Can Mindfulness Help the Resistance?

Robert Wright, founder of the website Mindful Resistance and author of the bestseller “Why Buddhism is True,” argues that mindfulness meditation can help us become more effective political actors

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Story Transcript

AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News, I’m Aaron Maté. To deal with the jarring reality of Donald Trump’s presidency many people have turned to mindfulness practices like yoga and meditation. These practices have been used to ease stress induced by Trump in the White House and to promote calm during very uncertain times. Well, my next guest argues that mindfulness meditation, especially, can be used as a weapon against Trump and his allies and help overcome some of the ways in which the self-proclaimed resistance may fall short. Robert Wright is a visiting professor of Science and Religion at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. He is author of several bestselling books, including his latest Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment. In part one we discussed the book, and now in part two we’re going to discuss what Wright calls mindful resistance, which also is the name of a website that he has founded. Welcome, Robert. How can mindful resistance help us take on Trump?

ROBERT WRIGHT: Well, I think, first of all, my premise is that what we call the resistance, the opposition to Trump, for starters sometimes suffers from excessive reactivity, I guess you might think. You might say that there’s overreaction to some of the things he does, which doesn’t mean the things he does aren’t bad. They’re very bad. It’s just that I think sometimes his goal is to elicit a strong reaction because a strong reaction from his opponents, in some cases at least, kind of reinforces the narrative that he has going with his base. The narrative being that all of these liberals and coastal elites have contempt for ordinary Americans and they have contempt for Trump, that the media is biased and takes every opportunity to present him in the least favorable light and so on.

I think one big reason to not overreact to Trump is you want to be careful and not play into his hands and just fall for every provocation. Another reason is that it’s distracting. There’s real work to be done. I think it’s important to figure out what was it that allowed him to get as many votes as he got, even though, of course, he didn’t get a majority of the votes, but still, got enough. What was the source of his appeal? Obviously, there’s just some bad people who supported him, some racists and so on.

I’m convinced that’s not the whole story, that it’s more complicated than that, that different people supported him for different reasons. I think it’s important to figure out why and when possible, when these people had valid grievances about the way they were being treated by the political system to address those, and so offer an alternative to Trump. I think there are really big, important issues of policy raised by the kind of attitude of voters who supported Trump. That’s a couple of the reasons that I think sometimes, at least, the resistance to Trump needs to be a little less reactive and more reflective.

AARON MATÉ: Right, in this respect I think the resistance is a very apt term because it also is a term in psychoanalysis, right? When someone has resistance subconsciously to something it’s because they, perhaps, see a threat to their own ego and to something actually in them that they see reflected back, which they don’t want to look at. Instead of acting with an open mind and with compassion, they act with sort of a very quick defensive wall. I think in some of the ways in which the resistance has responded to Trump by blaming Russia for him being elected, by maligning those who voted for him and ignoring his concerns, as you point out, the resistance is, in fact, displaying a form of psychoanalytical resistance. I’m wondering if you agree.

ROBERT WRIGHT: You’re right, once you feel threatened by anything, all kinds of things are set in motion that may obscure your vision. I do want to emphasize the obscuring your vision part. You mentioned the issue, I forget if you used the word compassion but the idea that there are impediments to kind of empathizing with Trump voters once you see Trump as this big threat, which he certainly in a sense is. I think the problem goes beyond that. I think you’re right that we don’t easily kind of feel the pain of Trump supporters. In addition to this lack of what is sometimes called emotional empathy, there are impediments to cognitive empathy, by which I mean just understanding what their perspective is, understanding the way they see the world. It’s called perspective-taking sometimes. I think that kind of empathy is also impeded. I think, in a way, that’s more important than the emotional empathy. I don’t think it’s so important that you actually feel their pain and spend a lot of time doing that. I do think it’s very important you understand where they’re coming from, why they see the world they way they do.

We know now, from modern psychology, that when you see a group as the enemy there are some cognitive biases set in motion that keep you, actually, that are oddly almost designed by natural selection to keep you from sizing them up in an objective and clear-eyed way. As it happens, mindfulness meditation can, I think, help clarify your vision but even if you don’t meditate I think there’s still the case for just making an effort to view the situation mindfully, as calmly and as reflectively as possible.

AARON MATÉ: I have a concern that comes up for me when I hear some Buddhist teachers try to analyze politics which is that their commitment to compassion for everybody and their commitment to equanimity on all sides might sort of water their political analysis. For example, whereas there’d be no equivocation if they were to look at the Nazi Holocaust, on other issues they might see parity where it’s not there.

I want to give you one example, which is I heard a very famous and very wise Buddhist teacher, someone who I really value, say about the Israel-Palestine conflict that, “If only both sides could just come together and listen to each other, then the problem could be solved,” which I found to be very naive because as I see that conflict it’s a case of an occupied people confronting an occupier, a military occupier. Of course, there’s complexities to it, but that to me is what it is at its core. I’m wondering your thoughts if there’s a risk sometimes of how the pursuit of compassion, of balance, of not being accusatory, not being self-righteous can sometimes weaken our ability to see things clearly.

ROBERT WRIGHT: It can in principle, but I would say that the kind of compassion that ideally you cultivate through Buddhist practice has a kind of almost objectivity to it. In other words, it’s not the kind of emotional investment that leads a parent to despise the rivals of his or her daughter or son. In theory, it can help you understand both sides better. As far the Israel-Palestine goes, I agree, it’s an occupation and America shouldn’t be supporting it as uncritically as it is. On the other hand, it’s important to understand, I’ve been to Israel, I’ve been to the West Bank, Israelis are genuinely fearful for their security.

They’re not like just saying that so they can oppress people. That’s their big issue and they think that if they give an inch, I think they’re mistaken, I think what they’re doing is bad for their security in the long run but they genuinely think that they can’t afford give an inch. I think it’s important to understand both sides. Mindfulness meditation, it’s hard to convey to people who haven’t done it but when it works I think it gives you, in principle, a compassion for all people that doesn’t involve the kind of intense attachment that keeps you from having a kind of a global perspective on actually solving the problem.

AARON MATÉ: I don’t disagree, and I don’t want to get too political here because it’s not the purpose of this discussion for us to debate Israel-Palestine. My concern is that in this attempt to understand both sides might establish more parity than there actually is. If it’s a situation where you have an occupier and an occupied people, then from my point of view I don’t really care so much about what the occupied side feels or thinks. I understand it’s important to hear them and to not dismiss anybody but I’m just concerned about in this attempt to understand everyone’s feelings that we establish a parity that is not fair to the situation.

ROBERT WRIGHT: One thing I’d emphasize is that when you try to explain someone’s behavior you’re not excusing it. Okay? You’re not saying, “Well, then whatever they do is defensible. Now that we understand it and understand that even we might behave like them in a similar situation, well then okay, we’ll have to accept it.” That’s a common human intuition that to explain something is to excuse it but I think I have to emphasize that that’s not the deal, that, in my view, first you try to understand the situation, which involves coming to the clearest possible understanding of why everyone did everything and then you try to solve the problem. I certainly think that the Palestinian perspective just does not penetrate the American consciousness the way that Israeli perspective does, and that’s part of the problem in terms of America’s policy. That doesn’t mean that there’s not an Israeli perspective, the understanding of which, could actually facilitate a solution to the problem, but I know you don’t want to argue Israel-Palestine.

AARON MATÉ: That’s a case where I think the Palestinian perspective might resonate more if it was given more of a fair hearing. I think the fact that it doesn’t reflects-

ROBERT WRIGHT: It doesn’t. The journalism does not generally illuminate a Palestinian perspective. American journalism tends not to, in my view, I don’t know, for whatever reason there tends to be more of a natural kind of cultural identification with the Israeli perspective. The Israeli situation is, in a way, more like the American situation but for whatever reason I agree.

AARON MATÉ: Look, I have my own views on what maybe Palestinians might be able to do to reach Americans more but at the same time I don’t live under occupation, so it’s easy for me to judge and come up with ways that I think that they could be more effective.

ROBERT WRIGHT: I agree. I’ve been there. I’ve said, “Hey, why don’t you just hold demonstrations saying, ‘Just give us the vote. If you’re going to occupy us let us vote.'” That would be very effective. That might really get on the news in America but they have reasons that some of them don’t think that that’s the way to go and so on.

AARON MATÉ: It’s just very difficult to organize and there’s a history of when they try that that gets repressed like during the first intifada. Again, this gets us into a conversation that we didn’t plan on.

ROBERT WRIGHT: This would be a different kind of mindful resistance, resistance in a different context, yeah.

AARON MATÉ: Well, Robert Wright, we thank you for sharing with us your thoughts on mindful resistance. Robert Wright is a visiting professor of Science and Religion at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, author of several bestselling books, including his latest, which I highly recommend, “Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment”. Robert, thank you.

ROBERT WRIGHT: Thank you.

AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.