During the run-up to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, I was full of deep anguish. I remember one distinct moment, coming off the highway towards my home in Walnut Creek and wanting to pull down the sky.
Several years later, I was participating in a rally supporting Congressman Jerry McNerney in Pleasanton, CA. A group of fellow Democrats had gathered simply to give McNerney support as a Tea Party group set up pickets near his local office. I walked into the office along with a group of women who could have been friends of my grandmother and listened as they berated McNerney's staff. I offered words of support to the staff, but more than anything I felt myself caught up in the emotion, the conflict of the day.
Donald Trump is not something new. Anger and fear and hatred in our politics are not new. They are not contained to southern states, nor are they unique to a certain part of the political spectrum.
Recently I was exposed to the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist teacher, poet and peace activist who wrote "Living Buddha, Living Christ," as well as "A Zen Response to Terrorism." As I learned from him and the support of other friends and teachers to better calm my mind and respect and reflect on my emotions, I began to understand the potency of anger in my own life and politics. Shortly after I’d returned from a five-day meditation retreat last spring, I received a message from a colleague that upset me. Over the next hour, I could feel anger rising in my body, a physical sensation in my back, my shoulders, my neck. Even as my mind reflected on these effects, I could also feel myself reveling in them.
I am unqualified to write about the right response to political anger and violence, but I'm compelled. I see so much anger and fear in myself and in those around me today. The United States is in the throes of a presidential election to succeed a popular two-term president, and we are presented with demagogues who have special potency because of their appeals to deeply rooted psychology. Antipathy towards the other, whether she be poor, Hispanic, Black or Muslim, is a very human trait found in some prevalence in all our societies, and in times of transition and strife it flares.
How do we respond to a Donald Trump, to hateful political rhetoric and actions? First we can breathe in and realize this moment is OK, it is a peaceful, beautiful moment. We can acknowledge the seeds of anger and fear in our own minds and we can decide not to water those seeds.
What will change hatred in American politics? Deep listening and compassion.
Thich Nhat Hanh reflects in "A Zen Response to Terrorism" on how he would approach one of the most difficult conversations possible following the devastating attacks of 9/11, a face-to-face with Osama bin Laden. "I would need several friends with me, who are strong in the practice of deep listening, listening without reacting, without judging and blaming." (No, Donald Trump is not a bin Laden, but he certainly does have the capability of stirring the kind of visceral emotions the monk imagines here.)
Deep listening is rooted in the understanding that the angry or violent person themself is suffering, and in the equanimity to maintain a peaceful, loving state and not be overwhelmed by anger and hatred ourselves.
We may not have the opportunity to speak face to face with Donald Trump. But over Thanksgiving, in moments on Facebook, and in our daily lives, we have opportunities large and small to listen carefully and with empathy to what our families and friends are saying without giving in to our anger and fear. We have the opportunity to react from understanding. This is very hard to do – even a Zen master finds that having other peaceful people around him is required for this kind of listening.
So how can we bring about a drop of compassion that can put out the fire of hatred? You know, they do not sell compassion in the supermarket. If they sold compassion, we would only need to bring it home and we could solve the problem of hatred and violence in the world very easily. But compassion can only be produced in our own heart by our own practice.
Maintaining a Zen outlook on politics today is a difficult practice. Meditation is not a way to avoid conflict; it does allow the healing to face conflict without becoming fellow victims of anger and fear. I don't understand all of Donald Trump's motivations, nor do I understand everything about the people who attend his rallies. I do know they are people like you and me.