writing on suffering and awakening

When politics is about winning, we all lose

Anyone who reads my writing probably has a pretty good idea of my political leanings. I voted for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, and I believe that the basic aims of the Democratic Party—including building an equal society, sharing our wealth among all its members and creating a cleaner, healthier world—are admirable and important. 

I'm also increasingly aware that I think supporting those goals puts me above people who don't. I think that the nobility of the cause somehow rubs off on me; that supporting equal rights for all people, for example, makes me better than those who disagree. I know I'm not the only one who thinks this way. 

Pause for a moment to see the irony in that. 

Whatever our beliefs, more we get caught up in seeing ourselves as the good guys and in our own righteousness, the more suffering we cause. If we see ourselves as right and virtuous, than those who disagree with us necessarily become bad and morally corrupt. When we put ourselves on a pedestal and give our opponents demon’s horns, we strip away their humanity, and our own. 

The Buddha teaches right action as an important part of the eightfold path of awakening. Supporting political causes aimed at alleviating suffering certainly qualifies as that. But right action is only one of the pieces of the Buddha’s path. In other words, by itself, trying to do the right or noble thing is not going to get you very far. 

To really bring the change so many of us want to see into the world, we have to broaden our perspective. Seeing our opponents as human is a good start. Seeing them as we do friends and family is even better. But what if we don't have to see them as opponents at all?

Politics doesn't have to be about beating the other side. That leads to craziness—like a new administration tearing down the work of the old just to feel a sense of victory. It could be more about people from a variety of perspectives coming together to listen and share and use their unique viewpoints for the common good. 

Many Republicans, for example, share a sense of concern over the size of the federal government and the burden of too much regulation and bureaucracy. That's a valuable way of looking at things: one that opens up a whole range of new, small scale, local approaches to solving the problems of society. Meanwhile, many Democrats understand the successes of federal interventions on civil rights or the social safety net. They likewise have an important perspective on the transformative power of coordinated, large-scale changes. 

The point is that neither perspective is wrong, and both have something significant to contribute. The creative tension between those two viewpoints makes a lot of room for effective solutions. No one way of looking at things works all the time, or fits all situations. Understanding the limited nature and impermanence of everything, even ideas, is what the Buddha calls right seeing

This gets trickier, of course. It's easy to respect differences in perspective when we don't have skin in the game. But what about when it's painful and personal? Many of the people we disagree with politically don't like us, don't respect us and actively support policies that could hurt us. 

There's nothing comfortable about it, but this is where the rest of the eightfold path kicks in. We can practice right resolve, setting a peaceful and compassionate intention towards others, so that we're starting in the right place. We can practice right speech, making a point not to return hate with more hate (at least out loud), while standing up for what's right. We can practice right livelihood and right effort, striving to make sure our own impact on the world is a peaceful one. We can meditate and practice right mindfulness and right concentration and learn to really be. 

We can forget all of this and get furious and hurt and angry at the people who don't like us and don't agree with us and don't see the world as we do. We can embrace that fury and feel it flow through us and then we can practice compassion for ourselves. After we do that, maybe we'll have some left over for those other folks, who are after all only afraid, just like we are. Pray for them, love them, listen to them. They are the face in the mirror. 

This may seem impractical. But the old way of doing things isn't working. As much as I would like to see the Democratic Party triumph in the next election, it won't change anything if it's just another victory. Because victory is temporary, the other side always fights back, and no one really wins. 

Learning to see deeply, act skillfully and revel in the unity of our shared humanity is forever. When we do that, we lower the stakes and raise the quality of discussion and debate. There's more room for everyone to get along and be generous towards and accepting of one another. 

The world we want to see isn’t built through laws but through true understanding and all that flows from it. The rest will follow. 

Ian Cooper