Election 2016: The Ultimate Test of Our Yoga Practice
“Collective fear stimulates herd instinct, and tends to produce ferocity toward those who are not regarded as members of the herd.” ~ Bertrand Russell
OK yogis, are you ready for the ultimate test of your practice?
Its 2016, election time in America and here it is: finding compassion for Trump supporters.
That’s right! It’s time to find compassion for bigots and bullies, people who punch young nonviolent protesters and shove young black women to the ground. People who support the degradation of Muslims, Mexicans, women, people who are handicapped…sadly, too many to list.
Because finding compassion for these people and helping them heal will be the key to healing the rifts that divide our country.
While the media likes to characterize Trump supporters as angry, when I listen to their words what I hear is fear. Among the loudest and most active of his supporters you hear people trapped in fear, their amygdala firing on all cylinders. They feel left behind and given the pace of progress and change in the country, they feel their own existence is under threat.
I’m seeing yogis and even yoga teachers talk about the 2016 campaign as a “battle of good and evil.” Yoga means ‘union’ and if we are divided because of politics or beliefs we are not truly living our practice. We must unify our communities as well as our spirits if we are to call ourselves yogis.
This is not a fight or a battle, its an opportunity for us to come together.
We saw the same thing just a few years ago in the discussions on health care and torture and while one side ended up being in the majority, the fear at the heart of those against health care reform and those who supported torture was left to fester and grow.
At the same time, the economic “recovery” has been uneven with many people still worse off than they were before and with little hope left. They are desperate for answers not only to why it happened, but for who is to blame and for simple answers of how to fix it all. This is where demagogues find fertile ground to plant their seeds of division.
The oldest political trick in the book, whether it’s a country, a city, or even a family, is to identify a scapegoat or scapegoats onto which the sins and ills of society can be placed to free others from responsibility for their plight. Its often used by those in power to deflect attention away from the actual causes of the situation (which can be complex and systemic) and to channel into political power to serve the ends of the person stirring the pot.
And as we’ve seen so far among Trump’s supporters, they need a scapegoat to blame for why they are falling out the bottom end of the economic ladder and see little or no future for their children. Misdirecting public ire at a scapegoat keeps the attention off the banks and plutocrats who are buying Congress, statehouses, and city halls.
These scapegoats are being chosen for them with the assistance of the outrage industry: the media. While most Trump supporters have fallen out of the middle class and into the bottom rung of American society, Trump (with the aid of the media) holds out the “others” (Mexicans, Blacks, Muslims, Women) as the scapegoats. It’s also no mystery that these are also many of the same people who are rising in society and taking their rightful place alongside everyone else.
People make poor and often very selfish decisions when they are ruled by fear.
To those who see the world as a zero sum game (where someone else’s gains means they must lose), the rise of the “other” presents an existential threat. If they can keep these ‘others’ down at least they won’t be on the bottom – and being treated the same way.
To them, making America great again means putting them back on top of the social and economic ladder; even if it means ruling the ashes of a decayed and divided society. Their main candidate speaks in terms of winners and losers which resonates in the winner-take-all culture of American society, and this needs to change.
This mentality pits us all against one another. Just because someone else gets a little more does not mean we get less. Just because gay people can marry does not make our own marriages less meaningful and just because women can earn as much as men does not devalue a man’s wage. And people who fear for their children’s future in the midst of such thinking can be convinced to respond in ways which are nasty. In those moments we need to overcome our instinct to react to them with disgust and instead respond with compassion.
Of course most extreme supporters will probably not be open to dialogue but its the large swath of people closer to the middle where we can make a difference. By engaging in dialogue with the more reasonable people (and choosing the right times and places to do it), we can help keep a toxic political movement from becoming a majority and send it back to the fringe. And before you call this entire idea naive, note that this approach is used successfully every day by peacemakers in troubled countries and societies around the world.
We all need to be able to see that when we’re all equal and work together, we can all “win.” No one needs to “lose.” There is plenty of room at the top and there should be dignity and a decent life for those who play by the rules, even if they don’t end up wealthy. Our social contract needs to be rewritten so it works for everyone. This is something we can only do together.
We have the ability and resources to feed and house everyone and provide them a good education, health care, and do it all in a safe and happy environment. And while we may slightly differ politically on ways we can achieve that, the politics of fear and the outrage industry (on the left and right) have taken our small differences and made them appear insurmountable. They have also made compromise a dirty word since once you’ve demonized the other side, you can’t be seen making a deal with them.
We can debate the facts all day long but as we’ve seen, some people are so mired in fear that they are impervious to facts. We can shame and call each other names but that only hardens everyone’s positions and deepens our separation.
Fear is the oxygen that feeds the fire of the Trump campaign and those like it. By reaching out with compassion and reducing levels of fear, we cut off the oxygen that feeds the fire of separation.
The less people are susceptible to fear, the less support there will be for such movements.
So how do we do that?
First, we listen. We listen with respect and not just for our turn to speak. We listen for root cause fear and motivation for why they support a policy or idea. We listen to find common ground so we can find areas of agreement from which we can build a consensus together. And when we listen, we also help to alleviate a great fear that runs throughout our body politic: the fear of not being heard.
When we engage in conversations with those we may not agree with, we need to listen and ask reasonable questions. The Socratic method, which involves asking meaningful questions, applies as much here as on the mat. And my favorite when asking about a policy they support is: How would that work, exactly?
By having them explain how their policy would work, we also help them to leave a place of emotion (fear) and come to a place of reason to explain how it would work (and we should expect them to ask the same question). When it comes to outlandish and unworkable policy proposals, a reasonable person trying to explain how they’d work is often forced to reconsider them. But even then, some quickly become frustrated and return to their more comfortable place of fear – but not before telling you why they are fearful.
If we can find out the root cause of their fear and discuss ideas reasonably, we can help change our understanding of one another and see that we are all on the same side. This is not something you’ll be able to do in the heat of a political rally, but in quieter moments when you can encounter and engage with people.
And please note that none of this means excusing or condoning violence or hatred and that engagement does not equal endorsement. We’ll still need to stop such things when we see them and make it clear they are not acceptable. But we also don’t stop making the effort to change the tone and tenor of our dialogue, realizing that it won’t be easy, but that its worth it.
If our dialogue keeps devolving into just more shouting back and forth, nothing will change. What we need is real, open, and kindhearted connection and dialogue.
In a time of separation we need more connection, not less.
How many of those people who want to build a wall to keep Mexicans out of America have ever met and gotten to know any Mexicans? How many have felt the love, compassion, and inspiration of having a Mexican friend? How many have seen how hardworking and kind the Mexicans who come to America are? How many realize that the cities in the United States with the highest numbers of immigrants are also its safest?
How many of those people shouting “All Lives Matter” in response to a person protesting that “Black Lives Matter” realize that the BLM protester is not saying that black lives matter more than anyone else’s do, but that black Americans are being killed and incarcerated at a much higher rate than other Americans…and that this must change? Wouldn’t they be saying the same thing if they were in her shoes? Wouldn’t they have a better understanding of what she is saying if they were able to sit down and talk together?
And how many of those who want to ban Muslims from entering the United States and want all American Muslims to be tracked by the police have ever met a Muslim? How many have felt the grace of being welcomed into a Muslim home for a meal or experienced the peace of being welcomed into a mosque?
How many of them realize that no one has been more terrorized by those falsely claiming to represent Islam than Muslims themselves? How many instead look with fear upon a woman wearing hijab or seeing a man facing Mecca to pray?
If you actually said hello and chatted with the woman in the hijab at the grocery store, you’d probably find that she thinks the produce is better at the place across town and that her son is heartbroken that Michigan lost to Notre Dame in basketball last night during the first round of March Madness.
And what you also probably did not realize is that yesterday you were chatting with two Muslim women and having a great time and not realizing they were Muslim since not everyone chooses to wear the hijab. So often we get separated because we see something which we’ve been told is supposed to separate us from others.
A great example of the kind of dialogue which can help us all to connect and find more compassion for each other is the “Ask a Muslim” project started by Mona Haydar and her husband Sebastian Robins.
They had seen a report on a man who had done an “Ask An Iraqi” effort so Mona and Sebastian decided to set up a stand outside a library in Cambridge, Massachusetts with a big sign which reads “Ask a Muslim.” They offered free coffee, donuts, and chance for people who have never met a Muslim or who have questions to stop by and talk. And the results have been incredible.
“We’re all just social creatures at the end of the day. We are afraid of what we aren’t familiar with. We wanted to remove the mystery and go out there and connect with other human beings on the basis of our humanity. I think that’s probably why people were so receptive and open to us. We went in wanting to love everyone and found that people wanted to love us right back. It was truly life changing and so inspirational to step out into the unknown, not knowing how people would react- and then to have that met with beauty, connection, friendship and love. Not to mention how much fun we’ve had doing it!” ~ Mona Haydar, Ask A Muslim
No matter what happens in November, we’re still going to have to live and work among people who are currently being influenced and guided by fear. And the more we can help them overcome this fear and find connection with the rest of us, the better our future together will be. We may still disagree on some things but with a lower level of vitriol and an atmosphere of mutual respect, we’ll be able to work peacefully and find common ground to solve our problems together.
E pluribus unum (Out of Many, One) ~ Motto on the Great Seal of The United States
We Americans are not a people bound by a single blood or religion, but by the idea that we can all live equally and peacefully side by side, no matter or origins, beliefs, gender, or sexual orientation. Its still a work in progress and we American yogis need to join in the effort to build bonds with our fellow citizens and bring our practice of compassion and unity to everyone.
No one is free until we’re all free.