Category Archives: presidential campaign 2016

Wise Resistance

The word resistance has been getting a lot of attention lately, in light of the U. S. presidential election and its aftermath. Resistance is actually a necessary way of being engaged, both politically and in other ways. But if there is something we dislike or feel is unjust that we feel compelled to resist, how can we practice that resistance in a wise way?

Resistance can take many forms. Resistance as it unfolds in big events like marches. And also the way resistance plays itself out among people we know, our friends and family, and colleagues. The types of messages we see on social media. The retweets, the status updates, the links to insightful articles about…how to resist.

During the last few months I’ve also observed my own tendencies around resistance. I watched my state of my mind in the days after an election whose outcome was not what I expected. I noticed the cortisol levels starting to impact my body as soon as I’d wake up in the mornings and remember the election and groan in anguish.

But how does resistance look through the lens of mindfulness? How can we practice wise, non-reactive resistance? Of course, the very question implies that there are forms of resistance which are not wise – or not as wise. What follows are some thoughts.

I’ll start by citing a very famous quote from the Buddha:

“Hatred does not cease by hatred, but only by love; this is the eternal rule.”

And one of the most notable things I’ve observed about how I experience resistance in myself and others is the tendency to indulge in hatred. Hatred is kind of like the mind’s way of having clarity in a difficult situation. Have you ever noticed that? That when you hate something or someone, there’s a certain cutting to the chase power? Or maybe hatred is a way of feeling in control…or a way of defeating our fears.

So this is one major way that resistance plays itself out. People get angry and they project that anger outward. There’s a lot of projecting of anger in our politics…anger placed on politicians, on people in Congress, on our friends or relatives who maybe voted differently than we did. A horrible law gets passed or an executive order gets signed, and people are up in arms with understandable outrage.

But the problem with all this hatred and ill will – which I’ve certainly expressed many times myself over the years – is that, as the Buddha said, hatred does not cease by hatred. But only through love. If you are an activist, or even not, that is a very challenging point of view to take on.

So hatred does not end other forms of hatred, it just leads to more hatred. And yet we are compelled to act against what we believe is not just. This is what activism is all about. But activism is kind of based on righteous indignation, isn’t it? On the left and the right. And there’s the paradox. And the proposition that I’m going to make is this – that political activism will burn itself out when its primary driver is hatred. Hatred is not sustainable. And yet it seems to drive so much in our politics and culture wars.

Lately I’ve been speaking with my fellow teachers and we came up with something that I think is quite simple and quite wise which may be helpful…especially in our current moment.

So much of how we mobilize our resistance is around what we don’t want, what we hate, what we’re against. But the question my colleagues and I were recently discussing was, what would happen if instead of focusing on what we’re against, we focused on what we’re for? What do we believe in, what do we value? And how do we express those values? If we could engage in protest about what we’re for, would we need to have an enemy to mobilize us?

I’m reminded of the teaching of the two arrows here. We experience pain. That’s the first arrow. Then we have a mental reaction to the pain which often makes the pain worse. That’s the second arrow.

And this two arrows teaching is expressed beautifully in a kind of a modern teaching paradigm that’s sometimes used in coaching, organizational consulting, and so on. Which goes like this: Suffering equals pain times resistance (S=PxR). And the idea is that pain is a part of life, and suffering is what we add to pain through our mental reactions. And usually that has to do with our resistance to the pain.

And so the idea from an activism perspective is that the more we can be with the pain of events consciously – in other words, the less we resist the pain of political events internally – then the wiser our external response will be. Thus the more effective our resistance becomes because we won’t be eating ourselves up with hatred.

To put it another way, when we learn not to resist our pain internally, it may help us resist externally with greater effectiveness and more sustainably.
So for me there are two kinds of resistance.

There’s resistance with aversion – focusing on everything you’re against, using hatred as a motivator; and there’s resistance with love or non-hatred, focusing on your values and what you stand for as a motivator.

So I propose that when we resist with love, we’re more oriented to focusing on what we’re for rather than what we’re against. We’re not focused on having and demonizing an enemy. We’re focused on justice. We know what’s causing suffering and we act with fierce compassion…but not with hatred. Because we are motivated by love and what we value, we live to fight another day, month, and year.

The Wisdom of Non-Resistance

resist-change_0In meditation, when things don’t go our way, we tend to resist. Feeling restless? Then fidget incessantly as a way of not feeling the restlessness or what may be behind it. Have a hard time focusing on your breath? Then berate yourself as a bad meditator and despair at ever getting “good” at the practice.

It’s like this in daily life as well. If someone has betrayed us, we might spend a lot of time ruminating about how the betrayal shouldn’t have happened, about how the person had no right to do it, and perhaps float creative ideas for getting revenge. Your candidate didn’t win an election? Then blame those who didn’t vote, or shame certain groups of people as being somehow less worthy of your respect. Or begin fantasizing about moving to Canada.

The problem with resistance is that it tends to make things worse. There’s an old Buddhist teaching about the two arrows. The first arrow that hits you is the inevitable pain of life. The second arrow that hits you is your resistance to your pain. You may not be able to control the inevitable pains and sorrows of life – in fact, count on that. But you can control how you respond to your pain. In a more modern context we can describe it as an equation of suffering, as:

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When our minds are untrained, or when our training is forgotten, our default way of handling a stressful event is to lash out and resist based on our unconscious habit patterns, biases, and personal conditioning. We are on auto pilot and have no chance to accurately appraise the situation. Instead we try to fix, attack, control, rationalize, blame others, or avoid the truth of what’s been happening in the deluded hope that such tactics will somehow make us feel better. When we swat a fly that’s been crawling on us, we may be removing the discomfort of that experience – but we’ll end up knowing very little about flies. This is certainly true for those humans who annoy us as well. We can swat them away but what will we learn about them or what motivates them?

In contrast, when our minds are trained our default way of handling a stressful event is first to allow things to be as they are. That doesn’t mean liking or agreeing with the suffering we’re experiencing. It means giving space to it in a way that helps us metabolize it physically, mentally, and emotionally. Research has shown that when people can be with things as they are, the parasympathetic nervous system is activated. This is often referred to as the “rest and digest” function of the nervous system, or the relaxation response. When we take time to digest the pain we are experiencing, the body can relax and the mind can become still and clear. Not only can suffering be seen clearly, but the natural wisdom of the mind can begin to reveal the appropriate response.

Non-resistance doesn’t mean that we ignore injustice. In fact, non-resistance can help cultivate a more sustainable ability to resist injustice. Because when we can first be with things as they are, letting the shock and anger metabolize first, we then can practice political resistance in a responsive way – not in a reactive way. In other words, you may be fighting against oppression, racism, misogyny, and other forms of harm, but you are in control of your mental states. You are not acting because you are overwhelmed, addled with rage and fear, you are responding with awareness to suffering. Your heart and mind are steady, clear. You will not get burned out in the face of a long struggle for justice, because you are taking care of yourself. And this steadiness of mind in the face of oppression can be supported by not resisting the truth of a bad situation. The bad situation is already here; if we don’t give in to our habitual fight or flight reactions to it, let’s see how the wise and compassionate heart responds.

Angry Political Speech Got You Down? Try Kindness Practice.

The regions of the brain that control emotions are much older than those regions that regulate rational thought and executive functioning. The function of emotions when we were evolving was to help us manage threats to our survival. The emotion of disgust, for example, originated as a means to avoid bad food or a bad smell.

But the complexity of modern life makes the experience of emotions far more complex than it was a million years ago. To quote Daniel Goleman, “While in the ancient past a hair-trigger anger may have offered a crucial edge of survival, the availability of automatic weaponry to thirteen-year-olds has made it too often a disastrous reaction.”

Because our emotions are so powerful, they can get control of our rational minds rather easily. Even if we might like to see ourselves as emotionally positive, as kindhearted and compassionate people, a sudden emotional spike can ruin all our good intentions in a moment of anger.

Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the realm of politics. Politics is one of those things that can really rattle us emotionally. Politics in the United States has always been a contact sport, but over the last few decades, as many people have observed, the political landscape has become increasingly polarized. It seems like people identify with their values so strongly that they find themselves hating others who have different values. We admire political figures who represent how we feel about the world, but often demonize political figures who hold views we dislike. We find ourselves avoiding people who hold different political views than us, unless they’re family, of course – in which case we do our best not to argue at Thanksgiving.

Perhaps the tribalization of media is to blame for the tendency many people have today to visit only the newspapers, websites, Facebook pages or Twitter feeds that validate their view of the world. But for whatever reason, politics can really get our blood boiling.

In 2016, the current political season seems to have hit new lows for negativity, anger, vilification, blaming, disgust, and overall nastiness. So much negative information gets disseminated in the form of campaign ads, flyers, media coverage, speeches, demonstrations, and debates, that it’s a wonder that our psyches aren’t overwhelmed by the toxic atmosphere. This is especially true for political junkies, who feed off the news during political season the way a vacationer eats rich food.

If you are one of the people who is feeling emotionally exhausted by today’s politics, a simple practice of cultivating kindness can be a big help. Both the ancient practices of mindfulness and kindness meditation and modern research point to an amazing fact: deliberately cultivating kindness, friendliness and compassion is not only possible, it’s good for your health and sense of well-being. Research findings have shown that practicing kindness can decrease blood pressure, that it reduces inflammation and delays aging, that it enhances the immune system for both the giver of kindness and the recipient, that it improves our relationships, and makes us overall happier. And the amazing thing about us human beings is that our brains are trainable. We can develop kindness like we can any other skill.

The first step in a kindness practice is altering your perspective a little bit by considering a simple yet irrefutable fact: every human being wants to be happy, and no one wants to suffer. This is a radical understanding of the human condition that is very helpful when we find ourselves hating or feeling disgust for others. This basic desire for happiness and dislike of suffering is true even in the case of someone whose behavior is malevolent or in some way deplorable. Even people who do bad things want to be happy; the bad things they do, they are doing out of a misunderstanding of what will make them happy. Another way of shifting perspective on people we dislike, is to consider this idea: how much better off the world would be if all of its difficult people were happy.

Once these perspectives are in place, the next step in a kindness practice is to set your intention to cultivate kindness within yourself. One of the most effective ways of doing this is to repeat to yourself phrases of kindness and well-wishing. The ancient Buddhist practice of metta, often translated as lovingkindness, which the man known as the Buddha recommended to his followers 2,600 years ago, uses a series of simple phrases which set the intention for kindness and also recognizes the need of others to be happy. A simple version of these phrases are:

May I be safe
May I be healthy
May I be happy
May my life be filled with ease and well-being

You can certainly modify these phrases and use your own words to make them align with what resonates for you. In doing this practice, start with yourself. Sit comfortably in a chair or on a cushion, and repeat these phrases of well-wishing for yourself in silence, over and over again. Don’t worry about the outcome. Focus on the repeating of each phrase. Each time you repeat the phrases, you are basically repeating your intention to be happy. Do this for a few minutes, then repeat these phrases for a good friend for the same amount of time. Like so:

May [friend’s name] be safe
May …be healthy
May …be happy
May …life be filled with ease and well-being

Then repeat the phrases for a neutral person in your life. Like so:

May [neutral person’s name or description] be safe
May …be healthy
May …be happy
May …life be filled with ease and well-being

And then for an enemy or difficult person, including a political figure that you dislike. Keep in mind that when you say the phrases for the person you dislike, the goal is not to like that person. The goal is to recognize your common desire for happiness, and in some way to unfreeze your heart.

May [political figure or enemy] be safe
May …be healthy
May …be happy
May …life be filled with ease and well-being

Finally, you can say these phrases for all beings everywhere.

As you spend time doing this practice, you may feel strong heart-opening emotions when you say these phrases to yourself. If that happens, just welcome them, and keep opening to that experience by repeating the phrases. If nothing seems to be happening, or you feel numb, that’s perfectly fine, too. The phrases of well-wishing are like seeds that are planted and they’ll sprout in their own good time.

Sometimes kindness practice brings up the opposite emotions. So if you experience anger or grief, extend kindness to yourself and to those emotions that you’re having and don’t judge them. Remember this: to practice kindness is to be present with whatever blocks kindness. Above all, keep saying the phrases, acknowledging whatever else is arising without any judgment at all.

And the next time you find yourself getting upset by something in the political realm, it may be a bit easier to come back to a sense of emotional balance and an even-handed perspective.