Per a recent announcement from the U.S. surgeon general, many Americans today are experiencing increased levels of loneliness, in part a lingering symptom of pandemic isolation. Add to that a rise in social media usage and decreased participation in organized religion, and cultivating community and connectedness is more important than ever, according to author Casper ter Kuile. 

That’s why he and Alec Gewirtz co-founded The Nearness, an online cooperative comprising eight-week courses in which groups of around six people meet to self-reflect, experiment with a variety of secular spirituality practices, and develop meaningful, supportive connections with one another. In short, it’s “an invitation to explore life’s big questions with like-hearted other people,” ter Kuile told Nice News.

Holding master’s degrees in divinity and public policy from Harvard University, ter Kuile has long been interested in the roles spirituality and connectedness play in people’s lives, a topic he explored in his book, The Power of Ritual. And with his podcast Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, which he co-hosts with Vanessa Zoltan, he aids listeners in using the novels to engage with themselves and the world around them. 


The Nearness, which currently costs around $20 per meeting with the early-bird discount, offers a similar experience. Instead of focusing on one specific text, though, members work through a variety of discussion topics, prompts, and activities to nurture their spiritual selves. Classes include breath and body work, journaling, poetry readings, and other activities designed to foster a sense of conscious attention to the kinds of themes that religious organizations might. 

“You get to learn about and reflect on these big life questions of, ‘Where do I belong?’ and ‘How do I live a good life?’ and ‘What does it mean to have hope in difficult times?’ And about grief, about loss, about the natural world,” ter Kuile explained. “All of these kind of rich conversations that maybe we don’t have time for every day. But when you meet in a Nearness group each week, you have time and space to really pay attention to those questions.”

And the courses are not exclusive to those without a religious affiliation. In fact, nearly 40% of participants are religious in some form, ter Kuile said. Some identify with a specific faith but don’t belong to particular congregations, while others do. “That’s really the great joy,” he shared. “You end up kind of sitting next to someone who you might not have otherwise met. And although you start as strangers, you leave as spiritual friends.”

In some cases, the connections made via the internet become in-person friendships, as well. Right now, The Nearness brings together people from around the globe, many of whom stay in touch after their courses end — but it’s also piloting city-based cohorts, beginning this summer with about 100 people in New York City. 


“There’s something really beautiful about being able to show up for other people, and then having them show up for you,” said ter Kuile. “So there’s this mutuality to the experience, which means people kind of learn to love each other. That’s what it comes down to, even across distance and difference. It’s really beautiful.”

Sign-ups for the next session of The Nearness, which runs from the weeks of July 10 to September 3, close on July 2. Click here to enroll.