The upcoming election and current political situation is a valuable opportunity to look at what is going on from the perspective of practice. When reading about and watching political events we often unconsciously assume that there should be a rational unfolding of events, that people should act reasonably and for knowable reasons. But maybe much of political behavior is more the product of normal human frailties, such as ignorance, confusion, and misjudgment based in our personal conditioning. This would explain a good deal of the craziness we witness on a daily basis.
Yet, what we want is reasonableness and order. We don’t want to face the fact that politics is much more chaotic than it is ordered. Basically, we don’t want life to be a mess. Our belief is: It’s not supposed to be this way! Yet, why should politics be any different than our life as we live it—full of blind spots and blunders that are most often based in fear? Just think of how often political motivations might be based not so much on an altruistic vision of society as on psychologically rooted patterns, of which the politicians may not be the least aware. Isn’t it likely that a politician’s ambition is often motivated, at least in part, by the inner need to prove their own worth? Or to gain power? There are so many examples of this that it’s no wonder Nietzsche used the phrase “the wretched ephemeral babble of politics and current events” to describe this aspect of life.
We also fail to take into account how much chance and coincidence come into play, making politics much more of a random affair than we would like to admit. We don’t want to feel the groundlessness that comes when we realize that things are not so solid and that luck and accident play as much of a role in world events as reason and good intentions. Yet all we have to do is look at our own lives to see that this is true.
We spend our whole lives pretending that we’re in control or attempting to get control. When we finally realize that we’re not in control, how do we react? Usually we get angry or anxious, or we might want to withdraw. Whatever our particular reaction, sooner or later all of us will have to face that sense of powerlessness and the inherent fear in experiencing the loss of control. No matter how together we are, as long as we believe that we can make life go the way we would like it to go (whether with politics, work, relationships, or our health), we’re bound to experience the disappointment of our own limitations in an unpredictable and uncontrollable world.
When we experience this fear, our immediate response might be to find a solution. How can I fix this? In an election year we might decide to contribute money or actively participate in a campaign. There’s nothing wrong with this; it might even be helpful. But if we do this out of the negativity of anger or righteousness, or if we feel we know what’s right and that those we oppose are blind or stupid, then we ourselves are ignoring the opportunity to address our own fear and negativity. Most of the time we’re so caught up in identifying with the rightness of our own views and political party and demonizing those we disagree with that we can’t possibly see things clearly.
We’re intent on deceiving ourselves with the certainty that we have the right view of how things are or how they should be. However, in complex situations such as these, we can rarely know with certainty what is right. Instead of clinging to any position or getting swept up in the emotions of the moment, can we use our own reactions as a red flag that reminds us to see the situation as our path to living more genuinely? Can we look at ourselves to see how our own actions, especially those rooted in righteousness and anger, are often a cover to avoid feeling anxiety, to avoid facing an uncertain world which is subject to neither reason nor control? We continue to bypass the one most essential practice step—which is to enter into and learn from our fear of powerlessness and the loss of control.
I’m not advocating that we just sit around exploring our subjective states while doing nothing in the external world. That would be a very black or white simplification of what I’m saying. Nor can practice be reduced to a fixed formula for how we should think or act in any particular situation. Practice is about becoming more awake; it’s about moving from a self-centered view to one that is more life-centered and kindhearted. Yet the only way to come to this and the only way to manifest the compassion that our world so desperately needs, is to face within ourselves what none of us wants to face—the fear of powerlessness and loss of control.
And if we face this fear, then what? Will we get some ground under our feet? We may, but perhaps not the kind we might have expected. When we can reside in the physical experience of groundlessness itself, we gradually see not only what underlies our own anger and righteousness, but also how similar our own reactions are to everyone else’s on the planet, including those of our perceived enemies. By entering our own fear, we can begin to relate with empathy to the pain of others. As we feel the pain that all human beings feel in facing an uncontrollable world, compassion naturally arises. This is how the negative energy of anger is turned into a sense of service and resolve.
A quote from Julius Lester is right on point: “History is not just facts and events. History is also a pain in the heart, and we repeat history until we are able to make another’s pain in the heart our own.”
What will come of this? No one can say. When faced with situations in which we see a wrong that needs to be addressed, we may never know with certainty what the right thing to do is. Does this mean we have to have clarity before we act? Again, there is no formula; life is often too complex and fast moving to be amenable to easy answers. Nonetheless, it is always better to first be honestly in touch with our own experience, and it is certainly preferable not to add to the sum total of violence in the world by putting our own uninspected anger and righteousness out there.
But we may be surprised by our response when we give up our demand that life fit into our fear-based pictures of order and predictability. When we see something we believe is wrong, as long as the heart is clear of the negativity of anger, and as long as the mind is clear of “me” and “my” views—with the humility of uncertainty and the clarity of the wish to do no harm, we must do what we perceive is right.
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.