Is the election season a good time to practice meditation?
In some ways, the many disturbing distractions of the news cycle make now a terrible time to meditate. Who wants to hear Donald Trump’s voice on the cushion?
Moreover, hopefully the urgency of the election has also “distracted” you into taking action: perhaps volunteering to help people vote, or promoting the causes and candidates you care about, or engaging in civic life in some other way. These are good ways to put compassion into action, but they may not be helpful in keeping your regular sitting practice going.
In many ways, though, this is the perfect time both to practice formally and to reflect on the core teachings of the dharma. Here are three of those ways:
These days, with “McMindfulness” practitioners meditating to get ahead in business or “Zen Out” in bliss, it’s easy to get attached to one’s own identity as a more “serious” Buddhist, whatever that means.
If this resonates with you (as it does with me), now is a great time to get over yourself and admit that one of the benefits of practice is shelter from the storm. It is okay to take refuge in the Buddha in an almost literal sense: as a refuge from the insane maelstroms of greed, hatred, and delusion that have marked this election season.
It’s not OK to only practice in this way, of course; the point is not to run away from the world. But there are reasons that monasteries are often located in mountains, forests, and faraway places. And if your meditation practice affords you a bit of peace and quiet, well, maybe notice that and experience some gratitude for those gifts. Thank you, Buddhas and bodhisattvas, rinpoches and roshis! Thank you a lot.
The relative calm of dharma practice can also serve as a counterweight to the unprecedented level of vulgarity this year and the unprecedented saturation of media into our wireless-but-wired-in lives. I’ve talked with several people who are experiencing real dukkha over this election. It comes from a good place—they are concerned about the state of the world. But to remain effective, we all need to recharge.
It’s not only about rest, either. All that suffering brings with it a tendency to exaggerate— especially since our social media bubbles do so all the time. In fact, though, the world is not about to end, and it helps our political engagement to remain as clear-headed as possible. Find your healthy balance between the extremes of complacency and freaking out.
As some of you know, I have two careers. My work as a meditation teacher and writer is actually the sideline; my main work is as a columnist for the Daily Beast and other newspapers, and I’m occasionally a talking head on TV. Usually, these two worlds are separate —sometimes even in conflict with one another.
But not this year. Have you noticed how this entire election seems like a class in Buddhist psychology? The Trump campaign is a case study in the power of fear to motivate, how quickly that fear hides itself in anger, and how that anger spreads like wildfire once it is ignited. The campaign is built on delusion—blaming certain groups (such as immigrants) for complicated problems (massive economic changes)—and thrives on aversion.
Meanwhile, the Clinton campaign has had to grapple with the fact that its candidate is not well liked, sometimes for substantive reasons, but often for reasons connected to sexism and all kinds of unconscious bias. I found a lot of this in my own mind when I went looking for it.
In other words, I’ve found myself, in my political work, saying some of the same things I say in my meditation teaching. Find some calm. Notice the mind. Discern what’s the heart and body. Act based on reasoned reflection, not the reptilian-brain’s emotive responses.
And let’s not “blame the other” here, either; the wheel of dependent origination doesn’t turn on only one side of the political aisle. There was bitter invective in the Sanders campaign, too—although nothing compared to the Trump campaign, and not egged on by its leader. And on a smaller scale, how many of us succumb to the temptation to fire off that angry Facebook comment or circulate some article without really looking into what it’s claiming? I know I do.
And of course, greed for being right, for elevating my status above others; hatred of those who disagree; and most of all, delusion about how the 99 percent of the world outside my little bubble are actually thinking and what their concerns are. You know, “we” don’t actually all care about climate change; in fact, thanks to a whole lot of propaganda, about a third of the “we” doesn’t think it’s happening. If the “we” includes everybody, we have a lot of difficult conversations to have.
It’s comfy in an echo-chamber filled with people who basically agree with me. But that is because delusion is often quite comfy. Which brings me to my final point . . .
I want to make a controversial claim: I don’t think there’s a single Buddhist politics. Most Western “convert” Buddhists are liberal, but this has more to do with issues of class, race, privilege, and the way “Buddhist identity” is constructed in our society. In other times and different places, Buddhists have allied themselves with conservative—even ultra-conservative—forces: Zen priests blessing the kamikaze pilots in World War II, Theravadan monks preaching ethnic nationalism in present-day Burma, and Tibetan lamas aligning themselves at times with monarchic and elitist structures in Tibet.
“We” may want to say that Buddhist politics are intrinsically progressive. But if we say that, we’re saying that all these other Buddhists are wrong about Buddhism. That strikes me as anything but progressive. Similarly, “we” may want to say that authentic Buddhism must be politically engaged. But who is the “we” here? Not a whole lot of monastics over a whole lot of centuries, for a start. Isn’t it a little bit privileged, a little bit Eurocentric for me to say they were wrong? Or to cherry-pick the teachings that agree with me, ignoring the ones that don’t?
Like it or not, there have been Buddhist liberal politics, Buddhist conservative politics, Buddhist apolitical politics—and you can find support in canonical texts for all of those positions and more.
Alas, the American convert sangha is not particularly diverse politically, racially, or socio-economically. There’s a lot of good work being done to change that, but right now, it’s easy to make assumptions about what “we” all think. And those assumptions reinforce lines between us and them, reify our own special identities, and exclude those who think differently. If this election has taught us anything, it’s that those kinds of boundaries lead to more and more suffering—especially when they’re drawn by groupthink.
Stay engaged! Stay strong! Question everything! Don’t just survive this election season—use it as a chance to explore the core truths of the human experience. They’re all right there on the news.
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