Election Returns

The Politics of Karma, the Karma of PoliticsRJ Eskow


Politics can eat at the psyche. It's part of my work, so I can't escape it - even in my thoughts. Once I tried relaxing with a Tibetan Buddhist text which said that, because of numberless rebirths, everybody was once your mother. In a past life they gave you a mother's love and care. It's a beautiful image, but I could only picture one person:

Dick Cheney.

This just in ...

"Victory creates hatred," said the Buddha. "Defeat creates suffering."

Early exit polling indicates ...

"The wise ones desire neither victory nor defeat."

There are charges of vote-counting irregularities ...

"He who wins will be defeated." The Buddha said that. "Election years wreak emotional havoc." I said that. They turn your world inside out and drag you through tortured psychic landscapes, as if the cable news networks were broadcasting from inside a Hieronymus Bosch painting. It's a nonstop barrage of scarring images and manufactured emotions: war, disaster, sorrow, love, hate, fear, anger, resentment ... pain.

And this election's been going on for two long years.

Traditional Buddhist images of hell seem all too familiar in a campaign year. Realms of ice and fire? Sounds like the New Hampshire and Arizona primaries. Demons, hungry ghosts, cursed spirits who hack at one another with iron claws? They're all on Meet the Press.

Spirituality may be about reconciliation, forgiveness, and healing, but politics is about battle. And where other political systems are parliamentary and consensus-driven, the American two-party system is binary, zero-sum. One side achieves total victory and the other loses everything. It's hell on a person's karma. So, as a spiritual novice, it seemed like a good idea to seek guidance from wiser heads. But like many men, I have to be pretty desperate before I ask for directions.

Things were getting desperate. Democrats, onetime allies, had divided themselves into warring Obama and Clinton camps. Bitterness and resentment were rampant. I was particularly frustrated by "identity politics" - if there is anatta, "no self," why should it matter if the candidate looks like you? - but my own reactions were getting excessive, too.

(Side thought: If you achieve the realization of "non-self," do you still get one vote?)

The mind is burning, said Shakyamuni. The eye is burning, the ear is burning - burning with the fire of hate, the fire of delusion. Burning with lamentations, grief and despair. To which I might have added: Burning with attack ads. Burning with sexually and racially biased reporting. Burning with pointless debates ...

I was - literally - "losing my cool." I wanted to run away, to find a quiet place. So I finally sought some advice. On a static-filled phone line from rural Thailand, teacher and activist Sulak Sivaraksa warned against isolation. "Many Western Buddhists think of meditation as peaceful escapism," he told me, "a way of leaving society. But you must try to help each other fight structural violence."

"It's not Buddhist to pursue a selfish Nirvana."

Next I called Wes Nisker, a Vipassana teacher who once hosted a San Francisco news broadcast. I'd always appreciated his tagline: "If you don't like the news, make some of your own." I told him of my frustration with political polarization. "That's why I think so many people are drawn to Obama's candidacy," he said. "Part of his appeal is that people see his attitude and presence as healing and non-divisive."

He continued: "That leads into the fact that there really isn't a line between activism and spiritual life. Whatever you do in the world is a reflection of your realization and your practice, and the sincerity and depth to which you've taken it."

That sounds great, I said. I appreciate that healing approach on one level. But on another I want payback. Where do I put those emotions?

"There's a great Tibetan saying," Wes replied. "It says ‘drive all blames into one.' When you look more deeply at any given situation, the causes and conditions are too interwoven to place the blame anywhere. We're all participants in the process, and in the outcome."

Anne Waldman, the prominent poet and activist, is co-head of Naropa University. I sought her advice in part because politics is, among other things, literature - a craft of the spoken and written word. "We're in a new paradigm with the Obama possibility," she said. "He's kept to higher ground most of the time." But, she added: "For all her grasping, Hillary also has some siddhis (talents) and I hope she will help the cause, whatever the outcome of her difficult weird campaign."

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