August 15th, 2017

Mindfulness and Politics

Political discussions can be some of the most challenging places to practice mindfulness. It’s so easy to get caught up in mindless debates that generate more heat than light. But if we pay close attention, I think our political conversations can be a source of insight. What are the lenses through which we view society? Where do we have blind spots and shadows? When do our political views support our growth, and when do they hold us back? These are all things we can explore in our practice.

One thing that mindfulness can give us is an expanded sense of mental space. We can hold bigger ideas in this space. We can flip ideas around and look at them from different points of view. We can even let go of ideas more easily. Because there’s so much space, we don’t feel as confined to any particular ideology. We may still have clear preferences in our politics. But we’re not as limited by them.

If you think about it, the more polarizing an idea becomes, the less space it can cover because it has to be defined more sharply against its polar opposite. For example, if I’m stridently opposed to tax cuts (or tax increases for that matter), I’ve just blocked off 50% of my mental space on the issue. That space becomes a shadow where I can’t see as clearly. With mindfulness, we can turn this around. We can decompress the charge around issues, uncover blind spots, and recover more space to put things into context.

That’s not to say that it’s always easy. It can be very difficult to listen to someone who’s attacking our ideas. And it can be tough not to over-listen to someone who’s defending our ideas. This is where our meditation practice helps. In meditation, when a thought comes up, whether it’s positive or negative, we don’t dwell on it. We acknowledge it, and return to the intent of our meditation. We can put this same skill to work when we hear a political speech. We can notice our reflex reactions – whether it’s glee or disdain – and return to the intent of listening as fully as we can. When we do this, we can pick up more deeply on what’s being said and what’s not being said. We can deconstruct the message better and reframe it in any number of ways. We can see how the culture we swim in shapes its expression. We can become more aware of what’s within us that’s responding to it.

What is within us that responds to politics? Four common themes are freedom, security, fairness and harmony. We don’t want to be stopped from doing what we want to do. We don’t want the ground underneath us to be unstable. We don’t want to be treated less than our peers. We don’t want to have conflicts with people around us. And we want all these things not just for ourselves, but for anyone who we feel deserves them. You can see how politics can get very complicated very quickly. But let’s inquire into this more deeply. Take freedom for example. How does it feel when someone puts constraints on what we want to do? In many situations, it can feel incredibly frustrating. But when we pay really close attention to the constraints, and we’re super mindful of why we want to do what we want to do, interesting things can happen. We can find a way to bypass the constraints. Or we can figure out how to get what we want within the constraints. Or, we can do something else that satisfies the core intent, that doesn’t have any constraints at all. The more awareness we have, the more spontaneously these kinds of solutions occur to us, and the less that our sense of freedom can actually be threatened. The same thing is true for our sense of security, fairness and harmony, and it’s also true for our sense of wanting these things for other people. When these things aren’t being threatened, we’re less defensive in our conversations and we can be more present. Now, there are practical limits of course, and we each face our own unique challenges. But our practice doesn’t have to be perfect to be transformative. Even the faintest flicker of insight at the right time can nudge us out of a stale mental pattern and put us on a path that supports our growth.

Some of the most challenging patterns in politics involve identity. How do we see ourselves? There are national identities, regional identities, political party identities, ethnic identities, religious identities, vocational identities, recreational identities, the list goes on and on. When one of our important identities is threatened, we feel threatened. Why? Because…who are we without that identity?

That’s the question that self-awareness answers. Mindfulness helps us observe the process within us that constructs and sustains our identities. We see when we try to pour too much of ourselves into an identity that just can’t contain us, like force-fitting ourselves into clothes that we’ve outgrown. Or when we spread ourselves too thin into fragmented identities that conflict with each other, like when we agree to every request for our time. As we start to notice these things, we can gather and reunify this energy. We can manage our identities more consciously, and hold them more lightly. This can significantly reduce the level of friction that we feel with politics.

Since the day we were born, we’ve been forming opinions about the world, sometimes faster than we realize. Mindfulness lets us catch up with ourselves. In politics, we try to motivate people to see things in certain ways. Mindfulness points out what’s motivating us in the first place. Whether you talk politics with a handful of people, or whether your ideas reach millions of people, mindfulness can help you understand them, yourself, and the words we all use, that much better.

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