Our Way Forward Post-Elections: Joining the ‘Inner’ and the ‘Outer’
“… love your crooked neighbour // With your crooked heart” (WH Auden, ‘Another Time’)
When the truth of what had happened on Election Day sank in, our meditation community, like many churches, temples, and centers of healing and worship, organized gatherings to help people open to and share what they were feeling and be supported in community.
We began with a guided meditation—where participants were invited to step out of mental narratives of ‘what if…’ and ‘what to do now…’, and open fully to their feelings, emotions, thoughts, and reactions.
Participants were then invited to share in a few words the predominant emotion or feeling they’d been experiencing. A sample one evening included, “heartbreak… disappointment… sad/ness (many)… fear/afraid… grief… rage… calm… terror… despair… numb… blindsided… shock… anger… scared… hope… calm… confusion… heartbroken… guilt… hopeful… betrayed … anxious…”
For many, being willing to open to their pain, grief, and disappointment, was a starting-point for healing and discerning how to move forward in the difficult time ahead. Practicing and sharing with others helped participants remember they are not alone and are held and supported in a wide community that is concerned for our collective future.
Reflecting on the unique challenges posed by the incoming president, Donald Trump, in alliance with elements of the Republican Party who are committed to reversing many of the advances of recent decades, a question that arises for many of us is: What is the way forward? How can we protect the most vulnerable, defend precious rights and freedoms, and advance a vision of human freedom and community that is inclusive, equitable, and compassionate?
My own background of activism in the world as well as practices of meditation and mindfulness have convinced me that our way forward must wed inner practices of transforming heart and mind with engaged action in the world if we are to heal divisions and live together in peace. Looking at the specific challenges following the elections, I see four central themes and directions for engaging in a struggle that promises to be prolonged and difficult:
1) Finding support in truth—about ourselves and our world
2) Taking refuge and support in community and love
3) Building resilience that will support us for the long haul
4) Developing resistance to what is harmful and being a force for healing in the world.
1. Clarity–finding support in truth
“Through bitter searching of the heart // We rise to play a greater part” (Leonard Cohen, ‘Vilanelle for our Time’)
If we are to respond wisely to any situation or experience, we need to begin by facing the truth—of our own experience and the larger truth of what is happening around us and in our world. We may wish things had been different, but we can expect a Trump administration to take office in January 2017.
Taking refuge in the truth—acknowledging how things actually are—begins with ourselves and our experience. If you are feeling grief, it is essential to take the time and space to allow yourself to open to and feel what you are feeling, without repressing or acting out the feelings. If you are fearful or anxious about what may happen in the future, you can allow yourself to experience the sensations, feelings, thoughts and emotions rather than by-passing them and acting them out in anger, resentment, etc.
In his poem, ‘The Guest House’, the Sufi poet Jellaludin Rumi invites us to ‘Welcome the guests // Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows who sweep your house empty of its furniture… Treat each guest honorably // He may be clearing you out for some new delight.’
If we can meet our feelings, sensations and emotions in this spirit we are not in their thrall but can open to, honor, and work with them wisely. Coming back again and again to the truth of our direct experience—out of our stories, habit patterns, conditioned responses, and unexamined beliefs—can help us move towards a wise and appropriate response to what is present.
Taking refuge in truth also means acknowledging what is true in the wider world, as best we can discern it. Acknowledging that the future is unknowable, we can discern some facts, trends, and directions that can help guide us to wise responses. A few of these include:
- Donald Trump campaigned for more than a year by creating fear in his supporters of ‘the other’ and being willing to lie to achieve his goals. It is highly foreseeable that this characterological approach will not fundamentally change when he is in the White House.
- The elections leave all three elected branches of government (presidency and two houses of Congress) in the hands of a party that is committed to pushing back many of the gains that have been made in recent decades, including women’s and LGBT rights, voting rights, racial justice, access to health care, climate change, and many other areas.
- Trump’s election has generated deep fear and concern, particularly in communities and groups that were the object of his attacks during the campaign (Muslims, Latinos, LGBT community, women). There have been incidents of Trump supporters feeling emboldened by the election outcome to physically or verbally attack vulnerable individuals and groups. While many people feel fearful and threatened by Trump’s election, the imminence of the threats is marked by individuals’ degree of privilege—with marginalized groups in the greatest immediate danger.
- There has also been a powerful wave of resistance and indignation at the prospect of a person with profound deficiencies of empathy and moral character representing the United States and being in a position to enact policies that are inimical to a large part of the American people. There have been scores of school walkouts, demonstrations, and other protests carried out and planned. And both before and after the election, public figures, journalists, commentators and activists have written eloquently of the dangers posed–morally, politically, and militarily. It may be hoped that these forms of resistance will continue.
These realities point to a very difficult time ahead, which will call for both inner resources of character and courage, and effective strategies of resistance and engagement. When we take refuge in truth—being humble about what we don’t know and willing to reassess what we know in the light of changing conditions—we can then explore the conditions that will support us in responding wisely and effectively to what this time in history is asking of us.
2) Finding refuge in community and love
“The heart has got to open in a fundamental way…” (L. Cohen, ‘Democracy’)
When Ananda, the Buddha’s attendant, had a moment of insight and went to the Buddha and said, ‘I’ve realized that sangha (community) is half the spiritual life,’ the Buddha responded, ‘Don’t say that, Ananda, don’t say that, community is all of the spiritual life.’
To take refuge in community is to recognize that we are not separate, atomized, competing individuals, but are all unique interconnected expressions of the web of life. We are not separate from each other. We are hard-wired for empathy and compassion—though these capacities for connection and love can be covered over by fear and greed.
Our deepest suffering arises from the illusion of separation, of isolation. When we are caught in fear, anger, blame, resentment, or greed, we can easily act out our ‘fight-or-flight’ responses in bigotry, scapegoating, blaming ‘the other’, or thinking we can ‘win’ by destroying the ‘bad people.’
In my most difficult times over the past year, when I woke in the night fearing what has now come to pass, I felt alone—as though no one else saw or understood what was happening, that I was holding the weight of the world on my shoulders.
When I allowed the fears to be present, felt and experienced, I recognized that many others appreciated the danger and were taking action to prevent harm. And when I allowed my heart to open to Donald Trump, I could see his humanity and recognize that the harm that he was causing came out of his own (unexamined) suffering and his inability to open to his own pain. He became less scary—without this diminishing the need to oppose his policies and actions that are causing and threatening such harm.
As we enter this new period, it is important that we have the widest and fullest understanding of the ‘we’ that we are struggling to support, protect, and defend.
If the ‘we’ is limited to our party, candidate, group, religion, race, or people who think like us, opposed to another or others, then we will perpetuate conflict, division, and separation.
If we have healing and reconciliation as our goal while we struggle to protect the vulnerable and resist the curtailing of rights and freedoms, then we build towards lasting solutions that include us all.
As we move into one of the most challenging periods of our lifetime, we can support ourselves and each other with practices of loving-kindness and compassion that help train our hearts to open. We can consciously wish ourselves and others well, recognizing that life is hard and that it is easy to become reactive from fear or anger. We can wish kindness and well-being to ourselves and others: ‘May I be happy… May I be safe and free from harm… healthy and well… live with ease…. May you/we/all be happy… safe… healthy…’
And while the dangers posed by the incoming administration and Congress are palpable, it is essential that we not turn those who are enacting and implementing the policies (and their supporters) into the enemy or make them an ‘unreal other’. Any solutions to the fundamental problems of living together in peace and community must include us all. While struggling fiercely against policies and actions that cause harm, we can be guided by the vision and practice of Dr. Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement—that we struggle non-violently and love our opponents: Speaking to white defenders of segregation in the South, he said, “Do to us what you will and we will still love you… But be assured… we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves; we will appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.” (Dr. Martin Luther King, ‘A Christmas Sermon on Peace’, Dec 24, 1967)
In the time ahead, essential expressions of an open heart will include reaching out to those who are most vulnerable and under immediate threat from the policies being planned while joining hands with others who are working for a compassionate and peaceful world and maintaining the widest possible expression of ‘we’ to include all humans and other sentient beings.
- Building Resilience of the Heart
“I live my life in widening circles // That reach out across the world. // I may not complete this last one // But I give myself to it.” (Rainer Maria Rilke)
Wisdom tells us that the time we are entering will likely be difficult and volatile. We do not know, but can perhaps intuit, some of the potential costs in terms of human (and other) lives and suffering. Nor do we know the outcome. No one has given us guarantees that we are on an inexorable march towards ‘progress’ and increasing human freedoms—it truly depends on us, in the largest sense.
Given the challenges ahead, it will be essential to take care of ourselves—and each other—and cultivate the resilience to work for as long as our bodies, minds, and hearts permit us.
The first rule of resilience is to ‘put on your own mask first’, as we are told when we board an airplane. If we don’t take care of ourselves, we will not have the resources to support others in pain or distress. This is not a luxury—as anyone who has burned out while doing work of the heart knows.
Some of the ways we can build resilience are well known but bear remembering:
- Develop or deepen a practice of awareness that gives you the resources to deal wisely with stresses and reverses while remaining grounded and engaged
- Stay embodied—practice yoga, qigong; take walks, spend time in nature, take in beauty
- Take time to step out of routines—when conditions allow, take vacations, go on retreat, observe the Sabbath or other ways of renewing and restoring yourself, creating a ‘clearing in the dense forest of your life’ (M Postlethwaite, ‘Clearing’)
- Bring awareness to diet, nutrition, and sleep and be aware of habitual behaviors and conditioned responses that prevent you from living healthily or that provide short-term comfort with long-term costs
- Stay connected—nurture intimate relationships and friendships that are one of our strongest supports in times of adversity, helping us remember we are not alone
- Don’t neglect taking care of the business of life—paying bills, taxes, scheduling medical appointments, which can come back to bite us later and sap our resilience if we ignore them…
Paying attention to these areas of life will help create the conditions to stay engaged for the long run.
But the deepest support of all is resilience of the heart: developing an unshakeable faith and trust in the human capacity for goodness and love—even in the midst of greed and ugliness—and in the possibility of our awakening to the truth of our interconnectedness. Authentic spiritual practices that help us cultivate and remember truth, love, and our capacity for freedom can support us on this path.
- Building resistance and being a force for healing in the world
“Oh, that my monk’s robe were wide enough to embrace the suffering of the world” (Ryokan)
A clear-eyed opening to the truth of where we are today in the aftermath of the elections leads inexorably, I believe, towards a path of resistance.
Resistance is required because many of the policies and actions that have been proposed will be harmful. So, where groups or individuals are targeted on the basis of their religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or other characteristic, this must be resisted. Where policies are advanced on the basis of disinformation or lies—as with climate change denial—resistance is called for. When established freedoms and rights—e.g., of speech, press, or association—are curtailed, such policies call for resistance.
Resistance can take many forms—from protests, civil disobedience, and lobbying members of Congress to registering as a Muslim if laws are passed requiring Muslims to carry documentation of their religion; from churches and synagogues declaring themselves sanctuaries for undocumented immigrants fearing deportation to towns, cities, and states refusing to work with federal authorities enforcing unjust laws.
There have been and will continue to be pressures to ‘normalize’ words and actions by Trump and his allies that at other times would have been considered unacceptable or ‘beyond the pale’—such as reintroducing torture or excluding people from the country on the basis of religion. The dignity of the office of President can increase pressure to normalize behavior that should not be considered normal or acceptable. This does not mean mindless opposition or resistance for its own sake—but rather resisting what is clearly harmful.
Each of us has a role to play in resisting injustice and harm, and in working to create a society and world based on equity, justice, and compassion. In Buddhism there is an archetype of the Bodhisattva—one who is committed in their own life and practice to experiencing the fullest expression of human freedom and peace, and who in that process sees clearly that their own freedom is inextricably linked to the freedom and awakening of all. With that realization, they choose consciously and intentionally to enter the stream of engagement with the suffering world, to help heal and free themselves, others and the world.
In his book, The Wise Heart, Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield describes three qualities of a bodhisattva, or spiritual warrior. First, they acknowledge and accept the truth of their situation—not that it is right or just but that it is a reality. They face the truth, turn towards the difficulties, and shine the light of understanding on them.
Second, they work to find peace within themselves—by engaging in a training or practices to let go of painful and afflictive states (such as anger, greed, and hatred) and develop positive ones (like love, compassion, and peace).
And third, they envision actions and a path of liberation for themselves, their community and the world—and commit to working for those ends. “Envisioning has enormous power. With our vision and imagination we can help create the future. Envisioning sets our direction, marshals our resources, makes the unmanifest possible….”(Jack Kornfield, ‘The Wise Heart’)
Other traditions have their own bodhisattvas (saints, prophets, shamans, and other spiritual warriors) and in our lifetimes we have seen bodhisattvas—Dr. King, Rosa Parks, and Nelson Mandela are clear examples—who transformed themselves and dedicated their lives to the liberation of their people—and all people.
Now more than any time I can recall, the world needs Bodhisattvas—we can begin with a simple question: what can I do to help bring compassion, peace, and healing to our world?