Thursday, February 14, 2008

Warning : "P" Word

There are few topics that can fire people up more than politics. Okay, there's religion, sex and money, but right now, here in the U.S., politics claims center stage. With each passing day the frenzied battle of opposing views and opinions grows. No, not those of the candidates. I'm talking about friends and family. I'm certainly not beyond having plenty of these myself, but hopefully they are gradually being tempered a bit through this practice. So as I observe the political debate as it intensifies among family, friends and so many of my fellow citizens, I'm also carefully watching my own reactions and impulses. What tends to fire me up? What cools me down? I’m finding this occasion to be a really wonderful opportunity to learn about myself, my views and those of others, the world around me…the Dhamma. Where do these views come from? How is it that on some issues I remain flexible, open to compromise or even neutral, yet when considering others my view remains rigid, inflexible? It seems Mara is working overtime here in the land of opportunity.

I saw a story on CNN recently about some researchers who believe that our political views are largely genetic. They came to this conclusion by interviewing many sets of identical twins. It seems that in addition to sharing the same DNA, they are also more likely to share views and opinions, including all things political. My husband is an identical twin and, if this research is correct, he and his brother are among the exceptions. While they are usually in agreement on such things as sporting events, and other trivial matters, they couldn't be more opposed in their political opinions. Not to dismiss this theory, or that family upbringing, social and regional conditioning, etc. play a role, sometimes our political inclinations simply do not seem to fit the standard profile. I believe that there is another key ingredient which is overlooked, and that is kamma.

Recently during a conversation with a dear friend, this sometimes touchy topic of political possibilities came up. She disclosed something that was, well, unexpected. There aren’t many things that surprise me anymore. But I’ve been close friends with this person for over 30 years and what surprised me was that I did not know her as well as I’d always believed. Racial prejudice was something I had never detected before, not even a hint. Over the years I've come to accept that it’s not at all unusual for me to have at least a slightly different perspective on a variety of things. I don't generally initiate discussion of politics, or other potentially volatile topics. But many people, especially now, are anxious to have such discussions. It's interesting that when folks begin a conversation, there is usually an assumption that others are of like mind. When they discover that this is not the case the tone suddenly shifts and an unseen but clearly present barrier appears. It seems unavoidable and is not at all comfortable.

It’s very easy to feel loving kindness and equanimity when I’m in that comfortable and steady groove of practice that I do sometimes manage to find. Settled on a cushion or under a tree. This other stuff is also practice, a challenging yet necessary part of it. It is a part of practice that can sting and tug at the heart. It is where I come face to face with my own shortcomings and delusions. When I read or hear, or even take part in this debate, am I doing so in accordance with the Dhamma? I’ve discovered that as I listen to others stating their position, no matter who they may be - candidates or otherwise, if I pay close attention to what arises in the mind it can be a lot like looking in a mirror. The same emotion, ego, attachment to a view, and that familiar urge to attack and defend begins to simmer within my own mind just as it does in those that I’m listening to. This is a place of learning.


Gary said...

Over the years of Dhamma practice, I've found that there's less attachment to political views and a certain detachment that sees through the machinations that politicians get up to.

This doesn't mean that I don't have political views, but that they are tempered with the Dhamma. My natural preference with regards to American presidents is for Democrats, as I perceive them to be more progressive and compassionate. But this is clearly a view, not some kind of absolute truth. (And, in truth, it seems that American politicians, like their modern British counterparts, are pretty similar in their overall policies.)

Ajahn Sumedho wrote to me once that eventually even Buddhist convictions must be let go of, along with all attachments, let alone political biases. So, in the meantime, while we use the Buddhadhamma to cultivate understanding of the Four Noble Truths,letting go of our political and cultural attachments seems a wise thing to do, doesn't it? We can still take part in the political process, of course, as it is our social duty to do so, but with the wisdom of the Dhamma to guide us.

I like your observation that "this other stuff" is practice too, along with sitting meditation and the like, Kris. For, it's in the midst of "this other stuff" that we determine the depth and strength of our understanding of the Dhamma. Nice post, again!

Gary at 'Forest Wisdom'.

puthujjana said...

Hi Gary,

At the end of the day they are just views, regardless of the labels or packaging we choose to apply to them. I am finding less attachment as well, though there is still much work remaining. I am a registered Democrat, for the reasons you mention. But I am fully aware of the games that are played by all involved in this process. So I take all with a grain of salt. Yes, I agree that letting go of all attachments is the wise thing to do. As I come to understand them they do begin to fall away. It seems that understanding is the key to letting go, otherwise it might just be pushing the attachment below the surface only to have them pop back to the surface.

Thanks Gary, more food for thought


Dhamma81 said...


This is fantastic. I see that I'm not alone in feeling all the upsurges of energy and emotion that come from the views and opinions associated with politics. Actually I differ with both of you guys in terms of political affiliation, I tend to be pretty right wing conservative on many issues but ever since deepening my Dhamma practice I have come towards more acceptance of myself as having views far more to the right then probably most Buddhists. I also see the limitations of politics regardless of what side of the fence our views and opinions tend to lead us towards.

Kris you brought up a good point when you mentioned reflecting on whether or not certain conversations regarding politics with others is in accordance with Dhamma or not. Thats a wise reflection, as we can so easily get swept away by the emotional ups and downs that can characterize an election year or any year for that matter. Sometimes i notice myself just glancing at an article in a paper or magazine and can watch as the anger, views and opinions come up like a raging river. But what is that all about, and is it skillful? I see that I am the way I am in terms of how I view the world, but if I can let go of those views in accordance with Dhamma then they don't have to be such an issue. One of the things I like about working alone is the fact that there really aren't any opportunities to engage in heated political debate, but then again even alone I can find myself getting worked up about something, so the only way out of the madness is through practice. May you continue to be skillful during this election year.

puthujjana said...

Hi Justin - I don’t remember being engaged in a “heated” debate, political or otherwise, for several years now. I think the trick is learning not to indulge in those surges of energy and emotion. Not to ignore or deny them, but to be aware of them and investigate their source. They’re definitely still present, no doubt about it. Just not as strong as they once were.

It’s funny but among my friends and relatives, those who see themselves as “conservatives” think I’m a liberal and those who see themselves as “liberals” think I’m a conservative. So lately there seems to be no shortage of folks who are eager to get me to “engage”. I think the confusion may lie in my own internal understanding or definition of the terms conservative and liberal, which aren’t really in line with the standard criteria. I guess that means I don’t quite fit the mold. Gee, a Buddhist in the rural south/bible belt of America, go figure! Dhamma practice in the trenches!