Post originally written for AboutMeditation.com
Regardless of your political affiliation or philosophical bent, it has undoubtedly been a very intense, very combative time lately in American politics and discourse.
It is hard to turn on the TV or pick up a paper or open a website without a strong tone of conflict and strife in most headlines and articles, whether the author’s intent is to stoke existing flames or simply to report on what’s going on.
How can the tools of meditation and mindfulness help in these divisive times?
Moving from Reaction to Response
Whether you are directly affected by the events of the day, or know someone who is, or sit in empathy for those strangers who are, it is challenging not to have a strong, visceral reaction to hearing today’s news.
It is natural have a knee-jerk, automatic reaction to reading the headlines or seeing the accompanying photos.
There is nothing wrong with having reactions. They are rooted in our life’s experiences and how we see the world to be.
However, it is important for us to learn to respond instead of react. When we respond, we are able to absorb the blow of the initial pull to lash out in anger but not create action from anger. Responding comes from taking a beat, noting the initial feelings and urges we are experiencing, and seeing a bigger picture.
A favorite quote of mine comes from Austrian neurologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. He said, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
As we are able to note our immediate reaction and not live from that place, we are free to end the back-and-forth cycle of anger begetting anger, and limbic brain fighting limbic brain.
A Tool of Self Exploration and Growth
This doesn’t mean our feelings are wrong, and we’re not supposed to have them. Our feelings come with an intelligence, they point us to a place of balance and self-care.
To have an angry reaction is natural, and it is healthy for us to acknowledge not only that we are having a visceral reaction, but that there is wisdom contained in our reaction. Our upset can point to some vulnerability underneath our surface that we are not allowing ourselves to feel, whether it is the sting of rejection or issues with authority or judgment towards intellect or caring.
It is from this that we can use our initial reaction to news in a way that helps us become more wise to who we are and why we tick the way we do. We can expand our awareness of ourselves and the world as a whole.
As With Me, So With Others
As we cultivate our awareness of self, we can see that all anger, not just ours, is layered on top of vulnerability and pain. This opens the door for us to see those people with ideas we vehemently oppose and whose actions make us shudder in frustration and horror as the same as us.
They may see us with the same horror and frustration. They also come with their own vulnerabilities and sense of what is right. As we can get a sense of our inner process, it is easier for us to understand that others have a similar inner process of self-preservation and self-care as we do.
I do not mean to imply that we condone others’ actions or agree with their point of view. This is not some airy-fairy utopian ideal where we can say, “Well, I know he’s a murderer, but he’s just a hurt little boy inside, so it’s not fair for him to face any consequences for his actions.”
We can do both at the same time. We can hold others in a space of kindness and compassion and also disagree. We can have forgiveness for how others are responding to the events of the world and still prosecute those who have committed crimes.
For ourselves, when we use mindfulness to help us move from a place of reaction to response, we free ourselves to take wise action. We can respond with the fullness of who we are, and not just from the knee-jerk anger stemming from our primitive limbic brain.
This changes the nature of how we are interfacing with life from defensive and adversarial to full-bodied and cooperative.
In these times of divisiveness, approaching life, and each other, from a place of compassion and thoughtful, cooperative response is exactly what can help bridge the gap between political poles and heal ourselves and our community.