Have You Ever Felt Like You Didn’t Quite Belong? Have you ever looked around and wondered why connecting with other people, or even fully embracing yourself, seems somehow out of reach? You long for a sense of belonging–to yourself, to loved ones, to a community or cause– yet it remains elusive.
This universal need, sometimes rising to the level of a profound yearning, is what we’re exploring in today’s conversation with Sebene Selassie. Sebene is a teacher, speaker, and author of the book, You Belong: A Call for Connection, which provides practical guidance for cultivating a deeper sense of belonging within ourselves and the world.
Growing up, Sebene felt like, in her words, a big weirdo. I think so many of us can relate. Born in Ethiopia, then raised in predominantly white neighborhoods in Washington, D.C., she stood out in nearly every way. An immigrant, who was in her words, a Black girl who loved Monty Python and UB40, explored Asian philosophy, and did not go to prom, she never believed she belonged.
But, rather than try to just fit in, those early experiences planted the seeds of exploration. In Sebene’s view, we all belong to each other and to all things (whether we want to or not). Our individual freedom affects absolutely everyone and everything. Our collective freedom depends on each and every one of us. There are ancient traditions and modern creative contemplative practices that can reconnect us to these truths of belonging.
Over time, she came to believe something incredibly powerful. It was a bit of a revelation. And, to me, an incredibly powerful idea, and invitation.
Belonging, she says, begins from within – by first knowing and connecting with ourselves. We cannot find belonging with others until we belong to ourselves. And that can’t happen until we truly do the work to know ourselves, then embrace what we’ve discovered.
So join us as we discuss the weirdness and grace of belonging, the paradoxes of oneness and separation, unlocking trauma from the body, and what it truly means to belong- starting from within ourselves, and radiating outward into the world.
If you LOVED this episode:
- You’ll also love the conversations we had with Rev. angel Kyodo williams about what we leave outside the room when we seek to fit in.
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photo credit: Kat Bawden
Sebene Selassie (00:00:00) – And if we haven’t done the work, we’re often just projecting our lacks and insecurities and neediness rather than our true needs and our true possibilities. When we’ve done the work, we can actually show up much more clear. And that doesn’t mean perfect. Does it mean that we won’t make mistakes or what? We need to work through our stuff, But there are gradations of that, right? And so not showing up, just completely traumatized and reverberating that out onto everyone else, but actually knowing ourselves well and knowing what it is we have to offer.
Jonathan Fields (00:00:35) – So my question for you, have you ever felt like you just didn’t quite belong? Have you ever looked around and wondered why connecting with other people or even fully embracing yourself seems somehow out of reach? You kind of long for a sense of belonging to yourself, to loved ones, to a community cause yet it remains elusive. This universal need sometimes rising to the level of a profound yearning is what we are exploring in today’s conversation with Simone Selassie. So Simone is a teacher, speaker and author of the book You Belong A Call for Connection, which provides practical guidance for cultivating a deeper sense of belonging within ourselves in the world.
Jonathan Fields (00:01:16) – And growing up, seven felt like, in her words, kind of a big weirdo. I think so many of us can relate. Born in Ethiopia and then raised in a predominantly white neighborhood in D.C., she stood out in nearly every way, an immigrant who was, in her words, a black girl who loved Monty Python and Ub40 and explored Asian philosophy and did not go to prom. She just never believed that she belonged. But rather than try to fit in, those early experiences planted the seeds of exploration and simones view. We all belong to each other and to all things, whether we want to or not. Our individual freedom affects absolutely everyone and everything, and our collective freedom depends on each and every one of us. And she shares her deep and long exploration of ancient traditions and modern, creative, contemplative practices that can really connect us to these truths of belonging. Over time, Simone came to believe something incredibly powerful. It was a bit of a revelation and to me, an incredibly powerful idea and invitation.
Jonathan Fields (00:02:19) – Belonging, she says, begins from within. By first knowing and connecting with ourselves. We cannot find belonging with others until we belong to ourselves. And that can’t happen until we truly do the work to know ourselves, then embrace what we’ve discovered. So join us as we discover the weirdness and grace of belonging, the paradoxes of oneness and separation, unlocking trauma from the body and what it truly means to belong, starting from within ourselves and radiating outward into the world. So excited to share this conversation with you. I’m Jonathan Fields and this is Good Life Project. Just really excited to dive in. So my understanding is that. So you grew up in and around DC and in your sort of mid-teens ish, I guess it was your brother who started to become involved in the Harikrishna Temple. And that seems like that was a bit of a gateway into the world of a different kind of spirituality for you as well.
Sebene Selassie (00:03:21) – Yeah, so exactly right. When I was about 15, my brother became what’s known as a Hari Krishna, and he had been exploring kind of Eastern mysticism and philosophy and throwing books my way.
Sebene Selassie (00:03:37) – So I became aware of Buddhism and Taoism and Hinduism, and I took right to it. You know, I kind of give thanks to him for opening me up to this world of thought that I don’t know how long it would have taken me to get to it otherwise. And I started spending time with him. So there was a temple outside DC in Maryland, but there was also what was known as the O Street Temple, which is near DuPont Circle. It was kind of a downtown hangout scene. So DC at that time was really known for hardcore punk rock music, which I was aware of, but it wasn’t my scene.
Jonathan Fields (00:04:11) – This was like early 90s then or late 80s.
Sebene Selassie (00:04:15) – This was the mid to late 80s. It was all the Fugazi and yeah, Dischord and all of that going on. So many of those folks would end up at Street because one, there was free vegetarian food and there was sort of this vegetarian movement in hardcore the scene there. And so it was just kind of like a funky, cool place I was attracted to.
Sebene Selassie (00:04:40) – But I was going for these lectures so I would listen to lectures on the back of a guitar and, you know, different aspects of, of Hindu philosophy. And I understood very little of it, but it was definitely intriguing to me and then led to me majoring in comparative religious studies when I eventually went to college. Yeah.
Jonathan Fields (00:04:59) – Did you grow up in a family where that tradition was present in your family in any meaningful way?
Sebene Selassie (00:05:04) – You know, not really. So I was born in Ethiopia and half Eritrean, half Ethiopian, and my family moved here when I was three years old. So, you know, very early on disconnected from the culture. And because we were already a bicultural family, there was a war going on, there was a lot of separation within the larger community. So Eritreans and Ethiopians weren’t hanging out that much. So we were quite separated actually from the larger communities, both the Eritrean and Ethiopian communities. So I didn’t grow up within that culture. And also my mom was Ethiopian Orthodox and we were all baptized in that church.
Sebene Selassie (00:05:43) – But my father’s family converted to Lutheranism. His dad was actually quite involved in the Eritrean Orthodox Church, but then converted to Lutheranism as an adult. So there was that difference between my parents, which led to us not really having kind of a unified spiritual background. So we didn’t go to church. We weren’t really indoctrinated in that way. But my brother and I both, I think from early on had sort of that seeking and that interest. And so he opened that doorway for me.
Jonathan Fields (00:06:16) – Do you ever think back to those early days especially, and wonder what was underneath the seeking? Like, what was the deeper impulse especially I’m so curious when it happens early in life and independent of sort of like familial influence when it’s just really generated from inside?
Sebene Selassie (00:06:33) – Yeah, that’s such a great question. I’ve never been asked that succinctly and beautifully, but I think that there was that seeking for meaning that comes from being so disconnected culturally and spiritually and even physically from the land and the place where we came from. So for me, I never felt like I belonged to any particular culture.
Sebene Selassie (00:06:58) – You know, I didn’t really connect with Eritrean culture because they didn’t speak to the language that my dad speaks. I didn’t feel that connected to American culture because that was the weird immigrant kid who dressed funny and ate weird food and brought strange lunches to school and spoke a different language at home, but didn’t really feel that connected to Ethiopian culture either because it wasn’t fluent in Amharic, it couldn’t read and write it. We weren’t really living sort of a fully Ethiopian immigrant life because we were outside of that community. And so I think I was searching for meaning and belonging because I didn’t have a coherent sense of that around me. So it was kind of piecing together my sense of understanding of the world based on all these different influences, including the pop culture and TV and the kids around me. I think that early on it wasn’t sort of a kid who had mystical experiences or, you know, really profound experiences with nature or with spirit. But there was that searching for. Or understanding for meaning, for belonging, that probably partly just innate and then also definitely because of the circumstances.
Jonathan Fields (00:08:09) – Yeah, I mean that’s so interesting. And it’s and that start to emerge with you also in the context of the music scene and the punk scene. And it’s fascinating to me that there was this this tightly woven relationship, at least it seems like when at that moment in time where you are in DC between Eastern philosophy and music and not necessarily the music scene that you would think would be sort of like organically associated with Eastern tradition. It’s almost like, wow, like how did that happen? And yet I would imagine that that drew potentially so many more people into the exploration.
Sebene Selassie (00:08:46) – Yeah, definitely. And you know, I think partly it had to do with itself. So lived in DC proper and DC was such a straight it’s always a strange place because of government alone, but especially at that time it was the murder capital of the world. You know, Mayor Marion Barry was caught smoking crack and you had a homeless encampment across the street from the White House, which wasn’t barricaded off as it is now.
Sebene Selassie (00:09:13) – There was just really stark poverty and violence just up against some of the richest, most powerful people in the world who generally lived in very segregated, isolated neighborhoods or outside of DC. But everyone had to come into DC for work and for contact. And so you had the World Bank, but then you walk a few blocks and you know, you had a lot of kind of homeless drug activity that tourists would wander into. So it was this really strange place. And think for young people who grew up in DC at that time, there was this real sense of seeing through the veils, you know, and recognizing the hypocrisy of where we lived. And, you know, DC at that time was probably 80% black. But it was also it also had a black middle class and upper middle class and elite. So there were so many layers of culture and power and money and, and again, like a real hypocrisy. So we were both saying before we started that we’re both Gen Z, you know, so that that generation I think really started.
Jonathan Fields (00:10:23) – To Gen X.
Sebene Selassie (00:10:25) – Gen X, Yeah, we are not Gen Z.
Jonathan Fields (00:10:28) – As evidenced by my complete lack of hair.
Sebene Selassie (00:10:31) – As evidenced by my gray hair. Um, so there was that awakening I think happening in that generation to maybe similar to what the boomers saw through the 60s and kind of fighting against the system. But I really believe our generation kind of went inwards and seeing that hypocrisy and looking towards working on ourselves as part of the change, you know, not wanting to have that same sellout or buyout that maybe other generations had.
Jonathan Fields (00:11:01) – When I think about in my experience at that same age was just profoundly different for so many different reasons. But more broadly, Gen X is so often been known as sort of like the the disaffected generation. And I like your lens, your twist. We’re saying, well, actually, I think part of that may be that a lot of that was focused internally on self-exploration and self-discovery, self-revelation, which I think in no small part sort of like has seeded what we’ve seen coming in generations after us.
Jonathan Fields (00:11:31) – You end up in McGill doing your undergrad as you shared your studying Buddhism, Hinduism, culture and race, and then end up back in the city, actually in the new school. I’m curious, did you see this for yourself? Just as the evolution of your early exploration of Buddhism and Eastern spirituality and you were curious about it, or did you see this as this is something that I’m deeply curious about devoting my life to, and maybe this will help me figure out what is the nature of that devotion?
Sebene Selassie (00:12:01) – Yeah, I don’t think I consciously made that connection. It was still sort of subconscious or innate draw to these ideas and to these philosophies. But it wasn’t with sort of a clear idea of, you know, if I could change myself or find, you know, some sense of awakening within me, that that would help in the world, which is maybe what I’ve come to as an understanding. Yeah, it was, it was just a real draw to these ideas. It was very anthropological in nature.
Sebene Selassie (00:12:33) – So like many religious studies departments, especially at that time, it was kind of frowned upon to be a practitioner, especially in Buddhist studies my advisor happened to be, but that was rare. So it was a much sort of there was almost a preferencing of people who could have that distance and perceived objectivity about it. While I was interested. I wasn’t meditating yet. Actually, it didn’t start meditating and practicing until after. College. But yes, there was that draw to what was being talked about there. And then this kind of fascination with these other cultures that took these ideas and these philosophies so seriously that they imbued everything within the culture.
Jonathan Fields (00:13:14) – So your own practice really grew out of when you left, it was more of like, so now let me start to see what it feels like to take my seat on a more devoted basis. I know from from what I understand, the early practice for you was more Zen Buddhism, which from what I know of sort of your evolution over the last couple of decades, the way you teach, the way you approach it and what you studied is very different.
Jonathan Fields (00:13:40) – You know, it feels very, very austere, very stern, very stripped down. And my experience of of hearing you and reading you is very open, very fluid, very let’s meet each other where we are. So I’m curious how you evolved away from it. What was it that made you say, this is a great first step in to my own practice, but it’s not feeling quite right for me.
Sebene Selassie (00:14:06) – Yeah, that’s such a great question and kind of brings me back to what we were talking about in terms of Gen X think we were the generation that first took therapy really seriously en masse. You know, so many of us started therapy younger and stuck with it and really committed to our transformation through that process. And so it was sort of that therapeutic approach that brought me to Zen only because I did the spiritual smorgasburg shopping that many people do, and they’re searching kind.
Jonathan Fields (00:14:38) – Of mandatory at some point. Right?
Sebene Selassie (00:14:39) – Exactly. So, you know, I visited all the places and all the temples and schools and practices, but I was drawn to my first teacher, Barry Magid, who was a psychoanalyst and a therapist.
Sebene Selassie (00:14:52) – And he wasn’t my therapist. His his approach of really seeing kind of the psychological entanglements and making that connection between Western psychology and Asian Buddhism. But a psychology really spoke to me and it was, you know, just very clear, very simple and a lot of ways. And I think at that time that’s what is needed. You know, you said at the beginning that it was kind of I think you mentioned like drawn to this as like some sort of conscious evolution. And it’s really much more simple than that. It was drawn to practice because of my own pain and suffering. So it’s just seek gain alleviation from the psychological despair that I was in as a young person trying to navigate what does it mean now to go out in the world and then make something of myself?
Jonathan Fields (00:15:40) – Yeah, When you step into that world and then eventually find your way into more of an insight based approach, which is sort of like I hesitate to use labels because I feel like so many people have really just created this integrated approach where it may be centered around a certain set of ideas, but it’s really it’s inclusive of a whole lot of different ideas, schools and teachers.
Jonathan Fields (00:16:01) – These days. And I feel like you’re that’s the way that I experience you as well. I don’t know if that’s the way that it feels from the inside out from you. But when you step into that community in the United States and you start to deepen into it and spend years in it, it’s also not a community that is widely known as being incredibly diverse or inclusive. I’m curious, when you’re coming to the practice and the teachings to a certain extent because of your own pain, and part of that pain is a sense of, as you described, I just I can’t really figure out where I fit. I always feel like I’m the other. And then you step into this community. Does that feeling deepen? Did it get resolved? How do you experience that? Because it’s sort of like a variation of what you’ve described in the quote outside world.
Sebene Selassie (00:16:51) – Yeah. You know, I think that during my Zen practice years, I really had this separation between my spiritual life and the rest of my life.
Sebene Selassie (00:17:01) – So I was in grad school at the time, you know, it was in New York and going out. And I’ve talked about many times that we go out partying one night and then have to go to the to the Zen Center in the morning. And sometimes that was late. And Barry with the lock the door exactly at 10:00. And there were multiple times where I was walking towards the door and heard the heard the lock, click an editor out and go back to Brooklyn. So there was this bifurcation. A lot of ways that I was doing this Zen thing over here. And then I had the rest of my life that was diverse and full. I was studying race and cultural studies in school and didn’t even know to ask for it to be different. I had grown up in white communities and white neighborhoods and white spaces and really didn’t have a lot of options for integration or diversity or inclusion and and really wasn’t educated to ask for that. You know, even when I studied it, I wasn’t really empowered in a sense.
Sebene Selassie (00:18:00) – To ask for change. And it’s interesting, when I stepped into the Insight community, there had already been people like Gina Sharp and Larry Yang laying foundations for that change. So there were people of color retreats that had been started. I was in DC at the time for a short spell and there was already a people of color group led by my now good friend La Sarmiento. So I started stepped into the insight world right when that that work was starting, you know, maybe I’d been a couple of years old. And when I moved back to New York and started attending New York Insight Meditation Center, there was a very large group there, a couple of color groups. So for me, I was kind of given access to that at a time when maybe I had more skill to then advocate and be part of a movement of change, which has now taken hold in a in a very strong way. So I really benefited actually from the work of others.
Jonathan Fields (00:18:59) – It’s interesting. We have this conversation. You have been in this community for probably the better part of two and a half decades or so, teaching for much of that.
Jonathan Fields (00:19:08) – Always a student, of course, but still teaching. And I was I was listening to a conversation that you had with Sharon Salzberg a little while back, and you were talking about your own experience teaching. And you mentioned to her, you said you take what you get from your teachers. And sometimes in the beginning I feel like I’m just imitating them, trying on their clothes and they don’t quite fit. Still trying to find my own way when it comes to devotional practices. And I was listening to this and I’m thinking, so many folks like you think, okay, so you’re in this for two and a half decades now, like you’ve got a dialed in. And it was just amazing to hear you say, no, I’m I’m still there’s so much of a beginner mind in me still. I’m still trying things on. I’m still learning, I’m still evolving and growing and seeing like, who am I within this larger practice.
Sebene Selassie (00:19:58) – Yes. Yeah. And you know, I’ve only been teaching for about a decade, but it’s a significant amount of time to to take on this role.
Sebene Selassie (00:20:06) – And, you know, I’ve been considering lately that I don’t want that role or that process or that activity to become another identity. So I’ve been really also trying to shed this notion of being a Buddhist teacher because I can see how much that could constrict me in terms of my own evolution and development. You know, we talk a lot about change in Buddhist practice, that that’s the central teaching considered to be the most important teaching, the one of impermanence and change. And sometimes we forget that we are actually a part of that. It’s not just on a minute level of watching the breath or seeing into the nature of reality and phenomena changing. But we ourselves are constantly changing and that can be hard. You know, it can be really hard to say that, you know, this practice or this teaching doesn’t necessarily fit me anymore. And I’m evolving and changing as well. And so I’ve been moving towards allowing that to be true for me to allow. I’m also constantly changing and exploring new things. I’ve been in a deep study not for the purpose of teaching at all, but have been in a deep study of astrology and tarot and numerology in the past few years have taken this pandemic isolation literally, and kind of become very interested in her medicine and and esoteric studies.
Sebene Selassie (00:21:26) – And that’s been a powerful process of allowing myself to evolve in terms of my ideas and my perspectives and influences. And and, you know, I hope I continue that.
Jonathan Fields (00:21:39) – Yeah, I love that. It is the fundamental non grasping of your own identity. You know, it’s like I’m just going to hold it fluidly with open palms and, and see where it takes me rather than saying this is what it is and I will direct it to this place and this place and this place. I feel like in no small part, we share a friend in I believe in Revenge of Kyoto. Williams And and I feel like she’s in a really similar place. Like she’s really just her sense of identity is she’s using different identifiers. She is really stepping out and saying that person that maybe you thought I was or labeled me as or maybe even I held myself at about as five, ten years ago, I am growing and changing and shifting and like very intentionally creating the space for that. But like you said, that can be astonishingly uncomfortable for us.
Sebene Selassie (00:22:26) – Yeah, and we don’t necessarily have many examples of that. And I’ve been really inspired by this idea of reverse mentoring lately where we can really learn from young people as much as we can help and and mentor them. And one of the things that I’d love about the Gen Z, the real Gen Z is their openness to change and adapt to adaptability. And I see that with my nephew and some other younger people I follow. Even on social media, they’ll just wipe out their entire social media. They’ll archive or delete every single post and just start over the middle, you know, kind of adopt a new identity or a new way of posting or, you know, new filters or colors. And I just find that so refreshing. And there’s a way in which, you know, they’re younger. Of course they’re playing with their identity, but it also is something very unique to that generation in terms of change. And we see it with gender identity and fluidity. And yeah, I’m really inspired by that and hope to learn from them in that way.
Jonathan Fields (00:23:28) – Yeah, I love that and I agree. I see the same thing and I feel like there’s just a willingness to hold every kind of identifier loosely to it, almost play with it to try it on for a while. And if it doesn’t fit to say like, all right, that was interesting and then move on to the next. It’s like a series of experiments. I feel like I never and a lot of folks I think are generation older, maybe didn’t feel a sense of permission to do that. I almost feel like we were you know, there was a sense of like, you will track yourself in a. Every particular way. And once you make your choice and like, that’s kind of it for this season of life, which for many people was until their mid 40s, until you earn your right to question everything and then maybe you’re maybe not make some some big changes. But yeah, I do see the cycle happening much earlier in life and I’m inspired by it. Similar to you, you know, as we have this conversation, you know, like we’re in theory emerging in some way, shape or form from the last few years.
Jonathan Fields (00:24:26) – And you in the very early part of the pandemic came out with this a book on belonging, which, of course, I’m sure you didn’t know what was coming. You couldn’t have timed it. But the topic of belonging, I think, has become something that is so central to to us and it has been for generations. But I think now we’re feeling the pain of not belonging just on a radically different level. Or maybe we’re not feeling it more, but we’re surfacing it more like it’s becoming more like we actually are realizing this. This is a thing and it’s happening and it’s causing suffering. I want to dive into some of the ideas that you share, but I think probably makes sense to to just create some context. First, when we use this word belonging, it’s kind of a weird word because it’s not necessarily the easiest thing to define. Often I’ve heard it defined as more of like it’s the negative. Like we can talk about isolation, we can talk about separation, and we kind of know what those are.
Jonathan Fields (00:25:21) – But belonging feels murkier. Tell me in your mind when we talk about belonging, what are we actually talking about?
Sebene Selassie (00:25:27) – Yeah. So, you know, sometimes when people hear the word belonging, there’s only sort of the social material idea of it. And I’m really talking about belonging a much deeper and more paradoxical level. Really, the main premise of the book is that there is a fundamental belonging that is paradoxical for all of us, human and non-human. And the truth of that is articulated in a Buddhist teaching. It’s called the Paradox of the Two truths. So the absolute truth of the relative truth, and I’m using that teaching to kind of explore what it means to grapple with that as a human being. So the absolute truth that we are interconnected in ancient wisdom talks about this and has many metaphors for that deep interconnection of all life. But also modern science has shown us that there’s no separation, that, you know, phenomena affect each other, that material reality is is much more mysterious and intertwined than our mundane senses reveal.
Sebene Selassie (00:26:34) – But that profound truth of interconnection does not invalidate the fact that we are separate beings and that we have these consciousness or these experiences in our lives that have us experience the world as distinct entities. Like I am 7 a.m. here at Brooklyn, you’re Jonathan, you’re there, Boulder, Colorado. And you know, those are truths. And there’s also some really cosmic interconnection between us. And to be able to hold that paradox is very hard. You know, it’s it’s not of course, we can consciously, conceptually understand that. But to really grapple with what that means is a much deeper sense of what it means to belong, because we have to really contend with the two. And I kind of explore this paradox in terms of our day to day life and social reality. And, you know, when I think about it, some of us can sort of tend towards one side of that paradox and decide we’re all one, and why do we have to deal with these polarities and separation? We’re all interconnected, but some of us, especially those of us who are involved in social justice work or interested in, you know, the material reality of our world, we can forget about that interconnection and get really lost in the identities and the separation.
Sebene Selassie (00:27:55) – So for me, belonging becomes a much, much more profound kind of grappling when we think of it in these two ways. Yeah.
Jonathan Fields (00:28:04) – And it seems like each one of those has its own stuff that goes along with it, you know? I mean, you know, beyond the fact that just holding those polarities as both being true alone is really difficult, I think, for us because we’re kind of taught to say like, well, there’s this or this. You know, either we’re all one and, you know, we’re part of a big cosmic superorganism. And like, what we do affects another person, not just because they happen to be close to us, but because there’s a deeper fiber that we use us together, or we have this uniqueness like this separate identity and sense of like reality on the ground That live day to day experience is more that I think for a lot of people. And the notion that, Oh, these two things can go together, I feel like each side or each thought has its own potential, both struggles and delusions.
Jonathan Fields (00:28:55) – Yes, On the oneness side, we lead down the potential path of spiritual bypassing. Same because we’re just like, Hey, we’re all in this together. This other thing doesn’t really exist is not a problem. We just have to wake up to that fact. And on the other side, how can you say that we’re all one? Because here’s my lived experience. There’s a lot of suffering, a lot of harm in my unique day to day experience. And that person over there or that community or that group or demographic I can point to and trace a direct line to them causing this harm in my life. And yet you’re telling me that we’re all one. So it’s so interesting to sort of like see the different sides and say like each one has its own stuff.
Sebene Selassie (00:29:36) – Yes. And it gets even more nuanced the more you kind of go into the supervisor one. So one of the things that I can really look at in myself and always look inwards first is the ways in which the relative side, you know, my identity and uniqueness can also become another place where if I let it can tap into another paradox because yes, I’m black and I’m a woman and I have these experiences based on sort of the social markers, but I also have a completely unique identity that cannot be captured by these labels and is constantly evolving and changing.
Sebene Selassie (00:30:17) – And that puts me right back in touch with that, that oneness, right? The multiplicity of diversity, not just the separations of diversity, but those multiplicities and uniqueness are actually like a doorway into that interconnection. And isn’t that paradoxical? And so there are kind of trapped doors and possibilities in all of these explorations.
Jonathan Fields (00:30:40) – Yeah, no, I can see how sort of like with every layer that you peel back, there’s like, Oh, look, something new to dance with here. It’s like there’s no there there. It’s like you just keep going deeper into it and deeper into it and deeper into it. And yet we’re at a moment in time where I feel like we can’t not do that because there so much suffering related to the feeling of of a lack of belonging on both an like an absolute, absolute and relative level, like belonging to myself and also belonging to something bigger than myself. I feel like there’s so much suffering. It’s interesting that you were saying, like how you’re really kind of fascinated in studying hermetic life and things like that because, you know, it’s been a forced, hermetic existence in a lot of ways for millions and millions of people.
Jonathan Fields (00:31:24) – And so often when that happens, there’s nowhere to go but inside and, you know, more time than you’ve ever done before and visit yourself and visit these questions. And I wonder whether that right now is leading to more or less suffering.
Sebene Selassie (00:31:40) – You know, I think we cannot do it also because we need each person to tap into their unique gifts and talents.
Jonathan Fields (00:31:50) – Yeah.
Sebene Selassie (00:31:50) – So because, you know, we really this this wiping the slate clean and and experimentation and really playing with possibilities is what’s going to lead us out of this mess. There’s a way in which holding on to those rigid identities we were talking about before from previous generations. It’s also holding on to structures because we thought that’s where the safety was. And as things start to devolve and hopefully evolve from there, you know, we’re not going to be able to rely on so many of these structures that we’ve come to take for granted. And as climate changes and social changes continued to to cause these disruptions, we need each person to know themselves really well to to know what they can bring into the world and what magic and possibility and beauty will come from.
Sebene Selassie (00:32:41) – That we don’t know yet.
Jonathan Fields (00:32:42) – Yeah, you write in this on this particular topic, we must know ourselves on the path to belonging. How can we tend to our feelings of not belonging if we don’t know how belonging feels? You belong to everything. First you must belong to yourself. Where do you people come from? Acknowledging trauma, releasing fear, avoiding spiritual, bypassing, working with your shadow therapy, honest friends, self-exploration, self study, self-knowledge, systems address bias. And it’s interesting, as the more I was thinking about this. Okay, so first, before we can belong, right? We really do have to do that work or else if we show up in a group or if we show up in a community and we’re seeking this feeling of belonging, but we actually don’t, you know, we often show up and we present some scaffolding or some avatar of the being that we want to be accepted into that group. And we think that will give us the the feeling of genuine belonging. But it’s just the avatar that’s belonging and it’s not us because we haven’t actually done the work.
Jonathan Fields (00:33:44) – And then we’re not also then willing to show up as that person in that moment. So we might be surrounded by people or communities and still feel utterly alone.
Sebene Selassie (00:33:54) – Yeah. And if we haven’t done the work, we’re often just projecting our lacks and. Insecurities and neediness rather than our true needs and our true possibilities. You know, when when we’ve done the work, we can actually show up much more clear. And that doesn’t mean perfect. Does it mean that we won’t make mistakes or what we need to work through or stuff, But there are gradations of that, right? And so not showing up, just kind of completely traumatized and reverberating that out onto everyone else, but actually knowing ourselves well and knowing what it is we have to offer and what we might need in order to to bring those offerings to fruition.
Jonathan Fields (00:34:35) – Yeah. And a part of this and I know I’ve heard you speak about this and write about this is yes, it’s knowing what we care about, who we are, what matters us, our history, all the things that I just shared, that you wrote about.
Jonathan Fields (00:34:46) – And at the same time, it’s also to a certain extent, it’s surfacing the stuff that is not conscious to us and yet leads us in so many actions and behaviors and decisions. The unconscious bias, the conditioning that we bring with us. You have this fabulous quote from Krishnamurti. You know, you think you’re thinking your thoughts, you’re not. You’re thinking the culture’s thoughts. And a lot of people would hear that at first. No, no. Like I’m me sure I’m influenced a little bit, but like I have free will. I have my own experience, my own life. But the bigger idea, the notion that I think you’re offering here and tell me if this was it lands with me is how do you know that until you really inquire into it. And that’s a deep process which sometimes reveals things that we don’t like to own.
Sebene Selassie (00:35:33) – Yeah, I use unconscious bias as kind of the clearest example of that that’s been studied. And you know, we can see that although many of the studies have been done on race and also on gender, but it can show up in all sorts of ways and the ways we think of ourselves as particularly, you know, awake or enlightened or at least just and fair.
Sebene Selassie (00:35:56) – But actually, we’ve been conditioned by these societal forces and we come into situations and into contact with people with all of these biases really deeply ingrained in us. And so starting to be able to know ourselves on a deeper level, which means, you know, being able to actually witness our own thoughts and our minds. And this is where meditation can help and self-reflection and we can start to see the ways we we have been conditioned, you know, we are influenced by the culture and it is shaping so much of our thoughts. Yeah.
Jonathan Fields (00:36:31) – And I wonder if we start that process with ourselves. Like, does that eventually make it easier for us to look at somebody else who we perceive as being other, maybe even causing us harm and then say, okay, so if I am in no small part, the continually evolving result of my conditioning and a bunch of things have been planted in me, I’m not even literally consciously aware of, what about this other person or community? What if I offer that same lens of curiosity to them and say, Well, what is the conditioning? What are the moments, What is the history that brought them here? And had I been through a nearly identical experience, would I be different from them?
Sebene Selassie (00:37:10) – Yes, for sure.
Sebene Selassie (00:37:11) – I give an example in the book, and I’ve talked about a number of times this meditation I did for George W Bush at the time. I think it was around the time of Katrina and there was an the war in Afghanistan and in Iraq. And I started to do a metta practice for him, which is a lovingkindness practice, because I realized I had this kind of outsized aggression or hatred towards him. And I knew that would just end up affecting me. It was certainly wasn’t affecting him, um, not on a conscious level, maybe on a cosmic level. And so I started doing this practice, but it was, it wasn’t just repeating the traditional phrases of May you be, Well, I’ve sort of created my own practice or imagined what it must have been like to grow up as Hill and to bring kindness to my exploration of his life. And it was a really profound experience that did it for quite a long time, every day. And I would imagine what it was like to be born into the family he was born into and and grow up the way he did and what I knew of his life at peace together.
Sebene Selassie (00:38:14) – And there’s a meta practice that the technique used to encourage where you imagine someone is a five year old. So sort of expanding that out into his entire life. And there was a moment and I remember exactly where I was sitting. I remember the feeling of it, where it really hit me not just as a conceptual idea, but felt sense that I would be taught to push, that if I had lived his life, I would be exactly him. And it’s like the arrogance of thinking that he should be any different than he is melted away in that moment. But there was a certain presumption to think that anyone who is different than me should be different than they are. And that doesn’t mean we don’t work to. Help people see things more clearly if they’re being you know, if they’re engaging in harmful activity or if we perceive them as having a misdirected or misunderstood thought. But it really allows us to approach that with so much more compassion and understanding, less distance and less really domination and hierarchy, because we’re we’re not sort of bringing our, you know, privilege of seeing things from a different perspective that has been afforded to us, maybe even because of our suffering.
Jonathan Fields (00:39:30) – Yeah. You know, on the one hand, I’m nodding along and saying, yeah, that this makes complete sense to me. And until we can approach circumstances even brutal, brutally hard ones where harm is presently being engaged and with some level of curiosity and compassion, nothing changes. I see that. And yet at the same time, from like a day to day lived experience, like when you’re in this, it’s a brutally hard proposition. And at the same time, like we’re asking people who may be feeling like I’m suffering, maybe even like through many degrees of separation, through the actions of another individual community, to do the work, to understand them, to open to them. And that’s something that there’s a lot of tough conversation around because people you know, the argument is like, I’m being harmed now, and now you’re asking me to do the work, you know, to actually understand why somebody else is the way that they’re doing it so that we can sit down from a place of curiosity and openness and compassion.
Jonathan Fields (00:40:28) – Why is that on me? And yet, if it’s complicated.
Sebene Selassie (00:40:32) – Yeah. And, you know, I think that there’s so much more kind of selfish, self advantageous aspect to it, right? Because what left me was that anger, that hatred, but also that sense of arrogance and domination. If I’m really committed to transforming these forces of hierarchy and oppression and domination and destruction from this world, then I want those first to leave me right? And so there’s something really in it for for us as the practitioners of this process or really embodying that is not so much about yes, it’s generous. Once we do engage with other people in it, it should be really seen as a gift that we offer to others when we can meet them with more compassion and curiosity, as you described. But I think the first gift is to ourselves.
Jonathan Fields (00:41:30) – When you started to dive into this, a big part of what we’re talking about also here is is cultivating our ability to see more clearly, both ourselves, like our own inner worlds and also like the outer world around us.
Jonathan Fields (00:41:44) – And meditation is certainly a big part of that in all its different forms. I think it’s interesting that you’re also very focused on the body. You know, it’s this can’t be a purely intellectual or neck up exercise that belonging, as you write it only happens through the vehicle of the body.
Sebene Selassie (00:42:04) – Yeah. You know, this was a huge process learning process for me. So I’m very head centered and understand things often first conceptually and then learn to embody it. And it was disconnection from the body that I experience really as physical pain and suffering that brought me into it. So I’ve had cancer multiple times in my life, including stage four cancer, and that came with a lot of pain and treatment and difficulty. And the process of coming into contact with deep healing in the body also showed me how disconnected I was from the body. So I would never sort of want to get into blaming people for the illness. But there is some kind of, I believe, and have experienced psychosomatic connection between illness and the mind and the body being connected.
Sebene Selassie (00:43:00) – So, you know, we can see that when we’re stressed, we get more colds or and many scientists and doctors are seeing the connection between many stressors and different types of illness and cancer being one of them, that’s not well understood. And so when I started to really need to make that connection and life death kind of context, it really brought me more in touch with the body and I could see how much tension I was holding in the body and how my meditation practice was often disconnecting me from that. I was following the breath at the nostrils for many, many years and really wasn’t even aware of what was going on. So there was a sense of stillness and a fair amount of peacefulness that was coming just from being quiet and being centered. But there was also a lot of holding a lot of tension in the body. And when I started to actually pay attention to my body as part of my practice, there was a lot of opportunity for release, for relaxation and for understanding the ways in which traumas and pain and difficulties from my life and from probably previous to my life at the genetically, who knows, were showing up in the body as pain, as illness, as tightness as holding.
Sebene Selassie (00:44:16) – And so, yes, making that connection has been so key to my understanding of what it means to be on a path, a spiritual path.
Jonathan Fields (00:44:25) – Yeah. I mean, you know, whether it’s Capital T or little T trauma, you know, I think the research is clear and clear that we all have something and it lodges in our bodies. And if we only try and dislodge it psychologically, it doesn’t really work. And I wonder if like, especially in this like the broader conversation around belonging, right? If we never get in touch with what’s really with what we’re feeling, with what our body is feeding back to us and how it’s telling us, like giving us signals all day, every day, how do we actually really get to the point where we know ourselves well enough, where we can feel like I’m comfortable with myself, I belong to myself, I’m good with that, and then be able to turn out into the world and say like, how can I find that thing in a greater community as well? And yet it’s understandable because if a lot of those signals that are coming from the body up to the brain include some form of pain, it makes sense that, you know, we would compartmentalize that without even thinking about it.
Jonathan Fields (00:45:21) – And yet unwinding it is sort of like it’s it sounds like in your model, especially, you know, unwinding it is a big part of us getting back into our own sense of belonging to ourselves before we can then turn that out to the world.
Sebene Selassie (00:45:34) – Yeah. And we you know, we’re talking about pain and illness and sort of the those big signals from the body, but it’s also a matter of getting in touch with pleasure and joy, which we’re also disconnected from in terms of the body and really starting to imbue that into our daily lives in a way that encourages that sense of freedom that comes from a body that is not always in tension or pain and even in pain can experience joy and and a sense of freedom.
Jonathan Fields (00:46:05) – That’s such a great point. It’s all part of the spectrum. We’ve got to allow it all in. Which brings us around to one of the things you write about is the notion of really being yourself. And it’s the sort of the final imperative that you describe in your steps to belonging is showing up.
Jonathan Fields (00:46:25) – And also part of that is exploring from an ethical standpoint, who. Who are you? Which is not something that most people really examine in any meaningful way these days. I feel like it was such a central part of education in past traditions and instill, you know, like different traditions. But in Western culture, you know, so often the notion of ethics and character is just it’s not something that we study on any sort of formal basis. And it’s not a process of self-inquiry or contemplation that many of us explore in a meaningful way. It’s almost like it’s at some point along the way it fell away and we’re missing out by not engaging in it.
Sebene Selassie (00:47:03) – Yeah, and we are also seeing its distortions, right? So in the ways in which a lot of especially younger people are kind of I know this is a problematic word, but policing each other in terms of what they say and how they behave and what they do, that really has a lot of them talk about tension in the body, really tense and fearful of how they are in the world.
Sebene Selassie (00:47:26) – And it’s not a true ethics. Right. It’s really this idea of perfectionism, really of how we should be in the world and that that we can’t make mistakes and that we can’t have misunderstandings. We can’t see things from other people’s perspective and where they’re coming from. So it’s sort of a pseudo ethics that is masking a lot of, again, domination.
Jonathan Fields (00:47:48) – Yeah, I feel like technology, you know, on the one hand, I’m not allowed I love technology. I use it all day long, every day. But it’s a double edged sword. You know, it can take that sense of the need to be perfect. And then the fierce and immediate and sometimes mass scale judgment. If you’re not and it accelerates that and makes it public on a level that makes it nearly unrecoverable, which is a brutalising experience for so many who are just looking for that sense of I want to see who I am, I’m going to make missteps along the way, and eventually I want to find that place where I feel good with myself and I find a community where I feel good with them too.
Jonathan Fields (00:48:29) – But it’s like if the ideal is perfection and you’re trying to run those experiments in public where like thousands or millions of people are watching, that is a really, really hard environment to go inside knowing that it’s going to be external along the way and you may be judged or canceled or ostracized. And and the culture doesn’t allow for exploration and growth and redemption.
Sebene Selassie (00:48:54) – Yeah. And you see some people pushing against that with a real sense of community care. And so then, you know, circling back to being embodied and being connected and knowing ourselves and trying to understand what other people are coming from becomes a, you know, a possibility.
Jonathan Fields (00:49:16) – Yeah, the pendulum keeps swinging. Yeah.
Sebene Selassie (00:49:19) – We’re always evolving.
Jonathan Fields (00:49:21) – Right, Right. You know, you mentioned that cancer has been a part of your life a number of times now and a part of that also being yourself also includes an acknowledgement of the fact of of our own impermanence. Buddhism, as you describe, identifies these three experiences in life illness, old age and death.
Jonathan Fields (00:49:40) – And it’s something that that is very much a part of, not just even acknowledging, but really playing with and exploring in a detailed and nuanced way in a way that horrifies most folks coming from sort of like a more Western oriented thing. And yet it’s something that you say is so important to us and can be maybe framed differently.
Sebene Selassie (00:50:01) – Yes. I mean, you know, we’re really working against the forces of mainstream media and the dominant culture here, but really allowing for illness, old age and death to be the natural parts of life that they are, rather than these seeming mistakes or problems. You know, and we see it everywhere. You know, this is sort of a mundane example, but I’m constantly amazed by how many women still dye their hair. And, you know, this is toxic chemicals, people who, you know, only shop at Whole Foods and only eat organic, you know, putting these these toxic chemicals right close to their brain. And this tendency for especially women to push against aging in that way, illness and including disabilities being sort of hidden away, not spoken about.
Sebene Selassie (00:50:52) – Was it so long ago, maybe our parents generation who used to whisper the word cancer better for, you know, the ways in which our entire society and culture is only designed for bodies and able minds. So all of that really think culminates in this fear of death and this idea that death is sort of a mistake, that it’s a problem rather than the only thing we will all definitely experience. It’s the only common denominator amongst all of us that are bored. It’s not even about normalizing it. It is not. AAM already but really bringing it into our explorations and conversations in a much more regular and reverent way I think would benefit us all.
Jonathan Fields (00:51:40) – I think it’s so interesting that we are we are so terrified of the conversation and all the signals that we get say don’t go there. It’s a dark thing, it’s a scary thing. And yet, like you say, like the minute we arrive, the only guarantee we were made is that someday this is also going to come to an end. This being us, everyone around us, like everything around us.
Jonathan Fields (00:52:01) – And maybe it’s my age at this point. Maybe it’s being further far enough into life. You know, had my own struggles and knowing many people that have had theirs and like knowing people who are no longer here with us, I think it brings you closer to the bone. And I think you can react one of two ways to that. Often it’s either abject terror and like a fierce devotion to trying to lock down every aspect of your life for the rest of your life, to try and make it as certain as possible or just surrendering to the fact that we’re not promised another breath. So what might we do with this one? And scary as it is, owning that I feel is incredibly empowering in a lot of ways.
Sebene Selassie (00:52:41) – Yes. Owning it, talking about it, really connecting to it on a visceral level. You know, death contemplations are an important thing, really. You know, considering, okay, look, I’m going to lose this person if they don’t lose any first. And then to talk about that with children to, you know, we sort of shunt away death and we don’t have great processes for mourning in this culture.
Sebene Selassie (00:53:06) – You know, we sort of have leftover remnants of shivas and wakes and things here and there, but there really is a clear spaces and ways for grieving that are shared collectively the way they are in a lot of traditional cultures where death is sort of less hidden away in hospitals and nursing homes and in these scary deathly places.
Jonathan Fields (00:53:30) – Yeah. And bringing it back to the conversation around belonging, right. It feels like if we can get to a place where we really we own like we acknowledge, we, we make this like something that is a part of our lived reality. Imagine how that would affect that grudge that you’ve been holding with like that friend for the last five years where you actually can’t even remember what started it. You just know it’s there. Like if you’re like, you know, I don’t know if I’m going to be here tomorrow. Maybe it makes sense to reach out now. Like maybe it makes sense to step into community. Maybe it makes sense to open my heart. I mean, it feels like that acknowledgement of our own impermanence really plays into, in a powerful way, our willingness to do the work and to step back into all the things that would allow us that sense of belonging that we all say we yearn for so much.
Jonathan Fields (00:54:17) – Especially now. It feels like a good place for us to come full circle in our conversation as well. So in this Container of Good Life project, if I offer out the phrase to live a good life, what comes up.
Sebene Selassie (00:54:29) – To live a good life for me is to from moment to moment, really connect to my heart. And I mean by that, that being in touch with this present moment is precious and beautiful, even if it’s filled with pain or loss or difficulty, that if I really need it with an open heart, I can connect to the completely delightful opportunity it is just to be alive. I hear a truck rolling by right now and I’m thinking I could think of it as annoyance or I could think it is an amazing thing. But we have trucks delivering things to distant places and human beings invented. And, you know, we created this possibility. All these possibilities. Yeah. So to be just open and curious to any moment, whatever it offers me is to be in a good life.
Jonathan Fields (00:55:27) – Thank you. Hey, before you leave, if you love this episode, safe bet you’ll also love the conversation we had with Rev Angel Kyodo Williams about what we leave outside the room when we seek to fit in to find a link to Rev Angel’s episode in the show notes. And of course, if you haven’t already done so, please go ahead and follow Good Life Project in your favorite listening app. And if you found this conversation interesting or inspiring or valuable and chances are you did. Since you’re still listening here, would you do me a personal favor, a seven second favor, and share it maybe on social or by text or by email? Even just with one person. Just copy the link from the app you’re using and tell those you know those you love, those you want to help navigate this thing called life a little better so we can all do it better together with more ease and more joy. Tell them to listen, then even invite them to talk about what you’ve both discovered. Because when podcasts become conversations and conversations become action.
Jonathan Fields (00:56:24) – That’s how we all come alive together. Until next time. I’m. I’m Jonathan Fields, signing off for Good Life Project.