A story, to begin with: I was at the computer, watching the host of The Daily Show, Trevor Noah interview Tomi Lahgren, the millennial, conservative pundit. The interview was both painful and beautiful to watch. It was beautiful to watch Noah’s skill in communicating with someone who was his extreme opposite politically; and it was painful to watch the unnecessary suffering that the guest apparently needed to tie to her political opinions.
As I watched, I couldn’t help comparing it to a somewhat contentious exchange I was having with a stranger on Facebook. Now, to be clear, I am an unabashed liberal/progressive, but as a teacher and one-time co-director of a meditation retreat center, I have learned to not wear my politics on my sleeve or anywhere else while I am working in such an environment where there should be no divisions based on politics, creed or class. It would be a mistaken notion to think that everyone at a soft-hearted meditation event is a bleeding heart liberal. It's true that the majority of retreat participants lean toward the liberal side of the political spectrum, but there are plenty of conservatives as well, yearning for wakefulness and a more open heart.
But as we know, Facebook can be a minefield. It's a faceless environment that invites the possibility for being a self-righteous ass and speaking to people in a way you would hesitate to do in someone's face. How can I be so sure? Because I have done it. I claim this expertise.
When I find myself in seeming combat with a political adversary, I usually write something, and then tone it down with an edit…or two…or many. I am beginning to see when I am not being helpful or open and I’m not allowing the other person the space to open up. How could they, if they first have to hear past my contentiousness?
So I am trying to do my best, but this FB intruder is well-armed with insults and weapons of mass verbal destruction. After a few exchanges I realize this is going nowhere; there's too much anger and there is no real communication, so I select the FB button that allows me to “See less of Jim.” Another internet mercy killing.
Then, as I mentioned, I watch The Daily Show interview, and I see that Trevor Noah exemplifies everything I am missing in terms of my patience, ability to listen, and having respectful speech. I see how easily my intelligence gets hijacked, and I wonder, how do I get from here to there?
I then move on to an online talk by Susan Piver, who is a brilliant, warm and fearless meditation teacher/blogger. I love how she readily admits her anger with the current political scene, but at the same time is humble and owns her own responsibility to overcome angry thoughts and to act with love and intelligence.
She talks about how we are often instructed to separate what we feel from what we do, but almost nobody can do this. To bridge this gap, she recommends the practice of meditation. It’s a great suggestion, but it’s also a very big package. It is deep with wisdom; it is broad and wide with skillful means. I call it the Buddhist sign of the cross – up-and-down wisdom; left-to-right skillful means…deep and wide…immense possibilities in all directions.
But when it comes to on-the-spot conflict, that’s precisely where I'd like to separate out the skill called mindfulness. The practice of mindfulness had already been successfully separated out from the Buddhist tradition by Jon Kabat-Zinn who extracted it for people with chronic pain. Fast-forward a few decades, and we see that mindfulness-extracted (if I may) has become a huge phenomenon in the world of self-help. I used to be wary of that because I thought, erroneously, that it was the sound-bite version of meditation proper, but now I think it is an amazing skillful means. Why? For two reasons: 1) because it has already been distinguished in centuries past as a separable component of mindfulness-awareness meditation practice; and 2) because I believe that mindfulness is going to be the leading edge in making meditation practice more familiar and, in our culture – not vice versa.
So I say, use mindfulness as the can opener. Mindfulness can be used anytime, even while driving. (Hopefully we all understand that driving and meditating don’t mix!) I truly believe that we need to take hold of this particular tool because there is such closed-mindedness and closed-heartedness right now in the U.S., and I believe that we are in the need of a humongous store of wisdom to penetrate this feeling of stalemate.
As I watched Noah connect and communicate, I saw a tremendous display of mindfulness. His patience was buoyed by mindfulness; his intelligence was sparked by mindfulness; his listening was rooted in mindfulness; and his speech was a vivid expression of mindfulness. It really didn’t matter who won the day politically; he won the day in terms of expressing our common humanity.
As challenging as it can be for us to communicate across the political divide – whether it be conservatives speaking to liberals, or liberals speaking to conservatives – it can be enhanced with mindfulness practice. It can be done with love.
I am reluctant to say this because it is so cliché, but love is the answer. Contentious arguments over Facebook do nothing but harm and polarize. As Martin Luther King Jr. says, hate begets hate…so we need to stop; we need to train. A quick anecdote: One of my teachers – a martial artist – invited his grandmaster to teach a seminar, and during the Q & A section, he was asked "What is the meaning of life?" Without skipping a beat, he answered, "training." It’s true; due to the power of our habitual behavior, we need training. Nothing is going to change overnight or by magic. Ain’t no miracle that’s gonna happen.
How might we train? For starters, we not only extract mindfulness from the mindfulness-awareness tradition, we extract the mindfulness of our own natural, inherent experience. We extract mindfulness from our palette of learning and listening skills, and apply it to all the words we say and hear.
To help convey this, let me offer my perspective on mindfulness. From one point of view, mindfulness is a large umbrella of practices that includes meditation but is not limited to that category, alone. Meditation, itself, has two different stages that we can refer to as mindfulness and awareness. The first has to do with attention, or peacefully abiding – which is the mindfulness component; and the second is the awareness component. That second component is sometimes called panoramic awareness, or it could be thought of in a larger sense as “discoveries that come from mindfulness.” There are other translations, but for our purposes, I will stick with these.
Mindfulness begins with applying attention to what is called the object of meditation. We make the intention to keep our mind on the object – oftentimes the breath – and our awareness lets us know when we have strayed from that, so we bring our attention back to the object. Our awareness also helps us understand why we strayed, how we strayed, and what all of it means to us as human beings, trying to get by on a day-to-day minute-by-minute existence that is too-often filled with distraction, chaos and self-loathing. So, in our communication with others, if we bring our full attention to what we are hearing (including tone of voice, as well as physical and facial expressions) we can stay more present. But…that’s the easier part; the more difficult part is keeping mindful of our own responses – our anger, our hurt pride, our arrogance, our lack of trust in others. There is much to be mindful of – a rich constellation, indeed.
There is so much to be discovered, and sometimes the depth and breadth of those discoveries are overwhelming and might be too much to take in. Nevertheless, I believe that at bare minimum, we can extract the mindfulness component. I believe that we can, at least, learn to pay closer attention; we can, at least, train that as our contribution to help the world with this tsunami of suffering that shows no sign of abatement.
What I saw in Trevor Noah’s interview, was a refined skill in paying attention. I haven’t the foggiest idea if he has even given a sidelong glance to the meditation tradition, but it doesn’t matter; I can see is that something in his life experience honed this skill, and I am inspired to look more deeply at my own practice to see if I can bring more mindful attention to bear on my life. In the same interview I saw young, conservative, self-righteous, Tomi Lahgren spewing hateful messages that I suspect she didn't even recognize as intended to inflict suffering. As she proclaimed, she was just "telling it like it is." She, like so many of us, seems to think that self-righteousness can win the day. We fail to notice that our need to tell it like it is, is so often coupled with a great deal of unnecessary aggression. We so regularly end up expressing the pain that we cannot hold – the pain that we cannot contain. For some strange reason, it seems OK in our self-indignation-culture, to hurt others. It is not that the true divide is liberal vs. conservative; it is love vs. hate. And we just don't know how to handle the implications.
At the root of the solution is our capacity to overcome ignorance. As we ignore the needs of others, we harm them just so we can wave our political flag. And now we are in a trap of own making: as we ignore our own needs, we fail to really know ourselves, and blame others for our own ignorance and self-loathing.
At the same time, it’s not simply a case of, "All You Need is Love." Sure, that's what we need lots of. Oodles of. Truckloads of. But there is no way around it: We need to train. Our habits are deeply ingrained, so we need to train. We can train our insight. We can train our reactivity. I think there is no way to wiggle around this.
Perhaps we could use some discussion. Please leave your comments.
© 2016 Alan Kent Anderson
© 2016 Alan Kent Anderson