We’ve heard a lot of impassioned rhetoric lately from across the entire political spectrum. Depending on our orientation, the words on one end may feel raw and terrifying, on the other, more like grand ideals harkening back to earlier times and standards. And in the shadow of January 6th’s insurrection on the U.S. Capitol, the sentiments all along that disorienting tangle of intensity seem to have only hardened.
Abraham Lincoln has also been quoted a lot lately. And it seems to me that some of his lesser shared words might be a timely follow-up to President Biden’s inaugural calling to all Americans for unity:
“I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.”
What courageous and unfamiliar resolve. Especially during these volatile times, we’re more likely repelled by those we judge wrong or undesirable. We’re quick to polarize, demonize and create absolutes--black or white, good or bad, right or wrong; and that rigidity fosters a small mindedness that renders us blind and deaf.
In an earlier address, President Biden urged us to recognize our opponents as fellow Americans rather than enemies, “to see [and] to listen to each other again…” and “give each other a chance.” While it’s a blessing that the new leader of our country has longstanding commitment to and experience in practicing what he’s preaching, I don’t see loads of evidence that many other Americans have either his motivation or demonstrated ability to mimic his example. In reality, many of us often communicate, not so much to share ideas, but to promote and control our own agendas. Winning becomes more important than collaboration; being right supersedes being happy. Our labels, simplistic memes and inevitable disinformation bombard us from all directions. Is it any wonder there’s little genuine communication and understanding when we’re so unable or unwilling to look past our own egos “to see [and] listen” to others with whom we disagree?
I want to be very clear: We all need to be held accountable for our mistakes and certainly for our destructive choices. To ignore, condone or rationalize wrongdoing only perpetuates our blindness and deafness. But condemnation and righteous retribution must be handled wisely: On an individual level, harsh judgment without compassion can lead to debilitating shame and paralysis; on a collective level, history teaches that we can rationalize war as “enemies” become dehumanized. Considering today’s nuclear weapon proliferation, that ultimate cognitive dissonance threatens the home planet we all share.
When I facilitate my Inner Journey Collage© workshops, I teach that it’s important to choose images for collage that attract as well as repel because both have lessons for us. This notion, inspired by Carl Jung, also reflects the Dalai Lama’s reminder, “Our enemies are our best teachers.” Perhaps if we recognized opponents as offering us something to learn—not only about themselves but also about ourselves—we might make more progress with giving each other a chance.
Here’s another idea: Perhaps if we learned to listen more closely and fully to ourselves first, we’d be better equipped to extend the same full presence to others. (I’ve previously described this process as listening with our ears, eyes, heart and undivided attention.) One simple yet profound way we can begin to do this is through mindfulness meditation.
As I’ve also previously written, mindfulness describes the deliberate paying attention to what’s going on around us and within us, ideally in a spirit of curiosity and nonjudgement. There’s plenty of scientific research and evidence attesting to numerous positive outcomes from its formal practice—meditation-- even in small, daily doses; benefits include lower blood pressure, strengthened immune response and the rewiring of key parts of the brain associated with self-awareness, compassion, stress and attention regulation.
This exercise for our brain can also help lower our current levels of anxiety, fear, outrage, grief and general discombobulation. (By the way, a certain degree of all of the above right now proves we’re alive, human and paying attention to the facts and images relentlessly barraging us.)
No matter what our political persuasion or preferred media outlet, we are all suffering. My own mindfulness meditation practice helps me better recognize, not only my own suffering, but others’ as well. That creation of inner pause for reflection on what’s truly going on within and around me also encourages compassion; again, toward both myself and others. What can feel miraculous about a softened heart is its ability to expand beyond our imagining. When we think of our divided country and the call to see each other anew and transcend our hostilities for the good of all, doesn’t an expanded heart sound like an essential ingredient for accomplishing those worthy goals?
If you’re interested in helping yourself weather these current crises with less stress and more ease, if you’re intrigued about the possibility of softening and expanding your own heart, I invite you to try these two simple mindfulness meditations. Practiced daily for even just 3-5 min., you might be amazed at the results.
1. Breath Meditation ~
Sit comfortably in a quiet, private space without distractions. Set a timer, ideally with a gentle alarm, for 3-5 min., then close your eyes or soften your gaze downward and begin focusing on your natural breath. You can zero in on the most obvious sensation of breath in your body, e.g., your nose, chest, or belly, or you can focus on the entire respiration process. Just follow your breath without trying to change it in any way. When your mind inevitably wanders off to the past or the future or to your stiff neck or the barking dog outside, gently but resolutely return your focus to your breath-- again and again and again. Don’t be discouraged by how challenging your willful, chaotic mind might be to tame during this brief period. That awareness means you’re succeeding with the necessary mind training! After the alarm, take a moment to check in with yourself and experience how you’re feeling.
2. Metta (loving kindness) Meditation ~
Prepare the same way as you did in the first meditation. Then, instead of focusing on your breath, silently deliver any desired variation of the following wishes:
May I feel safe.
May I experience health.
May I live with greater ease.
May I be happy.
Next, think of a loved one or friend and silently repeat the same wishes on their behalf: May s/he feel safe…, etc.
Next, think of a stranger and repeat the process.
Finally, and with typically some resistance at first, try silently repeating these wishes on behalf of a person or group for whom you harbor negative feelings. If that currently feels like too tall an order, you might try prefacing each wish with something like: May I one day wish this person/group feels safe…, etc.
(Over time, this challenging metta practice not only dramatically softens our inner critic, but our judgement of others as well.)
If you accept my invitation to try these two meditations, I’d love to hear about your discoveries after a week’s worth of practice! And if this initial introduction intrigues you enough to consider further experiences with mindfulness—both formal and informal-- I’d love to support you along that rewarding journey.
There’s no miracle cure for these extraordinarily trying times; the monumental challenges before us will not dissolve overnight. Yet each of us can do our individual part to help create the unity so essential for tackling what’s ahead. Through simple regular practices done with good intention, we can dilute the suffering and begin to cultivate new eyes and ears along the way; we can also expand our hearts and become part of the solution needed to heal our country and our planet.
May I, we & all beings be willing to cultivate new eyes and ears and expanded hearts for the good of all.
My best, Deb~
Deb Langhans has worked in the wellness field as a coach/counselor, writer & speaker for over 25 years. She currently owns & operates Journeys to Healing on San Juan Island where she offers "wholistic" life coaching, mindfulness & grief recovery coaching, reflexology, Inner Journey Collage© & a developing line of products designed to encourage healthy habits.
Most services are available in Deb's studio or via phone or Zoom. For more information or scheduling, please go to www.journeystohealing.com (website). firstname.lastname@example.org (email), or 360.317.4526 (texts preferred).