You may not be a therapist, but I bet you had the same experience I did the day after the election: everyone, at home, in my lobby, in the street, in the cafe, on my way to work, and of course, in my office, needed to talk. To a person, everyone seemed shocked, some in the key of dread, some in hope. Like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, I found myself having the opportunity to answer the same questions over and over again. What happened? How could it be? What does it mean? What now? In the face of skeptical media coverage, Republican infighting, and all the polls, Trump's upset victory seems surreal. How could we have elected a reality TV star who conducts himself more like a stand-up comic or WTF wrestler than a public servant? Some of my clients asked me to diagnose Trump, others Hillary. Then came the questions about what this says about America, especially from people born elsewhere.
Since I happen to be both a therapist and a Buddhist, I found myself taking refuge in the timeless wisdom of Buddha's psychology and social theory, more than in modern science. Since the processing must go on, I hope sharing some of what helped me and my clients might help you too.
First of all, no hard-nosed Buddhist pins much hope on a top-down political solution to our human predicament. Societies are only as happy, healthy, creative, or wise as the people who make them up. So while it's always better to have as many good people in key roles as possible, focusing mainly on changing one person or a hundred people at the top is no way to better our lives or our world. How motivated, educated, and trained is each one of us to improve our minds and lives? How willing are we to reach out to others, to raise consciousness or offer help? Every real revolution begins here, from the mind up and the heart out. The only remotely plausible way forward is to set out to do the seemingly impossible: to empower and train every last person on earth to start the revolution from the inside out.
When it comes to that foundational level of social change--our own hearts and minds--the Buddha had two seemingly contradictory things to say. Our hearts, our minds, our natures, are naturally good, naturally clear, naturally free. Then there's the rub: we have acquired a habit of confusion and suffering over eons of evolution and countless lives that is self-perpetuating, locked in place by the death-grip of self-protective instincts, exceedingly hard to break. So, "yes we can" change anything and everything, but at the same time, a very ingrained and blind part of us fights change instinctively as if it will be the death of us. This same self-protective overkill makes it hard for us to see beyond our own myopic drop of life, into the life-drops of loved ones, neighbors, strangers, and especially those we see--through fear-tinged mirror neurons--as other, threatening, even evil. So which fire--or, to use the well-known Cherokee metaphor--which wolf do we feed, compassion or fear?
Whether we take this election as a blessing or an adversity, like every event, every day, it holds out an opportunity for us, provided we know how to take hold of it. Will we further aggravate our myopia by objectifying "him," "her," "us" or "them?" Or will we exercise the Buddhist art of reconciliation--one of the basic foundations for any community or civil society? Can we try to have radical empathy or unconditional compassion for everyone on all sides of this drama? This is a key principle of Buddhist social theory--Buddha's warning against divisive thinking, speaking, and acting. Bias and partisanship, as he saw it, not only strains the fabric of relationship, communication, and community, but also feeds the taproot of all our own personal suffering: our self-reifying habit. No matter what the content, any personal bias or partisan point of view is ultimately wrong--it reinforces our own self-limiting sense of identity, and so, our instinctive self-protective self-enclosure, hijacking our higher, larger selves.
How can we have radical empathy for both sides in this transition? Consider what is at stake for all of us in the cultural tension this election highlights. On the one hand, there is the progressive social agenda that Bernie Sanders, Hillary, Obama and so many others have worked so hard to advance: to mitigate and reverse centuries of systemic racism; millennia of patriarchy, sexism, misogyny, and homophobia; millennia of ethnic, cultural and religious bias against those with different features, different customs, different beliefs, different rituals. On the other hand, there is all the understandable grieving, adjustment, and protest that Trump tapped into: against decades of rising inequality; the collapse of manufacturing and the working middle class due to global outsourcing; the shock of being catapulted into a digital economy; the meteoric rise of China; the threat of global terrorism; and all the social dislocation caused by cultural and legal challenges to deeply held family values and traditional beliefs.
So where do we turn for healing in this polarizing time? If you think of what Buddhists call the collective karma driving our spilt-personality as a people, it seems to me that Trump represents the shadow side of our psyche--the last gasp of a self-enclosing, self-protective instinct that we all share in some way--the drive to stop the wheels of time, loss, vulnerability, and change. In some sense, our minds are frozen in a collective childhood dream of turning the clock back to the post-war era of American exceptionalism, when everything about our country was strong, and a recent conquest over an external evil seemed to have united us and the world around us.
Of course, we know now that it was that pivotal moment in history, not our country, that was exceptional. And we also know that, beneath the triumphant facade of unity, our society even then was riddled with repressed traumas, ideological conflicts, and escalating addictions that would soon come out in the 1960's. These included the legacy of racism and gender bias, the challenges of multiculturalism, the destructive forces of an unbridled carbon economy, an insidious pandemic of sexual and domestic abuse, the unconscious narcissism of our sense of manifest destiny and exceptionalism, and our profound lack of knowledge of the global stage onto which we had just stepped.
In a very real sense, we have taken two steps forward and one back, again and again in the decades since. We have celebrated the basic goodness of our founding commitment to equality; and we have suffered the backlash of our ingrained habits of fear and entitlement. From a Buddhist point of view, we have made progress on the path towards enlightenment, but also experienced the stubborn persistence of deeply rooted knots and blocks. Another metaphor comes to mind--not from Buddhist psychology but from the modern path of self-help: we have made real strides towards recovery, but have also had slips and relapses. If this election cycle is our latest slip--how do we get back on the path?
Can we ever reach psychic wholeness as a people? Can we recover from the all-too-human addiction to self-protectiveness and self-enclosure, that--whether as progressives or conservatives--threatens our future as humanity's best experiment in peaceful inclusiveness and universal equality?
The Tibetan Buddhist teaching of the Wheel of Time (Kalachakra) says: yes, we can. It predicts that a timeless science of self-knowledge and self-mastery, offering universal training in mindfulness and compassion, altruistic vision and flow, will emerge onto the world stage right about now--when East and West collide, and the future of our Earth seems most at risk.
Of course, Buddhism is not the answer, but neither is any other single scientific or religious tradition. The answer lies in each of us, in our innate basic goodness, and in the scientific awareness and contemplative practice that can awaken and cultivate that goodness fully and effectively, regardless of our origins, gender, race, class, or views. That is where I believe we can go for help turning this next phase of transition into an opportunity for the healing and transformation we all so urgently need, individually, socially, nationally, and globally. Here is the vision that keeps me on the path, a breath at a time: may we all be well; may all minds be free; may our hearts share joy; may all earth live in peace!
Joe Loizzo, M.D., Ph.D., Founder and Director
Nalanda Institute for Contemplative Science;
Assistant Professor, Weill Cornell Medical College,
And Columbia University Center for Buddhist Studies