(Meditation over the Grand Canyon/ Credit: CC-BY-NC-SA by Moyan Brenn)

We hear it all the time. Meditation is narcissistic. It’s self-centered; you’re staring at your navel instead of out there fighting injustice. And God forbid it actually works, in which case you’re too happy. Dropping out, calming the mind – this only mutes our righteous political indignation. Because angry activists are effective activists.

Not only is this offensive and inaccurate, it’s not even new. Since the nineteenth century, Westerners have complained that Buddhism is pessimistic, passive, and world-renouncing. In the Victorian period, Buddhism was seen as nihilistic, offering no vision of hope, in contrast to Christianity. Contemporary complaints about Buddhist, Hindu, and other “Eastern” spiritualities are part of a colonialist and orientalist discourse that belies any claim to real progressivism.

To be fair, there are challenges in pursuing a spiritual practice concerned and engaged with problems of justice. There is a tendency in any contemplative practice to focus on one’s own “stuff,” because that’s what contemplatives do: we turn inward. And within Buddhism in particular, one can find world-renouncing and quietistic teachings, especially within the Theravadan tradition; the Buddha warned monks to stay out of politics, for example. Indeed, the very notion of a monastic community implies some degree of retreat from the problems of the world into a cloistered existence focused on other things. These tensions are present in all of us who take seriously the mandates to cultivate both wisdom and compassion. Often, one has to focus on one or the other.

Yet the anti-meditation canard generalizes from a perception of a handful of dabblers to condemn millions of Asian and Western practitioners of the dharma. In fact, contemplative practice enables more engagement, more resilience, and more fundamental heart-opening. Let’s look briefly at each.

Detached or Engaged?

Let’s start with a few facts about what’s come to be known as Engaged Buddhism, which scholar James Coleman has helpfully defined “a broad range of approaches, unified by the notion that Buddhist teachings and practices can be directly applied to participation in the social, political, economic, and ecological affairs of the non-monastic world.”

(Credit: CC-BY-NC-SA by Akuppa John Wigham)

In Asia, Thich Nhat Hanh, one of the pioneers of Engaged Buddhism and perhaps the second most famous Buddhist teacher in the world after the Dalai Lama, coined the term “interbeing” from the Vietnamese words tiep (to be in touch) and hien (to manifest), and possibly coined the term “Engaged Buddhism” itself based on an existing Vietnamese tradition of Buddhist social justice activism, particularly in the years of the Vietnam War.The wave of reforms now underway in Myanmar (Burma) are the direct result of thousands of Buddhist monks risking imprisonment and death to challenge that country’s military regime. When China finally consents to real autonomy in Tibet, it will be a result of the Dalai Lama’s tireless efforts to work with an implacable foe, one the West cannot (or chooses not to) confront.

In the United States, there are numerous examples of Western dharma practitioners motivated by their Buddhist practice to get more involved in social justice, environmental issues, peace activism, direct service, and other activities. The Buddhist Peace Fellowship, probably the best known Engaged Buddhist organization, was founded in 1978 and has led numerous campaigns related to human rights, relief work, and peace activism.Zen roshi Bernie Glassman has been doing peacemaking and social justice work for over thirty years: founding the Zen Peacemakers organization, courageously reaching out to AIDS patients when clergy of other religions shunned them and said they were being punished by God, creating the Greyston Bakery to invest in his own local community in Yonkers (and now many others), and leading “street sits” on the streets of New York. Many other organizations, such as The Zen Peacemaking Order, The Buddhist Alliance for Social Engagement (BASE), and others, have brought together contemplative practice and social justice or social action work. And, yes, there were dharma practitioners in Zuccotti Park and elsewhere around the country during the Occupy movement.

Women, in particular, have taken leadership of dozens of social justice projects and movements around the country.For example, Joanna Macy has fused contemplative wisdom with ecological consciousness to find new ways for activists to appreciate the enormity of the ecological crisis without falling into despair.Rita Gross has written persuasively about how feminism and the dharma reinforce each other, as both are concerned with the value of one’s own experience, courageously fighting against the grain, mental constructs that block liberation, the ethic of non-harming, and liberation as a goal.This despite the frequent blindness on the part of Western Buddhists toward androcentrism and patriarchy within Buddhism itself.

Moreover, with only a few exceptions (Zen in imperial Japan, for example, and some libertarian neo-Buddhists today) dharma practice tends to inspire a certain style of political commitment: one oriented toward more compassion. As I will suggest, this fundamental orientation is the essence of a progressive political worldview, much more so than any slogans or platforms. So the facts simply do not support the meditation canard.

I Dare You Not to Get Angry at This

In my work, I routinely get attacked by folks who are anti-gay, or who disagree with this or that political view. On one right-wing radio show, for example, the radio host told me that my marriage to my partner was no different from the sexual abuse of an animal. My meditation practice was the main reason I didn’t curse him out on the air.

What I did was simple. I settled back a bit, and asked: what is really going on? Well, I thought to myself, this individual had this meme implanted in his brain, and it is lodged in there for all kinds of deep psychological reasons, and it is expressing itself in this odious way. Meanwhile, thousands of listeners – some of whom are probably struggling with sexuality themselves – are waiting to see whether I’ll be reasonable or extreme, respectful or just plain mad. What can I say to them, to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable? Can I detach enough from my personal responses to remember that there’s something far more important here than how I feel? I wanted to think tactically, to respond effectively. And I think I did. But that was only because I was able to detach momentarily from my amygdala’s fight-or-flight response, let the prefrontal cortex do its work, and create some mental spaciousness to think in terms of martial arts rather than blitzkrieg.

Alas, cooler heads do not always prevail. These days, there’s a tendency to praise anger, to defend “righteous indignation,” and to reward brashness and zeal. On Fox News, the angriest commentator wins. In some radical-left environments, the most offended voice is the most rewarded. Yet neither the Fox-Right nor the Far-Left have been very effective at reaching the movable middle. Zealotry feels good in the moment, but it tends to lose elections. So any mental technology that lessens momentary rage is a tactical advantage. I use it all the time.

It’s the Heart, Stupid

Like many of the writers featured in this magazine, I’ve long been obsessed with the deep reasons why some people turn out conservative, and others liberal. Each time I focus on political activism, whether environmental activism in the 1990s, local politics in my hometown, or LGBT activism over the last ten years, I’m struck by how the parameters of the possible sometimes seem predefined at the outset. There are only this many swing voters, that many undecideds; public opinion will support this change, but not that one. In electoral politics, the numerical calculus of change is perhaps most obvious, but it’s true more broadly as well. How can we change those parameters, those of us interested in promoting justice and equality? How are minds made up?

We’ve learned some of the answers, over the years. In the marriage equality battles of 2012, for example, I was a small part of a large movement to engage seriously with the “movable middle,” those people whose minds were not made up one way or the other. Contrary to the shouting one often hears at the extremes, there were (and are) millions of folks in the middle who are not bigoted, not homophobic, but sincerely concerned and confused about perceived changes to our society’s moral values. They were not receptive to sloganeering about equal rights, but they were open to hearing people’s stories, to finding common ground, and to revising their opinions in the face of this new information. The progress we made in 2012 was incremental and incomplete, but I found it inspiring. Having those one-on-one conversations really gave me a sense of hope – that it’s possible for minds to be open.

This, to me, is why contemplative practice is so essential to a political movement focused on caring more for those who are suffering the most. As readers of this magazine know, political decisions often come down to some basic principles. Are we helping one another too much, or too little? Should government basically leave us alone, or do each of us owe the weaker among us a duty, with government being the all-too-imperfect means of fulfilling it? The answers to these political questions are actually ethical, and, for want of a better word, spiritual. At the end of the day, when moderates pull the lever one way or the other, they are swayed by competing impulses that are not reducible to political commitments, but, rather, precede them. How much do I care? How much do I give?

(Credit: CC-BY-NC-SA by Ed Yourdon)

In Western religious traditions, it is understood that human beings may be selfish by nature, but also that it is possible to cultivate empathy that counteracts it. “You shall not mistreat a stranger, nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt,” says Exodus 22:21. The baseline here is the acknowledgment of human nature. Left to our own devices, we would indeed mistreat and oppress the stranger, precisely because he is a stranger. All of us feel love for those close to us, like us, in our family or tribe. But morality (of an individual, a nation, or a country) is not measured based upon how we treat those close to us; it is tested on how we treat those unlike us – especially those who are weaker or poorer or “other.” Exodus 22:21, then, is a spiritual exercise. It demands that each of us, regardless of our individual circumstances, remember or imaginatively remember our shared experience of being a stranger. We are somebody else’s They. From that remembrance – which in the Jewish tradition is meant to occur every time the liturgy reminds us of how ‘we’ were once slaves in Egypt; i.e. several times a day, and several more on most of our holidays – springs compassion. And from compassion springs answers to the political questions asked above.

What Western traditions often lack, however, are technologies to actually do that work. Of course, I’ve met Christians, Jews, and Muslims who are genuinely motivated by their faith traditions to be kinder, gentler, and more just in their private and public lives. But obviously there are others who simply chant the words of justice, and traditions that merely dangle preposterous claims of a cosmic Santa Claus who knows who’s been naughty and nice.

Here is where contemplative practice comes in: goodness evolves. Not on its own; it takes reflection and observation, as well as inclining the mind toward basic values of lovingkindness and compassion. But the same growth in the prefrontal cortex that enables me to be a little less reactive also enables me to be more empathetic toward others, and less likely to rely on those tendencies of mind that tell me to toughen up, blow them off, not care, leave them to their own devices, and let the chips fall where they may. These are all natural tendencies of mind. It’s only human to want to be big cavepeople with huge houses and huge SUVs, and climate change be damned. But it’s not compassionate to pursue these things.

The contemplative practice of seeing clearly – not superimposing moral thinking atop a rotten foundation, but just seeing what is – leads to more justice and more peace. You can’t see clearly, cause suffering, and be okay about it. And indeed, today there is data showing that meditation improves the capacity for compassion, and that practicing lovingkindness meditation for just a few weeks lessens the activity of the amygdala when it is shown provoking images.That reflexive anger we all feel when we see images of violence, that instinctual response to lash out – is actually lessened with just a bit of meditation practice.

Now, there are some conservatives who really believe that they are helping the poor by reducing government benefits; that if we just tax the ultra-rich even less, the benefits will trickle down to everyone; and that if we pursue a tough, militaristic foreign policy the world will be safer as a result. Ethicist Jonathan Haidt insists that we understand conservative values as reflecting different iterations of the moral conscience.Yet even apart from the issues of fact (Has trickle-down economics really helped the least fortunate? Has war made the world safer? Is climate change science really uncertain?) is the question of good faith. Look inside. When you think of someone powerless, impoverished, unfortunate, and you think that the best thing to do is leave them to their own devices, what are you feeling? Do you really feel that’s what’s best. Or maybe, does part of you feel they must deserve it somehow? Are they “the stranger” to you? Have you, like most of us, had to wall yourself off from feeling too much about such people?

If we’re truthful with ourselves, most of us have to admit that we sometimes answer affirmatively to one of more of these questions; it’s part of being human. But if we answer yes to any of them, we must second guess ourselves, do the work, and strive to cultivate stronger capacities of empathy and compassion. The peril of comfortable Westerners is not falling into abjection but slipping into apathy. We don’t see the stranger often, and when we do, we don’t talk to him or her. We’re not evil; we’re human. We can do better.

These small movements of the mind, to me, are the reasons contemplative practice really might save the world. I’ve seen them work on political battlefields, and in quiet meditation halls. And they give me hope that, as contemplative fitness and optimizing the mind become values even in corporate boardrooms, there might be a welcome unintended consequence of more generosity and gentleness in our public life. Like other spiritual progressives, I am convinced that if we’re able to see the darker emotions – anger, fear – that often motivate political decisions, we’ll be able to see other people’s manipulation of them. We can be more in control of our political lives, and steer them toward generosity, precisely by seeing how politics tugs on our most primitive instincts.

I am convinced that, rather than this or that specific political question, the fundamental factors that will determine our political futures are whether we can open our eyes (and heart) to suffering, whether we can see when we are being controlled by anger or fear, whether it’s possible to speak and act more skillfully. I think we can.

This article was adapted from Jay Michaelson, Evolving Dharma: Meditation, Buddhism, and the Next Generation of Enlightenment (North Atlantic, 2013).

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