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The Importance of Feeling Part of a Community for Emotional Well-being

This Friday I was listening to Thought For The Day on the Today programme. It was Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks speaking and his theme really caught my interest. He referred to the work of Susan Pinker, who had visited an Italian village to explore why it had more people living over 100 years of age than anywhere else in the world. She discovered that although poor and living in harsh circumstances they lived in a close knit community where no-one was alone as family and friends where all there to offer support and contact. No-one was left alone for long. As a result of this close emotional and physical contact the body’s natural response is to release oxytocin, endorphins and neuro-peptides that support the immune system and aid recovery. In contrast isolation increases stress and reduces life expectancy.

This village in Sardinia is an example of how we lived before industrialisation, consisting of shepherds and farmers and extended families living close together. With industrialisation close knit extended family groups started atomising into isolated family units living in separate houses increasingly far apart from each other. So that now the old are no longer mixing with the young, but are put into homes, lined up in chairs like tomb stones. But, in the early stages of industrialisation people still had their community around them, people they would chat with: friends in the street or meet at discussion groups, parties and social events. In our modern post-industrial service economy technological world families now live scattered across continents and although technology has given us a means of being in touch with innumerable people many of us have little real connection with others.  It is as if we have retreated into a virtual world of connections. Our friends are icons on a screen and words typed silently from within our head, their reply taken in as silent symbols representing speech which are turned into words silently in our brain.

E.M. Forster brilliantly foretold this dystopian future in his short story ‘The Machine Stops’, which is an amazingly prescient imagining of a world where real human connection has all but died and humans only connect via a screen. Written in 1909 it imagines a world where humans have retreated to underground cities, due to the earth above being for some unspecified reason no longer being habitable. Here they live in isolated rooms, never leaving and communicating only through the technology that sustains their lives: the machine. In one quote Forster states: “The clumsy system of public gatherings had been long since abandoned; neither Vashti (a lecturer and mother of the hero of the story) nor her audience stirred from their rooms.” The people who lived in the machine no longer communicated face to face but from monitor to monitor. Talking through the machine that supports their lives, her son says to her: “I want to see you not through the machine,” said Kuno. “I want to speak to you not through the wearisome Machine.” “Oh Hush!”, said his mother, vaguely shocked. “You mustn’t say anything against the machine.”  Decades before computers existed Forster imagined the internet and a world of disconnected intellects, living isolated in their room whilst connected to many thousands: “People never touched one another. The custom had become obsolete, owing to the Machine.”

The result of this world becoming a reality in our own time can be an intense sense of isolation, no matter how many hundreds of friends we have on Facebook, or followers on Instagram or Twitter, or how many watch our blog on You Tube. Or how many chats we have going on dating apps. The sense of loneliness can feel overwhelming sometimes. When we do finally meet an elusive sex date from an app it can feel so fleeting and the longing for real intimacy may only partly be satiated as they rush away without time to hold or cuddle – fearing this is a step too far into intimacy. So I find in casual sex there is often a sense of contact through the body but not from the heart. And as this need for real contact is not met, it can lead to a desperate search for it among more random contacts, as one hopes that the next one or the next will take away this sense of loneliness.

I long for the days as a teenager when a friend would just telephone me and we could connect through a conversation….and then arrange to meet, for the need for face to face meetings is all the more important for our sense of well being than verbal conversation, and for me much of my sense of dis-ease arises at times when I feel isolated and lonely. I do experience a healthy solitude: it provides space to reflect, nourish myself and have a sense of my own being. But I feel the need also to have time spent with others, for we are social animals, descended from chimps, who for most of human history have lived in small and closely knit social groups.

As much as I may enjoy casual sex dates it seems to me these need to be the iciing on the cake, the cake itself being a social network, friends and social groups. Eating too much icing just makes you sick after all! I am also exploring my antipathy to really going deeply into a committed relationship. My fear of being rejected by another man, my uncertainty as to whether I can believe that another man has the capacity to really love me. For those of us who are gay as we grew up our love interests were often unattainable, distant and most likely perceived as a threat and this can be carried over into how one perceives men as an adult. The teenage me feeling desire for another male who was both wanted and feared: the boy I looked at in the shower  after sport, whilst dreading that he might see me looking, or that the other boys might spot where I was looking and ridicule me. That early experience of sexuality being mixed with the unattainable man and the fear of having him. This seems to play out for me as an adult in living in a world of gay men who are both very sexualised and yet withdrawn from wanting to make a commitment – myself included.

Pinker adresses this in her book ‘The Village Effect’, which I have not read but have just ordered for delivery. In this, according to the info on Amazon, Pinker writes of our need for close social bonds,  and uninterrupted face-time with our friends and families in order to thrive – even to survive. Creating our own ‘village effect’ can make us happier. It can also save our lives.

 

What is your village? Where is your tribe? Who forms your close social network?

Over the 12 years I’ve lived in London I have felt intensely alone at times, but I have also been lucky to meet and become part of social groups that overlap but are also distinct in what they offer. Before living in London I had an even more direct experience of living in small communities: in the monastery I had 6 years of living with a close knit network of monks and nuns and lay practitioners. We really were a village. In Northumberland there were around 8 of us living together as a community: working, socialising and meditating together as a unit. Then in Hertfordshire at Amaravati I lived in a larger network of about 30 people.

In Cambridge as a young man in my 20s I lived and worked in a community of about 40 men and women, living in a community house with 8 other men and sharing my room with a close friend. The idea then was very much to go beyond personal ownership of space and possessions so sharing a room was both practical as it meant a small terrace house could hold twice as many people. But it was also with the intent of letting go of personal ownership of things. It did create a really close network and with my room mate, which was never a sexual relationship, I experienced a really close bond as we talked about life and practice at night before falling asleep. In the morning we would all meditate together, as we did in the monastery. Then in the evening one of us would leave work early (we all worked in the same warehouse, importing  and distributing ethnic gifts) . That person would cook a vegan meal and we would sit at a table together talking and chatting as we shared the meal.

On leaving the monastery and coming to London 12 years ago I looked for something like this. At first going into Soho and ‘the scene’ I hoped to be embraced by a big gay family. Being skinny, poorly dressed, with a bad hair style and so shy any attempt to dance looked like cold spaghetti tangling itself into a knot I found little solace in the clubs and bars. In fact I learnt what it is like to be invisible. The cool gay elite treating me like the cool boys at school had treated the unwanted and unwelcome gay boys we once all were.

 

 

Finding My Tribes

Then I started to find my tribes. Tribes can be an emotive word, so to clarify by tribe I do not mean a group that defines itself in opposition to another group, but a place of connection, shared interests and mutual care and support.  My discovering my tribes in London started with meeting Bodhi and going to Five Rhythms Movement Meditation. I was introduced to this in the monastery by a close friend and we used to whirl around in our robes during the Family Camp. Going to Five Rhythms was in part the one connection I still had with the monastery, along with my daily meditation practice. At first going to what I saw as a dance group was an experience of absolute fear. Tangled spaghetti trying to dance is not a pleasant experience!! But slowly I realised that it was a space where I could go and move and not be judged. A space where I could move with the sense of stuckness and explore this. In fact I realised it was not dance, it was a movement practice. When I let go of the idea of trying to dance and instead allowed myself to move with the rhythm of the music and my own heart then I could let go into the inner rhythm of my own body’s response to the music and I’ve found this intensely liberating. I’ve also met a group of men and women with whom I enjoy spending Friday evenings, both at the session and afterwards at the meal many of us go on to share together. This led to going on a Summer retreat last year in Greece, led by Bodhi and another teacher called Alex. It was an amazing experience of connection, and I gained much deeper friendships from that which have lasted since and nourish me to this day.

Later on I met Darren, first as a life coach, but this led on to participating in The Quest. I found this to be a powerful experience of exploring issues relating to my childhood and the buried experiences and emotions of growing up gay. This was a one off course, but with some follow up events and my main sense of expanding my tribe here was to make a deeper connection with Darren and to move from him being a life coach whom I saw professionally to a heart friend and brother along with Bodhi.

More recently I have gone to two of the  Loving Men retreats, the New Year celebration in Wales for gay, bi and trans men. This has been a fantastic space to explore living in a community that we rarely create for ourselves in the busyness of the large urban centres we inhabit. It is a space where what is possible as a community of men becomes apparent: living from the heart, softening, opening to an ease of connection and expression of  affection for our friends when we are no longer afraid of what others will think if they see us holding another man’s hand or leaning against a friend’s chest as we listen to a talk or watch a show.

Last year I went to the Queer Spirit Festival organised by the Radical Fairies of Albion. I became friends with Shokti years ago, who is very involved with the Fairies, and had fluttered around the edge of Fairy gatherings without ever fully landing. But last Summer I did by attending the Queer Spirit Festival in Wiltshire and it was such a magical experience. A place inviting those present to be fully self-expressed, to let go of fear and shame and to allow life to be fun and playful and connected. I’m really looking forward to the next Festival which is taking place in July, details of which are below in the community notice board section. Since last Summer I’ve started going to more Fairy events and last night was at the full moon drum circle in Vauxhall, which was an amazing experience. It was a chance to reconnect with friends I know through the Fairies, to move with the rhythm of the drums and be aligned to the rhythms of nature through being conscious of the moon cycle as I used to be in the monastery, where our rest days fell on new, full and quarter moons.

When I was at Loving Men this New Year, I met Phoebus who runs a fortnightly discussion circle called Open Connections and  since then have been attending these regularly. They provide a space where it is possible to explore through discussion issues relating to sex and relationships. I’ve really enjoyed connecting again to the sort of open space for discussion I used to have when living in my first Buddhist group where I used to go on regular retreats and have heart circles with other practitioners. To explore this further I took up the opportunity of being in a closed group for 10 weeks, which I am still in the midst of, having two more sessions to go. Meeting with three other men with Phoebus facilitating, this has been an incredible space to open to the vulnerability of having the conversations it is so easy to avoid. A space to be honest, vulnerable, connected. A space to express anger and annoyance and have it held. A space to see the beauty of another gay man who initially annoyed the hell out of me, but my heart warming to him as we melted the hard armour of our egos in the furnace of honest disclosure.

And of course there is the Monday mindfulness group! Which I set up with the intention of creating a social space where gay, bi and trans men could meet and socialise in a relaxed space away form the pressures and demands of clubs and bars. Through this I have met other heart friends, without whom my life would feel very empty and cold. And it has been a delight to hold a space which enable other gay/bi/ trans men to meet and make their own connections. There have now been 1000 people come to the class over the 7 years it has run. Each week around 260 men read these emails, so as you read this you are connected, in a subtle way, to all of them.

Growing out of these connections I am now working on a weekend workshop with a friend I met at the group which will combine mindfulness practice with therapeutic insights specifically addressing issues of loneliness and isolation which may then give rise to symptoms that are treated as an illness or addiction rather than held as something needing compassion and self-care. This will be available once we have got it finalised. I also plan to run more week long retreats where we can start to go away together of yoga and mindfulness retreats and build our own sense of a closer community, as well as having our social events here in London.

I am also working on an idea for a group where we explore more connection and intimacy for those who are happy with touch and sensual contact. In this I’ll bring in the work I’ve done in exploring gay tantra and Eros through Andy Saich’s excellent sensual massage workshops and I’m looking forward to attending a workshop on Exploring Intimate Touch he has helped to facilitate, taking place in July, to continue this exploration of connecting more deeply with myself and Eros energy. This new group will also draw on my connection with Kai Helmich who has really introduced me to the power of somatic body work for healing and who has challenged me to bring this into the work that I do.

Through attending all of these I now have a feeling of being held. I have a network of friends, some of whom I met in these groups and who I see there, others who are outside of these groups. The feeling of having a village is certainly there as people who goto these groups overlap so I meet and recognise people as I move from one group to another, as well as meeting people who are unique to each group.

These may not be what will form your Village. But this is an invitation for you to consider what is your village? And if you do not have one how might you explore these and other groups to get more of a physical connection to others, rather than the virtual connection of apps and social media.

To read The Machine Stops click here

Full details of the groups mentioned above and others that I know but may not have attended are below.

For a full list of sports, social  and recreational groups in London, compiled by GMFA click here  This  list is a few years old now so may be out of date in parts.

 

Marrying the findings of the new field of social neuroscience together with gripping human stories, award-winning author and psychologist Susan Pinker explores the impact of face-to-face contact from cradle to grave, from city to Sardinian mountain village, from classroom to workplace, from love to marriage to divorce. Her results are enlightening and enlivening, and they challenge our assumptions.
Most of us have left the literal village behind, and don’t want to give up our new technologies to go back there. But, as Pinker writes so compellingly, we need close social bonds and uninterrupted face-time with our friends and families in order to thrive – even to survive. Creating our own ‘village effect’ can make us happier. It can also save our lives.

To buy click here

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