“May God bless and keep the czar . . . far away from us!”
This, the fictional rabbi in Fiddler on the Roof offered, was the Jewish blessing for an oppressive ruler who brought suffering upon the vulnerable. These days, is there a Buddhist equivalent for Donald Trump?
In fact, I’ve found “Trump Practice” to be of enormous help during these last few weeks, and I want to recommend it to you. There are several kinds of Trump Practice, but I’m going to focus on one in particular: Mindfulness of Trump. It derives from this line in the Satipatthana Sutta, which outlines the four foundations of mindfulness:
A [meditator] understands the consciousness with lust, as with lust; the consciousness without lust, as without lust; the consciousness with hate, as with hate; the consciousness without hate, as without hate; the consciousness with delusion, as with delusion; the consciousness without delusion, as without delusion.
In these deceptively simple instructions (which are then repeated for a number of other mind states), Gautama Buddha is offering a counterintuitive way of being in the world, one that runs directly against four billion years of evolution.
It can handle four years of Trump, too.
All animals, and most plants, move toward the pleasant and away from the unpleasant. This is how the living world works. And yet, as Mick Jagger Buddha noticed in 1964, it doesn’t work: you can’t always get what you want. Humans are intrinsically wired for dukkha [suffering], wanting the pleasant, not wanting the unpleasant, and yet unable to arrange the world accordingly.
Both Jagger and Gautama Buddha agree on the remedy: if you try sometimes (i.e., if you practice), you might find that you get what you need even if you can’t get what you want, and can’t avoid what you hate. In other words, you can notice the pleasant and the unpleasant with equanimity, and thus coexist with both. You don’t have to be pushed and pulled by the desires and aversions that have been with us since our paramecium ancestors wiggled out of the primordial ooze.
Notice the Buddha does not say the meditator runs away from, wallows in, banishes, denies, or extinguishes greed, hatred, or delusion. Of course, we want to cultivate the conditions that lessen these unwholesome states. But in the moment of mindfulness, there is only knowing and seeing—nothing more. This mindstate is present. Adding in awareness of vedana, or feeling-tone, one might add whether it’s pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. But no judgment, no avoidance, no denial.
So what about Mindfulness of Trump?
The feelings Trump evokes are often unpleasant, so it’s natural to make them want to go away. He says and does things that many of us find odious, and the more we contemplate them, the more the feelings multiply into mind states like anger, concern for our friends and neighbors, fear, uncertainty, rage. Indeed, these feelings are often quite appropriate and grounded in reality.
Of course, many people, particularly undocumented people, Muslims, people of color, Jews, trans folk, many women, and others, face not just mental threats but real physical ones as well. But let’s stay with the mental ones for a moment. They’re what the Satipatthana Sutta is talking about. They’re also doorways to liberation and to being better allies to those who are in danger.
When unpleasant Trump thoughts arise, we, in accordance with billions of years of evolution, want to make them go away. There are many tactics available. We might pretend they aren’t there (“I’m not feeling anger—I’m Buddhist.”) or channel them into political activism that may or may not be actually useful. (Helping refugees, useful; arguing on Facebook, not useful.) Or we might escape into television, meditation retreats, alcohol, sex, whatever—again, not bad in moderation, potentially destructive and irresponsible in excess.
Trump Practice, Satipatthana practice, what I call The Gate of Tears practice (that’s a plug for my book) is to do the exact opposite: to look inside, see what’s there, accept it, and act skillfully from a place of knowledge rather than ignorance. What those actions are is the subject of another article (like this one) and another practice. But the core of Trump Practice is accepting the fear, rage, uncertainty, and so on
Don’t just accept it mentally. Feel into it, sink into it, let it overwhelm and overtake you. Feel the fear in the body, or the anger. On the cushion, let your mind-body-heart system sink into the reality of American proto-fascism, of environmental devastation, of no healthcare for the poor. Don’t stay in that mental swamp for hours, but do stay there for a few minutes. Don’t get waylaid into political details, but do inhabit the emotional space of whatever feelings you are feeling. This isn’t about wallowing; it’s about accepting what is (thanks, Tara Brach), loving what is (thanks, Byron Katie), and being as aware as possible of what’s present in the mind and heart.
Avoidance doesn’t work for liberation, and honestly, it doesn’t work for activism either. We are more skillful and more sustainable in our activism when we’re not unconsciously playing out emotional dramas on a public stage, or unconsciously looking for emotional fulfillment rather than acting skillfully for the benefit of others. We need to be smart, and to be smart, we need to be aware of what’s happening inside and outside.
So sink into it. Bring the president into your meditation—or, more likely, allow him to enter it. Let your loathing, fear, concern, rage all arise. No need to stoke or prod or prompt; it will do so all on its own. Let yourself feel whatever you’re feeling, noting all the way. Give up all resistance; surrender to the darkness. You won’t die. You won’t even be debilitated. On the contrary, releasing the resistance uncovers a profound kind of happiness: the happiness that does not depend on conditions.
Allow the emotions to unfold and ventilate, and they may even loosen their grip on you. Or they may not. But for sure you’ll have a better sense of what factors of mind are present, so you get wiser, and become and more compassionate with yourself, skillful in your activism, and courageous in your willingness to show up.
Let President Trump take over your meditation, and maybe we can stop him from taking over the world.
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