to the objects that we have labelled and weave them into our map. Thought becomes infused with emotion as we notice our performance. We split experience into good and bad and try to avoid the bad. These balls of emotionally infused thought layer the internal map that symbolises the world. We forget that what we are perceiving and believing in the map, which is not reality at all. In our desire to control we split everything and ourselves in to two parts, good and bad or, commonly, top-dog and under-dog. When we feel a sense of lack of confidence in our own ability it is often because we are split in two and our top-dog is putting us down. At that moment we only focus on being the under-dog or victim, feeling bad about ourselves.
Thirty years ago, I was disabled out of work with a back injury. During the months that followed I felt stuck at home, incapacitated.
I missed my old life, friends, work, and independence. There was felt pain in my body. But my levels of suffering were dependent on what I thought about the pain. If I felt sorry for myself and believed that I shouldn’t be at home, then my mood plummeted. Now, not only did I have back pain but felt miserable to boot.
Letting go of Control
Eventually I stopped railing against the pain. Even though I didn’t like it, I accepted what was happening and I began to heal. This painful period was life changing. It taught me two things:
- Over-identifying with thought causes unhappiness
- I am not in control
Thoughts are not Nurturing
The Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron wrote this simple fact in her latest book, ‘Welcoming the Unwelcome.’ She suggests that we are afraid of uncomfortable feelings, so we avoid them by getting lost in thought.
Letting go of Hope and Despair
Do I ever slip back into the old habitual style of thinking? Sure, I do. But it never has the same sense of hope and despair. Hope is living for a future that never comes and despair is living in regret of the things I haven’t achieved in the past.
The story of what was and what might be are both virtual realities. Living in my head has lost its appeal.
But I will never change!
In fact, things change all the time. My thought stream provides a set of beliefs that I hang my identity on. Even identity changes a little from day to day. I can retell myself stories about who I am, who I should be and how others should treat me. I can appear quite solid, confident, or lost and confused. When I live in a world of ‘me’ and ‘not me’, I can project the things that I don’t like onto others. This is the root of judgement and prejudice. I stop seeing myself and others realistically, warts and all. When I only want to be good and feel good, I battle against life.
‘This shouldn’t be happening!’
Thoughts like these bring suffering. When I believe that I am separate and stuck in my body then life is depressing. When I see that what I am is a fluid, living presence, in constant flux and change then life has a sense of wonder.
Once I stop giving myself a false sense of security by thinking that I am in control, life is adventure. The ordinary seems extraordinary.
I’m not good enough
Striving to prop up the façade of how I would like to be seen causes suffering. The most common misconception that many of us carry around is the belief that I am not good enough. This belief generates a sense of shame and a longing for love.
We seek love and security in everything we do. We seek love outside of ourselves as we have lost the sense that our essence is loving.
As a therapist I have noticed that my clients and students also over-identify with thinking. Although this doesn’t bring them joy, it brings a false sense of security as the old storyline is familiar.
People come for therapy for different reasons. In most cases, our work together involves exploring alternative ways of seeing life. Dropping habitual expectations and disappointments brings freedom.
Therapeutic work with individuals and couples helps people to find the way home to the simple truth that the love we seek is already what we are.