January 18, 2021

Meet the Teacher: Sebene Selassie

A self-described “nerdy Black immigrant tomboy Buddhist weirdo,” Sebene Selassie is the author of the extraordinary new book, You Belong, a call for internal and external connection that explores our complicated relationship with belonging. On each page of this inspired work, Sebene offers the profound invitation to remember: You are not separate. You never were. You never will be.

In February, You Belong will be the featured title for the IMS Book Club.  We recently sat down with Sebene to discuss the ways we separate (and thus suffer) and how we may return to a deeper sense of belonging. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and content.


Sebene, thank you for joining us to talk about your IMS Book Club event. Can you offer a preview?

“You belong” is a declarative statement of truth so I hope to hold a space that allows people to explore for themselves how we can come back to the truth of our belonging—to trust that we have a sacred connection to ourselves and to others and to all things.

These days, even pre-pandemic, we experienced epidemic levels of anxiety and loneliness and depression, and feelings of alienation from others. We’ve lost intimacy with ourselves. It can seem overwhelming, but it’s not. I share a lot of my own story in the book and point to what felt like the impossibility of my sense of belonging, being an immigrant, Black girl, weirdo tomboy. I point to the continued challenges that I feel in belonging, but also hope that I am communicating the massive openings that have happened for me in terms of understanding the truth of my belonging, despite what felt like insurmountable causes of that feeling of separation.

In the Book Club meetings I’ll co-facilitate with my friend Yong Oh, we’ll look at why we feel this sense of disconnection and unpack the delusion of separation to help Book Club members realize the truth of belonging.

In this time of significant political unrest and social conflict, the delusion of separation does not feel so delusional. How can we reconcile the experience of separation when so much feels disconnected?

One of the things I try to unpack in the book is the paradox of two truths—the absolute truth of our interconnection and lack of separation, and the relative truth of our identities and the oppressive forces and systems that have sowed the untruths of separation. We are invited to understand the paradox that both of these things are true and one is not more true than the other. It isn’t an easy thing to grapple with because we are faced with the reality of harm and suffering.

How can we begin to bridge the gap between feelings of separation and feelings of belonging?

It really starts within ourselves. We can’t jump to feeling a sense of belonging with others if we feel a fundamental sense of separation from our own truth of belonging.

In the book, I offer five steps—ground yourself, know yourself, love yourself, connect yourself, and be yourself. It starts with grounding practice—that sense of somatic experience of our moment-to-moment reality. As difficult feelings come up, including the feelings of separation and division, we explore those feelings in our bodies. We can see that they arise and they pass away, and that they are often in response to something that is triggering or upsetting. We begin to make a distinction between what’s ours and what’s happening. It may not even be our own material—it could be ancestral conditioning, our family or social traumas, or just the heightened energetic field that we’re all in right now.

As you begin to know your patterns, your conditioning, you don’t have to love the patterns themselves, but you can love yourself and start to release and change the patterns. Connecting to yourself in this way begins to connect you to others, and to nature, and to being the truth of that interconnection, that lack of separation. There is just an endless possibility for self-compassion in this work.

Does one need to be a Buddhist to accept the truth of belonging as a universal truth?

No, one doesn’t need to be a Buddhist, but I think that we do need to interrogate, and maybe even challenge, the secularization of everything, and the lack of connection to what are ancient and sacred truths. IMS teacher Bonnie Duran talks about epistemicide, which refers to the killing off of knowledge, and particularly to the killing off of ancient ways of knowing. I point to the power of ancient wisdom traditions, and knowledge systems that point to truth, and I give examples of practices or traditions that have this embodied way of connecting to themselves, each other, and all of nature.

When we deny sacred truth, and only want things that are verifiable by “double blind placebo studies,” we cut ourselves off from the mystery of reality. But I also point to modern science as it becomes more and more understanding of the mystery and truth of our interconnection.

Can we “belong” in a secular, spiritually disconnected state?

Modernist, colonial or colonized approaches can kill off other ways of knowing—there can be a disconnection from the mystery and what is not measurable, not knowable. So, when I say spiritual, it’s not about particular rituals or practices, it’s really about that sense of ourselves as more than these observable bodies and conditions. It is also about connecting to the non-human world as well—beyond human, inclusive of animals and plants, and even the part of the world that may not be perceivable to our ordinary senses. Those are important explorations that all the ancient traditions, including Buddhism, have pointed to, and that more modern or secular Buddhism and other practices have dismissed.

Are we to understand then that secularization and modernization are moving us farther away from our sense of belonging?

I think we’re moving back. There is a rebalancing that’s happening right now all around us. It is shifting, and so many things are emerging right now that seem to be helping to rebalance some of the imbalance. It’s not that secularization and modernization are wrong—but there have been imbalances.

What other forces and factors may have contributed to the separation human beings feel within themselves, with each other, and in relationship to the natural world?

I don’t go too much into causes in the book, but we can point to domination patterns that we find in the oppressive systems around us, including patriarchy and white supremacy and capitalism, and this consumerist, extractive culture that we’re immersed in. It is very hard to get away from systems that perpetuate a lot of harm, and perpetuate that sense of disconnection. Rather than trying to figure out external systems, what I invite people to do is to notice domination patterns within, and how that feeling of separation is enhanced by a culture that asks us to compare and compete with everything around us.

What is the best way to interrupt those unhelpful patterns?

We need to take personal responsibility for changing these patterns, because they’re not going to change without our intention and volition. But we don’t have to blame ourselves. Krishnamurti said that while you may think you are thinking your thoughts, you are not—you’re thinking the thoughts of your culture. We don’t have to live in guilt and shame. We also don’t have to blame others, the people around us, our parents, or our ancestors. Instead, the invitation is to really see it all as the karmic result of causes and conditions. So just keep coming back to the truth of interconnection, the truth of karma and cosmic conditions, the truth of our capacity to be in the present moment, and start to shift these realities.

Am I wrong to think that this is easier said than done in our current climate and culture?

I’ve been grappling with this myself, and coming back to the uncomfortable truth of belonging in this moment, because if I belong to everything, I also belong to those who are sowing violence and hatred and destruction and death around us.

We can talk about what’s happening in this country but also all over the world. There’s a civil war that’s turning into a regional war in Ethiopia and Eritrea right now. The roots of separation are sown in individuals, and then fester out into communities and into our culture and our society.

This is why change has to happen in our families and in our communities, with our children knowing that it’s possible to touch into freedom and interconnection and all of the people throughout history who are examples of that promise. We’re not going to be able to just legislate away hundreds of years that have led to this condition, and we’re not going to be able to penalize it away or imprison it away. And although there’s an inspiring possibility for change, we also have to recognize that it might not be immediate. But I am someone who wants to believe in the mystery and the possibility of miracles.

Does that mean you believe in the possibility of a mass spontaneous awakening?

I have no idea. But I have an inkling of an intuition that it is possible.

How can we begin manifesting that possibility?

It is an inward to outward process. I can’t give a prescription except to say that we start with ourselves and move out from there. If we’re feeling a sense of interconnection and belonging with people on the other side of the world, but we are walking disasters in our own personal relationships or communities, that’s there’s some hypocrisy or discrepancy there.

In the last chapter of the book, I give a brief description of the community that my sister lives in now. My sister was born with brain damage and has intellectual disability. She lives in a Rudolf Steiner community in upstate New York and that community is such a great example of the possibility of dignity and harmony and connection and belonging that can be established among a small group of people. These Camphill communities exist and thrive all around the world and each one follows the same spiritual explorations from week to week, so that they’re in connection and conversation with each other. When we’re not in a pandemic, they travel to meet each other. To me, that’s an example of local connection that facilitates a global connection as well. Someone imagined Camphill communities. Someone created that intimate environment of possibility.

You share many other personal stories in the book. What led you to be so curious about your own experience?

I point to the fluency of immigrant kids, because we have to navigate different worlds, and are often literally translating between languages for others, or for ourselves. That probably had something to do with my interest in self and other.

I was also really fortunate that my older brother was interested in philosophy and Eastern thought from a pretty young age. Through him I got introduced to Buddhism. He became a Hare Krishna when I was about 15 so I started attending kirtans and lectures. By the time I got to college, I was already primed and ended up majoring in comparative religious studies focusing on Hinduism and Buddhism. So, I was karmically blessed to be introduced to the Dharma from a younger age than most. It all flowed from there.

What paths did you take to enhance your understanding of the Dharma?

In the beginning, I wasn’t a practitioner. I was studying the teachings academically and reading a lot of books. My focus was on women in Early Buddhism as I was a big fan of the late scholar Rita Gross. In my mid-20s, I found a teacher in the Zen tradition, Barry Magid, who teaches in the Ordinary Mind tradition. That was my first foray into practice and I starting to confront myself, and my own patterns and my own misery. Just simply sitting. From there, I did a little bit of travel in Southeast Asia and did some extended retreat time in Thailand. When I returned to the U.S., I ended up in Tara Brach’s Wednesday night class in Bethesda, Maryland, and started connecting to the insight community. I’ve been practicing this tradition since 2003.

I also found a POC community in Washington, D.C., led at the time by La Sarmiento who is now a dear friend of mine. I’d never sat with a POC group and that was a fundamental shift for me and probably led to me sticking to insight even after I moved to New York City.

In the book you mention some past discomfort you experienced in sitting meditation. Do you have any advice for practitioners who may also struggle with formal sitting practice?

It’s really about understanding our bodies and recognizing what is good for them. There are four classic meditation postures and no ranking of them. The formal posture of lying down, especially when I was going through cancer treatment, countered my anxiety, tension, and the lack of capacity for relaxation that many of us have in this culture. Challenging the glorification of the formal sitting posture can be really helpful. Also, there’s some of us who tend to collapse or get sleepy in our practice, and maybe we need to stand.

That invitation reminds me that cultural and societal norms are often dictated by those who get to write the histories or codify the “rules.” Does the truth of belonging offer additional options and opportunities for broader inquiry?

I once asked my teacher Thanissara, “How did the feminine aspect show up in Thailand in terms of rigidity vs. fluidity and in terms of Yin and Yang?” Her feeling was that the path of insight itself is very Yang, but in Thailand it was embedded in a Yin culture of relationality and interconnection. We Westerners took a Yang practice, and plopped it in a Yang culture. So, now we can ask, what are the Yin moves we can make to balance that out?

I’m developing a year-long course called Yin Dharma for the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies that will start in October. It will feature three retreats over the course of a year—hopefully in-person. I’ll be teaching the first retreat with Pamela Weiss, and the second two with Pamela Ayo Yetunde, really looking at what happened to these feminine energies in insight practice. We will examine the origins of Theravada Buddhism, but more time will be spent on how we bring these Yin practices in, nature, the body, ritual and movement, music, mystery, and all of these elements that can be left out of our highly secularized insight practice.

In recognition of our belonging and interdependence, how can we best relate to those who feel very “other?”

Our perspective can’t be imbued with judgment because that assumes that we would be any different if we were in their place. And I don’t mean if we swapped places now—I mean if we had the exact same causes and conditions as that other human being, we would be that person.

So, how can we use this knowledge as a useful mobilizing force? Without the dismissive and disconnected attitude of arrogance, how could we realize our connection? Because judgment is just a domination move in a morally superior form.

So, fighting dominance with dominance is not the best tactic?

My purpose is not to be right. My purpose is to help people wake up.

I think about privilege. I don’t like the term white privilege. There are privileges that are granted to white folks just based on the color of their skin. But it’s not a privilege to be ignorant of history, or to carry unconscious biases. So, I think it’s a real privilege to have been born Black, as I’m aware of these issues even though that awareness maybe came through discomfort, and sometimes suffering or even really harmful experiences. I can recognize the power of being able to see things clearly but not use that to then feel better about myself or to dominate in a situation. Instead, I can use this knowledge in service of my purpose—to really communicate the truth of our sacred interconnection.

Is there a direct connection between belonging and living a joyful life?

I use belonging as a synonym for joy and freedom. And nothing should be separate from our spiritual lives. What gets left out? For example, the erotic really brings us in touch with our sense awareness. Dance, musicality … it’s all part of our spiritual expression.

Any parting words before we see you for the February Book Club?

Just remember the truth that you belong.

Sign up now for You Belong, an IMS Book Club event with Sebene Selassie and Yong Oh