You Belong with Sebene Selassie

Hi Sebene! How are you today? Where are you right now?

I am in Noto, Sicily. My partner grew up here and we came six weeks ago to support his sister through a health crisis. Turns out she’s fine so we are now all quarantining together on their farm/land. It’s quite beautiful. We are nestled in a peaceful valley surrounded by olive, citrus and nut trees and fed by creeks and springs. 

I am doing okay. Working through some personal patterns which is always challenging (until it’s finally over…soon, please?!). A little raw still from the past week, months, years, decades! Ha! 

How are you? Where are you?

I’m in Crown Heights, New York. Of course, I feel you. As we’re talking, Biden is the expected winner in the presidential race and yet I feel… unmoved, maybe? People were partying in the streets on Saturday and it was beautiful to witness but something about this time feels eerie. Maybe in my own life I’ve had an atrociously hard time this year—but also these past years, decades as well—so I’m more of a realist which might surprise some. I just know we have SO MUCH WORK TO DO and maybe that’s how I want to pivot to you and You Belong… which I devoured over a few days. Maybe it’s because we’re thinking of a lot of similar things, i.e. white supremacy and how it encroaches everything, I want to know… how does it feel to put out a book like this that is so personal, but also about the ability for humans to transform…

Big up Crown Heights!! I miss our neighborhood and we will have to hang out when I get back.

Oof. The personal and the collective. It’s such a balance. 

I was just thinking about that this morning. I don’t know if I said it so explicitly in the book but I definitely feel the weight of always having to hold the projections of a group identity. I can’t remember when I didn’t know myself as Black or female. AND it’s central to my healing and freedom to sometimes NOT have to think about those identities. 

Being nestled in beautiful nature right now and not seeing many people besides the five other humans here on this land makes me long for a liberation that can both include my identities but also be free of them. Paradoxes are at the heart of my spiritual practice.

I embrace a paradox that affirms my relative realities/identities and also holds the absolute truth that I am so much more than those fictions/constructs. That paradox often feels like a seesaw and I think as a Black woman I am made by society to sway towards my identities. But I could actually benefit from balancing more toward my sacred connection to everything. 

Conversely, I think white people (and men) actually need to explore their relative identities more, especially if they’ve never had to investigate them very much. 

But, me, I am at the moment really turning to nature as a place/way to feel beyond those identities. 

That makes sense, and that’s what I found so beautiful. Whenever white supremacists wanna make fun of the perils of racism, what they don’t want to understand is most of us want to be liberated by what pains us. I don’t want to continue fighting to be seen all the time. I want to be understood inherently, with space to be dynamic and complex, just like my own identities of being queer, Muslim and a South Asian woman who has her own complicated relationship to gender. So, I’m curious, what does it mean for you to be seen? And then, what does it mean for you to belong?

I’ll bring in paradox again (forever!). 

Because it’s true, I don’t want someone to erase my ethnic or gender or cultural identities in the name of belonging or even in the name of spiritual freedom. When and how I express or release those identities is up to me. That’s why spiritual friendship is so important for liberation. In Theravada Buddhism, the concept of kalyana mitta or spiritual friendship is very strong. It’s called the “whole of holy life” and to me it implies relationships that are very tender and transparent and require a lot of listening and reflection. 

I feel seen by certain friends and communities (and many of them are not in spiritual/religious contexts) where I am allowed to show up and balance on either side of the see saw and anywhere in between as needed. And when I fall off the damn thing, those folks are there to help me get back up.

Do you remember the first thing that drew you to be spiritual? Was there anything that motivated about the decision? Do you have a spiritual genesis story?

When I was a teen, my older brother started exploring things like the Tao Te Ching and Siddharta and then joined the “Hare Krishnas.”  I was definitely intrigued and eventually dove full in. From then it was a huge occult, esoteric, spiritual fest for the rest of high school (palm reading, auras, kirtan, chanting) and that led me to major in Comparative Religious Studies at McGill. 

I would add that my experiences with psychedelics in college (which were many) opened my mind and heart in a way that I did not fully comprehend at the time. I believe I also unwittingly healed some deep trauma through various trips which probably saved me a lot of time in therapy (not that I didn’t still spend tons of time in therapy, I just think it would have been much more).

I absolutely agree. My use of psychedelics over these last few years — a big shout out to mushrooms and ayahuasca — has completely transformed my life. Through the use of them perhaps was the first time I ever fully understood the concept of magic. This world is magical, yet we forget because of the matrix. Unrelated but related, what has been one of the most surprising parts of the journey to belonging for you? 

I would never wish cancer on anyone, AND I would not change that experience for anything. I have a lot of ongoing impacts from my various treatments including physical deformities and I continue to learn from each one of them. Belonging to my body, especially as I age, as I experience menopause, as I navigate decreased lung capacity (from radiation), and as I nonetheless find appreciation, love and even adoration for this body and for life… I didn’t expect all that.

Thank you for being so honest with that. Not at all the same, and perhaps a bit problematic (my therapist I think would say so) but these days I accept my abuse and understand all the things it’s shown me about myself, and, in my own ways, I’m grateful for it. Not all the time, but I know I wouldn’t be here — at this serene place — if not for the life I’ve had. 

In such desperate and painful times, with the continued onslaught of a pandemic we’ve been under for about a year now, things are deeply chaotic and unhinged… yet we have to go on, we have to move through the extremeness of these days. What are ways you’d suggest people can start coming into feeling like they belong? Reading the book I realized so main issues in life is this feeling of being really isolated in my experience. Only just last night was I howling into my mask while riding in a cab. It’s a rough time, many of us feel unrooted, destabilized, completely confused, afraid. So many of my triggers have gone off this year… and yet, I gotta keep going. 

Yes, acknowledging how hard it is… that is so vital. Also, allowing ourselves to feel it. But that means “feel” not “think.” There’s a meditation circle saying: drop the stories and feel the feelings. I believe cultivating a practice that helps us distinguish between thinking and sensing is so important. We are unconsciously ruled by our thoughts and emotions. Not that thoughts and emotions are bad or wrong, but they can take over to the point where we are perpetuating unwanted states beyond their usefulness or relevance. 

There’s a lot to say here because learning how to navigate this is pretty much the whole spiritual path but learning to get into our bodies and out of our heads is the first step. Our bodies are always in the present moment and what’s happening in them is not always pleasant but it’s almost always navigable and it’s always, always impermanent. If we can learn to ride out unpleasant sensations/feelings and not perpetuate them by retriggering them through our thoughts/emotions, we can actually learn to reregulate and recognize that we are safe in this moment (of course, that is if we are literally physically safe… if we are not, that’s a whole other conversation). 

All of this is complicated by trauma which can trigger us into those mind/emotional states over and over. Finding therapists, communities and practices that offer trauma sensitive practices is key. I actually do not recommend meditation to people who have acute or severe complex trauma until they have sought support to help make meditation truly beneficial for them. 

All of that is so useful, thank you Sebene. You’re a Scorpio, we’re talking during Scorpio season, you also write about death, about the “final contemplation in mindfulness of the body is maranasati, or death awareness.” You end with your mother’s death, the agony of not having the chance to really say goodbye, and then having to tell your sister about it. I felt the waves of that so hard, in a year that we’ve also been struggling with the vastness and the punctuation of the time. How does the remembrance of death help you on your journey?

Ah, death. The greatest teacher. 

I think it’s so ridiculous that we have made death so scary and taboo. It’s the only thing that we are all certain to experience. It’s literally the only experience that connects all living things… we all die. That’s why in Buddhism it’s said that impermanence is the greatest teaching and that understanding impermanence leads to the greatest happiness. 

I don’t have an easy answer here. It’s not that I’m not afraid of death, but I do aspire to not fear death. That means to talk about it, normalize it, explore it, even expect it… Even these little openings help. 

Death really is the only absolute, and I agree, we must look at it, face it, know it as intimately as we can. In these times, how have you been caring for yourself? What have you been eating? What have you been listening to? Reading? Watching? Binging? Any secret healing techniques you wanna share / pass onto us?

I am in a unique situation because I’m not working so much at the moment. But that’s not an accident. My partner and I decided a few years ago that we would try and make late November through February our down months – following the flow of nature in the Northern Hemisphere. We try not to book jobs or schedule too much activity during this period. 

This is often the busiest time of the year for people. Everything in nature is slowing down now except us stupid humans. So I encourage us to follow the rest of nature, instead of humanity. Sleep more, eat warming foods, don’t turn on too many lights when it’s dark outside, use candle light… But also, get outside during the day, breathe fresh air, watch the natural cycles around you. 

I have terrible Internet connection right now (as you know Fariha!), so not watching/listening to very much… except bees. I’m currently obsessed with the bees here (there are a few hives on this land). Bees are amazing! Also, watching the sky. And the rain.

Nature is the greatest healer…

Sebene Selassie is a Brooklyn-based dharma teacher, writer, coach, and consultant. She began studying Buddhism over 30 years ago and received a BA from McGill University in Religious and Women’s Studies and an MA from the New School where she focused on cultural studies and race. She is the former Executive Director of New York Insight Meditation Center, has served on the boards of the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies and Sacred Mountain Sangha, and is a teacher on the Ten Percent Happier app.