On Wednesday, August 19 at 2:00pm EDT The Garrison Institute Forum Series on Pathways to Planetary Health continued with a conversation between Meditation Teacher and Author and Meditation Teacher Sebene Selassie and Jonathan F.P. Rose, Co-Founder of the Garrison Institute.
These interactive Forum sessions aim to expand our understanding around how each of us can play a role in supporting a regenerative, just and prosperous world, nurturing the health and wellbeing of all of life.
You Belong and the Power of Community or ‘Sangha’
In this talk, Sebene Selassie shared insights from her new book, You Belong, which offers a compelling case for resisting the forces that separate us and reclaiming the connection—and belonging—that have been ours all along. Sebene, who has studied Buddhism for over 30 years, offers workshops and retreats exploring the Three Jewels: Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. (The Teacher, The Teachings, The Community).
While many practitioners focus on the two jewels of Buddha and Dharma, Sebene is particularly interested in expanding Sangha, in building community by acknowledging the interconnection of all beings. She invokes a quote from the late Zen master Thich Nhat Hahn: “The next Buddha will be a Sangha.”
Absolute Reality and Relative Reality: Doctrines of Two Truths
Another overarching theme of You Belong, is a key tenet of Buddhist philosophy: Absolute Reality versus Relative Reality. Known as the Doctrine of Two Truths, the concept of absolute or ultimate truth and relative or conventional truth serves as a philosophical paradox. Sebene observes,
“It’s hard to wrap our minds around the fact that the absolute truth of reality, that’s it’s interconnected, there’s no separation, that this is all just vibrating energy. Ancient wisdom tells us that and modern science tells us that. And that there’s a relative reality of difference: of me being here in Brooklyn and you being upstate, the fact that we have these identities that are social identities as well. I’m a woman, you identify as a man, I’m black, you’re white, we have religious differences perhaps. And so, these relative differences can sometimes seem to contradict the fact that we’re not separate and ultimately interconnected.”
The challenge, as Sebene sees it, is to maintain a balance between these two truths and be able to witness reality from two perspectives. While important not to lose the absolute truth of harmony in interconnection, we cannot ignore the pain and suffering brought on by“this culture of separation and domination and oppression which is inequity”.
What is Epistemicide?
One of the reasons we forget our interconnectedness, according to Selassie, is due to “Epistemicide”, a term coined by the Portuguese academic Boaventura Los Santos.
“He used it to talk about social justice not just from the social political material level but also what he called cognitive social justice and that with colonization, with genocide, not only the killing of peoples, but also the killing of the ways of knowing. So ‘episte’ like epistemology and ‘cide’ like ‘genocide’.”
The “colonial project” and patriarchal emphasis on scientific materialism and material reality over more spiritual ways of seeing the world, has meant “that we’ve lost ways of knowing from indigenous cultures and indigenous communities because they were suppressed”.
This relates to a quote from You Belong:
“There’s a paradox. Although we are not one, we are not separate, and although we are not separate, we are not the same. Human survival depends upon us understanding this truth.”
The challenge in our current political climate is to avoid ‘othering’ even when we strongly disagree with certain views. In Buddhism, the commitment to “relieve the suffering of all sentient beings” means “without exception, so there are no loopholes.”
Embodied Awareness vs Mindfulness
Selassie recalls an experience in South Africa when she encountered Ubuntu, a concept popularized by Desmond Tutu. Its core message, “I am because you are,” speaks not just to the interconnection between all people but all beings and all elements of the earth, a profound form of indigenous wisdom. According to the Ubuntu way, “everything is people. Water is people, mountains are people, animals are people, are is people, rocks are people.”
If we merge the wish for all sentient beings without exception to be free, this includes people we don’t know and even ostensibly people we dislike. This also means those we don’t normally see or acknowledge. And that awareness helps shine a spotlight on “what’s normally called implicit or unconscious bias and the parts of ourselves we don’t even see,” and the ways we unconsciously harm others by ignoring them.
“I always say the most important part of the phrase ‘unconscious bias’ is the unconscious part.”
“Our unconscious conditioning is not our fault, but it is our responsibility. And it’s only from there that we can actually make these conscious changes in the culture.”
So how do we unpack and reeducate ourselves about our unconscious bias? Meditation, mindfulness and contemplative practices help us to witness what is under the surface, but it takes dedication, and consistent energy.
In her book, Sebene describes a process she calls “grounding loving knowing connecting and being” which begins in the body. And getting in touch with somatic experience is part reconnecting with our own truth, our own awareness which has been disrupted within the “scientific materialist colonialist architecture.”
“All the information that we need for our freedom is in this body.”
One of the limitations of the word ‘mindfulness’ is that it takes the original Pali word ‘sati’ which means holistic or embodied awareness and puts the word ‘mind’ front and center.
In order to move beyond the mind, we need to fully experience our sublimated feelings and trauma, some of which is personal, some inherited, intergenerational and epigenetic. This ‘embodied awareness’, says Selassie, is more fully related to indigenous ways of knowing.
When we start to accept our emotions, we can begin to love ourselves, and by extension love others. Self-acceptance evolves into compassion and is enhanced by community, by sangha.
“True change is not possible in isolation.”
You Belong addresses our collective crisis of belonging, and the delusion of separation is at the heart of this crisis. You are not separate. You never were. You never will be. The power of silent retreat and meditation practice balanced with practice in community, is our true path to enacting social change.
Moving beyond the guru model of spiritual teaching, Selassie emphasizes the power of leaderless, sangha-driven movements for change that call upon us all in collective movement toward social justice and climate justice.
“Our sense of belonging is fundamental to our healing of the planet.”
Cultivating contemplative practices, especially retreat experiences in nature, can help create a sense of spaciousness where we can replenish ourselves to connect with possibilities, with imagination, for creating new paradigms of change in the world.
To attend upcoming Forum Conversations, visit the Garrison Institute website.
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Sebene Selassie has studied Buddhism for over thirty years. She 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. For over twenty years, Sebene worked with children, youth, and families nationally and internationally for small and large not-for-profits. Her work has taken her everywhere from the Tenderloin in San Francisco to refugee camps in Guinea, West Africa. She has been teaching meditation workshops, courses, and retreats for over a decade and is one of the most popular teachers on the Ten Percent Happier app. Sebene lives on unceded Lenape Territory in Brooklyn, NY. To learn more about Sebene Selassie and to order a copy of her new book, You Belong: A Call for Connection, please visit: www.sebeneselassie.com
Jonathan F.P. Rose’s business, public policy, and not-for-profit work focus on creating a more environmentally, socially, and economically responsible world. Jonathan and his wife Diana Calthorpe Rose are the co-founders of the Garrison Institute. He serves on its Board and leads its Pathways to Planetary Health program.
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