The Myth, and Truth, of Belonging
For most of my life, I longed to belong. I longed to fit in, I longed to achieve success, and I longed to have a soul mate. And yet, also for most of my life I felt I did not belong anywhere.
I was a toddler when my family emigrated from Ethiopia in the early seventies. I felt out of place in an American culture that was a lot less diverse than it is today, and in an immigrant community that was much smaller than it is now. I grew up Black in white neighborhoods, and I didn’t feel like I connected to any one racial culture. I was a girl who was not interested in girlie things.
So, yes, I was the tomboy Black immigrant girl.
Difference does not necessarily mean not belonging, of course, but race, gender, class, sexual orientation, ability, religion, ethnicity, culture, size, politics, profession, lifestyle, and even clothing can become (false) barriers to it.
Into my thirties I assumed there were certain ways to belong, but I did not seem to get them. I was too blackish for the white folks. Not Black enough for the Black folks. Too feminist for heels. Too femme not to do my brows. Too intellectual for the intuitives. Not sufficiently read for the academy. Too political for my party friends. Not radical enough for my activist friends. Too hetero to call myself queer. Too queer to care about most hetero nonsense. Too woo-woo for the skeptics. Not spiritual enough for the spiritual crowd.
Almost everything I’ve pursued in life connects to this longing to belong. I majored in religious studies, feminism, and race and cultural studies searching for answers about belonging. I journaled, doodled, and made videos about belonging. I smoked it, drank it, popped it, and snorted it in an attempt to belong. I went to countless classes, seminars, and retreats chasing belonging. I protested and petitioned to belong. I fasted and juiced to belong.
And, yes, I practiced yoga and meditation in my quest to find belonging – eventually becoming a meditation teacher myself. I’ve now taught meditation for over a decade, and trained in various modalities to help individuals and groups explore transformation and liberation. I am a belonging expert.
The main thing I’ve learned from all of this is that I had been wrong about what belonging actually is.
In fact, belonging is not dependent on things being as we want them to be. It is not necessary to achieve (some definition of) success, behave like everyone else, have the perfect partner, be the perfect size or shape.
In fact, the closer you look at them (in meditation, for example), the more you can see that these measures of “success” aren’t even yours. Habits of comparison and competition are dictated by the society around us, in our families, communities, and cultures.
I love this quote by the great, late Indian spiritual teacher, Krishnamurti. He said (at least, according to Jane Fonda, who popularized it): “You think you’re thinking your thoughts. You are not. You are thinking the culture’s thoughts.”
Fortunately, these forces of oppression and separation need not magically disappear (though that would be nice) for us to experience belonging.
That’s because true belonging lies within. We belong to any moment simply by accepting it for what it is without contention. When we cultivate the capacity to be with what is happening in any moment, then we can connect to belonging.
But even if we don’t connect to it, it’s there. Belonging is my nature: therefore, I belong everywhere and so does everyone else.
Including you. Yes, you—with all your history, anxiety, pain. Yes, everywhere—in every culture, community, circumstance. You belong in this body. You belong in this very moment. You belong in this breath . . . and this one. You have always belonged.
When you don’t like the joke, you belong. When you’re the “only one” of your race, disability, or sexuality, you belong. When you feel hurt or when you have hurt someone else, you belong. When you are down to your last dollars and the rent is due, you belong. When you feel overwhelmed by the horrors of human beings, you belong. When you have a debilitating illness, you belong. When everyone else is getting married, you belong. When you don’t know what you’re doing with your life, you belong. When the world feels like it’s falling apart, you belong. When you feel you don’t belong, you belong.
Now, meditation is called a ‘practice’ for a reason. It takes practice to experience belonging in this way – and that includes frustration, failure and trying all over again. It takes practice to learn how to ground yourself in the present-moment experience of your body, over and over again – when you’re walking the dog, sitting at your desk, making love, having a difficult conversation, or any other moment in your life.
But what’s at stake is much more than our own individual happiness. Our profound sense of not belonging creates what I refer to as the delusion of separation: the belief that you are separate from other people, from other beings, and from nature itself.
And separation begets domination. In feeling separate from someone, especially someone with whom I disagree, there’s a lack of care or connection to their experience.
The forces of separation are within each of us, and also bigger than us. Thus to be truly mindful, truly aware, requires us to see both the inner forces of greed, hatred and delusion; and the outer forces of racism, colonialism, class, and others.
To end domination, each of us must do the work of belonging. We must become curious about who we are, where we come from, and what causes our delusions of separation, both internally and externally. That is the only way they can be undone, for all of us, together.
Born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and raised in Washington, D.C., Seb has now survived breast cancer three times and is a meditation teacher, transformational coach, and community advocate in New York City. She is the author of You Belong: A Call For Connection.