Yes, you can practice mindfulness and still stomach this presidential campaign
By Colby Itkowitz March 16 - Washington Post - Inspired Life Column
For the many Americans who practice mindfulness, it’s a way to bring a sense of calm to their lives. But this election season is proving a challenge, stoking emotions on the other end of the spectrum like anger, frustration and fear.
As Marco Rubio said in suspending his campaign Tuesday night, the current political climate could “leave us as a nation where people literally hate each other, because they have different political opinions.”
It’s enough to make anyone trying to stay mindful want to look away from the maddening presidential race to maintain their inner peace (and sanity).
But that is where casual mindfulness practitioners get it wrong, experts say.
To be mindful requires people to pay attention to their thoughts and feelings without judgment. It’s about bringing awareness to the present moment. It is not supposed to be a tool for withdrawing from the external world. In fact, part of its purpose is to help people, who otherwise might be distracted by their ruminations and anxieties, better engage with others. True mindfulness should actually foster positive political participation.
“There’s this superficial idea that we should avoid or withdraw from (politics) because it’s too messy,” said Ethan Nichtern, a Buddhist teacher, and founder of the Interdependence Project. “It actually means you stay open-hearted to those who disagree with you. It should lead people to engage more in every aspect of life.”
It’s a civics lesson the Rev. Angel Kyodo Williams, a Zen priest, has been advocating for years. In 2012, she helped create MindfulVOTES, to encourage what she calls the “wellness sector” (those who meditate, practice yoga) to take part in the presidential election. Any notion that they shouldn’t, she said, is a perversion and denotes an immature understanding of what it means to be mindful.
“Mindfulness’s aim wasn’t just let’s have stress reduction for the sake of it. The aim was to reduce the noise of the mind that disables our ability to see clearly and therefore be able to respond effectively to the world around us, and that’s what community engagement means,” Williams said.
Mindfulness has been commercialized in America to fit the nation’s focus on individualism. It’s taught as a means for the stressed out and overworked to center themselves and, literally, take a breath. But there is also an interdependence component that is often lost in that interpretation — an understanding that one’s words and actions influence society. And, that as a citizen of the world, it’s a responsibility to engage.
[Harvard neuroscientist: Meditation not only reduces stress, here’s how it changes your brain]
What that means in this crazy presidential cycle is that people who practice mindfulness should be able to engage without getting swept up in the hysteria. People who practice mindfulness are taught to be compassionate to themselves, but also to others. The awareness of present thought allows them to have considerate dialogue, rather than react emotionally.
It is even possible to be a practitioner of mindfulness and be a politician. Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) is a leading example. He leads meditations on Capitol Hill and has introduced legislation to teach mindfulness in schools and to veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Ryan said he understands how someone who practices mindfulness might view politics as an unnecessary stress inducer. The one-upsmanship in politics has always been in direct conflict with the teachings of humble Buddhist monks, from which mindfulness derives. The verbal, and now even physical brutality of this presidential race, the deep divisiveness it breeds and intolerance it displays, are especially nerve-racking. And even Ryan admits that he’s not immune to getting heated over the political discourse.
But he’s learned to recognize his emotions and channel them into something productive.
“If something is not happening politically the way you like it, it’s okay to get mad or angry. Those are honest emotions. The question is, okay, you see that, but you don’t have to let that emotion take you for a ride somewhere,” he said. “What do you do to change the discourse, to change the debate? You can see it, you can understand why others are angry and at the same time start to organize a group of people.”
To that end, Ryan said he taps into his mindfulness at town hall meetings when constituents are angry or when he feels agitated watching a Republican presidential debate. The self-discipline allows him to remain calm, and open, in those moments.
Williams, who is African American, can understand — even if she does not agree with — the intense opposition to President Obama. And she credits that to her mindfulness. She is able to view the anger directed toward Obama through the lens of people fearful of the changing demographics in America. It’s the same fear driving the unrest at Donald Trump rallies.
“It’s a changing country and I can understand if you grew up and had an idea of what your country was and what it stood for … that’s ordinary and human and to be expected,” she said. “As opposed to getting caught up in how their words are frightening or disturbing for me, I’m able to look more deeply into what is the suffering there. That’s what mindfulness is about.”
She said she’s seen an inclination in the mindfulness community to turn away from the deepening polarization and ugliness of this campaign. But avoidance is not part of mindfulness ethos.
The Dalai Lama, the famous Tibetan Buddhist, teaches that one way to bridge divides is to stop seeing conflict as us versus them, and think of all humans as “we.” Daniel Goleman, a psychologist and author of “A Force For Good: The Dalai Lama’s Vision for Our World,” wrote in an essay that the Dalai Lama “sees it as an antidote to divisiveness of every kind.”
Nichtern said the protesters at Donald Trump events have a unique opportunity to exhibit mindfulness. He, and other experts, see this political season as a chance to showcase what it looks like to interact with the world without fear and hatred, but with compassion and wisdom. To not give in to kneejerk emotions, as is so often the way in politics. To understand that demonizing other humans is actually mindless and unproductive.
“There is a concept of basic goodness,” Nichtern said. “There is something within human beings that is somehow fundamental and worthwhile that can be connected with — there is something at the core.”