Believers The Art of Catching a Breath: On Buddhism and Politics
“Revisiting Buddhism in this changed world is like a balm for my wounds.”
On Tuesday November 8th, I went proudly to the gym of the local high school in my Nasty Woman T-shirt and blazer to cast my vote for Hillary Clinton. It was my first ballot. After I’d inserted it into the machine, I posed outside with my lapels pulled wide to show off my “I Voted” sticker. My partner snapped a picture. We weren’t hopeful. We were confident. My photographed smile is wide. My head is shaved. I’m wearing a lot of makeup. You can’t see my combat boots.
Later that night, I settled in with over fifty dollars of Chinese food to watch the results come in. At first the numbers looked encouraging. I don’t remember how the states rolled in. I was cursing Florida as I moved through the appetizers and into the main dishes. More states turned red on the American map. Trump’s electoral votes moved closer to 270. I went to bed somewhere around 255. Seeing is believing; I couldn’t let myself see.
The next morning, I sat in my dim kitchen and watched Donald Trump accept the presidency. My eyes were vacant. I didn’t cry. My mind was a needle, pricking at his words. Reading the text of his acceptance speech now is different from having listened to it then. When I watched him speak that day, I took in only bits and pieces: congratulations to the Clinton family, the hope of unifying the country, promises to rebuild the American infrastructure, caring for veterans, thank-yous to Trump family members and friends of the campaign. It was conversational and sloppy. It is hard to remember.
It was harder still to see Clinton concede. I cried in my pajamas. I cried when she said that being my candidate had been one of the greatest honors of her life. I cried when she said her campaign was the best anyone could have expected or wanted. I cried most when she said that nothing made her prouder than to be the champion for the women who had put faith in her. Clinton said, “This loss hurts,” and it was true. The dimness of the kitchen was light filtered through fog and it made my body heavy. I slumped onto my elbows, let my slack hands hold my slack face.
On the livestream, I watched young women and girls hold each other as they wept too. I wanted to feel solidarity with them, but instead there was a separation. We had come together to shatter the ultimate glass ceiling. We had touched it, pounded on it, and it had seemed to crack. But, quite literally overnight, we had plummeted away until it was out of reach. It was dark. We couldn’t find one another’s hands to hold.
The next week, I ran on anger and injustice and social media tirades and yelling myself hoarse in the streets of Boston until it solidified: This is real. It happened. There is nothing to be done. It came to me like a voice out of the fog that had spread from my kitchen out into the rest of the world that now felt unsafe. The air became thick and breathing was like choking, but there wasn’t panic, just the readiness to cut and bleed and die on the fifteenth of November.
Instead, I packed my things, and took a car to the hospital. It was midday, a strange, bright time to collect my emergency room wristband for an evaluation, to show the attending nurse my scars, to listen to a man’s voice nearby scream “Let me out of here!” They took me before they took him and I was too relieved to feel bad.
I stayed a week. Most days, someone spoke of the election—it was hard to escape the news. A middle-aged black woman and a retired white cop would bait each other until he hollered, she cried, and the staff would come to separate them like sparring toddlers. If I were healed, I would have engaged, helped to diffuse the fighting, spoke my piece. Instead, I shuffled out of the room to sit on my windowsill and watch the light die. I detached.
My introduction to Buddhism came alongside my introduction to therapy. I was twenty-four. Every day, I experienced panic attacks that left me wheezing, then crying, then drifting uneasy into sleep. I shuffled listless through my working hours and drank glass after glass of Malbec at home. I cut myself with a pair of tweezers, the corkscrew of a wine key, an unfolded paperclip. I drowned in flashbacks and nightmares. I woke myself up yelling and thrashing. My self-relient patina unraveled.
I resisted finding a therapist. I thought I could handle this myself. The scars on my hands and arms said otherwise. I was sullen, but I made the appointment. Sullenness was no worse than my other mental tortures. She recommended talk therapy and a psychiatrist. My fiancé recommended a book: Walpola Rahula’s What the Buddha Taught.
I studied the text as a monk might a Bible, sitting on our porch in the dying warmth of September, and I moved onto others: Sayings of the Buddha by William Wray and The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy, and Liberation by Thich Nhat Hanh. These books taught me how to assuage the torments of my mistakes and mental illnesses, to take my therapy and medications and build a peaceful life upon their foundation.
I learned that life and suffering are intertwined and that suffering can be caused by disease and death, but also by loss. I learned that suffering is often caused by cravings: to indulge our five senses with things we do not have, to keep hold of what we treasure, and to reject and destroy what we find repulsive. No matter what we suffer, we must investigate the root cause. We can end our suffering by identifying our cravings and detaching from them. I learned that to do this, we must let “the little self, the realm of me and mine,” melt away, according to Wray. The Buddha did not believe in abstraction; there is a concrete method to banishing suffering from my life. These, in short, are the Four Noble Truths.
The Noble Eightfold Path, also known as the Path of Eight Right Practices, showed me how to achieve this peace. Right Thinking means recognizing the world for what it is, and this process led to Right View, or recognizing the truth of Buddhist philosophy. From these comes Right Resolve, or deciding to delve further into the true nature of the world. Together, they lead to wisdom.
Right Speech meant being truthful without causing others pain and Right Action arose out of generosity, compassion and understanding. I learned that Right Livelihood was a type of Right Action, that I should find a way to support myself that perpetuated goodness in the world. These three practices lead to morality.
Right Diligence involves encouraging the seeds of right practices to flourish while weeding out things that lead me away from wisdom and morality, and Right Meditation, continually assessing your observation of Right Diligence, is an opportunity to look within and improve. Part of this, too, is Right Mindfulness—using your sense to take in your surroundings and thoughts, accept them fully, and allow space for clarity within. All of these are a way to gift yourself with living happily in the present moment.
Since that September, I gathered diagnoses (bipolar II, generalized anxiety disorder, ADHD, complex PTSD) and I gathered pills (Effexor, Depakote, Klonopin, Adderall—this leaves out the medications I tried that failed me). I went on disability and dropped in and out of hospitals. I married and separated. I scaled back my income over the years to preserve my sanity. I continued to study Buddhist philosophy. I began to meditate. I found some salvation in yoga. I chose a group therapy program that emphasized mindfulness. But I didn’t account for the Sisyphean labors that would come after the election. I had no way to fathom the extent of the social media swarm.
There are so many things to be afraid of and they cross my screens every day so many times.
The president wants to build a wall between America and Mexico, despite the fact that our countries have been friendly to one another for many years—excepting, of course, the matter of drug trade, which the president uses as a rationale for the wall that will cost $21.6 billion to build , but apparently Mexico is going to foot the bill . (Unless you believe Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto.)
The president says that not only will America not take in Syrian refugees, but also sanctuary cities will be eliminated and undocumented people will be deported , and he has used the words “Muslim ban” enough for my ears to begin to ring, but not loudly enough to drown out the knowledge that only certain countries’ Muslims will be banned, but not others, and certainly not the countries where he does business .
The president doesn’t seem to see a problem with Trump-family businesses influencing national policy , nor does he see an issue with his wife using the platform of the presidency to sell her line of products because he’s probably busy trying to get people from outside Washington (read: businessmen) to renegotiate NAFTA , or to repeal Dodd-Frank, or working to lower tax rates for every bracket while also bolstering our already enormous military or nixing federal regulations on American businesses , which I admit isn’t something I understand, but it sounds an awful lot like making allowances for a national game of Monopoly.
The president wants to wipe away the Affordable Care Act and replace it with something more capitalistic, thereby reducing the number of insured Americans (I’m counting my blessings for MassHealth and praising Mitt Romney, which I never thought I’d do in 2012), while also erasing the Waters of the US rule which ensures clean water, and the Climate Action Plan that reduces carbon dioxide emissions because he believes climate change is a myth created and perpetuated by the Chinese to mess with American manufacturing.
The president’s chief advisor is politely referred to as a “ white nationalist ,” and he appointed a Secretary of Education who wants to divert public funding to private schools and use education to “ advance God’s kingdom ,” and nominated a man to the Supreme Court who views laws literally instead of taking legislative history and underlying purpose into account.
The president does not seem to be afraid of nuclear war, or of damaging our relationships with foreign allies , or of getting into a strange entanglement with Russia, or of the fact that the majority of the world considers him to be grossly incompetent .
I am afraid of all these things. I am bombarded by these things every time I open Twitter or Facebook. I try to find the will to engage meaningfully with those who think differently from me, to prosthelytize, to shed light. There isn’t energy in me because fear has taken its place. I’m tired of knowing. I am afraid of the things I do not know. I close browser windows and app screens. I detach.
Since November 9th, I have had forty-two opportunities to take part in some form of activism, but have only participated in one. I missed six because of hospital-dictated dialectical behavioral group therapy, and ten because of physical illness. The rest were lost to mental exhaustion, to anxiety in crowds, to mild agoraphobia, to malaise, to onslaughts of flashbacks. I have suffered guilt every time.
Coming together as a collective is empowering. Walls of people keep abuse at bay. Lawyers flooding the airports to work pro-bono helped to stop the “Muslim ban.” Marching feet are shown again on television screens and people watching learn what matters. Every time I stay at home, I fail the marginalized people crying for help. Every time I ignore an ignorant post for lack of energy, I fail to create necessary change. Every time I succumb to the call of a midday nap, I miss the new horrible thing to be fought.
Revisiting Buddhism in this changed world is like a balm for my wounds. I struggled at first with a simple explanation for detachment: two ways of looking at a table. A table is not human. It does not suffer nor does it cause suffering. But when someone attaches meaning, craving, or sentiment to the table, that meaning, craving, or sentiment can cause suffering. The table does nothing on its own.
What then is to be said of my country? If I attach meaning to a political shift, a change in policy, the marginalization of a group of people, am I not welcoming suffering? Should I detach from it all to preserve my happiness, even at others’ expense? I thought for some time that to be a good Buddhist, I must.
I kept forgetting Thich Nhat Hanh’s lesson: “The practice of shamatha (‘stopping’) is fundamental.” Shamatha is one of two aspects of Right Meditation. The other is vipashyana , or “looking deeply.” Only by practicing both can I uncover the source of my suffering and put an end to it. If I do not stop, there is no way to gain insight.
When I force myself to stop thinking I should , when I allow myself to use energy for self-care now so I can fight again later, when I let go of my overwhelming fear and anger long enough to remember that I am a person living with multiple mental illnesses and a job with no sick leave, I can see how too much engagement is self-destructive.
Shamatha stops us and then it calms us. It gives us the space to recognize our reactionary emotions long enough to keep from acting on them. It allows us the luxury of breathing mindfully until we are stable enough to do something meaningful instead of lashing out in response to news bulletins or Facebook statuses or disagreeable tweets. Instead, we can accept how we feel, investigate what caused it, and rest before acting again. Only through periods of rest can we heal. If we do not stop, we cannot heal and we run into the foray to be torn to shreds. Stop. Breathe. Listen to the places between breaths. Find your wisdom. Find your morality. Find yourself in the present moment.