by Jonathan Borella
I shouldn’t have stayed up to watch the election at Deer Park Monastery. It was my intention not to. Even when a friend asked if I’d be joining him and the monks in the tea room I said, “Nah, I don’t need to know right away. I’ll find out tomorrow.” I had been sick for several days prior with a splitting headache that kept me up at night. I knew what I needed was rest, but I thought, “Why not. I’ll just go for a little while and kick around some laughs with the rest of the community.” Once I arrived at the tea room at the edge of the circle garden in Solidity Hamlet, however, I was pulled into the drama of election night. It wasn’t until after Donald Trump was projected as the winner and he gave his acceptance speech around one in the morning that I lumbered back to my dorm room for some much needed rest.
I awoke the next morning with all the symptoms of a hangover – body aches, headache, queasy stomach, and the mental fogginess that comes from not being sure if the previous night’s events were a dream or reality. Had Donald Trump actually been elected president of the United States? I stayed in bed well past morning meditation until the bell was invited for breakfast. I was taking time off the work rotation, too, until my sickness passed, so I had all day to be with myself and process the events of this shocking election that culminated a year-long traumatic campaign.
I cried on my cushion that morning – tears of release. Every speech given dripping with racism and bigotry, every rape and subsequent failure of justice, every Facebook post swelling with disdain, every news article perpetuating misinformation and ignorance, every police shooting, every act of terrorist violence, and five sleepless nights of throbbing headaches and fever had built up a tension that I couldn’t hold anymore. I let it out. It was like I was on the ocean during a storm as deafening winds drowned out my own voice, and waves crashed over the deck of my ship. And yet, I had confidence in my ship. I knew that all I had to do was sit and wait for the storm to pass. If you’ve ever been on the ocean the morning after a storm, you know the strange feeling of looking out over the water, perfectly placid and tranquil, and seeing no trace of a storm at all – like it never even happened. That was the feeling I had when the tears subsided. I was completely empty of waves and wind. All I was left with was myself.
It is when we let go of all false refuges that we can overcome our fear – even if it means seeing things about ourselves we don’t like.
This is the kind of moment of clarity that, as meditation practitioners, we should not let go by without noticing. Do not be in a hurry to steer your boat into another storm or let the fear of one send you frantically searching for land. Our refuge is this vast expanse of ocean stretching without feature to the horizon. It’s true that out here there is nothing to anchor to, nothing to offer us any false sense of security or safety. But, it is our true mind, and it is only when we let go of all false refuges that we can overcome our fear – even if it means seeing things about ourselves we don’t like.
As I looked down into the water at my own reflection, I began to understand where all this pain had come from. Before the election was even conceded, pundits were already giving voice to the need to come together, unify, rally. It is the traditional thing to do. It is considered the civil thing to do, and perhaps it is the first step in moving on from the pain. And yet, I cannot. I cannot rally around the message of Donald Trump even for the supposed noble goal of bringing the country together. The tears came from the frustration of looking at a Trump voter and asking, “How could you?” and not having an answer to that question. In my own reflection, I saw someone standing opposed to millions and millions of people. I couldn’t relate to their motives or aspirations at all. I felt lonely and disconnected. My heart ached and I wanted desperately to reach out. But, what could I do?
When confusion, or sadness, or despair becomes overwhelming, all I know how to do is sit, breathe, and wish with all my heart that I, you, we, and all be joyful, well, peaceful, and happy.
Meditating on loving kindness is what I always do when I don’t know what else to do. When confusion, or sadness, or despair becomes overwhelming, all I know how to do is sit, breathe, and wish with all my heart that I, you, we, and all be joyful, well, peaceful, and happy. This is a practice of letting go – letting go of how I want things to turn out, letting go of desperately grasping to certain outcomes. Whether or not she breaks up with me, may she and I be joyful, well, peaceful, and happy. Whether or not I’m in danger of losing my job, may I and my coworkers and clients be joyful, well, peaceful, and happy. Whether or not Donald Trump is president, may I, he, and all beings be joyful, well, peaceful, and happy. This is my only wish.
The Metta Sutta, or Discourse on Love, provides me with a guide for touching this aspiration at the deepest level. Already in the first stanza, there is enough to practice with for a lifetime.
He or she who wants to attain peace should practice being upright, humble, and capable of using loving speech. He or she will know how to live simply and happily with senses calmed, without being attached or carried away by the emotions of the majority.
…without being attached or carried away by the emotions of the majority. In these first few days after the election, this rings with profound salience. Right away, it strikes an intuitive truth, though on an intellectual level, I must admit I couldn’t immediately reconcile it with the practice of loving kindness. What does it mean to wish and act for the wellness, peacefulness, and happiness of all beings without being attached to their emotions? The answer is there to be discovered, although, to uncover it, we have to go digging in the post-election wreckage – wreckage that spans the landscape of our individual emotions as well as the collective consciousness manifested through media.
As long as I am seeking refuge in the “emotions of the majority” or any kind of group belonging, I can never realize my aspiration to wish and act for the wellness and happiness of all beings.
My first emotional experience immediately after Donald Trump was projected to be the winner was dumbfoundedness. Then shock. One thing this election has made clear to me is just how much of a bubble I live in. I was totally shocked that Trump could win and dumbfounded that millions of people supported him. Of all the people I personally know, all of them, maybe three or four support Trump. Of all the articles and posts in my feed over the past two years, maybe 10 were favorable to Trump. And yet, all this time vast, swaths of people were cheering his name and propelling him toward the presidency. I have to acknowledge that I don’t understand these people, partly because I have selected myself out of their company and partly because I am spoon fed information that some impersonal algorithm calculates according to my preferences. Seeing this, I recognized that I have been swept away and attached to the emotions of the majority of people co-existing with me inside my bubble. I’ve relied on a kind of group-think mentality for a sense of identity and belonging. “I’m a liberal. I stand for yada yada yada.” This is a false refuge.
As long as I am seeking refuge in the “emotions of the majority” or any kind of group belonging, I can never realize my aspiration to wish and act for the wellness and happiness of all beings. Groups exist to insulate us from others. In group belonging, we find our separateness. Allegiance to one group stands you opposed to another. Adopting the attitudes, views, beliefs, and conventions of a group limit your freedom to act with true understanding and compassion. As this realization dawned on me, I noticed a cringe creeping over every time this or that call to social action appeared in my news feed. Remember that safety pin thing? “I’m with these people. I’m here to protect them from you.”
This is the dark side to many acts of solidarity with a group, even those who are marginalized. It’s difficult for me to admit; I take pride in being an advocate and ally. And that’s just the thing. I take pride in it. Though it is noble to stand for justice and equality, I have to be honest about how the drive to be someone – someone defined by the politics associated with a certain group – taint my actions. Obscured by the passion and zeal we feel for certain causes and campaigns, the reality is hard to see. But, as I pay attention to my reactions when stories pop up in my news feed, it is clear that much of my passion is more self-centered than I like to believe. With mindfulness, I am able to observe an intense grasping energy. “I need to be involved with that.” “That should be me doing that work.” “I’m not important unless I get noticed for this work.” There is always some call to action that is grander, sexier, nobler than what I’m doing right here, right now – even when right here, right now, my relationships and immediate surroundings are calling for my attention. And it makes me feel small.
Where is the refuge within myself?
Now I am beginning to understand why the Metta Sutta instructs us to resist being carried away and attached to the emotions of the majority. Group belonging is a false refuge. It divides us from others and divides us from ourselves. It is only by being a refuge unto myself that I can be available to all people – to truly practice for their joy, wellness, peace, and happiness.
Where is the refuge within myself? My body experiences aches and pains and is on its way to aging, sickness and death. My feelings are constantly shifting between pleasant and unpleasant – completely intangible. My perceptions are laden with confusion and are unreliable. My mental formations conditioned by my environment. My consciousness is constantly searching for something to apprehend and give it identity. Taking refuge in any of these is just as frustrating in taking refuge in the group. So, how am I able to take refuge in myself?
The Metta Sutta gives us another clue. In its lasts stanza, it makes the proclamation, “Those who practice boundless love will certainly transcend birth and death.” This is a way of saying that by seeing and aligning with the love that weaves itself as a thread through all of reality that we realize our true nature and find the only refuge that is reliable. Practicing boundless love is not a matter of cultivating affection and approval of all beings. It is a practice of recognizing the love that is already at the core of everything – even within my sadness, despair, and anger. Now, it takes some deep looking to find love at the core of anger. Anger is a fire, so I am naturally hesitant to reach into it for fear of getting burned. Instead, I let all kinds of prideful and self-righteous thoughts justify and give meaning to my anger. As a fire, however, anger has a tendency to burn out. It is an intense and passionate energy, but it flickers in and out. It cannot be a refuge and thus cannot sustain social action.
For that, we need to go into the fire of anger and touch the love that fuels it. Doing so, we realize that love is the nature of the universe. All acts of kindness and cruelty have their source in love, so it is only by living from the love at the core of our own being that we can be refuges to ourselves and others. This insight inspired me to write a guided meditation, which I have used often to go back to and touch this boundless love.
Breathing in, I am aware of breathing in.
Breathing out, I am aware of breathing out.
Breathing in, I am aware of a deep breath.
Breathing out, I am aware of a slow breath.
Breathing in, I am aware of my body.
Breathing out, I am aware of my body calming.
Aware of body. Calming.
Breathing in, I remember a moment of joy.
Breathing out, I hold space for this joy.
Remembering joy. Holding space.
Breathing in, I look deeply into this joy.
Breathing out, I see love is the core of joy.
Looking deeply into joy. Love is the core.
Breathing in, I remember a moment of peace.
Breathing out, I hold space for this peace.
Remembering peace. Holding space.
Breathing in, I look deeply into this peace.
Breathing out, I see love is the core of peace.
Looking deeply into peace. Love is the core.
Breathing in, I remember a moment of diligence.
Breathing out, I hold space for this diligence.
Remembering diligence. Holding space.
Breathing in, I look deeply into this diligence.
Breathing out, I see love is the core of this diligence.
Looking deeply into diligence. Love is the core.
Breathing in, I remember a moment of sadness.
Breathing out, I hold space for this sadness.
Remembering sadness. Holding space.
Breathing in, I look deeply into this sadness.
Breathing out, I see love is the core of sadness.
Looking deeply into sadness. Love is the core.
Breathing in, I remember a moment of despair.
Breathing out, I hold space for this despair.
Remembering despair. Holding space.
Breathing in, I look deeply into this despair.
Breathing out, I see love is the core of despair.
Looking deeply into despair. Love is the core.
Breathing in, I remember a moment of anger.
Breathing out, I see hold space for this anger.
Remembering anger. Holding space.
Breathing in, I look deeply into this anger.
Breathing out, I see love is the core of anger.
Looking deeply into anger. Love is the core.
Breathing in, I remember myself.
Breathing out, I hold space for myself.
Remembering myself. Holding space.
Breathing out, I look deeply into myself.
Breathing, I see love is the core of myself.
Looking deeply into myself. Love is the core.
Finally, the cords of sadness, despair, and anger that separate me from others is severed with this last gatha. If love is at the core of myself, it is also at the core of everyone. If my anger is just a manifestation of love, so is the anger of a Trump supporter. Turns out, they’re not so hard to understand after all.