Belonging and othering

Welcome to the first article in a series on the healing of loss, separation and trauma. As therapists who incorporate mindfulness practices into our therapy sessions, we stand on the frontline of change often creating spaces for people to learn discernment, discipline, emotional intelligence, compassion and awareness. As human beings, we are also witness to the changes and challenges of the world and their impact on the individuals and communities we serve. In writing these articles, I hope that they may facilitate an opening for creating intra-personal dialogues and opportunities to nurture seedlings of hope for the world around us. Be that change!


Few of us were spared from the collective grief the world felt during the covid lockdown; it was unprecedented. Many were faced with illness, multiple losses and the associated grief. Since then, we have been globally challenged by issues such as racism and the George Floyd movement, wars, climate change and financial upheaval. To varying degrees, these have impacted and continue to impact individuals, communities and the global population.

Grief is defined by the American Psychological Association as the anguish experienced after a significant loss, usually the death of a beloved person. In England and Wales in 2020 and 2021, 614,000 people died, leaving an estimated three million people facing bereavement. Bereavement often leads to isolation, separation anxiety and loneliness, with 33% of bereaved people saying they frequently avoid talking about their loss because they know it would make people feel uncomfortable. But grief also manifests itself in situations other than bereavement, for example with the politicisation of one war over many happening globally.

Whilst society experiences much grief, there are opportunities for change, growth and renewal. As we witness the divisiveness of our time, there is a deep call for our own necessary personal healing and for interconnected reliance.

I am because you are 

A few days ago, I attended an unexpected ‘grief ritual’ which changed my self-imposed view on belonging. It is the type of rare insight that we all long for, which softens the residue and impact of separation, of being othered and of oppression. It is the type of insight that is experienced, for example at vipassana retreats (a Buddhist technique), where there is a deep ‘knowing’, derived from years of committed practice. 

So often, the trauma of exclusion and divisiveness can leave us with self-defeating behaviours, attitudes and expectations. We carry this on to the meditation cushion and practice respectfully, as in the therapeutic consultation room. Watching and training the mind through insight meditation, we are reminded of how psychological defences can help us to forget or repress the origins of us and it takes years to identify this and up-root these defilements and cognitive imprints.

Perhaps because so many traumas for people of colour can accumulate, and we are constantly being re-traumatised. Many of us can relate to being in survival mode, suffering with many layers of hardship, racism and other factors that psychology cannot even name. Such as carrying our ancestral traumas but also being connected to a rich variant of human history which belongs to all of us. But globally we are witnessing a pull towards separation and divisiveness which we all navigate daily, some more than others.

Our secret weapons 

Insight meditation has been like having a personal secret weapon. It helps to refine and redefine our internal landscape and develop the internal supervisor, uncovering the layers of our historical past but with the grace of deeper wisdom.

In that process, we can attune to becoming spectators to those ‘ground zeros ‘or impact points. Or to put it another way, we become our own ‘witness’, as we deepen our practice in search of clear seeing or objectivity. Through our own wise effort, we gain objectivity; seeing, and witnessing the play of the ‘oppressor’ and the ‘oppressed’. We can see there is suffering in this dynamic for all involved. This expansive view forms the seeds of compassion, and from which a richer enquiry can begin.

Globally, our sense of belonging has never been in a more fragile and dangerous place. The divisiveness we are witnessing around the world is unprecedented. This can cause us to either disengage or suffer from burnout. Many of us can see the impact of this global oppression on the most vulnerable.

As therapists, we know and understand that the repercussions will be felt for many generations, and whether we are implicit or not, attentive or dismissive, the price of war will be felt globally.

How do we hold the fluctuating landscape of changing political systems, wars and financial crises in our practice? Should we? There are many ways that each of us has undergone both personal and collective loss. What questions can we begin to ask ourselves? How do we both listen and attend to these changes of a global complex grief?

Belonging is a loaded word. When people show you that you’re not included, it strikes a chord at your very being.

When you are a child, you don’t have a way of putting yourself back together again and processing trauma. We often internalise many aspects of other people’s sense of feeling disconnected and victimisation, but we take on this energy unknowingly.

In the great ocean of the ‘collective unconscious’ we are all capable of ‘othering’. At one level, this can be measured in tribalising, and unconscious bias and exclusion. At its extreme, we see the impact of war-based politics, global conflict and the impacts of capitalism. But for the sake of argument, I’m interested in how we both recognise and unlearn what has been internalised and the role our spiritual practice has in working through this.

My interest is not to figure out where it is that we belong in all the identities we hold, but rather to understand what blocks our passage to true empathy and compassion. Where in my practice do I manage to truly conquer distortions of separateness? 

Through the grief ritual, I was able to gain a rare insight and lean into the impact of the multiple layers of grief which I had not experienced in counselling. I was able to witness again the years of my resistance to love and happiness and the root cause of my predicament. 

Rumi beautifully said: “Your task is not to seek for love, but to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”

In exploring these sensitive boundaries between self and ‘other’, and creating this hybrid consciousness, a few questions of enquiry spring to mind in understanding the impact of separation, grief and othering and the role of insight meditation. 

Enquiry questions: 

  1. How can we work with our attachments and aversion to power to deepen our understanding of power as a tool of liberation and not oppression?
  2. How do we embody and inherit teachings within our inner wisdom to help our growth both personally and collectively in the service of liberated worlds?
  3. How do we wield power precisely and effectively while simultaneously attuning to the need for protection of ourselves–and ultimately all others–on this path?

The human kaleidoscope

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.” 

As a therapist, facilitator and founder of the Mindfulness Network for People of Colour - a small community interest company based in the UK - I have learned a great deal about my internalised conflict between feeling separate and the need to belong; and the various conditions and factors which contribute to the kaleidoscope of the various identities we carry over a lifetime. 

Insight meditation has taught me not to personalise my experience, as I sit on the mat. In particular, when dealing with my racial ambiguity. As a multi-racialised person, I have seen in recent years the discourse on racism become a ‘black and white’ issue with nothing in the middle. Yet, mixed-race people are the fastest-growing ethnic group both in the UK and the USA, and will likely be the largest group by the turn of the next century.

Growing up in New York City, I often endured stones, punches, name-calling, bullying, threats to life (from both black and white children), and constant assumptions in the world. For many years, I’ve felt a process of ‘undoing’, rather than ‘being’ or ‘doing’ as they say in mindfulness. And I am, of course, not alone. According to the Department of Education, 40% of young people were bullied in the past 12 months.  

I learned that all feelings, and thoughts are transient, non-duality and non-self as both a philosophy and an achieved state of consciousness. The worst parts of being/feeling different, unwanted, and broken were the imposition by many of the children who were themselves broken and part of a system of oppression.

Upon reflection, I was punished by black children for carrying aspects of the coloniser, and by the white children for carrying aspects of my ancestor and slavery. This projection at times continues into adulthood – I am the coloniser and the colonised. In my practice, I had to learn to navigate this tension and polarity and learn to create safety inside me. Gradually these agents are opportunities to practice compassion, detachment and non-duality. This is freedom and liberation but it comes at a cost. 

James Hillman stated, "The distortions of communication, sense of harassment, and alienation, the deprivation of intimacy with the immediate environment, the feelings of false values and inner worthlessness experienced relentlessly in the world of our common habituation are genuine realistic appraisals and not merely appreciation of our intra-subjective selves."

A guided meditation honouring our shared journey towards belonging

The need to belong is strongly associated with positive mental health, it is like air or water and the building blocks to better and more productive societies. We all have the capacity to shelter and build a more inclusive world. When we acknowledge our shared and interconnected journey, there is both personal and collective growth.

Acknowledging this can begin to create spaces to heal from the disconnections that we are witnessing around the world and to create intercultural dialogue and imagine and build the foundations for a future that is built with a sustainable paradigm which all can aid in safety.

A Buddhist prayer for humanity

By the power and truth of this practice:

May all sentient beings enjoy happiness and the causes of happiness  

May they be free from suffering and the causes of suffering

May they never be separate from great happiness devoid of suffering

May they dwell in the great equanimity that is free from attachment and aversion.  

The invitation

sit, stand or lay in a comfortable yet alert posture. Resolute yet flowing and steady yet boundless like a tree, river or sky. Closing your eyes, and allowing the rhythm of the breath to be your anchor. Invite a sense of curiosity, non-judgmental and openhearted alertness. With your palms facing upwards, signalling to the body and mind, I have arrived. You can also visualise yourself in a special and safe place; a forest, beach or somewhere you can return again.

Boundless openness

Imagine a world where we are all connected to the essential ingredients of safety, love, and connection. Where we all recognise the inherent value, potential and life force within each other. Where we are not separated by religion, gender, politics, etc. Where our differences bring a sense of contributing to your sense of well-being and a peaceful imagined future. Imagine as we connect to the earth beneath us that we are connecting to boundless energy and life force and as we look into the sky we are creating conditions that can be held and manifest. 

Imagine someone different from you and repeat some phrases aloud or in silence allowing the feeling to settle into consciousness and bodies. May we all share in the great ocean of boundless healing and connection’ ‘May you the boundless love reside in both of us’ ‘May we all live with the recognition and beauty of each other’

Thank the other person for this opportunity to heal, and imagine what they would say to you in return. Connecting with your felt feeling, thoughts, and sensations. Just noticing what is present without judgment. 

Connecting back into the room a space, gently ease your way back into the rest of the day.

Our signature event in 2024 is a symposium at Birkbeck College on 27th July on the theme of 'Belonging'. Followed by a mindfulness practice day on the 28th.

On Saturday 27th we have two key speakers - Professor Rhonda Magee from the US making a rare visit to London, author of "The Inner Work of Racial Justice: Healing ourselves and Transforming our Communities through Mindfulness" and described by 'Mindful' as one of the "12 Powerful Women in the Mindfulness Movement". And Dr Cathy-Mae Karelse (PhD in Mindfulness) who is an influential and inspirational public speaker on race, difference and belonging and author of "Disrupting White Mindfulness: Race and Racism in the well-being Industry".

On Sunday 28th we will be holding a mindfulness practice day, called 'The Infinite Love Ritual. 

The events are open to all.

As Albert Einstein stated, “Although I am a typical loner in my daily life, my awareness of belonging to the invisible community of those who strive for truth, beauty and justice has prevented me from feelings of isolation.”

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Chichester, PO18
Written by William Fley, MA, PG. Dip, MBsS, MBACP Accredited
Chichester, PO18

I am a psycho-therapeutic counsellor working with issues around identity, grief belonging I offer an integrative and holistic approach to find solutions around depression, relationships issues and trauma.

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