The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Want to be more civically active this year? Start with yourself.

Tara Brach speaks to an overflow crowd at River Road Unitarian Church in Bethesda, Md. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

I was among the tens of millions of Americans overcome with negative emotions post-election. I wrote here about my own intra-daily swings between rage and confusion. Even with years of training in yoga and meditation, I had no idea how to spend my energies in a healthy, productive way. I practice regularly, but meditation just seemed too big and scary because I couldn’t sit still long enough to isolate and define what I was feeling. And wouldn’t it only hurt more if I did?

What also felt true was a prevailing feeling of helplessness. There was a strong desire to do something, anything, but retaliatory feelings were all we had. Vengeance fantasies, judgment and name-calling, desperation over the feeling of loss of moral norms, and powerlessness to help the citizens these norms had protected: This anger and fear eclipsed any efforts to be a better citizen, inspire change or develop a clear voice of response.

[The Dalai Lama wants you to join him in improving the world]

Recently, I learned of remarks Tara Brach, Buddhist meditation teacher and founder of the Insight Community of Washington, had made after the election during one of the weekly community meditation sessions she leads at River Road Unitarian Church in Bethesda. Brach told those gathered that it was okay to feel anger, fear and grief. That night and in a follow-up talk on Nov. 23, she reminded them that bringing mindfulness and meditation to difficult emotions is necessary if wisdom is the goal: “[Anger is] part of our most primal survival system. It’s saying, ‘There’s something going on here that can really get in the way of us meeting our deepest needs.’ It’s a call to energize, and it needs to be attended to,” she said.

Now, with the inauguration days away, it is clear that Brach’s words were the call to action I was seeking. Meditation and mindfulness — the practice of noticing the contents of the mind and flow of the breath — are the first and most important steps to take to find clarity and inner resolve. While my first reactions on Nov. 9 were normal, indeed human, moving through and beyond those feelings would be key to both healthy action and activism. Meditation and mindfulness can turn gut reactions into more thoughtful actions that in turn have greater potential to change the conversation.

The benefits of meditation and mindfulness are well-known, and they are increasingly measured and understood. We know they decrease stress and sharpen focus, that they can lower the risk of heart disease and strokes. Neuroscientists and doctors now point to evidence that meditation rewires the brain to value an expanded awareness of ourselves, and therefore others, over the instinctual self-preservation habits of fight-or-flight.

When I let negative emotions overtake me, I only hurt myself. They either root inside and take up valuable real estate, or they compel me to do and say negative things out in the world. Or they do both. When, instead, I sit with emotions like the ones that came up in November, I create an opportunity to observe them, to stop them in their tracks and start asking questions. Why this feeling vs. another one? Why am I feeling this way right now? What’s behind this feeling? Almost without fail, after this kind inquiry I find that underneath the nastiness and hurt are deeper feelings of care, for myself and for others.

In my unmeditated state in late November, after a heated argument with my devoutly Methodist mother (we voted differently), I sent her this letter from the United Methodist Church on the emerging bigotry and hate we all witnessed during the campaign. My intention was partly to converse with my mother, but it was mostly to shame and to harm. I felt so betrayed at that time by one of my deepest bonds, to her, that I perverted an otherwise holy letter with peaceful intentions into a weapon of verbal attack. This felt terrible, and my mother didn’t respond. Soon after, I sat with my actions, and I realized that beneath my anger and sadness was concern for my mother that was just as great as that for the people I felt I was speaking up for.

Yes, you can practice mindfulness and still stomach this presidential campaign

Renowned Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh advocates that meditation actually leads to activism. Once you discover this expanded consciousness, he contends, you are driven to share it and act on it. The Dalai Lama says, “Basically, universal responsibility is feeling for other people’s suffering just as we feel our own. It is the realization that even our enemy is entirely motivated by the quest for happiness. We must recognize that all beings want the same thing that we want. This is the way to achieve a true understanding, unfettered by artificial consideration.”

As we move into uncharted sociopolitical waters, it’s important to understand that sharing your beliefs and advocating for yourself and others requires self-knowledge and self-care. It requires pausing regularly and asking yourself deeper, sometimes difficult questions. Counterintuitively, perhaps, we care for ourselves more by acknowledging our pain vs. ignoring it and hoping it will go away — or by using it to attack others, on social media or anywhere else. A poorly cared for body is less effective and expressive in the world, regardless of action or intention.

One way of thinking about this is through an analogy I make with my yoga students about doing a good bridge pose. The pose is the act of lying on your back with your knees bent and feet on the ground, and lifting your hips as high off the ground as you can. Bridges are built to sustain the stress of heavy loads, but with a load beyond the bridge’s capacity, or without repairs and some rest, the bridge over time will break or collapse.

Knowing when the stress of any action, large or small, is welcomed by your body is a powerful and necessary tool that comes from going inside and checking in. This checking-in process will, over time, help you understand what’s making you less effective in your words, actions and activism. Once you understand this, all your words and actions will take on a different hue. They will be received differently by others because they will differ from what we must reject as the toxicity of what has become normal sociopolitical discourse. They will all have a higher chance of being received for what they are. There will be less chance for misunderstanding. It’s how you change the conversation.

You’ll do it, you’ll be able to effect the change in the world you want to see, by first acknowledging yourself.

Kim Weeks started yoga in 1995 and has been teaching it since 2001. She was voted several times DC’s Best Yoga Teacher and has appeared on NBC4 Washington as a yoga expert and in a PBS documentary on spirituality. Mother to two young children, Kim teaches weekly classes at YogaWorks in Washington. 

Read more on Inspired Life: 

Harvard neuroscientist: Meditation not only reduces stress, here’s how it changes your brain

Mind over meal: Study reveals a weight loss strategy you may never have considered.

The Dalai Lama’s translator explains why being kind to yourself is good for the world

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