Until recently, I was over politics. The very word brought to mind images of protests, unending Facebook rants, and politicians in business suits having heated debates in the shadow of a 19th century copula. Every time I tried to join the political conversation, I would leave it exhausted or emotionally burned. It was a partisan fight on a teeter-totter and I was stuck in the middle. How could I escape the red vs. blue fervor that is now the platform for political progress? Initially, I tried ignoring politics until the week before election day, but it quickly became clear that ignoring politics 358 days out of the year wasn’t realistic. I cared too much. I had an annoying memory of my political science professor saying, as citizens of a country we are each involved in a social contract with our fellow countrymen. If I truly cared about progress, I had to develop political awareness. So, I crammed politics into my schedule. I followed breaking news, political statements, local marches, and societal issues while balancing a full-time job, classes, and personal life. Tired yet? I certainly was. More than that, political headlines filled me with many negative emotions. I underestimated how much the brewing political frenzy would spill over into entertainment, work, communities, and families. I observed politics at social gatherings where divisions began to form. Some people touted their political dogma, while others quietly slunk into the background to dodge the controversy. As the political parties became more entrenched, my moderate self was stuck in the middle of no-man’s land once again. I was left wondering; how can anyone maintain political awareness and their sanity at the same time? That’s when I remembered a certain therapeutic buzzword: Mindfulness. Mindfulness is the practice of focusing one’s mind and acknowledging the circumstances of the present moment in a non-judgmental manner.
Therapeutic techniques and politics are rarely mentioned in the same sentence, but mindful awareness is not a passive exercise to be reserved for yoga sessions. It is a purposeful practice that we can use in a powerful way for the good of ourselves and our political participation. By applying mindful awareness to our politics, we can positively influence the world rather than be emotionally crushed. A lack of mindfulness may be the very thing which spurred the negativity of the current political climate. In an article by published by Mindful.org, Jennifer Wolkin explored the effects of mindfulness on the brain. Research suggests mindfulness meditation impacts gray matter associated with emotional regulation, learning, memory, and the fight-or-flight center. These are all parts of the brain which can impact our political thought processes.
Aggression, fear, and anguish are very real feelings which are meant to help us navigate a dangerous world, but often these feelings are abused and cause people to act irrationally during politically charged scenarios. This, in turn, causes people to dive into their dogmatic bubbles or avoid politics altogether. However, there are other options available when applying the concepts of mindfulness.
It may be counterintuitive, but the first step forward requires a step back. After the 2016 Presidential Election, I was glued to the news and social media. I read every caustic comment and posted a few (polite, yet self-righteous) zingers of my own. Did it help? No. I added to the noise that reverberated across the internet. Social media posts frustrated me. The news was depressing. Everything seemed hopeless. Until I set down the smartphone, logged out of social media, and turned off the news. This wasn’t a permanent arrangement, but it brought me back to reality. I grounded myself in the quiet. I remembered what I believe in. I had actual conversations with thoughtful individuals about political issues. I enjoyed my family and weekend sunshine. I could finally hear myself think. The next time I turned on the news, I was hopeful and focused. Unplugging from the political conversation gave me a new outlook.
LISTEN & EMPATHIZE
When we participate in conversations, mindfulness can help us to empathize and speak our truths in a meaningful manner. Active listening is a discipline that helps us tune out our internal monologue and genuinely hear what other people have to say. When combined with mindfulness, it becomes a powerful tool that allows us to breathe, focus, and attune ourselves to what is truly important. We start to identify the strength of our emotions, particularly when we need to disengage from heated scenarios. Not only that, but we begin to hear political arguments differently. Our minds are suddenly receptive to new information and we begin to understand even when we disagree.
SAY THANK YOU
Please. Excuse me. Thank you. We teach children that these are ‘magic words’ but we may not fully appreciate their magical qualities. One of my friends regularly engages in political discussions on Facebook, but somehow these conversations never get caustic. How is this possible? As I was struggling with cordial dialogue, I began watching how he managed these conversations. The key phrase he frequently said was, thank you. “Thank you for joining the conversation,” he would reply to commenters before subtly introducing a counter-point for consideration. This did several things. It established a respectful tone, made the participants feel appreciated, and added value to the conversation – just through two simple words. A precedent of introspection and respect sets the foundation of healthy conversation.
Our biggest influence is felt by our actions, not our words. This may seem obvious for the political activist. However, mindful action is a bit different. Identify what causes are truly important to you. You probably can’t be a part of every political march or movement, but you might find fulfillment in contributing to one (or two) causes that you’re particularly passionate about. None of us can change the world overnight, but we can make our corner of it just a little bit better. By participating in local politics, spreading information about political issues, and participating in marches, you connect with your community. In the end, isn’t that what politics is supposed to be about?
The politics of democracy have governed our beautiful country for 242 years. It touches our lives in many ways, and we each have a claim in the conversation. With mindful political awareness, we can maintain focus and consider other points of view. It is not in our nature to slow down… to breathe… to be mindful… but it may be what we desperately need. Because there is still good in this world if we take a moment to notice and just be.