I am because we are.
– From the Ubuntu tradition
Too many approaches in meditation are overly self-serving and excessively navel-gazing, placing one’s individual self at the center of both one’s suffering and liberation. This solipsistic tendency is a rampant consequence of over 200 years of post-Euroamerican Enlightenment: “cogito ergo sum – I think therefore I am” said Descartes. This needs to be adapted according to the latest social and affective neuroscience.
It has been empirically shown that our sense of self is not a fixed, reified and singular construct and experience. The Social Baseline Theory (SBT – Coan & Sbarra, 2011), for instance, shows that the way we conceive of our self is based on who we have around us. We are constantly evaluating the quality of our social environment and making judgments as to how much physiological resources (i.e. glucose) we need to use according to the task at hand. For example, if I have a few good friends around me, the bio-energetic cost of going up a hill will be less than if I am alone. In SBT they say our individual self then merges with others and forms a wider sense of a social sense, of which we become a part: “I am because we are” (Ubuntu saying). This shows that we evaluate threats and risks as being less dangerous with good friends (I know, it sounds so obvious now). However, most meditation circles in the West promote individual practice! In effect, they are encouraging us to go up that hill alone, which makes the difficulties we encounter in meditation be perceived as more difficult than if we were travelling with friends. Evolutionarily, we have become accustomed to be in the presence of others and therefore the baseline for feeling safe and well is to be a part of a larger pleasant social environment.
Figure 1. The individual and social environment overlap represent social baselines
(Gross, Medina-DeVilliers, 2020).
There is an overwhelming consensus in social and now clinical psychology showing that relationships are the most important factor, and by far, to build resilience and psychological health. Moreover, all of environmental safety and ease created by our peers frees us from having our hypervigilance neural networks online, and allows us to focus and ground ourselves deeper in our internal experience. This is why, at NeuroSystemics Dharma, we emphasize social meditation.
We make a lot of efforts to build a safe and compassionate community to support one another through the challenges of meditation. How difficult is it, for instance, to even take 15-20 minutes a day to sow down and practice? Very difficult for most of us. It’s challenging being with ourselves and develop these meditative skills of mindfulness, compassion, friendliness, joy and equanimity. Buddhist texts talk about “going against the stream” of our habitual patterns, and that takes effort. This effort is perceived as being less work if we do it together.
In our monthly 1.5h Dharma gatherings we teach meditation and practice in a community (like we used to before the modern industrial age). Our approach combines ancient Buddhist teachings with modern neuroscience and systemic analysis. To learn more and join us sign up here!
Many blessings and look forward to seeing you there.