Articles November 11, 2016

After a Divided Election: The Value and Limits of Mindfulness

Oren Jay Sofer

Many across the nation and beyond have been deeply affected by our most recent election here in the US. There is more to say than can be reasonably expressed in this post, but we wanted to offer some reflections on bringing the strengths of mindfulness to what is happening.

There are periods in history and times in each of our lives when things can change drastically—in ways that we enjoy and celebrate and in ways that we lament, fear, or mourn. As human beings, I think we all fundamentally seek a sense of stability—outwardly for our families and communities and inwardly in our own state of mind. Drastic and sudden changes (whether they appear positive or negative) can be shocking or even overwhelming.

Here in the United States, regardless of which side of the political divide we may find ourselves on, the most recent election season and its unprecedented results represent such a time of change and upheaval.

Some in our country feel a sense of victory and elation—that their voice matters; that the status quo has been disrupted; and that their basic needs for safety, belonging, economic opportunity, dignity, and hope may be met. Others in our country feel devastated, frightened, or deeply pained; that their voices do not matter; that the change they seek will not come; and that their basic needs for safety, belonging, economic opportunity, dignity, and hope have been dashed.

When there is such a sharp divergence of views, we may find ourselves utterly challenged to make sense of what’s happening. We can become overwhelmed by feelings of great intensity. And the mind can get lost in a runaway train of associated thoughts, in visions of dark or bright futures.

What does mindfulness teach us about how to understand and relate to all of this? How are we to respond?

Start Where You Are

First and foremost, mindfulness practice is about meeting what’s happening right here and now, inside and out. It is about seeing the reality of our experience as clearly as possible and handling it with balance, tenderness, and strength. This means that we make space to feel our emotions and use the inner resources we have to guard against overwhelm.

Our nervous system takes time to process change; don’t be too quick to move on. Give yourself time; give yourself space. Allow yourself to feel.

Watch your Thoughts

The future is unknown. When the mind is not balanced, uncertainty breeds anxiety. This becomes heightened during times of great change when the mind can generate entire worlds of imagined futures—great and uplifting or depraved and terrifying.

There are very real conditions at stake in our country and world. One who practices mindfulness develops the keen ability to observe his or her thoughts. She evaluates which ones are helpful and worth following and which ones are not.

Take care to be vigilant with your thinking—thoughts of the future, thoughts that pigeonhole others into rigid categories, thoughts that drive us into despair or fear, or mania. Awareness of the body is an excellent support to process feelings and ground runaway thinking.

Stay Connected, Strengthen the Good

In times of duress, we often need more than awareness. We need family and friends, community, and the support of our heart’s own goodness. Reach out to those you love; practice lovingkindness and connect to things that are meaningful for you.

Recollect Our Shared Humanity

At its core, mindfulness connects us to humanity—our own and others. The practice of mindfulness rests upon a spirit of radical investigation into the basic question: “What is it like to be human? To feel hope and fear, joy and pain, happiness and sadness?”

Mental training exercises (like following the breath) steady our attention so that we can understand things more deeply. The more closely we look, the more clearly we see our connection with one another. We share a bond in our common lot as vulnerable, sensitive creatures in a world of change and uncertainty.

This is more than a theory. As we practice, it becomes a lived experience that we remember again and again. In times like these, when our country is divided between “red and blue,” mindfulness teaches us to recollect our shared humanity. Can we find compassion for those with different views and beliefs? Can we widen our own field of understanding to include those with whom we do not agree?

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.

Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Affirm Core Ethical and Moral Values

Mindfulness is not ethically neutral. When we see our fundamental shared vulnerability, we develop a strong commitment to not causing harm. We learn the very real and grave dangers that come from hatred, fear, and confusion. We eschew the use of violence out of empathy and compassion for ourselves and others.

It is not enough to be in touch with our feelings. We need to also be in touch with our values. What are the values that we would like to see guiding our society? What is the highest potential we see for humanity?

And so, we strive to connect with the real concerns and needs of those with divergent views in a manner that embodies empathy, kindness, and tolerance. We take a firm stand against inflammatory words or actions that promote anger, fear, violence, or division, against the kind of base insults, threats, and attacks that often marred this election season. We recognize that rhetoric generalizing any group of people based on the actions of a few is dangerous. At best, it drives us further apart; at worst, it creates the conditions for oppression or war.

We can work to keep our heart open while holding a line of integrity and care for the welfare and safety of all of our communities. One teacher working with Mindful Schools expressed it poetically: “[I wish that] all of our neighbors can look at each other with kindness and still reach out, regardless of who they voted for.”

As practitioners, we affirm our values for inclusiveness and diversity and our commitment to equal opportunity and respect for all people regardless of their race, religion, gender, or political views.

Look Deeply and Engage in Dialogue

We know that mindfulness practice is about looking beyond the surface of things, investigating inwardly and outwardly. Rather than take views and statements at face value, we must look beyond the headlines, the buzzwords and platforms and seek to understand the full range of conditions in a situation. This quality of careful attention is paramount in a complex and diverse world.

And yet this election cycle has been characterized by sound bites and slogans, divisive arguments, and sweeping promises on both sides. The absence of true, open, and specific dialogue in the mainstream public discourse is glaring. As mindfulness practitioners, we can bring a spirit of inquiry, openness, and collaboration.

Value Clarity and Calm

This kind of dialogue requires great skill. It requires fortitude, patience, clarity, and calm. Mindfulness gives us the opportunity to be a vehicle for sanity, clarity, and compassion in an age of increasingly heated passion, impulsiveness, fear and anger. In turbulent times, when many are driven by destructive emotions, it helps us to steady ourselves and see what is most helpful.

Wise choices and effective action come from a clear and stable mind. When we react out of fear or anger, when we act unthinkingly out of exuberance or elation, our actions are more likely to cause harm. Mindfulness teaches us to gather our energies and proceed with care.

The Limits of Mindfulness

Indeed, mindfulness practice can make our heart as strong, as loving, and resilient as possible. But there are certain things it can’t do. Mindfulness cannot protect or shield us from the reality of changing conditions in our world. Mindfulness alone cannot stop climate change or hate crimes; it cannot bring economic stability or education reform or directly solve any of the other very real and complex issues that our country and world are facing today.

These problems demand more than mindfulness. They require insight, care, civic engagement, and true collaboration. Mindfulness can play an important role in creating the conditions for change, but it is not enough.

Speak Up, Get Engaged

When we see clearly, we are compelled to respond, to act in accordance with our values.

Regardless of your views, with which candidate or political party you feel aligned, one thing is certain: inaction cannot produce meaningful change. It is important that we all become engaged in true dialogue for the welfare of our families and communities and hold our elected officials accountable to their duty to serve and represent all of the people in this nation.

As I write, I am aware that today is also Veteran’s Day, a day that we honor the lives and sacrifices of those who serve in the military. And I am reminded of the inspiring words of poet Eve Merriam, who once wrote: “I dream of giving birth to a child who will ask, ‘Mother, what was war?’”

May we all find the strength of heart to meet these times of change with courage, wisdom, and clarity in the service of the safety, belonging, well-being, and security that we long for as human beings.

Oren J. Sofer has practiced meditation in the Theravada Buddhist tradition since 1997, and is a long-time student of Joseph Goldstein, Michele McDonald, and Ven. Ajahn Sucitto. He holds a degree in Comparative Religion from Columbia University, is a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner for healing trauma, and a graduate of the Spirit Rock/IMS/IRC Teacher Training Program. His work and teaching brings a strong emphasis to living the path of awakening in our daily lives.

Oren Jay Sofer

Oren Jay Sofer

Residential Retreat Teacher

Oren Jay Sofer teaches meditation internationally. He holds a degree in comparative religion from Columbia University and is author of "Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Nonviolent Communication" and "Your Heart Was Made for This: Contemplative Practices to Meet a World In Crisis with Courage, Integrity, and Love."