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Alex Adams approaches humanity’s critical need to belong ~ March 2022

I am learning about belonging. The teachings of belongingness have come to me slowly from many wise people, communities, and nature. These teachings over the years are like walking a labyrinth, leading me towards the center and away, and towards the center and away from it again and again.  A journey. Interestingly, there is a whole academic area of psychology devoted to understanding belonging and our human need for it. Wikipedia defines Belongingness as “The human emotional need to be an accepted member of a group. Whether it is family, friends, co-workers, a religion, or something else, some people tend to have an ‘inherent’ desire to belong and be an important part of something greater than themselves. This implies a relationship that is greater than simple acquaintance or familiarity.”

Wikipedia goes on to note, “Belonging is a strong feeling that exists in human nature.  This desire is so universal that the need to belong is found across all cultures and different types of people.” This need is so clear that belongingness is associated with health outcomes and, indeed, one of my academic colleagues researches this connection.

But I am learning to understand belongingness from a different perspective. As I sit zazen, I can see that this sitting and letting go of all thought but breath is part of learning belonging. It seems that at first, we need to learn to belong to ourselves, back to our breath again and again to the present moment, to our body, our aching legs, the present. Now. Then slowly, slowly to each other, our sitting companions, and others near and far. Then, sometimes, in seated or walking meditation, I become the belonging.  I am here now. I am one with the trees, the stream, the birds, and the earth.  This belongingness is home.  

If we are listening, if we are still enough, we can hear a deep calling to us to belong again to each other, to our communities, to all creatures, and to the earth. 

In this difficult time that we find ourselves in now, I think of the centuries of forgetting this deep belonging and how it has brought us here. Centuries of separation, of domination over, and of colonization, and how we collectively have lost ourselves. We have lost connection, lost our belongingness to each other, to the earth, and to our very selves. Our individual seemingly separate selves are lonely, hungry for companionship, and for individual, community, and planetary belongingness. We fill ourselves instead with things, ideas, distractions, and become members of groups that only reinforce our separateness and, perhaps, feed our egos. We have not yet recognized that this longing is really a longing to “be” one with, a longing for belonging to something bigger.

If we are listening, if we are still enough, we can hear a deep calling to us to belong again to each other, to our communities, to all creatures, and to the earth. This is what I know, this is what I hear when I am still enough to listen, listen not to my own thinking or dreaming but being empty enough to hear. I hear it deep in my bones, my scattered mind, and in my very breath.  I know that we belong. We always did. We are already home, and we have just forgotten our belongingness.  And I sit now with the question, how can we help each other remember our belongingness to each other, to our communities and to the earth again?

Alex Adams, M.D., Ph.D. is a Zen Leadership Practitioner, and the Director and Principal Investigator at the Center for American Indian and Rural Health Equity (CAIRHE), Montana State University.

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