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Spaces of Belonging

Jun 7, 2023 as posted on CMSC  

by Markus Bohlmann, PhD, MSC Teacher

Suffering is universal, but not all suffering is equal.

Christopher Germer and Kristin Neff

One question I get asked frequently when facilitating mindfulness groups for the LGBTQIAP2S+ community is, “Can’t we all just practice together? How about common humanity? Are those separate spaces not taking away from common humanity?”

It is a valid question that names one of the three components of self-compassion—common humanity (the other two are mindfulness and self-kindness, as per the writing of Dr. Kristin Neff). Self-compassion arises through common humanity when we feel connected amidst our suffering, when we remind ourselves in our difficult moments that this human life includes suffering, that this human body can hurt, and that we are not the only one who feels this way.

And here lies the crux of the matter. Common humanity does not come as easily to all of us. Indeed, it can be a challenging access point to self-compassion in particular for members of marginalized and underrepresented communities such as the LGBTQIAP2S+ community. “What does my humanity have in common with theirs [i.e., straight, cisgendered folks]?” a participant asked in a mindful self-compassion course for the LGBTQIAP2S+ community – a question that challenges the above question asked by straight, cisgendered folks.

Straight, cisgendered folks tend not to have to worry for their safety when they leave the house: they tend not to have to worry about encountering threats and potential violence for the clothes they wear, the restrooms they use, the pat-down at airports, the partners they hold hands with. They tend not to have to worry about queer-hostile healthcare workers, teachers, parents, siblings, police officers. They tend not to have to worry about having access to services and resources, such as medication, education, rights, jobs because their sexuality aligns with their gender assigned at birth.

Suffering is universal, but not all suffering is equal, write CMSC Co-Founders Christopher Germer and Kristin Neff, reminding us that common humanity is not so common. We suffer differently, and some of us suffer more, depending on the intersectionality of our identity, that is, the various parts that form our identity such as gender, sexuality, class, ethnicity, health. Some of us begin to experience common humanity in spaces alongside the dominant, already integrated ones.

In the field of mindfulness and compassion, we need queer spaces alongside dominant spaces because we do not share the same suffering. We queer folks need to connect based on our shared experience, sexuality and identities to experience belonging. Though mindfulness offerings can be inclusive and welcoming to everyone, they do not lend themselves to the conclusion that participants will feel that they belong. Inclusion and belonging are not the same thing.

Spaces for the LGBTQIAP2S+ community offer a relative freedom because we queer folks do not feel the pressure to have to explain ourselves, our needs, our loves, our ways of loving and living. We don’t feel observed, and we don’t feel the presence of the dominant culture when we connect without our beloved allies. We feel we can be who we are.

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

– Victor E. Frankl

In those spaces, we are free to choose our attitude, our own way. Oppressive systems need addressing. They require dismantling and change. However, we queer folks simply cannot wait for the dominant system to change so that we may live meaningfully and in alignment with our values. We must claim our own life and live from a place of our own inner truth no matter the hardships, trauma and suffering that we have endured. We must transform.

Queer spaces are spaces of such empowerment where we LGBTQIAP2S+ folks begin to explore our authenticity, our values, and begin to move our lives in a direction of what is meaningful to us, what feels right to us rather than being told what to do and how we should live our lives. We explore our own needs and meet them ourselves, as best as we can, within a community of fellow practitioners from our community.

We begin to cut through layers of sedimented, internalized messages of homophobia and hate that we still encounter continuously in our lives. We become aware of and feel the toxic shame at the root of our being – shame that has been imposed on us because of our bodies, our ways of being, our lifestyles, our loves, and our ways of loving. Once the dust of these penetrations settles, we behold a beating heart. It is the warmth of this beating heart that melts shame.

“I see myself in you,” a participant once shared with another participant after a self-compassion practice in a course for the LGBTQIAP2S+ community. The participant saw his suffering as intertwined, as interconnected with the other participant. He felt a deep, intimate connection that he had not previously experienced at a gay bar or any other place within the LGBTQIAP2S+ community. Our self-compassionate space offered him the possibility to connect, to experience belonging, and to meet the world outside our course with this new sense of being in the world.

It is this raw connection, this deep dive into what is true for us, this being with our suffering that is witnessed by others from our community that allows for the recognition that we truly are not alone. We open onto common humanity.

These spaces of belonging are not meant to create a rift with the dominant spaces. They are not meant to blame, shame and judge – to separate – but to transform, empower and take action. Moreover, these spaces emerge alongside the dominant ones so that they may touch and be in touch and touch again. The onus to affect change does not lie on queer folks as a felt burden to change the dominant system that is unwilling to listen and to take action, as so often has been the case. Rather, it is LGBTQIAP2S+ folks taking charge of their own lives and stepping into their power through self-compassion within these queer spaces of belonging that affects change by proximity to integrated spaces.

The emergence of these queer spaces allows folks within them to soothe their pain, to transform and celebrate their differences. Compassion then ripples out through this touch – supportive and soothing – into other spaces.

We need those queer spaces of belonging.


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Thanks to Sydney Spears, PhD, CMSC DEIBJ Directory for her invaluable input. I also wish to express that this piece of writing is part of my own continuous learning and unlearning.

*The term queer here is used as an umbrella term for the LGBTQIAP2S+ community. It is not meant to erase the differences and diversity of our community.

Works Cited

Frankl, Victor E. Man’s Search for Meaning. Beacon Press, 2006.Germer, Christopher and Kristin Neff. Teaching the Mindful Self-Compassion Program. Guilford Press. 2019.

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