Do we need to be part of a community to survive? Do we need to feel we belong? The answers to these questions partly lie in the answer to another question: how OK do you want to be?
If you want to thrive - not just survive, you will likely need to be connected to people, to yourself and to nature. Sure, you can do some of this online, but not all of it. Find out what inspired me to create Sensate as well as rare personal reflections on my own recovery from covid in this short article…
Community vs loneliness
Loneliness is the emotional outcome that people feel if they don’t have community. We know that community is a positive factor in terms of longevity. Loneliness affects most people, but chronic loneliness has been linked to poor physical health, mental health and poor personal wellbeing. (1)
In the Blue Zones, (2) where people live longer, one of the key aspects uniting these otherwise very disparate zones is connection. A sense of belonging is said to be one of the reasons that faith groups do well in disease and longevity vectors. Why? I think it has a lot to do with safety. Human beings are inherently communal and one of the consequences of developing bigger heads and bigger brains is that it's very difficult for us to live or be born without community. Most human females need another person present at the birth of their baby to have a good chance of survival. So our survival is dependent to a large degree on our ability to communicate, co-operate and to be part of a community.
Survival of the fittest? Or…
This is contrary to the popular Darwinian theory of the competition - Survival of the Fittest - and interestingly, this is now widely believed to have been a misinterpretation of his original research. It’s now known that some of Darwin’s ideas have been somewhat manipulated or misinterpreted for political and economic purposes. (4) Darwin never actually said that survival of the fittest was the appropriate mechanism for most people; but this was used as a way of justifying capitalism: “it must be the right economic model because it’s Darwinian in its outcome”. It was pushed that the company or endeavour which survives better than the competition must be the best one because it fits in with how humans have evolved. But the archaeological and biological evidence doesn’t actually support this perspective.
So, humans are one of the only animals that require the presence of others for the survival of the species which means cooperation and kindness (rather than fitness or strength) have been the indicative factors for survival. Ironically, it may be some of our seemingly deepest vulnerabilities – being dependent on others, feeling compassion and experiencing empathy – that could have given us the edge.
Friends and family
One of the earliest examples of this cooperation is of a healed femur in an adult skeleton. Rather than breaking a leg and being left to die because there was nothing that could be done for them, or they weren’t viable, this individual was supported to recover. Margaret Mean, anthropologist, is said to have recounted this as evidence of human cooperation. (5). Humans are one of the only species which allocates valuable survival resources (food, time, heat, energy) to enable another member of the community to survive. We are able to do this because of our communication skills. It’s hard to know which came first - communication or community: in truth, it’s probably both.
On a separate but related point, within the relatively new field or archeo-acoustics, there’s a body of opinion that says we sang before we talked - that we made music and communicated through sound that may not have been specifically verbal words and that this was the beginning of our communications. Some animals sing - not necessarily using words (birds and dolphins) but this is actually quite rare. No other animal has the vocabulary and uses words in the way that humans do.
It’s this rich ability to communicate that has enabled us to become the dominant species. We’ve used sound and touch as ways in which human beings have comforted themselves, communicated and survived for hundreds of thousands of years. That’s exactly what vibration is - the meeting point of sound and touch - it’s physical sound that we perceive through senses in addition to our ears. So much of sound perception is body perception through the connective tissues - the water base membranes of the body. The fascia and the connective tissue are fantastic mechano-vibration receptors which is why the Sensate brings such peace and comfort to us.
Community in the pandemic
One of the things that's happened over the last few years with the pandemic is the elimination of the physical contact that people have had. Even something as simple as seeing a doctor is now quite difficult to achieve and is often done from behind plastic screens or masks. This can feel isolating at best and frightening at worst, especially for vulnerable people. A lot of schemes that were there for the elderly or the lonely have been stopped, taken off site or moved, so people who were already vulnerable or at risk have become more so. Older people in particular were badly affected in lockdown by their community, hobbies and even health pursuits like walking having been removed or curtailed, while at the same time not having access to family, grandchildren, holidays or cruises that they had planned for their older years. We now know that loneliness is as bad for you as smoking. Loneliness causes big psychological and physical health issues, especially in men who find it more difficult to make friends and join in with their community. (1)
Any group that you are part of (either online or in the real world) is key to your sense of connectedness, belonging and purpose and will combat loneliness. Some people share hobbies such as music, singing or gardening. Others help and volunteer to support others - for example in men’s sheds and repair cafes. Elderly and vulnerable people who are less resourced both benefit from any support we offer, but also offer benefits in return: any “giving” activity will nourish and repay the volunteer as much as it nourishes and supports the recipient.
One of the many unintended consequences of the pandemic is that where previously we had said “you can’t do this online”, we realised in many cases that you can, because we had to: such as self-regulation, but in a group. Obviously a skilled person can self-regulate alone; they can calibrate or pendulate with themselves, which is really what you’re doing with meditation and chanting, toning or breathing exercises. A group gong or chanting session is a very, very powerful thing, but it’s also possible to achieve the same effects on your own if you’re skilled enough.
However, few people are this skilled and this is really what Sensate was intended to provide for people - the ability to feel the same benefits as a meditation practitioner with many decades of practice, when they haven’t spent decades on it. What the Sensate offers is the ‘safe’ bio-feedback mechanism that you would get from being in a group or working with a teacher or in a gong circle. It’s very reliable, safe and non-invasive. It emits low frequency sound and it feels pretty much instantly nice and safe and protective. Sensate is designed to speak to – or sing – to the parts of our bodies, brains, nervous systems and connective tissues which have spent the last few million years developing a perception of non-audible sound and developing trust around that experience.
Can we feel connected, online?
According to Dunbar’s number, we can only “know” around 150 people - that is defined by knowing who each person is and how each person relates to every other person. Dunbar’s research suggests that we can only maintain 150 stable social relationships (3).
But society has progressed faster than humans have evolved. Given we no longer have this close knit group of in-person connections as we would have in the past (our “hunter gatherer” group) our virtual and online communities have a critical role in providing the sense of safety which a traditional community would have provided.
The element that’s missing with online community is the actual ability or the potential to touch. When you’re not in the physical presence of somebody, it’s harder to feel connected to them or to touch them. I think that the work of Rupert Sheldrake with morphic fields and morphic resonance shows us that actually intelligent organisms can communicate over distance. Indeed the work of his sons and wife, Merlin (fungi) and Cosmo Sheldrake (music) and his wife Jill Purce (dance) supports this concept. Merlin’s work focuses on mycelial connection through fungi - he looks at the interconnectedness of things through what was previously regarded as a non-obvious mycelial network: we now know that trees communicate through mycelial networks. (Fun fact: If you believe Star Trek and the homage to Paul Stammets that they have woven into Discovery, then the future of interstellar transport is via mycelial networks!)
So although it takes more training to be sensitive enough to communicate with people non-locally, it’s still doable, but we have to compensate by doing more of it or being more mindful and attentive during that communication.
Sensory overwhelm from everything, everywhere, all at once
A big part of the motivation behind the invention and development of Sensate was the recognition and understanding that pretty much everybody was already at quite a high level of over-stimulation and overwhelm. There’s so much incoming data in almost everybody’s lives: from their work, their computer, their phone and all the ways in which they can be contacted (via work, family, friends, hobbies). All the pressure we put on ourselves to improve ultimately adds up to more incoming information which can easily become overpowering. There are introverts and extroverts who need different levels of interaction. Introverts need more silent time and extroverts can do with more community time but I think everybody is at such a base level of sensory overwhelm that finding a way to bring more silence and stillness into your life is a good thing - an essential thing. And this is what Sensate is designed to address. Note: silence doesn’t have to mean the absence of sound and stillness doesn’t have to mean the absence of movement. It’s more about the ability to sit, stand or even move mindfully - to notice the sound and the movement around you in the moment and not just be moving or making noise to cover up the background sound in your mind.
I believe people need to develop a degree of comfort in the relationship they have with themselves and their ability to self-regulate because ultimately, everything we’re a part of, we have to process within our own bodies. So having said all of the above, I think being part of online communities is helpful.
Volunteering to help others is also helpful: being of more value and service to others is tremendously helpful to us as individuals. It gives our life meaning and purpose which is generally speaking what most people don’t feel when they feel anxious and depressed.
For me, being part of a medical community with my team in the past with the New Medicine Group was tremendously nourishing personally and professionally.
Being part of the Sensate team and watching this fantastic team deliver on my vision and mission to make self-regulation available to anyone is hugely gratifying.
On my own journey over the last couple of years, rewilding myself as a way of being closer to nature and the people and creatures, plants, flora, fauna and fungi has also been an enriching and life changing experience. Being in nature is being part of a community. We are part of nature and what separates us from nature is much less than we think. All of us are part of the natural world and if we can plug back into that then we can never feel alone
When I was ill with covid at the end of last year, I had to work tremendously hard to remain connected to people and even to myself. My resources were placed under exceptional restrictions so I had to be hyper-aware and disciplined around what was valuable, worthwhile and good for me and what wasn’t. As I recovered, I had to continue doing that - looking after myself, feeling connected and self-regulating. This was all part of my journey back to a balanced mental and physical position. Having people around me who cared for me directly physically or virtually was tremendously useful.
My Joe Strummer foundation jumper says it all - “without your people you are nothing“. While this quote has always meant something to me, I began to realise that I wasn’t living it enough so I went to a concerted effort to reconnect with people who meant things to me - particularly men in my case. I think it’s especially useful to have regular connection with people you feel an affinity with, irrespective of gender: whoever encourages you is good for you.
In summary, connection and community are not only an inherent part of who we are as humans, they are probably the reason we are at the top of the food chain.
Learning to recognise our personal need for connection with others, with nature and with ourselves is critical to self-regulation. While it is possible to achieve connection online, there is really no substitute for the in-person giving and receiving of support, affection and resources, both for the giver and the recipient.
Returning to stillness and silence with your Sensate will always provide the “safety net” and reset your body and mind needs at the end of a challenging day, a busy interaction or general sensory overwhelm.
- Fearfully and Wonderfully Made: A Surgeon Looks at the Human & Spiritual Body, Paul Brand, Philip Yancey