A Middle Way for a Polarized Washington

We've all seen what the dig-your-heels-in, stick-to-your-guns approach yields: extreme polarization, government shutdowns and legislative paralysis. Whatever your political inclination, the Nancy Pelosi / John Boehner congress where literally every vote (when there actually is a vote) is completely down party lines is failing us. Our government has become so dysfunctional that it cannot even make progress on critical issues where there is general consensus like immigration. The American people have expressed their dissatisfaction with congressional approval ratings hovering at 11%, but still extreme division prevails.

I have often wondered what kind of influence mindfulness practice can have in the political sphere. A central theme in Buddhism is achieving the middle way, a place of moderation. The middle way is a path of moving away from extremes, progressing in a way that's "not too tight, not too loose." It's also about being responsive to the moment, and not stuck in habitual reflexiveness. It is this path that will lead the individual to liberation and enlightenment. Perhaps this is the approach our government so desperately needs to find in order to better serve our nation.

The product of anything is a reflection of its process. Imagine a political discourse that reflected the principle of valuing another's opinion in equal proportion to your own, regardless of its Republican or Democrat label. Imagine the product of that negotiation and what the vote tally might look like.

Our recent history shows us that compromise leads to progress and, for a time, there was a "third way" political movement dedicated towards reconciling differences between left and ring-wing policy. Among Clinton's top achievements were welfare reform and the crime bill --- Republican issues. Similarly, the few glittering moments in George W. Bush's legacy include education (No Child Left Behind was co-sponsored with Ted Kennedy) and his humanitarian work with AIDS in Africa -- typically Democratic passions.

However, in the Obama administration, the Affordable Care Act had to be forced to a vote in the Congress and not one single Republican voted for it even though many of its authors also penned Governor Romney's health care reform in Massachusetts. Much of the past 3 years have been dedicated to undoing it instead of making it better or focusing on other acute issues.

There's plenty of blame to go around for our polarized government, notably gerrymandering that has created artificial districts with homogenous constituencies that have elected and bolstered leaders that reflect extreme beliefs. And, if we look at the high stress environment in which legislators are working, it is no wonder that there is a lack of clear thinking and compromise.

Wherever the blame lies, what is clear is that our system is not functioning and we need to find a solution.

There are models in corporate America for mindful leadership training created to treat the very issues that are plaguing our government right now. According to Mindful Way, an organization dedicated to bringing mindfulness workshops into the workplace, here are the effects of mindfulness training:

  1. Dramatically improves our stress management, making us better able to deal with challenges created by workloads, deadlines and interpersonal conflict.

  • Creates greater mental clarity and focus, upgrading our capacity for critical thinking and problem solving.
  • Enhances our focus on the present moment, thereby promoting greater engagement in the here and now - of particular importance to those operating in high-risk environments.
  • Improves awareness of our own thought processes and the emotions they trigger, enabling more effective emotional regulation and resilience.
  • Increases our capacity to read other people, increases understanding of where they may be coming from and enhances empathy.
  • Unleashes our capacity for innovation and creativity.
  • Promotes new possibilities in difficult team or interpersonal relationships by replacing habitual reactions with more considered responses.
  • Supports a more panoramic perspective, better able to manage change.
  • Enriches our appreciation of the greater meaning and purpose in what we do.
  • Can you imagine the effect of this kind of training as Republicans and Democrats went into committee to debate immigration?

    So can we get Jon Kabat-Zinn, Sharon Salzberg, and Janice Marturano to Washington to run seminars on mindfulness, compromise and consensus building? Someone should pass a law requiring it ;-).

    For now, someone needs to lead by example. Perhaps this is Congressman Tim Ryan (D-Ohio). He is amongst the only nationally elected officials with a meditation practice, which may surprise some as all 435 members of Congress seem to excel at sitting on their ass and doing nothing. Congressman Ryan leads regular meditation sessions on Capitol Hill. No, he doesn't have Mitch McConnell in full lotus but he is a co-sponsor along with 2 Republicans on H.R. 3516 dedicated to providing holistic and mindfulness treatment to veterans. His book, Building a Mindful Nation, focuses on how a mindfulness practice can help us reduce stress and improve performance. On March 31, Ryan will host an event in New York around the notion of what constitutes mindful policy. I'm proud to support on the host committee. On a similar tip, spiritual teacher and lecturer, Marianne Williamson has also thrown her hat in the ring running for retiring Congressman Henry Waxman's seat in California. These two individuals not only possess a personal mindfulness practice, but also set the tone: bringing both mind and spirit into play in the political field, ushering in the spirit of listening and compromise..

    Can these next generation mindfulness-focused leaders usher in a new era?

    Cooperation may be a risky strategy. Harry Reid might say his tough, never-compromise approach is in direct reaction to bullying Republicans and that Democrats have been too apt capitulate to right-wing strong-arming. However, from a risk assessment perspective, you have to ask is it more risky to seek compromise or to yield nothing and accomplish nothing?

    For now, our polarized government is reflected in our society. Record levels of wealth with record levels of poverty. A record number of people living with obesity, diabetes and heart disease sitting alongside 20 million people doing yoga and a $30B organic food industry. Food deserts in one part of the city, Whole Foods in the other. We are a society of extremes. History does not report kindly on societies that become hyper polarized.

    If the mindfulness community has any role to play in public affairs, it is to help our leaders find a middle way, to work with greater clarity and less stress, and to rediscover the notion that government exists for the common good.