Dearest Sangha members,
I am currently at a conference in Washington DC, and the anxiety in the air is palpable. As I write this I look out my hotel window at both the Pentagon and the Washington Monument and I am reminded of how our perceptions of things can become colored by the vagaries of our moods. “Dukkha,” the ancient Buddhist word for suffering, is reverberating in many of us, darkening our perception of the world. And while it might seem needlessly facile to say, “here is our opportunity for practice,” this is in fact exactly where we are.
As I watch both sadness and anxiety rise and fall in my heart in reaction to the entirety of the current political situation, I also recognize how important it is not to indulge despair, that harbinger of immobility. And we cannot afford immobility at this moment.
So what do we do with all of this? All this emotion, all this confusion? Many fear the loss of our basic human rights. The emotion generated in the wake of this years’ election process will no doubt continue to reverberate across our communities, and we are left with how to face the turmoil both in ourselves and in those around us.
The cornerstone of the insight meditation, or “vipassana,” tradition is respect for all human beings. Compassion for the other is the foundation of the entire Buddhist enterprise. To demonize those who feel and think differently from ourselves is not only unrealistic, it cause us to fall prey to the same problems that have gotten us into this situation in the first place. Furthermore, the Buddha gave us the practice of “sila,” translated as ethics or virtue, to make us safe human beings for others to be around. Right speech, behavior, and action are essentially about committing ourselves to actions that lead to the flourishing, not oppression, of all people. To become part of the solution and not propagate the problems generated by this election season one must start within, with ourselves, our own inner lives. Managing our own strong emotions is key in this process. But management requires recognition and acceptance, not repression.
We all carry the seeds of all emotions, both negative and positive, in our hearts and minds. The goal is not to eradicate the difficult emotions, but to become exquisitely aware of the causes and conditions that give rise to their expression and to be able to honestly understand whether their expression is productive or not. This is where our practice of mindfulness and meditation comes in. To notice what arises, to hold that with equanimity and to investigate that state for whether it should be unleashed and expressed…that is the task.
In the Dhammapada, it is stated, “hostilities aren’t stilled through hostility, regardless. Hostilities are stilled through non-hostility: this, an unending truth.” (Verses 3-5)
—Tr: Thanissaro Bhikkhu
We need to be exquisitely aware of our common humanity, regardless of race, religion, or politics. Hostility divides us further. Treat everyone you encounter with respect. Look each person in the eye, smile, show appreciation, and generosity.
In the Buddhist tradition we are directed to firmly face the reality around us and within us. No gloss or sugar coating. But we do not have to do so without help. This is not meant to be a dour practice or one undertaken in solitude. We also have the practices of “metta,” or loving kindness, and or “karuna,” compassion, that instruct us to bring these emotions to bear on our difficult states as they arise. Cultivating kindness, love, and compassion for ourselves, our inner emotional states, helps us develop the strength to bear our most difficult emotions, the most difficult realities, without crumbling under their weight. Courage, clarity and fortitude are the fruits of these practices.
Also in this tradition, we are asked to take refuge in the “sangha,” the ancient Buddhist word for community. Over these past four days I have been among a group of almost sixty writers, poets, psychotherapists and academics, creative thinkers all. I have been wandering around this incredibly complex, diverse area where every ethnicity and language is in evidence on each street corner. To be talking among those who want desperately to be part of the change that now needs to take place is a wonderful anecdote to despair. Don’t isolate yourself. It is clear to me that in our fledgling sangha, people have come to care for one another. Reach out to one another. Check in with each other. Show up for one another.
In the coming months some of us will be called upon to become activists to help preserve the precious human rights we have come to expect in a free democracy. Some will offer support behind the scenes. Doing something is important. But to be effective we must also manage our experiences realistically. Limit media time. Meditate. Help those mired in despair and who have lost all optimism, but make sure you spend time around the optimistic, as this too is a contagious state.
With metta to all in a difficult time,