Darnell Lamont Walker leading Rituals Writing Workshop
INSIGHTS: The Importance of Belonging with Steven Harper
Steven Harper, wilderness leader, author, and Gestalt facilitator, on a hike

The crisis of our pandemic-era well-being is a well-told story these days. In addition to many life-or-death situations, the majority of us experienced separation from loved ones and some form of isolation. Experts say reclaiming our sense of connection and belonging is a prime mode of healing and cultivating resilience. In fact, it’s actually primal.

“It is in our evolutionary DNA to belong and feel connection or we literally would not be here,” says Steven Harper, author, wilderness guide, and Gestalt facilitator. 

“When we don’t feel our belonging, this turns on older parts of the brain, primarily the amygdala, the part of the brain that regulates our fight, flight, freeze response. From there, our sympathetic nervous systems light up, quickening our heart and respiration rate, raising our blood pressure, releasing stress hormones into our system to prepare for action.” 

In some cases, fight or flight is needed to survive — a feeling most of us know too well after the last year and a half.  As we move forward, Harper says, tuning into our rest and restore systems to heal, repair, and cultivate resilience is best done through authentic connection. 

His upcoming August 2021 workshop, The Ground of Belonging: An Embodied Inquiry into Resiliency in Changing and Uncertain Times, will feature practices of awareness, mindfulness, and neuropsychology with self, others, and the natural surroundings.

Here, Harper shares thoughts on somatic intelligence, co-regulation, and the critical value of truly listening with compassion. 

Christine Chen: During anxious times, why is it important to stay connected?

Steven Harper: When our connections are threatened or weakened, our nervous system and physiology feel fear which is often experienced as anxiety. One of the quickest and most skillful ways to work with anxiety is to feel an authentic connection with a person, community, animal, nature, or anywhere else that can let the animal part of the body-mind settle and rest in connection.

CC: Why is it so important to have a sense of belonging to a whole? 

SH: In a very practical sense, when we know our deep belonging to self, other, and whole it is harder to do damage and harm to self, others, and the very planet we live on. We need to find some belonging at the intrapersonal (me with me) before we can belong to the interpersonal (me with other humans), from there we can more easily find our belonging to something larger, perhaps greater than human — the transpersonal (an inherent separate ‘me’ disappears).

CC: How do we improve our somatic intelligence to respond to current challenges with resilience? 

SH: Much of how we engage with self, others, and the world is reactionary. The necessary first step is to cultivate awareness of ‘what is.’ In a state of reactivity without awareness, we tend to deepen the grooves and well-worn paths. Awareness cultivates choice. With more choices and awareness, we can lean into trusting the organism’s responsiveness and capacity for self-regulation.

CC: We are often asked to regulate ourselves. What is co-regulation? 

SH: Co-regulation is entering the territory of the interpersonal and non-human world. In a heartfelt dialogue with a trusted friend, time touching a beloved animal, experiencing direct contact with wild nature — these are all moments where co-regulation can happen — where our parasympathetic nervous system can be activated. This results in a slower heart and respiration rate, lower blood pressure, release of a number of the body’s regulating hormones: especially oxytocin, the chemical of connection and belonging.

CC: What does it mean to truly listen to one another? 

SH: True listening defies a formulaic answer. True listening includes more than just my ears and cognitive brain. Our organism is always listening through all of our sense organs. Can we listen with our heart? Can we listen with our skin? Can we listen without planning a response? Can we listen without the need to give advice, analysis, or judgement? Can we offer open presence? An open listening heart is one of the greatest gifts we can give another.

CC: Why is compassion absolutely crucial right now? 

SH: We need compassion for ourselves if we are going to move forward with open curiosity and capacity to learn. We will absolutely need compassion when we feel harmed by another and others. This becoming- more-fully-human path is filled with moments where having compassion as an ally is the only way through.

CC: What are the wise traditions you turn to during challenging times? 

SH: I have a regular meditation practice that supports me before, during, and after challenging times. I am an emotional being, so approaches like Gestalt Practice allow great space for me to explore, contact, and express emotions. I am a very physical being, so some type of practice that allows me to be mindfully physically engaged with myself, others, and with the natural world have served me well.

Learn more about attending The Ground of Belonging: An Embodied Inquiry into Resiliency in Changing and Uncertain Times.



Christine Chen

Christine Chen is the host of Esalen Live! and Senior Content Producer. Christine is a two-time Emmy winning journalist, a best-selling author, California native, and yoga teacher's teacher (ERYT500, ERYT300, YACEP) on Esalen Faculty.