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  • Writer's pictureNicole A. Tetreault, PhD

The Gift of Social Connection

Updated: Sep 16, 2020

“Never underestimate the empowering effect of human connection. All you need is that one person, who understands you completely, believes in you and makes you feel loved for what you are, to enable you - to unfold the miraculous YOU.” ― Drishti Bablani, Wordions

Social connection is woven into our DNA, our bones, our hearts, our minds. We are social beings. When we experience danger, we gather together as a species to gain safety and refuge. Our evolution is dependent on human social connection. The bonds we make, and the level of security we feel, directly impacts our behaviors and actions. Social connection is vibrational synergy between people where they are equally seen, heard, and valued. It requires an active awareness of their shared bond, where each person receives security and strength within the connection. Scientifically, social connection is a foundational way we enhance our longevity and gain purpose and meaning in our lives. In the second half of my exploration for Beyond the Cell, I focused on building my social connections and community. It began when I participated in a social meditation retreat and training, engaged in weekly meetings with Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC), joined PEN America’s author evenings, ran a second iteration of Beyond the Cell program, participated in a Nishant Garg podcast, raised my understanding of the current climate in the prison system through discussions with ARC and additional organizations on their weekly meetings, researched ways to reduce mass incarceration in the United States while I worked on the book proposal for Beyond the Cell, developed new modules for the Beyond the Cell program that included loving awareness, forgiveness, and social meditation, worked with organizations like Madecraft to film online courses, and selected board members for Beyond the Cell to build our community. Of course due to COVID-19, this was all done through virtual social exploration.

In early June, I participated in a virtual Life Retreat offered by the Buddhist Geeks and learned the practice of social meditation. Social meditation was first taught in the west by Kenneth Folk. Instead of having participants sit in silence, Folk’s technique was to have people socially and orally note, or label, their body, mental, physical, sensory, and emotional states. This type of meditation is considered free style noting because every form of noting is open to the social noting experience. Participants orally note in a sequential order that organically develops within the group. The teachers at Buddhist Geeks, Vince Horn, Kuan Luo, and Francis Lacoste (to name a few) have developed a number of social meditation practices centered on the phases of meditation, from concentration to embodiment. Science shows that when we can label or note our experience—whether an emotion, thought pattern, or difficult body sensation—it decreases the intensity of the difficult experience in our mind and we are better able to process our reality. In addition, when we socially note, we imagine the experiences of others in our minds, which occurs through the mirror neurons in our brain. As we mirror one another we enhance our social awareness and empathy networks and we experience greater oneness. Studies show that when we experience oneness, we gain a considerable boost to our quality of life and well-being.

As I participated in social meditation, I was floored by the collective impermanence of emotions, thoughts, and body sensations and the way these experiences ebb and flow in each of us. Through social meditation, I experienced greater presence in my day to day life. I knew this was a practice I wanted to offer to incarcerated women and women transitioning back into society. I immediately signed up for the ten-week social meditation facilitation. At the first meeting, my teacher, Kuan, said, “I have one rule that we are for one another. It does not mean that you agree, but we require us to be for one another.” That is the key of social engagement: to see each other as equals so that everyone in the group can freely express who they are as safe and valued human beings. Often, incarcerated people are not safe, seen, or valued. They lack social connection and community―they are physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially isolated. When a person is socially isolated they experience extreme pain in their mind, body, and being. There is a signature in the brain for pain. And whether that pain is physical, mental, or emotional, pain networks are activated in the brain and the person suffers. The isolation of incarceration leads to increased mental, emotional, and physical illnesses. This isolation begins in the early stages of life and is related to economic, social, and racial inequalities. To reduce mass incarceration, change needs to begin in the early years of development. We must offer safe and healthy social connections, equal opportunity, and promise for a future if we are to reduce isolation in this vulnerable population.

The author evenings with PEN America highlighted that we need systemic change to bring about equal opportunity for all people. Authors Beverly Daniel Tatum, PhD and Julie Lythcott-Haims, JD discussed the challenges African-American people face in their daily lives, such as societal prejudices, racial and economic bias, and decreased availability of equal educational opportunities and life outcomes. Professor Tatum, a nationally renowned expert on race and development, spoke about racial identity or lack of development in American culture. Often African-American people develop without a strong racial identity because in the current educational system race is not discussed, nurtured, or valued. When we begin our early years lacking in the development of our true identity we struggle with social connection and do not integrate completely into society. This interferes with equal educational and economic opportunity. This loss of identity disrupts the development of a fully integrated individual and directly impedes equal opportunity throughout all stages of life. 

Julie Lythcott-Haims holds a JD from Harvard Law School, was the former dean of undergraduate studies at Stanford University, and struggled with her racial identity throughout her life. Lythcott-Haims read from her book, Real American, describing a time in school when she was passed over for the gifted program and the painful racism she encountered in school when her locker was vandalized on her eighteenth birthday. Too often she internalized her shame. And, for her entire life, struggled with feelings of unworthiness because of her skin color. From scientific studies we know that a bullied brain is stamped with a signature that places an individual at greater risk for mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and social withdrawal. She illustrated the struggles she experienced because of her skin color and asked each of the attendees, “Do you see black people as human beings?”

And I ask, “Do we see incarcerated people as human beings?”

Jacque Fresco, a social engineer, states, “We must stop constantly fighting for human rights and equal justice in an unjust system, and start building a society where equal rights are an integral part of the design.” We need systemic change in America. We need true equality for all individuals so that there is no longer racial, social, and economic oppression. Sam Lewis, the director of the ARC, spoke in our weekly meeting about how we need to have systemic change through education, support services, housing, career development, and in our policies. The ARC works and addresses these powerful pillars of change through partnerships with a number of organizations ranging from A Journey of Healing (a podcast focused on restorative justice) to Project Rebound (for education and job placement) to Amity Foundation (which provides mental health and housing services for people transitioning back into society). Sam said, “We aim to give individuals a second chance or, in many cases, a real first chance.”

The Beyond the Cell program and the accompanying book aim to offer opportunity through education, creating systemic change, developing healing practices to reduce trauma in incarcerated women, and building a community of people who are free to live in their true essence. In growing my community for Beyond the Cell, I discussed with Nishant Garg on his podcast the ways Beyond the Cell aims to heal and bring equality to incarcerated women through meditation, neuroscience, and expressive writing.

Beyond the Cell is growing its organization and is excited to introduce our board members, Tara Gomez-Hampton, PhD, Amy Deavoll, and Billy DeClercq, JD who enhance our community with their passion and expertise.

Tara Gomez-Hampton is a wife, mother, and Caltech alumna who works as a medical affairs manager developing innovations for the treatment of heart arrhythmias. She channels her creativity by writing poetry, memoir, and fiction—all while parenting a gifted child.

Amy Deavoll is a versatile creative marketer and devoted yogi inspired by modern art, Eastern philosophy, ocean diving, and the power of love. She earned a bachelor of music degree in piano performance and conducting at the London College of Music. Billy DeClercq is a proud husband and father who works as a business attorney and devotes himself to using his talents for creativity, persuasion, humor, and reason to solve challenging and sensitive problems for the benefit of others.

What is ahead for Beyond the Cell? This fall I will bring the Beyond the Cell program to Victor Treatment Center (VTC) in Pasadena. VTC is a home for youth who struggle in traditional home settings. VTC works to get these youth on track to live at home and in society as thriving community members. Beyond the Cell’s program focuses on developing adaptive behaviors and building community and social connections among these girls so they can live integrated and meaningful lives. My new partnership with Madecraft made it possible to bring my courses online, including Emotional Intelligence 101, Overcoming Imposter Syndrome, and Overcoming Perfectionism. We plan to add more online courses in the future. And we aim to bring these courses and others’ courses to the incarcerated and transitioning population. The mission is to educate—and not incarcerate—by raising awareness, building community, and allowing people to know they are valued members in society so that they may live in the full essence of their being.

We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men; and among those fibers, as sympathetic threads, our actions run as causes, and they come back to us as effects.” ― Herman Melville

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