Please share with us a little bit about you in five words. Could you describe yourself?
Introverted and social, open-hearted, tender-hearted and curious.
Tell us a little bit about your journey, what brought you to where you are now?
I was born in Ethiopia, I am half Ethiopian, half Eritrean and we moved to the US when I was three in the ’70s, early ’70s when there weren’t a lot of Ethiopians here yet. I grew up pretty disconnected from my Ethiopian culture and feeling out of place. I grew up in a pretty much white neighbourhood and went to white schools. I think my journey has been one of really searching for connection and community and finding that in surprising places. Or at least surprising for my parents. Or you know, for people who would assume I would’ve followed a kind of, more traditional path. I think also because I’m really interested in arts and creativity. I found myself really attracted to artists and creatives and outsiders. I made friends with a lot of queer folks when I was younger. Still, a big part of my community even though I’m not. My journey has been one of really also exploring spirituality and I studied comparative religious studies. That kind of set me on a path of studying Buddhism pretty deeply. Which is also something my parents probably didn’t expect me to do. I was also very connected to and interested in issues of social justice and social change. I did a lot of my early work, pretty much my first 20 years of professional life working in community-based organisations and arts-based organisations. Also international work and international development. A real mix of, kind of, the spiritual and the political and creative and the social.
Could you share with us an overview of your book, ‘You Belong: A Call for Connection’?
The book is an exploration of this theme of belonging which I’m really using as a term not just to describe fitting in socially, but a deeper sense of belonging that is the truth of our interconnection. I keep going back and forth between what in Buddhism is called the two truths. They are considered a paradox, the absolute truth that we are fundamentally interconnected. Science shows us and all traditions point to this fact that whether we like it or not, we are connected. We’re connected to everything, you know, we’re not separate actually at a deeply molecular, energetic level. I think at a heart level we’re not separate. I also talk about this relative truth of relative that we’re not the same. That we have these, you know, really powerful differences of history and of story and that a lot of these differences are a caught up in our human patterns of separation, that really have to do with systems of oppression in ways that we hurt and harm each other intentionally or unintentionally, mostly unintentionally. I really dive into both parts of these truths. The fact that we’re not separate, but also the fact that we’re not the same. I invite people on an inner journey to explore how this happens and how this has shown up for us throughout our lives. And how it starts very, very young that we learn to separate and compare ourselves and compete. And also experience the harm of these systems and the realities around us.
And also how we can heal from that by really attending to those open hearts, you know, which tend to close. We may have a natural inclination for open-heartedness but because of the wounds of society, we can really walk through the world with a defending heart. So undoing that through meditation, through reflection, through contemplation and ultimately through connection.
What has been your biggest inspiration with the work that you do and share?
The first thing that came to mind was nature and in some ways, that’s the absolute truth of my inspiration. I’m very fortunate…not this past year, I mean, I’ve been very fortunate this past year, but I haven’t travelled to teach retreat which I usually do for many months out of the year. I usually teach in really beautiful places and there is a special connection to nature that I have the privilege of experiencing that is really inspiring. I would say in some ways, that is the absolute truth of my inspiration. Then the relative truth of my inspiration is the people that I get to work with and you know, of course having the real privilege of being able to touch people’s lives. But also really being touched by people. I learned so much from teaching, learned so much from people’s generosity and their process.
What sparks joy in your life? What really, truly lights you up? It can be big or small?
The thing that came to mind was our opening conversation about introversion and socialness. It took me a long time to realise that I was an introvert because I am social and I’ve always had a lot of friends. I have been blessed with a really great community in my life. I had to learn that I actually need a lot of time on my own in order to show up well for others.
I’ve been really revelling lately in spending my mornings doing the things I love, whether that’s meditation or yoga, but also reading and contemplation and researching things that I love. I leave my desk with little clues for myself of things that I’ve cut out from the newspaper or quotes I’ve written down. Or little ideas that come to me, on post-it notes. It’s like a map that I can come to once a week. Mondays are my days off. That’s the day I usually collect all these pieces and bits and write in my journal. That really brings me a lot of joy. But also being with people I love, you know, my best friends are really funny, amazing people who make me laugh. Lately, it’s been on Zoom calls, but just spending a couple of hours just giggling about silly stuff and connecting.
What are your favourite soul or self-care practices that you could share with us?
I’m actually going through body pain right now with some nerve stuff in my hip and leg. I’ve been really loving baths. I’ve always loved baths.
It’s not new, it’s just really relishing that I can give something to myself that brings ease to my body. And listening to Spotify playlists in the bath has been really, really, like, luxurious and a luscious feeling.
During these times that we are experiencing as a collective, in what ways are you seeing the importance of community?
I’ve been doing a lot of audio phone calls lately, there’s something really intimate about just having someone in your ears and laying on the sofa and closing your eyes and connecting with them. That’s been really wonderful. And also making time for longer connections like that. I need to clear the space for that because normally I would have a visit with someone and of course, would naturally be longer. I had a phone call with one of my best girlfriends, I’ve known her since I was about 11. We spent three and a half hours on the phone. Just to make sure that when I schedule time with folks that, you know, I really leave a lot of space. And then we can go deeper in the way we would in person. That’s been really important. And the other thing that’s been important for me is to check in with folks who are on their own.
“We may have a natural inclination for open-heartedness but because of the wounds of society, we can really walk through the world with a defending heart. So undoing that through meditation, through reflection, through contemplation and ultimately through connection.”
Inspire our Breathe Love community, can you share with us a favourite quote, affirmation or maybe a poem or song to inspire us?
I put this in the book, it’s one of my favourite quotes. “You think you’re thinking your thoughts, you’re not. You’re thinking the culture’s thoughts.” by Krishnamurti. That one quotation has helped me so much in removing a lot of the tightness and constriction I feel around self-judgement and the inner critic which, you know, took me a long time to see how much it plagues me and how much it also informs so many of my decisions and actions…that I feel like I’m not doing enough. I feel I’m not whatever enough. Or I feel like I’m too much of something. And when I can look at that and say okay, where did that thought actually come from? Is that mine or is that me comparing myself because the culture has put all these advertisements and media and social media and ways for me to feel like I’m not doing as well as I should be. That quote has been really powerful.
What was the last sign you received from the universe if ever you had one?
That we can really open up to the synchronicity that’s always available in our lives. Something happened yesterday even. I was really disappointed because I wanted to find a new cranial sacral therapist and the woman who I had reached out to wasn’t available this week. And another name popped up that I had, sort of, been ignoring. I followed up with her and she had a last-minute cancellation. I was able to go in and see her and not only did she really help me in a way that for months I haven’t been able to really get addressed, but she happens to also be a lymphedema specialist and I have lymphedema. I’d been looking for someone who works with lymphedema not from only a medical, physical therapy point of view. It was just like oh, when you think that something is actually a detriment, there’s actually something opening up too.
Share with us something that you are really proud of?
I’m proud of…I can’t take credit for her, but I’m really proud of my sister who is intellectually disabled. I wrote a lot about her in the book. She has done something in the past few years that I’m just so amazed at her bravery. After my mum died, who she lived with for 50 years, who was her primary caregiver her entire life, she lived with me and my husband for a year and then she moved into a community. She so bravely stepped into a complete change of her life. You know, moving from Ethiopia here and moving into this community of strangers. And like really becoming one of the lights of that community. You know, people really love her and see her as a potential leader in the community because of her positivity and her openness and participation. I’m just so proud of her and I think I’m proud of the fact that I helped facilitate that process.
What would you never take granted?
I hope I never take my breath for granted. You know, just life and…I like to think of myself as someone who appreciates life every day and just the fact that I’ve woken up, having gone through three…breast cancer three times and had a lot of brushes with mortality.
What is your favourite practice that connects you to heart-ki, hearty energy? Could you share with us a tip or tool?
I would say two things. Breathwork has been really powerful for me in the past few years. I do a particular type of fairly vigorous breathwork. There are many types of breathwork connected back to yoga, Indian traditions and pranayama. The kind that I do is lying down breathwork of rhythmic breathing in the belly and the chest. I found that is so powerful in opening up all the energy centres of the body and helping me connect the heart as the centre of that energy flow.
Rest the palms of your hands on your heart centre, take a soft breath and share with us a message from your heart to ours?
The invitation to have the courage to love myself and to love yourself for exactly who you are.
This work can sometimes become about creating…making ourselves a project of self-improvement or always trying to get to somewhere else and to be something else. I think the deeper power of this work is actually to bring us right here and to have a deep love for who we are in this moment, exactly how we are.
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. Her first book, You Belong: A Call for Connection is out now.
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This interview has been transcribed and taken from our Breathe Love audio series to listen to Sebenes interview (recorded March 2021) in full, please click here
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