Join Sebene Selassie to learn to sit with uncomfortable emotions and to be able to explore mindfulness and embodied presence as pathways to self-acceptance and transformation. Sebene Selassie is a meditation teacher. As a three time breast cancer survivor, she has learned a lot about awareness and she shares this with us in her book You Belong. You can find it wherever books are sold.
In the clips shared today, we talk about the value of meditation and what it means to be in embodied awareness. At the end, Sebene invites us to be able to sit with uncomfortable emotions and to be able to explore acceptance as a pathway to transformation.
Listen to this episode for a deeper understanding about the value of meditation and how you can apply it in your life to live more in embodied awareness, to be more present in your body, to be more present in your life.
Meditation for Living
Meditation is a pathway. It’s a practice that we can develop to help us in our life. It doesn’t happen just in abstraction. It doesn’t happen in escape from the world, but it rather helps us live in the world in a way that is more present, that is more active, that is more intentional, and full.
Interview with Sebene Selassie
[02:10] Damianne: I’ve struggled with meditation myself, and I kind of go in and out of it. I always aim to have a better practice than I do, but it’s called practice for a reason, right. You write about that beautifuly, in terms of we can keep working at it.
[02:24] What makes meditation so powerful right now in terms of helping us go through this time?
[02:33] Sebene: Yeah, I love that you remind us that it’s called practice for a reason. We’re not practicing to become good meditators, so people can have really constructed ideas about meditation based on popular culture or even images. We have a kind of solitary idea of someone sitting in full Lotus and reaching States of bliss or calm, but really it’s a training. It’s a cultivation of our hearts and minds to be more gathered, to be more present, to be more clear, to be more kind. And we often say there are two wings to the practice, wisdom and compassion, and those are really the two qualities that we’re cultivating, our ability to see clearly, to have a depth of understanding of our experience of what’s going around us, and to meet that with the kindest, most open-hearted possibility. And sometimes kindness and compassion look fierce, right?
[03:27] They’re not just about being nice, but about responding in ways that are good for ourselves and for others. So meditation is really the opportunity to I put down our other burdens, put down distractions, put down responsibilities and cultivate that capacity. And especially today in a world of distraction and a world where our attention is just kind of grabbed at every moment by various gadgets and technologies and activity, meditation is one way to really give the space and time to truly cultivate that. It does take practice because we are so conditioned and patterned by not only our own lives and our own activity, but the culture around us, our family culture, our cultural realities and social realities, not to mention the conditioning that were inherited through intergenerational conditioning, both trauma and resilience, but the patterning that gets handed down from generation to generation, we’re contending with all of that.
[04:36] So to carve out that time is really important. Whatever it might look like, it doesn’t have to look a certain way, but to carve out that time to cultivate our aspirations for ourselves, we all need that.
Mindfulness and setting intentions
[04:49] Damianne: I listen to the podcast by Tara Brach and she talks a lot about where you put your intention is where you put your attention. And where you put your attention is where you put your intention and the whole cycle that goes between that. And if I understand correctly, mindfulness is one type of meditation. It’s not all there is to meditation, but you talk about how mindfulness can actually be used to help us work through some of the mental conditioning that isn’t serving us. And that includes racism as well. How do we do that? I know that’s a really big question, but what could you offer in terms of the smallest action we could possibly take on a day to day basis, on a moment by moment basis?
[05:35] Sebene: Yeah, I think that the key part of that is sort of the smallest, and maybe we could add the smallest and the largest because it takes practice. We can have conscious intentions for our lives, but the unconscious patterning and conditioning is so deep and so strong that it will often overrule any conscious attempts we make.
[05:59] So that’s why we can have conscious egalitarian goals and still hold unconscious biases.
[06:05] Damianne: That’s a very good point.
[06:07] Sebene: So really mindfulness, meditation practice, any of these practices that are inviting us into contemplative way of being are inviting working on that deeper level. And so that means carving out that smallest, largest time that we can find. And I find that it’s much more powerful to do that on a small and consistent basis than to try and get everything done at once. We can gain great benefit from laying down and meditating for an hour. But if that’s all we do, it’s like jogging a mile and then kind of not exercising again for three months, right?
[06:50] We might’ve gained some benefit from that movement, but we’re only going to really see change in our bodies, hearts and minds when we do something on a consistent level. It’d be much better to jog two blocks five days a week and to do that on a consistent level for our lives than to exercise all at once and never do it again.
[07:11] So meditation’s the same way. To meditate five minutes a day, it doesn’t have to look a particular way. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but just, know what the practice is and know what it’s not. Cause sometimes we can meditate in ways that are just increasing tension, increasing our reactivity because we’re trying to get somewhere or we’re trying to make something particular happen, but meditating in a way that’s really cultivating this clear clarity and kindness that’s really attention is given to intention of cultivating this open heart and mind. If we can do that every day for five minutes or five days a week for five minutes in the morning, before we go to bed, then our intention grows. And sometimes that five minutes grows to 10 minutes, grows to 20 and soon enough you have a practice. And that goes up and down. It has, for me, it’s not that I meditate every single day and I’m set. I miss days here and there; I go through periods where I don’t give as much attention to my formal practice but I always come back to it because I know it’s power.
[08:21] And I also begin to then bring that capacity into my daily life so that my formal practice starts to really impact my informal capacities too.
Many Pathways of meditation including in community
[08:33] Damianne: And what I’m hearing is there’s a lot of flexibilty, right? And so sometimes you’re like I don’t have time in the morning, I don’t have time in the evening. Maybe you have five minutes on your lunch break, maybe you have five minutes on the train ride if that’s what it takes, where you can just tune out, tune in, in a different way.
[08:53] Sebene: Yeah and you know, I think because of the nature of modern culture, and I would say modernity is kind of global now, but, it’s also modern Western cultures, it’s very prevalent in this phase, just a tendency towards individualism that affects even our ideas about meditation. So again, that solitary meditator on their cushion in full Lotus and forgetting that this is a communal practice. It grew out of communities and in my tradition, looking at the Buddha, he meditated and awakened, but then he didn’t spend the rest of his life in a cave. He spent the next 40 years wandering all over India, teaching communities and sharing this practice and practicing with others.
[09:41] So people can get very frustrated trying to do this on their own. And I find that meditating with others is really helpful. And right now you can meditate with people all over the world, pretty much at any time of the day. There’s so many practice communities and so many groups and so many offerings and apps and guided meditations. So no one has to do this on their own.
[10:08] Damianne: People keep telling me that meditation doesn’t quite work for me. And sometimes I say, well, can you just focus on your breath for a few breaths. Can you sit quietly and just be in the moment? I think we get these ideas like you said about what it should look like. And there is a wide variety of different meditation practices and I think the main thing is to find what really works for you in terms of what helps you become more conscious more in the moment, more aware of what’s happening inside of you as well as more broadly in the world.
Relating Resilience and Mindfulness
[10:47] Damianne: You make a connection between meditation and resilience. How do you think about the relationship between those two things.
[10:57] Well, you know, it’s interesting because there’s been a lot of talk about resilience in the past few years, and I know that there’ve been many, many studies of different types of practices so classical mindfulness practices, loving kindness practices, which is cultivating kind wishes and intentions for ourselves and for others and for all beings, gratitude practice, practices of cultivating generosity. All of these have been studied and shown to increase resilience. So, for me I don’t feel like I’ve had to really consider it. I’ve just benefited from the fruits of it because these are all formal practices and in the tradition that I practice in, Tara describes like walking through the mist and you don’t know when but at a certain point you’re soaked, right? So it’s a little bit like that. Like, you know, you practice these practices and you then suddenly discover that you’re more resilient. It’s not that I went into it with that, but I think now we talk more about the direct correlation.
[12:02] I was teaching a gratitude practice the other day and looked up some of the studies around gratitude and resilience. And I have a gratitude practice with a couple of dear friends where every morning we text each other three things that we’re grateful for. And sometimes I’m the first one who texts in the morning.
[12:19] Sometimes another person is the first one to text in the morning, but it’s a really beautiful practice of, you know, you don’t want to say the same thing every day, or repeat things over and over again. And at the same time, you realize when you do the things that you’re really grateful for, that you really love, but even that practice allows you to come out of particular ways of thinking or habits or orientations that are not filled with gratitude and you see how much gratitude creates a sense of spaciousness and open-heartedness and connection really with others.
[12:51] So , I think there are all sorts of connections between practice and different kinds of practices and resilience.
Sitting with uncomfortable emotions
[13:02] Damianne: You talk about how we want to sit with uncomfortable emotions and not just try to avoid them, try to escape them. Why is it so important for us to face those difficult emotions?
[13:18] Sebene: It’s natural, every being, even small organisms, retract from pain or discomfort and move towards rewards like food or wellbeing. So it’s not that we want to remove that capacity to move towards or move away from; those are in-built capacities that help us survive and have helped us evolve to this point.
[13:44] But we are habituated into compulsive reactions, where we ricochet towards things we like, and we recoil from the things we don’t like as habituated patterns, and those have been built into us because of our evolution, but also because of our conditioning.
[14:04] So I grew up with a mom who was wonderful and I miss my mom. She passed away some years ago, but she had a lot of anxiety and fear. And I learned to absorb her anxiety and fear. You learn from the people around you. And so I had a tendency to really retract from things really quickly with not a lot of actual clear seeing until it was happening. It was more kind of this habituated fear of others, of life, of opportunities. So meditation practice allows us to see what we are habitually grasping for and what we’re habitually pushing away, without a real clarity about what’s happening.
[14:48] So, you know, I can feel an old emotion of envy. I work a lot with envy; that’s one of my kind of deep seated challenges. And when that comes up, rather than push it away by trying to cure it by reaching out to that person or, you know, wanting to fix it or by plunging into it, by obsessively thinking about the things I actually don’t like about that person, or why their success or brilliance is actually not true or can kind of move away from things in this reactive way, I can actually explore it. I can actually be with it, kind of soften and see how there’s this sense that, Oh, I really actually admire this person and in some ways I wish I could have some of their qualities and wait, I actually do have some of those qualities and I want to grow them in myself and explore and feel what’s actually happening other than compulsively moving towards or away from it. And you know, this is true for emotions as it is for physical feelings, sensations, as well. So I can have a pain in my body somewhere and I could tighten around it sort of, Oh, why is that happening and kind of tense up or I could immediately try and stretch, solve it and fix it, and instead if I just kind of focus in and see what’s going on and feel it and bring some attention to it and relax, I can see, Oh, I always have this habituated tensing up in my left hip. And what is that about, maybe if I could just breathe into it. Cause otherwise we’re just perpetuating these patterns over and over again. And there’s an almost paradoxical, magical quality to mindfulness that it’s actually by allowing something that we invite transformation.
Acceptance as the pathway to transformation
[16:46] Damianne: I keep hearing that and I keep reading that and it’s hard . If we think about habituation, if we think about the world we’re in, this is not the standard to accept, to relax into, to believe. It’s the whole idea of going through, right? So it’s not the push or the pull but I don’t know how many of us have had this practice from childhood.
[17:11] A lot of the systems, our social systems that we go through, whether in family or in schools, this is not what we’re taught, this is not what we get a chance to practice.
[17:21] Sebene: Yeah. And so, you know, that’s why the invitation is to try it yourself and to experience the transformation that is possible. It’s great that there’s so many more people. I’ve been doing this for a long time and I was just kind of a weirdo amongst my friends and I’ve really taken to heart one of the sayings in our tradition is to just offer only to those who ask; that’s something that we are instructed to do,that’s how reportedly the Buddha invited people to not offer these teachings unless they’re asked for. And so I’ve never encouraged anyone in my life to meditate, never tell them that they should basically. And it’s been so fascinating over the past probably I would say about five years to just see all of my friends, almost all of them, flocking to meditation.
Meditation has become mainstream
[18:13] Damianne: And what do you is? What’s changed besides opportunity?
[18:17] Sebene: I think as more and more people try it, more and more people realize exactly what you were describing that it is possible. It sounds counterintuitive, which is why most people haven’t tried it. And even when they do it’s challenging because that transformation doesn’t happen immediately.
[18:34] It’s not a magic pill. So you have to have some level of commitment and dedication to actually experience the fruits. But as more and more people experience the fruits, there’s more and more people sharing that and in greater and greater numbers, but also in greater reach so that you have people talking about it on the news and in corporate spaces.
[19:01] Damianne: We’ve lost track of our intuition and that’s been something I’ve been trying to notice in the past couple of years, but there’s definitely some work to do in terms of making the connection in those areas.
Living in Embodied Awareness (Presence)
[19:17] Sebene: Well, I try and as much as possible use the phrase embodied awareness rather than mindfulness, because we translated this word Sati, which is a poly word, poly being an ancient language from India related to Sanskrit. We translated Sati as mindfulness and, we meaning not me, you know, some dead white guys and there’s a lot of power in that word, mindfulness, but we put the word mind right at the center of it, right at the start of it, and Sati actually encompasses much more more than just mind and mindful, which has kind of have an attentional quality to it. We orient to paying attention to something, but Sati is actually one of the etymological connotations is remembering. And it is coming back to this capacity we have for awareness that is not located in our heads. It’s a way of knowing that is fully embodied.
[20:25] Damianne: That’s something that a lot of us are likely to have forgotten.
[20:29] As we end our chat today, what would you like us to take away in terms of something that we can do if we have even a few minutes today to help us make that connection to be in embodied presence?
[20:46] Sebene: Embodied presence is beautiful. Embodied awareness I usually call it and yeah, I think embodied awareness is pointing to presence. So I think in any moment we can simply connect to the body, connect to the feet on the floor, connect to our butts in the seat. So, whether we’re standing, sitting or laying down, really feeling that contact with the earth and with the ground underneath us, and right there, we have, an opportunity to be present in a way that we aren’t. We’re usually drawn up into our thoughts and into our heads. And so reconnecting in that way, we can do that standing in line, sitting on a train or a bus, can do it washing the dishes. Just really feeling our experience is so powerful.
For the next few weeks, I will be traveling in North America, visiting friends and family. I will be taking some breaks and so my release of episodes will be a bit more sporadic until September.
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