Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
The day after Donald Trump was elected president, the meditation app Headspace had a burst in traffic. It was a very specific burst — a growth of 44 percent in the use of a feature called SOS, which is designed to calm people during times of great stress.
The ensuing months have seen much discussion of Trump and meditation — in meditation circles, at least — and much of the discussion has been along these same lines: using meditation as a coping mechanism, a way to create an island of calm amid the perpetual storm that is the Trump presidency.
Nothing wrong with that. But to leave it at that, to see meditation in the age of Trump as a kind of sedative, is to give the practice short shrift. I think meditation — mindfulness meditation, in particular — can be a weapon against Trump, a tool for active resistance against the forces he represents. I think mindfulness could even help remedy some of the strategic shortcomings of “the resistance.”
For that matter, I think this kind of politically potent mindfulness is something you can cultivate and deploy even if you don’t meditate. I mean, I recommend meditating, because I think it will aid the cultivation. (In fact, I just published a bookadvocating mindfulness meditation for various purposes, ranging from the therapeutic to the political to the spiritual.) Still, you can embark on the path of mindful resistance without first embarking on the path of meditation. Just seeing what the word mindfulness means in a Buddhist context — and dispelling misconceptions about the meaning — points to a particular way of confronting the challenge of Trump and Trumpism.
So what does the word “mindfulness” mean in a Buddhist context? A good person to ask, were he still alive, would be Thomas William Rhys Davids, a British government official and scholar who traveled to Asia in the 19th century, got immersed in Buddhism, and translated reams of texts from the ancient language of Pali into English. He’s the one who chose the word “mindfulness” as a translation of sati, a term that figures prominently in Buddhist philosophy and practice.
A sense of what Rhys Davids meant to convey with that translation can be found in the Oxford English Dictionary. The word “mindful,” as used around the time of his translation, meant “taking thought or care of;heedfulof; keeping remembrance of.” In other words: a mindful person is an acutely aware person, a person who proceeds with careful attention to all relevant factors. Rhys Davids said that someone who attained the Buddhist ideal of “right mindfulness” (sammā-satiin Pali) would have “an active, watchful mind.”
Of course, there are lots of ways to have an active, watchful mind. Drink some coffee! Or walk through a dangerous part of town and let fear do its work. But the kind of active, watchful mind Rhys Davids was talking about has a different tenor than is induced by caffeine or fear. There is an equanimity to it that a double espresso might disrupt. And as for fear: Being mindful in the Buddhist sense would mean being so aware of fear that you’re not ruled by it. Mindfulness is meant to give you all the alertness and focus that caffeine and fear bring, but without the overreaction.
And without the overreaction that emotions other than fear can bring. Mindfulness meditation involves observing the workings of your mind — emphatically including such feelings as anxiety, rage, and loathing — with a “non-attachment” (as Buddhists put it) that gives you more conscious control over whether to accept the guidance of these feelings. And this practice, on the meditation cushion, can help you conduct your daily affairs more reflectively and less reactively, with less obedience to emotions.
Which brings us back to Trump. There are many things Trump isn’t good at — being president, being a role model, being a decent human being — but one thing he’s very good at is pushing people’s emotional buttons. In fact, he’s so good at this — he so expertly generates outrage, moral indignation, contempt, disgust — that I’m not even sure he’s trying to do it. Maybe, just as Michael Jordan and Roger Federer are natural athletes, Trump is a natural asshole. We all have our special gifts.
But whether or not it’s intentional, Trump’s habitual encouragement of outrage helps him in several ways—that is, assuming we cooperate by getting outraged, by reacting to his provocations unreflectively.
First, outrage distracts us from the hard work of assessing and addressing the deep forces that got Trump elected. Globalization, trade, immigration, and technological change have had complex economic and social effects and have fostered politically momentous grievances. (And many of these grievances, such as stagnant wages, extend well beyond Trump’s base, to traditional Democratic constituencies.) Assessing the impact of these forces, and figuring out which grievances deserve to be addressed and how to address them without buying into Trump’s xenophobia and bigotry, take time and work. Getting distracted from this mission by outrage makes it more likely that, when 2020 rolls around, the same grievances that got Trump elected will get him reelected, because Democrats still won’t have a coherent response to them.
Second, outrage gets in the way of empathy for Trump’s supporters. I don’t mean empathy in the usual sense of the word — the “feel their pain” kind of empathy that psychologists call “emotional empathy.” I mean “cognitive empathy” — just understanding how the world looks from the point of view of other people. Outrage toward Trump often translates into a sense of antagonism toward his supporters. And antagonism toward people impedes cognitive empathy — it encourages you to depict their motivations in simplistically unflattering terms. As in, “they’re all racists” or “basket of deplorables.”
Three of my four siblings voted for Trump. And even within this small sample size there is huge variation of motivation. For one of my siblings the whole thing seems to boil down to abortion. For another it’s a combination of a desire to revolt against the political class — to “throw a wrench into the works,” as it was put to me — and a strong dislike of Hillary Clinton (which, contrary to prevalent stereotype, seems in this case to have nothing to do with misogyny and something to do with an earlier dislike of a particular male, Bill Clinton).
I don’t know what motivated the third sibling — it’s a conversation I haven’t had — but the point is that political preferences are complicated. And the closer you look, the more complicated they get. A phone conversation with one of my siblings revealed significant misunderstandings about issues ranging from health care to the Iranian nuclear deal, suggesting at least the possibility that some Trump supporters could be persuaded that Trump will not, in fact, improve domestic and foreign policy.
None of this is to deny that Trump’s base includes flat-out racists and other “deplorables.” But there aren’t nearly enough of them to get him re-elected. And many of the non-deplorable Trump voters can be reached with policies and rhetoric that are consistent with liberal values.
But we can’t formulate such policies and rhetoric unless we get a better understanding of the different things going on in the minds of different Trump supporters. And every minute we spend in outrage mode doubly complicates this challenge: not only is it a minute we’re not spending trying to understand these things — it’s a minute that puts us in a state of mind that literally impedes understanding by fostering too simple, even monolithic, conceptions of Trump voters.
Third, outrage feeds the narrative that energizes Trump’s base. Not all the grievances that got Trump elected have a clear connection to policy. One grievance is that working-class Middle Americans are held in contempt by coastal elites. Granted, not much of the overreaction to Trump involves expressing contempt for Trump’s base (though some does). But one thing Trump does well is conflate contempt for him with contempt for his base. At the Republican convention he told “the forgotten men and women of America” that “I am your voice” — and some of those men and women interpret elite contempt for Trump as contempt for them.
And, by the way, these allegedly contemptuous elites include “the media,” so when Trump complains that the media is biased against him, that’s actually a twofer: It insulates him, in the eyes of his base, from any negative information the media may convey, and it reinforces the idea that he, and thus his supporters, are loathed by elites. After Trump’s famously incendiary speech in Phoenix in August, a Fox News commentator tweeted: “the CNN panel: every one is in disbelief. upset. angry. Translation: mission accomplished.”
Andrés Miguel Rondón, an economist who lived in Venezuela during the reign of authoritarian populist Hugo Chavez, has given Trump’s opponents this reminder: Chavez-style populism “can survive only amid polarization. It works through the unending vilification of a cartoonish enemy. Never forget that you’re that enemy. Trump needs you to be the enemy, just like all religions need a demon.” Responding mindfully to news about Trump can deprive him of the foil that is essential to the success of his current reality show.
By “responding mindfully” I don’t mean acquiescing in Trump’s most egregious conduct. Obviously, we can’t sit silently as Trump pardons someone like Sheriff Joe Arpaio, or in various other ways conveys his support for hatred and bigotry. We can’t normalize Trump’s corrosive violation of important norms. But as we formulate and calibrate our protests, it’s good to be aware of how these things are playing among Trump supporters.
And, precisely because signals of contempt or even disdain tend to harden Trump’s support, they are best reserved for issues of genuine consequence. I was as amused as anyone by the thought of Melania wearing high heels to a hurricane, but I didn’t feel that joining in the mockery was the best use of my time, given how I imagined the mockery being processed by some Trump supporters.
You may wonder how much of a difference you could make by being a bit more mindful. After all, you’re probably not, say, a CNN panelist, or a podcaster with a huge following. But social media — Twitter and Facebook in particular — have blurred the boundary between professional journalists and people with opinions. Journalists now get such fine-grained and continuous grassroots feedback that they are more immediately responsive to public opinion than ever before. Indeed, one reason so many journalists have become professional outrage stokers is that they get immediate positive reinforcement for stoking it. Every time you retweet something, or share something on Facebook, you’re casting a vote, helping to shape the tenor of the resistance.
Suppose, for example, that you see this tweet, which was recently posted by Jon Lovett, co-host of the popular podcast Pod Save America:
“The president is a terrible person surrounded by terrible people stoking the terrible instincts of terrible followers for terrible purposes.” And suppose you immediately feel the righteous urge that, at last count, had led 7,800 people to retweet this — an urge that’s understandable given that most of the tweet is on target. But suppose that, rather than obeying this urge, you observe it mindfully and pause long enough to ask this question: Given that many Trump followers are motivated partly by their sense that coastal elites hold them in contempt, isn’t it counterproductive for coastal elite Jon Lovett to call them all “terrible”? And, even if Lovett means that just some of them are terrible, can we really expect many Trump supporters to assume as much when they read that tweet? And, given this apparent downside of amplifying the tweet, what’s the counterbalancing upside?
If such questions lead you to not click “retweet,” then congratulations: You’ve just engaged in a small act of mindful resistance. And you’ve engaged in a bigger act if you go so far as to reply to Lovett on Twitter, politely expressing your view that these kinds of undiscerning indictments of Trump followers actually help Trump. Feedback like this can have an effect — Lovett, like many other media elites, sometimes reads and responds to Twitter replies.
I hope it’s clear that mindful resistance isn’t passive resistance — that the idea here isn’t to comply with the unfair stereotype of Buddhism as just a recipe for accepting the world as it is. There are plenty of times when Trump should be criticized and plenty of times when moral indignation should be expressed and amplified. But indignation is a resource to be deployed carefully, on occasions when its importance outweighs its tendency to reinforce Trump’s self-serving persecution narrative. And the more indiscriminately indignation is indulged, the less attention it will command on these occasions when it is truly needed.
The other reason mindful resistance isn’t passive resistance is that it can be literally very active. One thing you can do with the time saved by fuming less on social media is the kind of thing resisters have long done: figure out what causes deserve your support and support them. Call the congressional switchboard, show up at town hall, show up at protests (where you might be surprised to find a contingent of committed Buddhists) — even, if necessary, engage in civil disobedience. And spend your social media time spreading the word about these things, rather than spreading facile outrage or arguing futilely (at best) with Trump supporters.
I don’t claim to have a simple magic rule for deciding when criticism and indignation help our cause and when they don’t — or what exact forms they should take on what occasions, or what exact forms protests and other activism should take. But I think we’ll all be better at making those calls if our responses to Trump are motivated less by emotion and more by careful appraisal — by mindfulness, whether or not you bolster your mindful attitude with actual meditation.
If you do opt for daily meditation, you don’t have to start out with the goal of becoming deeply mindful. In fact, if you want, you can just think of meditation as a way to create that island of calm amid the storm — because, as it happens, calming your mind is the first stage of mindfulness meditation anyway. It’s after your mind settles down that you can start observing your feelings with new care and clarity, and so begin to free yourself from the grip of the counterproductive ones. Settling down, in other words, is phase one in arming yourself for mindful resistance. A peaceful mind can be a fearsome mind.
And if you’re worried about the opposite — becoming that stereotype of a Buddhist, so calm that you cease to care about the damage Trump is doing to the country and the world — then you must be a lot less worked up about the situation than I am.
Robert Wright is the author of The Moral Animal, Nonzero, The Evolution of God, and, most recently, Why Buddhism Is True. He runs Bloggingheads.tv and Meaningoflife.tv and publishes the Mindful Resistance Newsletter. He is currently visiting professor of science and religion at Union Theological Seminary.
The Big Idea is Vox’s home for smart discussion of the most important issues and ideas in politics, science, and culture — typically by outside contributors. If you have an idea for a piece, pitch us at email@example.com.