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How Mindfulness Builds Belonging

Mindfulness is more than a wellness tool.

Mountain Highland / StockSnap
Source: Mountain Highland / StockSnap

This year, Harvard University inaugurated the Thich Nhat Hanh Center for Mindfulness in Public Health with a $25 million endowment and a mission to pursue, among other objectives, “evidence-based approaches to improve health and well-being through mindfulness.”

The announcement was a milestone. A generation ago, it would have been virtually impossible to imagine one of the world’s leading universities launching a scientific institute with a major endowment focused on a set of contemplative practices for “paying conscious nonjudgmental attention to the present moment.”

Yet times have changed. Over recent decades, thousands of peer-reviewed studies have demonstrated the potential of mindfulness meditation to address diverse elements of mental, physical, and social health—from chronic pain to immune system function to anxiety to memory. Mindfulness has made a remarkable journey from monasteries and the countercultural vanguard to corporate boardrooms, the ivory tower, and other centers of power.

This is good news. Mindfulness is now increasingly accessible to people across demographic groups, including through its integration into healthcare, schools, prisons, and other institutions.

Yet the ascent of “evidence-based approaches” to mindfulness comes with tradeoffs.

The success of academic research on mindfulness can contribute to a perception that mindfulness meditation is an individual mental health intervention or a personal wellness tool that can be practiced independently of other people.

Mindfulness is more than that. For thousands of years, it’s been a pathway to shared belonging. As the pioneering American meditation teacher Jack Kornfield has put it, mindfulness is “a practice that enhances our sense of connection to ourselves and others.”

The late Thich Nhat Hanh—the namesake of the new Harvard center—was a legendary Vietnamese Zen master, a prolific author, and a peace activist who held the esteem of luminaries, including Martin Luther King Jr. While he spent much of his life in meditation—studying patterns of thought and centering his attention in the present—he rejected the idea of mindfulness as a purely solitary pursuit. It was, for him, about connection and even social action.

Thich Nhat Hanh named the Zen community that he founded “The Order of Interbeing.” He described this term, “interbeing,” as the insight that a human being can exist only in relationship to other people and nature. Our survival depends on others.

Meaning depends on connection. As he emphasized in his interpretations of ancient teachings, the goal of mindfulness isn’t just to reduce stress or improve our health outcomes, but to glimpse this reality of our interdependence—and then to act on it.

Thich Nhat Hanh emphasized the importance of “socially engaged” mindfulness: joining with other people to practice meditation, build strong ethical communities, and address social and ecological injustices. He described how the practice of mindfulness—of slowing down, of connecting to the breath, of noticing our thoughts and emotions—can dismantle the habitual patterns of thought that keep us locked in a sense of separation.

The idea of interbeing isn’t exclusive to Buddhist philosophy. The Nguni Bantu traditions of Southern Africa have a word—ubuntu—that the Liberian peace activist and Nobel laureate Leymah Gbowee translates as: “I am what I am because of who we all are.”

The late theologian and anti-apartheid leader Archbishop Desmond Tutu defined the full phrase in Zulu, umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu, as meaning: “A person is a person through other people.”

These ideas of interbeing and ubuntu get to the essence of what I’ve come to call belonging. As I describe in my recent book, belonging means connectedness not only to other people in the community but also to nature as well as to a sense of agency and shared meaning. Belonging—like interbeing or ubuntu—is a state of profound well-being that arises from our participation in the greater whole.

This is an essential message for the times in which we’re living. The U.S. Surgeon General just declared an “epidemic of loneliness and isolation.” Feelings of alienation from the earth, as well as political and economic decision-making, are driving crises from climate change to biodiversity loss to violent extremism on a global basis.

So, how can we practice mindfulness as a path to belonging? Here are some simple ideas for overcoming modern isolation:

1. Meditate in Community: Just the word meditation evokes images of sitting alone on distant mountaintops, immersed in the currents of one’s mind. Yet people have been meditating together since time immemorial. In an age when participation in religious rituals has declined—and human interaction is increasingly mediated by online algorithms—practicing mindfulness meditation in person with friends, loved ones, or in groups is a valuable way to cultivate meaning with other people. The practice of mindfulness meditation—which can help practitioners become aware of their biases, improve communication, and make more conscious decisions—can be a path to building more harmonious and equitable communities.

2. Lovingkindness: The practice of Metta (a Sanskrit word often translated as “lovingkindness”) centers on cultivating feelings of goodwill toward all people—including those to whom you typically feel warmth, neutrality, or even aversion. In these times, we need to employ as many strategies as possible to overcome the dynamics of othering. A growing body of research shows that this practice can rewire the nervous system to heighten both compassion and positive emotions.

3. Feel the Earth: Mindfulness isn’t only about stillness. Thich Nhat Hanh taught the practice of meditating by walking consciously on the earth, feeling each footstep, and practicing gratitude for nature and place. He taught his students to “walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet.”

4. Contemplate Interbeing: Thich Nhat Hanh taught how to bring mindfulness into everyday life by going more deeply into ordinary experiences. For example, drinking a cup of tea in the morning can be a practice. You might take a few minutes to sit and taste the flavor of the tea with as much presence as possible.

Imagine the tea leaves growing, and think of all the sunlight, rain, and soil that made their growth happen. Imagine all the labor that went into harvesting and packaging the tea. This is a simple way to contemplate our interdependence and cultivate gratitude for the web of life.

The idea of mindfulness meditation as a path toward shared belonging can be counterintuitive. Yet, these mindfulness practices demonstrate how we can train ourselves for greater connection.

In the 1960s, in another era of unrest and upheaval, Thich Nhat Hanh formed a close friendship with the writer and Trappist monk Thomas Merton, with whom he shared a vision for how contemplative practice could heal crises both personal and global.

The two participated in a longstanding dialogue on Buddhism and Christianity as well as a partnership in opposing the Vietnam War. During this period, Merton described a paradox that’s increasingly relevant to questions of introspection and community life today: “We cannot find ourselves within ourselves, but only in others,” he wrote. “Yet, at the same time, before we can go out to others, we must first find ourselves.”

Merton’s reflection underscores why it’s so valuable that mindfulness has reached the mainstream. As “evidence-based approaches” to mindfulness demonstrate real and tangible benefits, more people are engaging in contemplative practices that can help us “find ourselves.” Still, it’s important to keep sight of the fact that the ultimate purpose of practice isn’t just about health, relaxation, or personal betterment.

It's about finding ourselves “in others.” It’s about belonging to something bigger.

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