January Jumpstart | On Belonging

This January Jumpstart episode explores how we can rediscover our deepest sense of belonging within. Zen priest Rev. angel Kyodo williams and spiritual leader Melissa Carter share how embracing all of ourselves allows us to fully inhabit our humanity. By returning to our inner wholeness through mindfulness, we can move through the world from a place of truth, connect authentically with others, and transform society.

Episode Transcript

You can find Rev. angel Kyodo williams at: Instagram | Website | Listen to Our Full-Length Convo with Rev. angel

You can find Melissa at: Find Melissa Online Here | InstagramListen to Our Full-Length Convo with Melissa

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Episode Transcript:

Rev. angel Kyodo williams: [00:00:00] We have to have an own belonging. We have to have a belonging to ourselves as a fundamental starting point of being able to avail ourselves of any other kinds of spiritual practice, development, formation. Otherwise, we’re subject to being corrupted beyond measure.


Jonathan Fields: [00:00:19] So do you remember a time when you felt like you just didn’t belong? Maybe you were the new kid at school, or only one of your race in the room, or never fully accepted by your family. Or maybe it was a new team or job or company and you felt like no one got you or accepted you. Most of us have felt like an outsider at some point in our lives, some of us for most of our lives. We all seek that profound feeling of belonging, of being seen, understood and embraced fully for who we are. This experience of belonging, we know, is also a key element of a life well lived, of a good life. So to wrap up our January Jumpstart series, we’re diving into the world of belonging, and our guest teachers today really understand those deep human longings intimately. Rev. angel Kyodo williams is an author, Zen priest and founder of the center for Transformative Change, who has explored belonging through the lens of social justice, and Melissa Carter is senior director for Spiritual Life at NYU, helping students embrace their humanity and discover sense of purpose. As you’ll hear, Rev Angel really calls us to belong to ourselves first before seeking external validation, and Melissa helps peel away the false narratives so that she could live authentically the journey to belonging. It really begins within. By returning to our inner wholeness, we can then connect to others from a place of truth. So join us as Rev. Angel and Melissa reveal how practices like mindfulness help us rediscover our deepest sense of belonging, and then move more heart-centeredly and openly into a broader community. So excited to share this conversation with you. I’m Jonathan Fields and this is Good Life Project.


Jonathan Fields: [00:02:09] Hey, so I have kind of been saying this for years. We are in the throes of a global belonging crisis. Human beings are hardwired with a deep need to belong, to connect with others, fueled by shared values, beliefs, interests, a well-defined path, or a grand purpose. Sometimes all of the above. And for generations, we’ve relied on a sense of certainty and the defined path that came from membership in established communities to allow us to function and flourish, to give us that sense of belonging. Faith-based organizations, community clubs, employers, trade organizations, local leagues or associations, and more. They all gave us a sense of belonging, of shared beliefs, practices, values, purpose and from that a certain baseline calm and ease. They served as a bit of a keel in an uncertain world, a place to come home, to touchstone and reconnect with other people who seem to in some way welcome us and see the world in similar ways, to be a part of something bigger than us. But over the last few generations, two phenomenon have kind of blown this foundation to bits. The world has become exponentially less reliable. Turmoil ever present, change and uncertainty have become the new norm. Disruption is the new black, and there’s no going back, leaving us with a level of near-paralyzing, pervasive unease.


Jonathan Fields: [00:03:37] We don’t know what’s coming next, and we are not well equipped as human beings to be in that space. At the same time, tens of millions have lost faith in the very organizations and entities and individuals and communities that have kept them coming together and feeling centered and connected in times of change, belief in religion and government, in membership and spiritual organizations has plummeted. Faith in employers and the assumption that they and the communities they fostered will, quote, be there has kind of been eviscerated employee connection and culture. They’ve become increasingly fragmented as remote work and much more superficial digital misconnection replaces deeper real-life interactions at stunning speed. Long work hours and always on virtual tethers have exacerbated the problem, leaving less time for participation in communities that have served the need for belonging for generations. And despite the unrelenting grip of global digital connection, there’s this pervasive sense of mass disenfranchisement and disconnection of longing to belong on nearly every level. The compounded impact has left a sea of humanity walking around with this growing sense of loss, of pain, of unease, anxiety and discontent. But so often we don’t know why we’re feeling this. We know something’s not right. We can feel it in our bones, but we don’t see the real source of unease where it’s coming from or how to fix it. We don’t realize the crushing lack of stillness and joy is manifestation of a belonging crisis. I was oblivious to the impact of the emerging belonging crisis for years, even though I had literally built a series of successful companies and endeavors and projects that served this fundamental need, I never truly understood what I was doing or why I was succeeding.


Jonathan Fields: [00:05:34] And it finally clicked when I began to kind of analyze what was working in my endeavors over the last two decades, and why. It’s kind of a lightning bolt moment from the early 2000, when I had the great fortune of bringing together a yoga community in Hell’s Kitchen, New York City, pretty much on the eve of nine over 11, and seeing the profound connection and bond and openness and vulnerability and kindness that emerged from that season for a number of years after that, we ran a ten-month mission-driven entrepreneurship program and a sort of alternative conscious business MBA type of experience. And the original vision was to solve three problems lack of knowledge, lack of guidance, and lack of community. I had assumed the first two would be the biggest pain points. I could not have been more wrong. Knowledge is pretty easy for those who really want to seek it, and so is guidance for those who seek it. Lack of community though a deep sense of belonging to a like-minded group of humans, questing after similar things with a tightly connected set of beliefs and values, transparency and devotion that, it turns out, is not only the deepest source of pain and paralysis and stifled potential, but the greatest well of possibility both in business and in life. When we created and then delivered people into a curated, powerfully aligned community, when we solved this belonging crisis on a micro level, magic happened.


Jonathan Fields: [00:07:05] Years of discomfort, discontent. Suffering. Alienation. Incapacity began to fall away, replaced by things like belief and joy and faith and trust and vulnerability and openness. Devotion-directed action, lightness, passion and contentment. And we saw this very same thing a number of years later, when we decided to launch our annual adult summer camp, camp GLP, for five or incredible years, we gathered a community from literally around the world to spend four days living and playing and learning and connecting together. It all went down in a 130-acre kids sleepaway camp in upstate New York, with people aged 18 to 81 living together in bunks. These are kids’ bunks with kid-sized beds. We learned how to welcome people in, to create safety, to establish a set of shared beliefs and norms, and offer mechanisms for folks of all social orientations and backgrounds. From the staunchest introverts to the wild extroverts to people have been in all types of businesses and communities to rapidly connect with others and to go deep, to just drop the facade, drop the posturing and get real and know they’d be seen and accepted without having to perform to some fictional and always elusive ideal. And over the years, thousands of people attended camps and left with lifelong, what I would call nine-year-old summer-level friends and a deep sense of enduring community that sustains to this day. Even though it’s been years since the last gathering, the depth of relationships that emerge from that season was truly breathtaking to see, and over time, I realized just how deeply rooted belonging is in both human nature and modern society.


Jonathan Fields: [00:08:56] How this seemingly unshakable need to belong is universal, how it’s a psychological, physiological, and environmental need. And I came to believe that belonging is really the sort of secret skeleton key that unlocks our capacity to satisfy so many of our other basic needs for things like security on one side, to our aspirational yearning for self-actualization. It’s a primary form of connectedness, a set of sacred fibers in the tapestry of connection that are core to the ability to live truly good lives. And mounting research bears this out in a big way. Now. There is, of course, like every quality of human experience, a potential underbelly to belonging. What will people do, both positive and negative, in the name of belonging? What will they give up in terms of humanity, compassion, money, power, judgment, or morality? How does this unrelenting yearning control our actions, our moods, and the way we experience life? And how can we solve for belonging in ways that empower, rather than strip dignity or agency and autonomy in ways that celebrate our individuality, even in the context of deeply connected community, in ways that lift us up as a society. And I realize that beyond the ability to serve individual needs and unlock potential and joy on the large scale level, the belonging crisis also represents a massive opportunity for individuals, for groups, for organizations who see what’s really happening, a chance to not only play a role in easing personal suffering, but for those inclined to build new vehicles of belonging, of connection that meet this moment, ones that offer mass numbers of people, something to feel connected to, to believe in and to belong to.


Jonathan Fields: [00:10:51] Which is why I am super excited to be wrapping up our January Jumpstart series with wisdom from two amazing humans and friends who have been living in this conversation, convening community in so many ways and have deep insights to share. See you in just a bit. Our first guest, Rev. angel Kyodo williams knows the struggle to find belonging intimately. Called the most intriguing African American Buddhist by Library Journal. Rev. angel is an author, spiritual teacher and founder of the Center for Transformative Change who has spent over 15 years exploring how to transform society by transforming our inner lives. Ordained as a Zen priest, she’s known for her unflinching willingness to both sit with and speak uncomfortable truths with love, and Rev. angel explains how we often suppress or cut off parts of ourselves in order to fit into societal roles and ideologies, and this leaves us feeling disconnected and lacking belonging. And she calls for belonging to ourselves first, before trying to belong to any group or collective. When we reclaim all aspects of who we are, we can fully inhabit our humanity and gift ourselves to the larger collective. Rev. angel shares how practices like mindfulness that help us return to ourselves and rediscover our sense of belonging within, can be central to this exploration. Here’s Rev. angel:


Jonathan Fields: [00:12:22] We’ve known each other for a chunk of years now, and when it was first introduced to you through an old mutual friend of ours, you were introduced to me as Rev. angel, Zen Buddhist priest, and a whole bunch of other stuff after that. And and I noticed over the last year or so you started dropping the identifiers or changing them that came after your name. And then most recently, it seems like the iteration is just sensei. You’ve had this evolution of being, evolution of thought, and you draw from so many different worlds. That part of my curiosity was, was this shedding of identifiers. Also, to a certain extent, you signaling more publicly that when you show up for me, you’re going to get my unique synthesis of a vast array of different bodies of work and my own thought and experience in the world, and it’s going to come out. So, you know, like, don’t necessarily show up expecting a Zen Buddhist teaching because I may take you on a left turn because I see things differently. And it was almost laying the foundation for the freedom to say like, this is my unique synthesis. This is this is my my take. And it’s, you know, I’m blending a lot of different things and bringing my own thing into it. So, um, and sort of like creating the freedom to step out of that and step into your own thing.


Rev. angel Kyodo williams: [00:13:46] Mhm. Yeah. It’s, it’s really bidirectional. So at the core of it is just that I, I don’t, I was like I, I don’t do ghettos at all. Like I can’t, I can’t inhabit any kind of um fixedness. It gives me like, you know, makes my skin, you know, feel like the, you know, crawly, creepy crawly. And so it doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t matter if it’s like, kind of like swimming in the sea of, you know, Zen, of the Zen ghetto. And, you know, I’m not using the term of, of ghetto in the way that we often which we sort of like, are immediately relating it to socioeconomic status and largely black neighborhoods. That’s not what I mean. But I mean, the ghetto in the true sense of the word, like the sort of coming together of a, like a, of a likeness, um, and that you, you inhabit that, that likeness. And it’s kind of close and, um, uh, you know, really rubbing up against each other. And so it just doesn’t work for me. It’s it’s actually never been who I am. And. You know, business marketing. I, you know, many years ago, my first book. So now 20 years ago, uh, came out and there there is a way that you have to, you know, if you’re not speaking to someone, you’re not speaking to anyone, right? In, in marketing. And so I wore that cloak for a little while in order to facilitate that particular message and that particular conversation.


Rev. angel Kyodo williams: [00:15:13] And yet I’m always drawing from, you know, the many conversations. And even in, you know, which I hadn’t remembered, I was I think even how they describe being black, which is the first book, you know, it’s it it talked about, you know, like, you know, Wu-Tang, right? A hip hop group, Wu-Tang, like, meets Zen, Zen Buddhism and like that kind of mash-up because there’s also on the other side, this impulse towards ownership. It’s so much a part of of our different cultures and particularly the spiritual cultures as they’ve been designed. It’s sort of like, okay, now you’re one of us. And so we own you lock, stock and barrel like, you know, so all of my thinking that that all of my thinking and what I’m drawing from would somehow belong to and solely be of white Western convert Zen Buddhism is absurd that I left race behind, you know that I left my that I left hip-hop behind. But I that I left misogynist hip-hop behind. You know, that all of the things that I grew up in that I left like queer culture in the village, in New York City in the, you know, 80s and 90s behind and it doesn’t come through is absurd. And there’s in many ways it’s more likely to happen with me as the kind of outlier, the apparent outlier of, you know, what Zen Buddhist priests look like, right? They’re they’re most often white, middle aged, and not only male.


Rev. angel Kyodo williams: [00:16:39] Uh, they’ve done a pretty good job with that, but often, most often white and, and middle aged. Um, and and also of a, you know, particular class far, far more often, uh, middle to upper upper middle class. And so then really anything that’s coming out of me must be because I got it from them and from some places. And I just pushed back at that all along the way. It was really important. It’s important in the sense of, you know, lineage. And it’s also important in the sense of. Recognizing that in so many ways that that is the nature of of black peoples, you know, in America in particular, is that we are jazz, right? We are drawing from the multiplicity of our experiences and pulling from so many things in so many ways, not only just the joyful things and wonderful things, but also the pains and the heartaches and the oppressions and the the limitations imposed, and that we’re making music out of it, out of all of that. And that’s, I think, one of our unique contributions. You get to be the, the, the whole of who you are. You get to, you know, bring all of these things in and you don’t have to eschew this part of yourself or leave it at the door in order to belong to this, you know, community, this space, this practice, this, you know, institution, this, so on that and that.


Rev. angel Kyodo williams: [00:17:58] We’re all enriched for that. We’re all more enriched. And, you know, I have this whole theory about. As many people do. You know about the about the divisions and like what what really underlies the divisions. And for me, a major part of that is this allowing of our complexity, and that the more that I can signal to people that that this complexity that my not getting boxed into the, you know, like Black Yoda, like like I’m like the black queer Yoda, like Zen and like, no, I’m gonna, you know, I’m gonna I’m gonna riff on things and I’m going to use the cadences that come from, you know, black church, you know, even though I don’t situate myself in black church, I’m still influenced by that cadence and that rhythm and that repetition and the way that I bring, you know, words to things and and that I don’t have to sit, you know, quietly, stoically, you know, in the zen cool way. And I do that too. And all of them are of the same, this of this one piece. And and I love that you say it because I, I say it all the time. The balance of that is that I belong to, you know, no thing and everything, right? That the entry is into everything and it allows me to move freely amongst things which, you know, historically, in a very backwards way, is also a very Zen concept.


Jonathan Fields: [00:19:31] So here’s my curiosity around this. So I was the kid when I was in like when I was younger, where I could move freely between any group, but I wasn’t a part of any group. I never felt like I belonged to any one thing, and there was a pain of isolation. Even though I was kind of accepted. I was fine in any one group. And I know, you know, like having spoken about this with you over the years, it seems like you had a similar experience like you, although more isolated and more pushed. Pushed out, more pushed out.


Rev. angel Kyodo williams: [00:20:06] Yeah. Far, far, yeah. More isolated. I was I was really painfully aware that I didn’t belong.


Jonathan Fields: [00:20:13] Mmm. Do you feel like that experience or that feeling continues to this day to inform the way that you think through your ideas, your the way that you bring yourself to the world and also the the way that you. Offer ideas and practices and paths to others.


Rev. angel Kyodo williams: [00:20:33] Yeah, absolutely. I want to extend that runway, you know, to the young angel that didn’t belong in all of the spaces that I am in. And I think it it it’s more that I feel through it. Like I feel it. Right. It’s like I feel it’s like, you know, tilt the words this way and this way and this way and like, turn it like prismatically. So I think I, I look back on it and I go, oh, I speak prismatically. I’m turning this slightly, slightly, slightly so that people can find their way into that angle, that little angle. Jon Kabat-Zinn talks about this orthogonal rotation of consciousness. And I think about that idea a lot in terms of how I language things, which is to say, you know, I’ll run off to the extremes and then nuance in between. And it’s, it’s to break it. Right. It’s, it’s to break it of the binaries. I feel like binaries are the devil and and so and so I break it of the binaries and that gives people permission to find their way in. And so that absolutely lives with me. It’s it’s not in the background. It is it is in the foreground. And I feel it. I feel the, you know, even when we’re, you know, zooming everything, you know, the person that might be left out and the, you know, like tilt the language like a little bit, give them an entry point. Yeah. We give people all sorts of practices. But underneath, underneath the underneath we haven’t fortified people’s ability. And commitment. The commitment first and then the ability to. Come back to themselves.


Jonathan Fields: [00:22:21] Mhm.


Rev. angel Kyodo williams: [00:22:22] There’s so much fear. Right? In, in in inhabiting like what it means to truly be with yourself. There’s pain. There’s trauma. Right? There’s really good reasons to simply be uncomfortable in the body. And for me, so many of the original sins, if you will, of all sorts of oppressive systems, situations. Is the the cutting away, the cutting off of people’s ability to come back to themselves and trust themselves and trust the the wholeness of their experience, to trust their experience. Not not whether it’s pleasant or unpleasant or something. So even Buddhism that teaches this notion of like, you know, pleasant and kind of a dispassion around it.


Jonathan Fields: [00:23:10] Mm.


Rev. angel Kyodo williams: [00:23:11] I feel I’ll just say, you know, in the contemporary language takes too damn long for people to really develop that essential thing without other layers that eventually distract. Right. And so there’s like naming things, and there’s nothing wrong with naming things, but the naming things is not the thing. It’s the the essential ability to be able to trust. Abiding within ourselves. That I think is, is like it’s it’s it’s not even really a meditation. Frankly, I meditation is kind of like it. It’s like just this natural skill of what it means to be human. And what it means to be alive. At at a very core, core, core level. And all of everything else is a layer on top of it, right? All of these other things, wounds and pains and so on. But if I if I can’t trust being myself, if I can’t trust my experience, then I’m lost and everything else is corrupted. Everything else is corruptible. And so I just built the practice based on that, right? This sort of like super clean, super straightforward thing. You don’t need a meditation cushion, you don’t need a bell, you don’t need a. And the most important thing is that it’s transportable to like, I’m sitting here with you and that practice is alive and present for me right now. Um, rather than there’s the formal practice, but that I’m actively engaged, that unfolds as part of how I operate. Uh, this Returning, you know, this returning to myself.


Jonathan Fields: [00:24:54] I love that phrase. Returning to myself. Um, it’s funny too, because I think about, you know, I’ve had a sitting practice for probably going on a dozen years now, but it’s like you said, it was never about that. It’s not about how. It’s not about how it’s still I get on the mat or how open or compassionate, how much I knew myself on the mat. It just starts to infuse our presence as we move through the day. And we can, like you said, keep returning, keep returning, keep returning. And it almost it becomes less of an intentional thing and more of just a habit of being, um, that we keep returning to, to this, this way, this, this place of, of openness, curiosity, awareness.


Rev. angel Kyodo williams: [00:25:32] I think what it is, you know, it’s not just it’s like a habit of being. It is being. We remember that actually that is being. Yeah, that is being that, that, that, that abiding, that self abiding, that being with ourselves, that returning to ourselves, that is being. And the other things have corrupted our sense of being. And then we conflate the other things for who we are and we get confused. And so we exist in this kind of confusion. So what I love about it most is that it’s not an accomplishment. It’s a returning. It’s not a it’s not an acquisition of like we get this way, but actually we remember who we are and we remember who we are as we are and allow for the complexity and develop the courage. To be with the complexity of who we are, because obviously it’s not all pretty, you know, and it’s not all pleasant. And that fundamental okayness. Is absolutely critical to the you know, we’re saying this word like spiritual life. It’s like to the to the life life, you know, to the to the living life, to the liberated life, that sense of like a fundamental okayness like, yeah, I’m scared in my boots here and underneath the underneath it like. I’m okay not I agree not I’m. I wish this for myself or the situation, but an okayness. That is the. I feel like it’s the wellspring of an appreciation of life and everything life is offering us.


Jonathan Fields: [00:27:06] Yeah. I mean, you you referenced that in some of the things that. Keep us from this returning, or that sometimes that natural state of presence harbors a lot of trauma, a lot of trauma, shame, wounding, pain, hurt, a lot of like everything. And, you know, it’s saying yes to all of that.


Rev. angel Kyodo williams: [00:27:31] Mhm.


Jonathan Fields: [00:27:32] And being with it and that is terrifying for so many.


Rev. angel Kyodo williams: [00:27:38] And it’s terrifying. I, you know, I think I, I’m, I’m going to go on a limb and say that I think that we’re shaped that way for it to be terrifying. That’s shaped. That’s not organic, that’s shaped. Right. And so then when you get to realize that, it’s like, oh, I’ve, I don’t belong to myself. I don’t really belong to myself. I’m, I’ve been told and it’s been signaled and it’s been, you know, whispered and it’s been repeated over and over again where I should feel comfortable. Capable. Able. To meet life and where I should shrink away. And I think, if nothing else, that part of this spiritual journey that was really about like liberating ourselves, you know, not not I mean, if you want to go to ascend to, you know, Tushita heaven or the ninth, you know, hemisphere or something like, that’s not my business. But to live, to live a life, you know, free and comfortable and and at ease in your body with all of the trials and tribulations that life comes with. That we we have to turn the corner of a commitment to be willing to meet life as it is.


Rev. angel Kyodo williams: [00:28:56] And then to practice right. Unfurling the shaping that has made. Simply meeting life uncomfortable for us. I would like to unpack that. And once you get it’s like, oh, that’s not mine. That’s not mine. That thing when you when you talk about that particular topic, you know, whatever it is, you know, race is a kind of like a big one, obviously, uh, you know, money, right? Like we’re well, you know, we get crazy about, like, conversations about money, like real conversations about money, all sorts of things, those quote unquote social taboos. They’ve been shaped. And it means that you don’t own your life. You don’t. You don’t belong to yourself. And when you, you, you kind of get underneath enough of those, you’re like, you know, I want to I want to own my own damn life. Like I want to belong to myself. And we we turn some kind of corner. And I think that the way that we say, oh, like, that’s hard work, like, that’s hard work, it changes. Um, it changes. Right? It becomes a way of being.


Jonathan Fields: [00:30:02] Yeah. You just use the phrase I want to belong to myself, which is fascinating to me because I was, as you were sharing, I was thinking, what is our impetus to form ourselves like within the shape that’s been handed to us? And, and I like I wonder if a lot of that is this, you know, primal need to belong at scale, to belong to something beyond ourselves. And, you know, we feel like we have to, because if we don’t, then we we’re effectively outcast and we don’t we don’t survive. And it’s this shape or imprint that’s been put into us. So I wonder how much that plays a role. And when you use the phrase belong to ourselves, that feels to me like an unlock key. If, in fact that that earlier assumption is true.


Rev. angel Kyodo williams: [00:30:45] It is absolute, absolutely true. It’s, you know, I mean, through time, that was essential, right? Like, you know, we really like frail creatures, you know, like our nervous systems, like right on the edges of our skin. And we couldn’t survive, you know, the will to live. They say the Yoga Sutras, like even the even the wise ones, cling to life. And so the will to live is one of the things that, you know, make us who we who we are. And so we develop strategies for being able to survive. And of course, we couldn’t survive without our tribe. You know, as you know, early human beings or what we’ve become as Homo sapiens, we couldn’t survive. Um, but our brains don’t do a good job at differentiating those survival necessary necessities from the, you know, being on the soccer team. And it doesn’t it’s not discerning that way. And so we have the same. Like existential feeling and existential crisis. It feels the same in our bodies, you know, at, you know, obviously mediated in terms of levels of intensity, but it’s essentially the same. Like we basically get up to situations where like, I’m going to die. And and then we’re searching immediately for the strategy to not die. And then you go further along, and we’re preventing the possibility of even feeling that feeling. And so now we’re giving up parts of ourselves. In order to belong to that tribe, and to make sure that that saber tooth tiger is not going to be able to get us because somebody else is going to, you know, club them and and then we’ll have dinner. Um, like, all of that is in us. And so the belonging. Um, my theory is that one of the reasons that the core oppressions of our, of our times and our, you know, our human existence and, you know, in our own and our own society, you know, race and so on is because belonging has been corrupted.


Jonathan Fields: [00:32:51] Mm.


Rev. angel Kyodo williams: [00:32:53] This essential critical developmental need. Has been corrupted. And as a result of that, and our inability to see it and to recognize it for what it is, uh, you know, you you said it. It’s like so we give we we allow ourselves to to be shaped. Because belonging is so critical, it’s so necessary. And I feel one of the mistakes that we, we, we make is when we have conversations about race and, you know, gender and, you know, like misogyny and, you know, patriarchy is is we suggest that this is mere ideology and it’s not it’s bio sociological and physiological like we are. We are literally in shaped in our not just our heads and our thoughts, right? Our own feeling state and how we respond to, you know, situations where we get, you know, sweaty palms have been shaped. And because we make it an ideology. You’re caught. You’ve been shaped. And I want you to at least at the, at the very least, get into a place where you can be able to make your own decisions. And I and I hold. I hold people in in the space of grace, if you will. That you at least deserve. To be. Have an awareness that you have been shaped and you are caught, and that your decisions are therefore not your own, actually. Which is really difficult for us to grasp in a hyper individualist society that so many of us are actually not making decisions that are our own at all. And I’ll just say that, you know, and this notion of belonging to ourselves, which is just so talk about like, not a Zen Buddhist thing, we’re always talking about no self. And so I’m just all kind of, you know, messing up the program there by saying, we have to have an unbelonging, we have to have a belonging to ourselves as a fundamental starting point of being able to avail ourselves of any other kinds of spiritual practice, development, formation. Otherwise, we are subject to being, you know, corrupted beyond measure. Um.


Jonathan Fields: [00:35:10] Yeah. That land so true has, as you’re describing it, I had this really bizarre vision of a contortionist trying to fit into, like, a tiny, tiny cube and then, like, you know, everything is in the box except, you know, like, one shoulder and one arm, and there’s just no way to make it fit in. So what do you do? You cut it off because then it fits, and now you’ve taken the shape. But what you’ve given up is a limb, you know, and, and, and and that shows up in all of our lives, as you know, in all different ways. You know, that’s just metaphorically. But, you know, it’s when you ask that question, you know, like, what have I stifled? What have I left behind? What have I excised from myself in order to take this shape? Um, yeah. I think those are the questions that get us closer sometimes.


Rev. angel Kyodo williams: [00:36:00] Yeah. And I think that when when we’re up against the question of, you know, broader social, social issues, you know, the limb is our humanity. Um, and that’s that’s what we leave behind. We we leave behind. And I don’t. I don’t mean that just, you know, colloquially, I mean, we we leave behind our innate organic responses of compassion. To other people suffering. We leave behind our sense of care and concern and connection for people because they don’t look like us. That Lim is our humanity. And so I always say, you know, don’t go and, you know, take up like race training or, you know, go, don’t go deal with like the misogyny or patriarchy, you know, that, you know, that inhabits your life or, you know, whatever transphobia, whatever it is, don’t go do it for them. Do it for yourself. Do it because you you are committed to reclaiming that limb of humanity that got cut off for you to fit in that box of the corporate office or the or your or your family. You know, your you know, your dad, your dad’s dad, dad’s, dad’s dad, your mom, you know, reclaim it for yourself. And that doesn’t mean that that doesn’t come without loss, right? Because depending on where people are, they may not be ready. Right? They’ve been shaped to.


Rev. angel Kyodo williams: [00:37:23] And so they may not be ready to go on that journey with you. And a lot of times we have to leave. I’m not saying everybody should run away from their family, but you have to change your proximity. Right to shift your proximity, that kind of leaving. But simultaneously that the healing that you can do for yourself is something that imparts to your whole lineage, to your whole family, to the to the people that have been trapped in, you know, ways of, you know, harming women or being, you know, egregiously racist or so on and so forth. And that that is, you know, perhaps the most promising, promising thing is that a it doesn’t have to be everybody. Like, we don’t have to kind of go and collect everyone into this great project of fixing everything, because that’s what happens then we’re sort of imposing and we’re trying to fix people, but rather we can do this weird move of both allowing our own personal practice and liberation and unfolding and willingness to to meet ourselves and and to to reclaim our own humanity. That it unto itself. And this is what happens from the beginning. We are gifting that to the collective, so we gift ourselves. So paradoxically, this belonging to ourselves allows us to belong and gift to the collective.


Jonathan Fields: [00:38:48] Yeah. And it’s almost like if, um, even any sense of belonging that you have. Without that is, it’s actually not you who’s belonging. It’s the humanity divorced shape that you’ve assumed that has now been accepted into the collective, which at the end of the day, does nobody any good. In fact, it does everybody harm.


Rev. angel Kyodo williams: [00:39:12] That’s right. And it’s, you know. And. Oh. You know, I could. I feel it like the air in my chest of facing that. Right. Turning to face that. And we we all have our moments of, you know, that thing that we hear and maybe this is one of them that you’re like, oh, right. Right. And then it will. Replicate itself. It’s been like the Toyota syndrome. You’re going to see it everywhere. You’re going to be reminded of like, oh yeah, I’m giving this up here and I’m giving this up here and I’m giving this up here. So I, I advise you to be gentle with yourself. And in a society that has taught us, you know, in hyper-individual terms, that everything is our fault, right? It’s like it’s all ours and it’s all individual choice and so on. That is not, you know, that you have been shaped and so it’s not your fault, and it is your responsibility that as you recognize these places, that you have left a piece of yourself behind, that you are the one that then has the responsibility. While it’s not your fault, you are the one that has the responsibility to reclaim yourself so that you can give yourself more wholly to your to your lover, to your parents, to your children, to you know your partner, to your family, even if they don’t understand you. Even if they don’t understand it, they don’t agree that that you’re giving your whole self is a gift back to them.


Jonathan Fields: [00:40:46] Mhm. That feels like a good place for us to come full circle as well. Um, I asked you this question a long time ago, but I’m going to ask it to you again, because apparently I’ve heard people change.


Rev. angel Kyodo williams: [00:41:00] Once in a while.


Jonathan Fields: [00:41:01] As we sit together in this cross-country container of Good Life Project, if I offer up the phrase to live a good life, what comes up?


Rev. angel Kyodo williams: [00:41:10] For me to live a good life really means to. Be able to return to myself. With grace, with ease, with consistency. And allow for the the whole of who I am to unfold.


Jonathan Fields: [00:41:32] Mmm. Thank you. Thank you. So I love how Rev. angel guides us to look within and return to ourselves as the path to finding belonging. By embracing the fullness of who we are, we can gift ourselves to the collective and transform society through inner change. Our next wisdom leader, Melissa Carter, understands the challenges of belonging as a Senior Director for Global Spiritual Life at NYU. Melissa explores the intersection of spirituality, social justice and belonging in her early life. Melissa really grappled with belonging, from losing both parents at a young age to being biracial. In a world of binaries and through a combination of inner wisdom therapy meditation. Trusting that internal voice, she uncovered narratives and printed by society and childhood trauma that caused her pain. And Melissa now helps students embrace their full humanity and find a sense of purpose and connection. She guides them to stay rooted in their bodies, welcome curiosity, and build community. Her goal is really to empower people to live authentically, heal divides, and contribute their gifts to the world to create a space of belonging for all. So here’s Melissa, who really shares how we can discover our deep sense of belonging.


Melissa Carter: [00:42:48] Growing up, I always struggled with my own sense of belonging. I think in so many different ways within family structures, within my religion, within, you know, friend groups. My father, a Nigerian Black man. My mom was a Ukrainian Jewish woman. And when they met, there was only a couple of years after interracial marriage became legal in our country, in this country, in the United States. And my mother’s family completely disagreed with her dating a black man. And then at one point, they decided that they wanted to get married. They, you know, they loved each other. They wanted to be together. They wanted to build a life together. My mother’s family disowned my mom for marrying my dad. They sat shiva for her. That’s the ritual of mourning in the Jewish faith. So for many years, she didn’t have her parents. There was a bit of a reconciliation later on. I was already born at this point. I think I met my grandparents a few times, but there wasn’t much of a relationship. And I just remember really feeling this sense of like, why don’t we have any family around, you know? And that looks like my mom? Or why do I look different than my mother? And the age of nine, I lost my father to lung cancer and he got diagnosed. And within six months he had passed. And my mom really struggled with his death.


Melissa Carter: [00:44:12] She was also sick and she became quite abusive with me and my sister. She was in and out of the hospital. She was very sick and in her last year of life, my sister and I basically stayed in our home alone while she was in the hospital, and someone would come and bring us, you know, money for food for the week. But we really fended for ourselves. And she died and she died within a couple of weeks after that. For a moment, I felt her acceptance and her love that was quite conditional. And then it was gone. And now I had no parents. I had this family, particularly my mom’s parents, that didn’t want to interact with us because of our skin color. And then my mother’s half-brother, she had a half-brother who she was not close with him and his family, my Aunt Sandra, my uncle Frank, my cousin Mac, Dara and Daniel took my sister and I in and they know my uncle, who’s one of my favorite people in the whole world. And actually my son is named after knows me better than he knew his own sister, you know. So I was at this time 13. My sister was 16, 17. And we moved to Florida from new Jersey and lived with them. And again, like here I was a little different, right? Like I was black, I was Jewish, I was from the from New Jersey.


Melissa Carter: [00:45:33] This is Miami. This is very different. I lost my parents. I had come from an abusive home. So just growing up, I always felt that lack of belonging and that yearning to look other ways than I did to gain acceptance, to gain belonging, to gain love. Because that’s what I was trained by my mom to do. So in college, I really struggled with that sense of belonging and that being who I am innately wanting to be something I wasn’t. So I did all sorts of things. I had multiple groups of friends, right? Like, you know, there was part of me that was the sorority girl and I had joined a sorority. And then there was another part of me that dated, you know, drug dealers and, you know, just really, you know, not what I should have been doing and kept entering into these, like, romantic relationships that were abusive and then in friend groups that weren’t really true friends. But then I’d go into, like, my sorority sisters and it was and I was, you know, vice president of this and secretary of that and. On this board. And so, like, I lived all these, like, double lives where in one area, I think the part of me that was so hurt and yearning for love was making very poor decisions. And I think there’s like this innate part of me that just knew who I was in my core, who was making really smart decisions and decisions that were carving these new paths.


Melissa Carter: [00:46:58] And I don’t think I would have known then that this part of me was doing that. But then after college, I was in New York for spring break or something like that. And, you know, I was a lively kid and I was at a club and I loved music. I just loved music so much. It was just everything to me. And I would even in college, I would throw parties on the golf course because why not? I was in college, I think I even like, oh yeah, I had my radio station. I was on the radio station just, you know, again, like very creative, like I found ways to be successful and then also making really poor choices that were, I think, furthering the narrative of you don’t belong, you’re not loved, you’re less than deficit, deficit, deficit. And I don’t know, even if the parts of me that were being successful were doing great in school and were sociable and, and in these clubs and this, that and the other would have known that that was because of the strength of who I am was leading that. But I actually believe it was part of my faith walk, and it was part of my spiritual journey.


Melissa Carter: [00:48:01] And so I switched to that to say, I’m like a cat. I’ve had multiple careers, but each one has led me to a deeper understanding of who I am and what I think I’m supposed to contribute to humanity. It’s allowed me to find my own belonging. It’s allowed me to unlearn the narratives I was taught as a child that were taught to me from my mother or from society, or from just what our culture says. And, um, I think finding like, my innate truth and then really start building and living a life from there. And so that’s really the setup of how I, you know, coming from this really broken home. And, you know, I think about I have no anger or animosity towards my mom. I think that she was actually quite courageous and took was taking steps to do her unlearning walk of unlearning the ways in which racism and hate and supremacy showed up at her. I think it was very courageous of her to say like, okay, I’m going to walk away from my whole family and marry the man I love and give birth to two children. And I think it’s unfortunate that she didn’t get to finish that unlearning. So I feel very much like I’m doing part of that for her. And so I feel like there’s a lot of generational healing in my family that’s happening. Yeah.


Jonathan Fields: [00:49:17] It’s so interesting. Yeah, there’s so many threads in there, like one of them that just really stood out to me is that it’s almost like you’re living these two lives that are tracking side by side. And one is this there’s some there’s a voice inside of you that says, like, I know me and I have strength and I can handle what comes my way. And the other voice is the voice of pain. It’s the voice of wounding. It’s the voice of of suffering and just yearning to be seen and to be accepted and to belong as you are. And it’s like they’re doing this dance, weaving between each other, trying to figure out who takes the lead at any given time and what’s constructive and what’s deconstructive in that dance. You know, I.


Melissa Carter: [00:49:56] Appreciate your your bringing up this dance of the pain. And I also don’t want to just say strength, but I would say this like deep love that I had for life and this deep curiosity that I had and this deep wonderment that I had, I think the child within me was so curious. She was so full of wonder and and filled with so much possibility. And I never lost that. And I think that’s really beautiful. And this pain overshadowed it sometimes. But I think once I got them into relationship, once I got them talking, I got them dancing. I could wonder about my pain where I could sit with it and say, like, what is this pain? Is this even mine? Right? What is this narrative? What is this saying about me? Is it even true? And you know, as I continued to get older and have more experiences and honestly, therapy’s a wonderful thing. Um, really allow myself to peel away the narratives that were not mine so I could hear and see and remember the innate truth in me. And that’s when my spirituality came. I was in my late 20s, early 30s and started meditating. I had, you know, dabbled in the Jewish faith here and there, but always really struggled. Every time I went into Jewish community, I think I was again, that pain just didn’t allow me to see the community in front of me or see that I could belong. And then, you know, any slight action of bias or questioning of my Judaism or Jewishness or, you know, why am I there? I think just reinforced the pain. And. I just couldn’t touch it. So I stayed away. So I became a spiritual person and I still never lost my commitment or my feeling that, you know, something divine was always around me and guiding me and with me.


Melissa Carter: [00:51:49] And I think the slowly sitting with the pain and peeling away the narratives allowed me to feel and see and hear more of that unseen divinity, spirit and give or however, however you, you know, you call God, right? And so slowly I got to hear that. And that was able to hear my my innate truth, my own voice, my own belonging. And I think the pain stopped leading the dance and became more of my teacher, of how can I use this so I don’t have to keep living it? And then once I, I think, moved through that and grew up and, you know, obviously became more emotionally mature and secure, I think now my work is really centered in like, I want to help others make sure that they have the tools to find their own belonging and whatever that is, is that in religion is that in their well-being, is that in their creative expression, is that, you know, and them just living an authentic life? You know, I think each of us has a unique gift or talent that this world definitely needs. If we’re ever going to move forward towards a a more liberated world of love, equality and equity. And each of us, I think, contribute to that. But we have to be empowered to offer it. And, um, I want to be a part of that. And I think I, I needed to move through a lot of pain to be able to even feel that I could contribute to it. And now that I do feel like I can contribute to it, I don’t feel like, oh, I just can. I feel like it’s part of my human obligation.


Jonathan Fields: [00:53:27] When students come to you. Like as as we shared in the beginning of our conversation, you’ve been at NYU for a number of years now, really exploring the intersection of mindfulness and social justice and spirituality and and belonging and all these really important things. When students come to you, like, so you have this sort of like you have a role at this major university in New York City, where you have an interesting access point to students and to the experiences that they’re having in whether it’s academic pressure, social pressure, cultural pressure, um, when they come to you with questions like what we’re talking about and they’re struggling, they’re struggling with a sense of identity, a sense of belonging, a sense of almost every 19, 20, 21-year-old, no matter what your background is, is struggling with that stuff. I think most adults are right. Yeah. So when they come to you, you have an interesting toolbox to draw upon when somebody shows up with you. I’m curious what you look to to help people in those moments.


Melissa Carter: [00:54:28] What’s so amazing about this cohort of students and young adults that I get to work with, and I have the privilege to work with. So really, I mean, it’s just it’s amazing. And so inspiring is they are in this moment of development, of human development self-authorship where they’re really determining how they want to self-author the next big moment of their lives and what’s really for them, and might be challenging some of the things that they grew up hearing and understanding, and the rules and obligations and rituals in which that they lived, they might be challenging that a bit, or they might not be right. You know, and I think the first thing that’s important is that they stay in their own bodies, right? Like, do they have a connection to their own body? And I think mindfulness, self-regulation, embodiment exercises contemplation practices to put you in your own body, in a world that’s constantly giving you all this fuel and fire to get out of it, put you in your own body so you’re in your own experience and your own subjective experience, and really inquire and examine what brought you to this moment. And so I think it’s, um, inviting in that self-regulation that an embodied practice and inviting a sense of curiosity that’s playful to students, inviting them to challenge and question all in a way that allows them to make deeper understanding and meaning of the things they’re learning of, the things they’re trying out in their different identities and roles and ways of being.


Melissa Carter: [00:56:09] And I would say another tool would be community. I think it’s really important to, even if it’s just one other person finding a way to connect, putting someone in a community where they can practice being who they are. And I talk about that a lot with my students, is this might feel tough. It may feel tough, like we just said, to bear witness to yourself or to be authentic or to be. Vulnerable or to be the one with a counterculture thought or to, you know, try something new. But can we just practice it? And this idea of practice, meaning that you don’t have to get it right or wrong, you’re just practicing or trying it out, and you’ll learn from that practice. And then you’ll take that information and choose to figure out how you want to practice next. And I think it’s really important to always keep that sense of wonderment and child learning to stay curious, to learn. What did you learn? Assess it. Apply that information to make the next step that feels most aligned with who you are, what you’re going to feel in your body. And so if you’re not connected to your body, which has so much information for you, I think it’s difficult to self author in a way that is aligned and authentic and true to urinate being.


Jonathan Fields: [00:57:33] You know, in an earlier conversation that we had, you posited a question that I wrote down because I just it was really simple and short. Um, but I wanted to sit with it and actually, like the nature of the question is, how do you sit with what is. And it seems like such a simple question, but it is not. There is so much in there, and it is so powerful, and it’s probably the type of question where you keep revisiting that for years.


Melissa Carter: [00:58:03] I mean, I think you can revisit that multiple times a day. Yeah, right. Like I think you should always be revisiting it. And I appreciate that that question stayed with you. And sometimes it is the simplest question. That’s the most complex answer. When you can sit with what is I think you can then make choices for yourself that are aligned and authentic. And that’s why I encourage my students or invite them to have tools of embodied practice mindfulness, self-regulation, inquiry. To sit with what is even in discomfort is be comfortable being uncomfortable, because the second you can sit with what is, you have your own type of belonging that you can move from. And that’s really powerful to build a life from there.


Jonathan Fields: [00:58:49] Yeah, I’m right there with you, and it feels like a good place for us to come full circle in our conversation as well. So in this container, Good Life Project., if I offer up the phrase to live a good life, what comes up?


Melissa Carter: [00:59:02] I think living a life of curiosity and trying to live as truthfully and honestly as possible, that’s grounded in love of service to others and where you strive every day to see the humanity not only in yourself but in others. Give the permission and grace to do so.


Jonathan Fields: [00:59:20] Mm. Thank you, thank you. I love how Melissa shows us that by sitting with our own pain and unlearning false narratives, we can find freedom to live authentically and her work empowering people to embrace their humanity is just. It’s super inspiring to me. I hope today’s episode inspired you to look within and embrace all aspects of yourself. Our sense of belonging begins by accepting our humanity in its wholeness. By returning to our inner truth, we can authentically connect to the collective. So thanks to Rev. angel and Melissa for sharing their wisdom on this journey to belonging. Now, if our conversation sparked insight and you like to integrate it into your life and work, I’d love to invite you to say yes to a simple belonging challenge or invitation, if that’s an easier word for you, as we’ve done all month to wrap up this final January Jumpstart episode. So this week’s challenge is, well, it’s simple, yet hard. It’s to sit with a question or a series of questions. What would it take for me to feel like I belonged to myself? Like I saw myself? All of me letting go of judgment or shame. Like I could bring the pieces and places of my personality and beliefs and value experiences and life into the room and say, yes, this is who I am, and I’m worthy to see yourself more clearly, to celebrate where you’ve been, and to know that your value was endowed at birth.


Jonathan Fields: [01:00:45] And if you’re ever in a space where that’s not embraced, then it’s time to find other spaces to feel like you’re comfortable in your own skin and you belong to yourself without condition. That’s today’s journal prompt to sit with it, to walk with it, to let it incubate and spend 10 or 15 minutes if that’s comfortable for you long or if it feels good just journaling what comes up. So that’s a wrap for this year’s January Jumpstart series, and if you haven’t already, be sure to follow us on your favorite podcast app so you don’t miss any of our upcoming episodes. And if you’re inclined, it’s so appreciate if you would share this episode with a friend who maybe needs a little more meaning and purpose and belief and connection and belonging in their lives, because it’s always so much more fun to learn and grow together. And if you love this episode Safe bet, you’ll also love the full conversations that we’ve had with Rev. angel Kyodo williams, and Melissa Carter. You’ll find a link to those in the show. Notes. This episode of Good Life Project. was produced by executive producers Lindsey Fox and Me, Jonathan Fields. Editing help By Alejandro Ramirez. Kristoffer Carter crafted our theme music. Until next time I’m Jonathan Fields signing off for Good Life Project.


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