Belonging is a shifting thing, never really static. And it means different things to different people at different times. Maybe that’s why it gets so much attention, particularly now. Just can’t nail it down. Whether I feel a need to belong to anything or anyone depends on how lost I feel. I can respond in very different ways. And even if I don’t belong to something, am I really lost at all? On the macro-level, what is there to belong to nowadays anyway, after we’ve decolonized our consciousness? Another tribe? Isn’t the world becoming more tribal everywhere we look? Is that supposed to be good thing? Is that truly where we need to go? Is that the belonging we mean?
I don’t think so. One can spend all day detailing the minutiae of the typical dysthymic (persistently depressive) longing for belonging, the pandemic of modern alienation and dislocation, dissociation from the natural world, the creeping and equally persistent solastalgia arising with the daily degradation of one’s home. The effect is deep and pervasive.
One might start believing every state is ego-driven, that they can all be understood by conventional psychology. This is micro-level, relative belonging, relative happiness, the relative satisfaction of being connected to someone or a defined group, having the comforts of soulmates readily at hand, finding safety in the bosom of your chosen sangha. And yet, an ever-so-subtle narrowing and increasingly reified set of beliefs can also creep into consciousness. Oops. That’s the flip side of belonging, the slow segue into cult-hood.
There’s a place for this, to be sure. But when one drops beneath the conventional, asking again what we belong to or how we experience belonging, the easy definitions dissolve. The boundaries disappear and the reality of belonging simultaneously on multiple levels takes shape. If I were sedentary, settled geographically, socially, linguistically, culturally, vocationally…maybe it wouldn’t even be an issue. The majority of people do fit this profile. But having been a relative nomad for 4 years, I am not quite any of those things.
I don’t look for connection any less than others. But I have deliberately distanced myself from the conventional and allowed the definition of my community to stretch. Fortunately, social media and other communication tools extend the elasticity of that community to a global reach.
I differentiate between belonging, alone-ness and solitude as layers or conditions having their own place and virtues. Belonging doesn’t mean we are never lonely; being alone doesn’t ensure ever truly knowing solitude; true solitude, transcending the separate self, is a deeply informed view of belonging. We may dance or weave our way through any or all of these conditions in any given day. They are like the meningeal wrappings of our nervous system, binding and separating, communicating with and silencing each other in a perpetual conversation on duality and non-duality, the relative and the absolute.
We might also apply the typical Buddhist levels of transmission, the outer, inner and innermost, to these categories of awareness. On the most superficial, durable (gross body or outer) level, the ego-self wishes to belong, partaking of the relative conditions of material and emotional transactions of daily life. We can assess the long arc of such a life, deciding whether our most basic human needs are being met. It’s mostly about us, what we need from the world, whether we fit in, whether we can adopt and adapt to group ideology, practice and mutuality.
But the journey is long. Sooner or later, if we are lucky, in this life or perhaps in a distant future, we will go beyond mere ego-belonging into the dynamics of “we” to explore a realm of belonging beyond ego, where the definition of what we actually belong to now includes everything and everyone, stretching into an indeterminate past and future. Alone-ness is an inner layer of transmission between ego-belonging and true solitude, where we can watch the habits of thought, the subtle grasping, the rationalizations, the evolving understanding and shifting definitions of our true context. Here the glimmerings of our true nature awaken and entice us. Here we grow beyond the rationalizations of ego-belonging and peek into the deeper story of inter-being.
But I suspect most of our time is spent between the fuzzy ego of alone-ness and the defined ego of relative belonging.
Beneath all of it, lying in innermost proximity to the neural essence, the most easily injured, the most delicate wrapping adhering to all the neural elements: the pia mater, the “tender mother” holding all of us, the truest and deepest home of connection and compassion, profound forgiveness, the level at which we are always alone, never lonely and always fully one. In the deepest and most subtle recess where true belonging rests, the absolute belonging of no-self, we give up ourselves with no agenda, no grasping, no past and no future.
If you’re ever fortunate enough to receive transmission at that level, you will recognize the truth of it. It is such a clear and sharp departure from whatever came before. In that realm, you will know a unique quality of aloneness, different from any other, a universality so exquisite and painful, so arresting and releasing, ungraspable. The what and whom to which you truly belong will change forever.