Here in the United States, we are preparing to enter a season of political fear and loathing that may rival or exceed that of 1968. Two presidential candidates, each of whom is detested by millions of people, are apparently prepared to do everything they can to increase each other’s negatives still further. People on all sides of the political spectrum are anticipating the next few months with dread, and the election’s outcome with real fear.
Of course, American politics has demonstrated its potential for ugliness throughout our nation’s history, but the recent trend toward all-out partisan vitriol is well documented. Faced with the barrage of vituperation pouring out of every media orifice, it is understandable that many people would like to tune out, to just ignore it until it’s over. Those of us who are active in politics have the same feelings, but turning away from the contest is not an option; somehow, we’ll have to suck it up.
Gotama taught that all conditioned things are dukkha, and politics is certainly no exception. But he also taught that our reaction to dukkha, our compulsion to grasp at what we lack and escape what we fear, is what keeps us enslaved in reactive thinking, feeling and behavior. This not only keeps us on one delusional goose chase after another, it prevents us from seeing and being with our experience as it really is. As Thich Nhat Hanh might say, it makes us fail to show up for our appointment with life.
The same is true for political dukkha. If we allow ourselves to be driven by our reactive hatred of the other side, we contribute to the atmosphere of knee-jerk, intolerant partisanship that makes it so difficult to have a rational public discussion of the issues facing our society. If we withdraw and hide, we shirk our responsibility to participate in self-governance; when other people proceed to do that job for us, our feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness make us even less inclined to engage in the democratic process. Either way, we suffer and create suffering for others.
Freedom, Gotama taught, lies not in grasping or escape, but in embracing the reality of our experience, in learning to see it as it really is, even when we are suffering deeply. That’s not easy. It takes courage, and it takes practice. It helps to have some techniques that help us see past our initial aversion, to look deeply at how our feelings manifest in the body, and see what’s actually there.
For the last year or so, I’ve been working with a contemplative technique called Focusing. It was developed in the 1960s by Eugene Gendlin, a student of the famous psychologist, Carl Rodgers, at the University of Chicago. Researching the factors that make psychotherapy effective, Gendlin discovered that far more important than the therapeutic technique or the therapist was the patient’s ability to check in with their physical sensations to clarify the significance of their emotions. He developed Focusing to help clients get more out of their therapy sessions, and soon discovered the method could help all kinds of people cope with difficult emotions, move beyond action blocks, and feel a greater sense of wholeness and personal growth.
Gendlin called his method “Focusing” because it involves checking words, images and other symbols with sensations in the body to clarify indistinct feelings and emotions, a set of sensations he called the “felt sense.” After spending time feeling into the felt sense of a moment or situation, the focuser offers words to try to describe what they are feeling, observing with friendly curiosity how the feelings change in reaction to the words or images. The feelings may move, shift in tone or grow more intense as the focusing session continues. Through this process, the focuser may experience fresh and often surprising insights into the genesis of his or her emotional states.
This may sound somewhat exotic, but we do it all the time. When you’re searching for a word you can’t quite recall, how do you proceed? You try one word after another, and if you are fortunate you remember the word you’re looking for. How do you know which word is right, and which is wrong? The wrong ones just “feel wrong,” and when you hit on the correct word, there’s a release, an easing, a feeling of “aha!” As you search, you might have an indistinct tendril of the word you’re looking for, perhaps a sound or an image, that you keep refreshing in your mind, hoping the “aha” feeling will come. Gendlin theorized that all meaning is created this way, beginning with a felt sense in the body that is resolved through a relationship with language and other symbols.
Practitioners who are familiar with mindfulness meditation can learn Focusing readily, because they are already experienced with feeling into physical sensations and making note of their feeling tone and emotional quality. What Focusing adds is an interactive attitude of nurturing and communicating with the felt sense, inviting it to share its message. In my own experience, my Focusing sessions have been some of the most intense and revealing contemplative experiences I’ve had, and have revealed insights into my personal development that had been opaque to me, sometimes for my whole life. I also find that the interactive nature of Focusing helps keep the attention from wandering, and can lead to states of emotional resolution, deep peace, and joy.
What’s all this got to do with politics? Focusing can help us cope with any difficult emotion, such as the fear and loathing we associate with political nastiness. As with all strong emotions, the surface details often obscure the underlying patterns of perception and reaction. Is this anger really just anger? Where is all this emotional charge coming from? And is it really about a candidate and his or her positions, or are those just triggers that release emotions that have another source entirely? Focusing can help us understand how our emotions unfold and the kinds of mental and emotional patterns that cause us to react the way we do. It can also help us move past that reactivity, so that we can engage in political activity with more clarity and equanimity and less suffering.
The point of bringing mindfulness to our political experience is not to eliminate or suppress our anger and fear, or our passion and enthusiasm, for that matter. Politics is always about conflict; it is what we have instead of naked coercion of the weak by the strong. Powerful emotions will never be far away. As with many aspects of life, sometimes we will have to be in conflict with other people. If we can bring mindfulness to that place of struggle, we can avoid either being swept away or burned out by our emotions. And we can create a space where compassion can arise, motivating us to seek justice for others and cautioning us not to demonize our opponents. When we discover that there can be peace, and even joy, right in the midst of our political dukkha, that freedom will give us the inner resources to stay in the struggle, no matter how ugly it may become, and be agents of wisdom instead of reactivity and fear.
When Practice Circle meets on Sunday, June 12, 2016 at 8 pm CDST, we will use our feelings about politics as a way to explore Focusing techniques, and vice versa. To join us, come to zoom.us and enter meeting code 968 569 855. To learn more about our online dharma practice group, visit the Practice Circle page here. And to learn more about Focusing, visit the website of the Focusing Institute here.
UPDATE: On June 12 we preempted this practice so that we could share a compassion practice for the victims of the mass shooting in Orlando that morning. We will try Focusing with politics again when we meet on June 26, same time!