Noticing Our Identity in Community

This practice explores how we can retain our individuality while continuing to engage with community.

We’ve been exploring ways to bring mindfulness and compassion more consciously to bear on our experiences of being in community—what we know about what it feels like to be included, what it feels like to be on the outside.

Using the acronym R.A.I.N., we’ve been recognizing, accepting and investigating our experiences. And today we’ll be exploring how to do all of that with non-identification or non-attachment.

So what does non-identification mean when it comes to considering community? This gives us an opportunity to reflect on the ways that some of our experiences in community have helped give rise to a sense of individual identity: I belong here and not there; these are the types of people with whom I feel a sense of belonging and connection because we share this kind of identity. 

Communities arise in the social realm, so we often have a constructed sense of ourselves—a sense that somehow flowed through or traveled with these experiences of being in various kinds of communities.

Let’s look at this more closely: It’s such an easy temptation to move from experiencing community to developing a hard-bounded sense of who we are as individuals. This is me, and that is the other. But with mindfulness, we may be able to breathe some air into that. We can find some strength that comes from having a firm sense of who we are, and we can also become more aware of how those constructions about our identities could become their own prisons. How do we preserve the strength and empowerment we can sense in our communities while ensuring these notions don’t create barriers for connection with others?

What we want to aim for today in our practice is sensing into community, but in a way that is not being fully of that community. We are a part but of that community, but that community does not represent the whole of who we are. We can try to engage with community with a sense of holding that experience lightly—always open to the sense that there’s more to be known and felt, more to be seen, more to be experienced, more to be lived.

Noticing Identity in Community

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Noticing Our Identity in Community

  • 14:06

Follow the Practice:

1. Simply pause and find a position that is comfortable. You may wish to close your eyes with the aim of bringing more attention to the sensations in your body. Breathe in and out, taking a few deeper breaths to settle the mind. 

2. As you breathe, call to mind a community you’ve felt a part of in some way. This time, allow this contemplation to be around a community that travels with an identity you’ve held in the world—perhaps having to do with gender, age, race, culture, or religion. This may not be easy for everyone. Some of us may find that our membership in a particular community that gives rise to a social identity is not obvious to us. Or it may be that others consider us to be members of some community that we do not fully identify with ourselves. That’s OK. What we want to do here is simply move into awareness of our membership in a community that has been defined however permanently or temporarily.

3. Fully embrace what you have in common with the community. Settle into a sense of how you interact around those things you share in common in a way that feels appropriate. So let’s say you are a young woman with other young women: if you’re in that community, what are some of the ways you share, communicate, feel at ease, support one another? What if you are a lawyer and are in a community of other lawyers? What about being in a community of, say, programmers, or mothers or fathers? Whatever that identity group might be, sense and visualize being in community and imagine what it means to feel utterly at ease within this group. What are the thoughts, assumptions, felt senses that arise for you as you imagine engaging in this kind of identity-based community? As you breathe in and out, allow all images that arise. Recent or long past, allow the memories to come forth.

4. Invite a letting go of whatever has arisen. Just allow the image to dissolve. You are right back with your breath now, seated in a chair or on a cushion, or standing. You’ve let those images and the feeling that accompanied them dissolve and you’re sensing into your breathing and your body. 

5. Notice any way in which you wanted to hold on to the images that arose. And now see if, on the out breath, you can just let them go. What we’re practicing here is letting go of the sense of being in the space of identification. What does it feel like to move out of that? Sit now in this space of just sitting and being with the body and the breath.

6. Call to mind a different community than what you were just focusing on. Again, you might find an identity group. Perhaps it was one that sprung to mind initially as we began this practice, but you chose to focus on another. Go back, then, to the original one that occurred to you. It could be a group that others have placed you in, not one you chose for yourself. Imagine being back in the space of that group, sensing into whatever degree you have something in common with others in that group. This could even be a neighborhood group, a community with whom you simply share a geographical location. What is it that allowed you to feel a part of this community? Allow yourself to feel that fully in this moment. And remember that whatever arises is OK. 

7. Sense how we might lose a feeling of contact with the ground beneath us while in community. Continue to breathe in and out, recalling our engagements in a collective. Can we stay grounded in our breath, aware of a broader sense of our being in the world, even while we engage with others?

8. Begin to let go of that recollection of being in community and the sensations that accompany it. Let’s come back into a sense of sitting on the cushion or in a chair or standing. Let’s loosen the sense of attachment with that particular way of identifying ourselves. Just breathe and sense into the body.

9. Imagine a group you’ve never been considered to be a part of. Call to mind a group you know exists in the world, one that you’ve never considered yourself being a part of. Now see if you can imagine what it might be like to walk in the shoes of a member of that community. What might it be like to experience the world through the lens of that identity? Don’t expect this to be easy. Just try to extend yourself into the experience of another member of the human race—a human who may be slightly different from us in some way, but still very much a member of the human race.

10. Invite a gentle relaxation now, a letting go of that image we just entertained and come back to the sense of sitting and breathing. As you do, sense into the heart and be in touch with any sensations you locate in your body, any feelings that have arisen for you or are arising in you now.

11. Reflect on whether or not you might need to invite some conscious self-compassion here, too. Perhaps hold one hand to the heart and the other to your abdomen below the belly button. Breathe into this and call to mind calming, compassionate thoughts for yourself.

12. When you’re ready, gently open your eyes. Shift gently into this post-meditation time.

With this practice we invite a sense of flow: yes we are in this community, and perhaps we’re not. And if we imagine all of that as part of the human life experience, we may recognize how we’re already embedded in ways that feel at ease and at home, and there are also times when we feel excluded. There are times when we feel included, and there are times when we feel a little bit on the outside. What we’ve been trying to do here is to sense more richly into this flow. We move between identity when, yes, we feel at home, and then we move to another moment where we feel less so. It’s all a part of the flow of what it means to be alive, to be in the river of human experience.

So if we can hold our identities in the world with more of this porousness, understanding that these identities are not fixed, we are on our way to seeing our engagement with community as a part of the more whole experience of being alive. And if we can imagine ourselves in the shoes of others, we become better equipped to engage in the ever more diverse, the more richly beautiful, more differently differentiated communities in the world.

Through this sort of practice we may learn to hold our lives and the lives of others in the context of a richer, broader mosaic. And in these times of greater division, polarization, and struggle, we may improve all of our chances to find common ground, to hold ourselves and one another in compassion and kindness and greater understanding.

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About the author

Rhonda Magee

Rhonda V. Magee is a professor of law at the University of San Francisco. Also trained in sociology and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), she is a highly practiced facilitator of trauma-sensitive, restorative MBSR interventions for lawyers and law students, and for minimizing the effects of social-identity-based bias. Magee has been a visiting scholar at the Center for the Study of Law and Society and a visiting professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley.

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